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Big Ideas

How Goals and Good Intentions Can Hold Us Back

New research shows that intrinsic motivation thrives when you focus on your immediate experience rather than the end game.

Join a gym and one of the first things the instructor does is talk about your goals – what exactly do you hope to achieve by hoisting weights and pounding the treadmill? Apply for an educational course, and you find yourself bombarded with promotional literature. Here’s the future you: suited, booted and smug. What they’re doing – the gym guy and the marketing department – is highlighting end results. They’re hoping to lure you in by showing you what you could achieve, what you can become.

A new study by a pair of researchers at the University of Chicago and the Korea Business School shows that this approach has some benefits. Focusing on goals fires up your intentions to engage in the activities that will help you achieve those goals. But there’s a major downside. Stay focused on your goals and you spoil your experience of the activities you’ll need to pursue. In turn, that makes it far more likely that you’ll drop out early and fail to achieve the very goals that you’re so focused on. Ayelet Fishbach and Jinhee Choi started out by recruiting over a hundred students at a university gym, just as they were about to start a session. Half were told to describe their goals – “I work out to lose weight,” said one. The other participants were told to think about and describe the workout experience: “I stretch first and then run on the treadmill” was one comment. Both groups of students were told to continue focusing on their goals or the experience, respectively, throughout their workout. Describing the goals of working out boosted the students’ intentions to exercise. They tended to say that they planned to run on the treadmill for longer than did the students who were focused on the workout experience. But here’s the thing: The students who focused on their goals actually ended up running on the treadmill for less time than the students focused on the experience (34 minutes versus 43 minutes). Fishbach and Choi think that staying focused on our goals detracts from the inherent pleasures of the activities we need to pursue to achieve those goals. Consistent with this, they found that the students at the gym who stayed focused on their goals tended to say afterwards that the exercise felt more of an effort, as compared with the students who were focused on the experience itself.

Staying focused on our goals detracts from the inherent pleasures of the activities we need to pursue to achieve those goals.

If this is reminding you of the classic distinction in the psychological literature between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation, you’re spot on. This is the finding that external rewards can backfire. Offer a child treats for making pretty drawings and whereas they used to scribble away for the sheer joy of it, now they’ll only put pen to paper for that candy you promised. The difference here is that Fishbach and Choi believe that our intrinsic motivation can be imperilled even without the offer of rewards from a third party. By focusing on the ultimate goals of an activity, we risk destroying our intrinsic motivation all by ourselves. The researchers tested this idea further with two more activities – origami, seen by many as inherently enjoyable; and dental flossing. Telling people about the benefits of origami (e.g. it improves hand-to-eye coordination) made them keener to try it. But for people actually enrolled in a class, focusing on these kind of long-term benefits (i.e. the instrumental goals), and keeping these in mind during an origami class, led them to enjoy the class less, to express less interest in doing origami again in the future, and to turn down the chance to buy an origami kit of their own. By contrast, focusing on the experience of origami (for example, by reading about the fact that many people pursue the experience as a hobby for the fun of it), and maintaining this focus during an origami class, led participants to enjoy the class more, express more interest in trying it again, and to buy their own kit. When it came dental flossing, participants who focused on long-term goals, such as reducing tooth decay, said they planned to floss more often over the next few days, as compared with a different group of participants who focused on what it’s like to floss – for example, the feelings of cleanliness that it brings as you’re doing it. But when Fishbach and Choi surveyed the participants three days later, it was those who’d stayed focused on the experience of flossing who’d flossed more than those who’d focused on flossing goals. So, whether you’re about to begin a diet, embark on a novel, or start on a new French course, the lessons from this research seem clear. By all means visualize your goals to help get yourself started in the first place, but once you’re underway, try to let your long-term mission fade a little into the background. Revel in the process and you’re more likely to make it to the finishing line.

Revel in the process and you’re more likely to make it to the finishing line.

That might seem straight-forward enough, but there was one last twist in the Fishbach and Choi paper. They showed we don’t always control the salience of our goals. They surveyed a bunch of female undergrads at a yoga class, as well as another group of female students, most of whom had never tried the activity. Crucially, the survey clipboard featured one of two Yoga magazine covers – one depicted a woman in a yoga posture with no accompanying text, the other depicted the exact same woman but with adjacent text boasting about the long-term benefits of yoga, including boosting brainpower. The researchers drew no attention to the magazine cover, but it affected their participants nonetheless. Seeing the cover that mentioned the long-term benefits of yoga led female students who weren’t at a class to be more enthusiastic about trying it out – that’s the initial boost to motivation found in the earlier studies. In contrast, students at a class who saw the cover with the text, enjoyed their session less, and subsequently expressed less commitment to future classes. So, yet again, a focus on goals had boosted initial intentions, but simultaneously it had diminished perseverance. The difference in this case is that the salience of the yoga goals had been primed without the participants even being aware of it. This last study suggests that, once our projects are underway, not only should we beware choosing to stay too focused on our goals, we must also guard against the detrimental effect of outside reminders. So, rip down those wall posters of slender models; ignore the latest Pulitzer long list; hide the photos of Provence. That way you’re more likely to lose weight, write a bestseller, and master your French. Bonne chance! — What’s Your Take? Have you found that focusing on your end goals reduces your motivation during the actual execution process?

More Posts by Christian Jarrett

Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s a senior editor at Aeon. His next book will be about personality change. He is @Psych_Writer on Twitter.

Comments (55)
  • Sean

    I would argue the semantics – My goal helps place me where I find my pleasure, in the process of becoming fit.

    In my own goal of becoming fit, I have had many re-starts. I’ve learned, for me, I need not only they ‘why’ but I need a ‘visual’ cue. The knowledge is my drive get fit before but I am weak, I will stop by and just look at the fit people which inspires me to follow through on my goal.

    My goal is a reminder of what I want. My desire is currently restrained by a life time of habits that contradict what I hope to become.

    This goal is my hope and through the process I am never let down when progressing towards it. I would never work out for fun or enjoyment but because of my goal I enjoy working out.

    Again, I think it’s just semantics.

  • Emily

    Thanks so much for writing this! By fixating on the end goal, I think it’s far more difficult to become immersed in the process. You’re also putting a cap on the value of each experience leading up to that higher order goal – if in the process something goes wrong, you deem it an automatic failure. It’s a very black and white way of going about goal- achievement.

  • momo

    I totally agree. As a many-times karate champion in my youth – some two and a half decades away – I know from everyday’s experience that enjoying training in itself was the best way to winning contests, which I did. I totally dread the tournaments though; it was the least enjoyable part.

  • vita

    Thank you, Christian! This was The Answer to my currently very much disturbing question WHY AM I NOT HAPPY DOING MY FAVORITE? – I understand now – Because I want the result NOW! In that very shape I designed it in my mind.
    If I wasn’t loving the process, I would switch to something else already, hoping to reach ANY result faster. That was what I did all my live, having no achievements at the end, yet my “crasy idea of the live ” is The Result. I was sure people MUST create something by the end of life. You”ve cleared up my vision. Thank you.

  • arunk
  • John L Brown

    Here is a perfect example that fits this article. I have done a lot of distance walking and jogging. If I’m walking or running on a straight ‘course’ and can see the ‘goal’ is very far away, I feel discouraged, even if I’ve covered it successfully in the past. If I walk or run the same distance around my local park the effort is easier. The quality of the experience is a function of perception, that is ‘goal in mind’ vs “just doing it. A well defined goal is critical in many situations, but cannot mediate, or dictate performance once it is initiated. The goal can, and does point to the choices necessary to accomplish it. But the choices, or actions operate at a different level, and are frustrated if we focus away from them. Moreover, though the goal stays the same, generally and in this example, the choices and actions can change and vary widely. It’s like the difference between thinking about a task and actually doing it. Related, of course, but not the same process. What confuses this issue is the fact that different goal operates on very different levels. Some goals are highly specific, as in business or science. Other goals are more general, such as losing weight, or staying in good physical shape. The business and scientific goals are well defined. The business and scientific goals, and the choices and actions necessary to accomplish them are, in this example, impersonal, and directly interrelated. The physical goals are personal, and the choices and actions are not directly interrelated because they are selected to accommodate the need of an individual rather than the needs of an organization, or a scientific experiment adhering to rules, protocols, and established methods. Therefore, the question of focusing upon a goal while striving to achieve it may have some rationale in the business of the scientific community, in that the choices and action are a more direct function of such goals, whereas personal goals, again, in this example, cannot establish the same linkage.

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