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A student en route to a graduation ceremony at Columbia University.
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A Columbia professor has a simple exercise to help MBA students stay true to their goals

By Sarah Todd

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Mary Oliver asks in the most famous line of her beloved poem “The Summer Day.” It’s a quote that has appeared widely on greeting cards, mugs, prints, and bracelets and emerged as a popular tattoo choice, ensuring that people have boundless opportunities to read Oliver’s inspirational words and become fully freaked out by the reminder that life is fleeting and we’ve got to commit to some kind of plan about how to make the most of it, stat.

People who have the freedom to carve out their own paths are in a position of privilege. But the bounty of possibilities that life has to offer—should you start a catering business? become a yoga instructor? go to graduate school? get your pilot’s license?—can also be overwhelming. That’s why Sheena Iyengar, a business professor at Columbia Business School and the author of The Art of Choosing, designed a goal-setting exercise to help her MBA students make better decisions about their career paths.

The exercise is simple: Iyengar gives each MBA student an index card. Then they scribble down what they want to be doing in one year, in five years, and in 10 years.

“That’s not because we believe they’re actually going to accomplish that,” Iyengar said, speaking at the recent Indeed Interactive conference in Austin, Texas. “They’ll probably do something very different.” After all, our hopes for our careers often evolve over time, whether because new opportunities come our way or because we try out a given job only to find it’s not the right fit. The point of setting goals isn’t necessarily to achieve exactly what you set out to do, but to use goals as a kind of mental filter to sort through all your options and pick the ones that are most in line with the vision of the future you’ve articulated. 

“This helps you deal with the choices coming at you,” Iyengar explained. “If something is not in line with your general goals, you say no, no, no, no, and you zero in only on the things that can get you where you want to go.” 

Iyengar’s research on choice (pdf) shows that while we tend to think we prefer to have a lot of options, we quickly become paralyzed when presented with an endless buffet of opportunities, and wind up less satisfied with—and regretful about—whatever decision we do make. This phenomenon, known as “choice overload,” applies not only to concrete objects, like choosing between an abundance of jams or yogurts at the grocery store, but also to more abstract decisions, like which jobs to apply to or even what profession to pursue.

For example, undergraduates in their final year of school who “maximized” their job search by casting a wide net tended to feel more dissatisfied with the outcome—even though they secured better-paying jobs compared to their peers who explored fewer options, according to a 2006 study (pdf) published in the journal Psychological Science, conducted by Iyengar along with Rachael E. Wells and Barry Schwartz. The researchers suggest that, for the job maximizers, “their pursuit of the elusive ‘best’ induces them to consider a large number of possibilities, thereby increasing their potential for regret or anticipated regret, engendering unrealistically high expectations, and creating mounting opportunity costs.”

Limiting our options—say, by committing to a goal like working at an NGO within one year and starting your own NGO within five—can lessen the uncertainty and frustration we feel about our career paths. If a job opportunity in finance comes your way, you don’t have to spend time agonizing over whether or not to take it; it’s not in line with your NGO goals, so unless you’re ready to alter your goals, you’ve already ruled it out. “The reality is that the moment you start jotting down goals,” Iyengar says, “you’re more likely to achieve stuff.”

As for her advice on how to set those goals in the first place, Iyengar suggests three questions to start with, which similarly serve as a mental filter for identifying and sorting through all of the options.