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[The importance of setting short-term goals]

On average, people who decide to take part in a marathon race, cover the distance of 42.2 km in around four and a half hours. Some are faster, some are slower, so if we were to create a graph of everyone’s performance, we would expect a normal distribution – something resembling a bell curve.

Yet this is not what we find. Have a look at the image below. You will notice that many runners somehow cluster just before the 3:30-hour mark, the 4:00-hour mark etc. How does this happen? The answer is that runners push themselves just that little bit harder towards the end, so they can tell themselves (and all their friends!) that they ran the marathon in less than three and a half ours, or less than four hours and so on.

So how do they manage that? Apparently, there are experienced athletes who have timed themselves repeatedly and run at such a pace that they know they are going to finish in a little less than 3:30 hours or 4:00 hours etc. These people are called pace-setters and they ran with big placards on their back, displaying their respective times. Ordinary runners who know their limits more or less, simply run behind the right pace-setter and so they do not have to worry about constantly checking their time. In this way, in the New York City Marathon, while 500 people finish with a time of 3:59, only 390 finish with a time of 4:01 (Adam Alter ‘Irresistible’ – pp. 95-97). Still not convinced? Here is what another study found. Watch this clip:

There is a big lesson for us here: whatever you do, when you set yourself a short-term goal you push yourself just that little bit harder. Why not use this insight when practicing your English? ‘I am going to try to remember the words from yesterday’s lesson, and I want to recall at least 15 out of 20’ or ‘I am going to record myself giving a mini-monologue about my job and I am going to speak without hesitation for at least 40 seconds’. This little tweak may well mean you perform 10% better than you would without a goal. It’s well worth it, don’t you think?

The Moral: Before doing an activity, set yourself a short-term goal.