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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)
  • Jessica Barr

    It’s interesting I got to read this article today. The last couple of weeks I’ve tried to encourage myself to go back to a gym I’ve paid oodles for just so it would be a little more quiet and hectic than most (since I thought that was part of my dislike of gym workouts in the first place). But, I hadn’t gone for MONTHS. Now, time was on my side I wanted to try to go back but I didn’t want to be nutso about it – like I had been previous times. Times where I’d dedicate a couple of hours to working out as hard as possible. Only not to return for another month because I didn’t always have time to dedicate a couple of hours multiple times a month. Monday and Tuesday of this week I walked into the gym and told myself I was there. If I stayed 10 minutes or 2 hours, I had made it to the gym. Tuesday I stayed a whole hour longer than I expected. It started with me getting on the bike and saying, “We’ll just see how this goes. At least I’m moving.” And then I went to another part of the gym to do a workout routine. And then I got up and was like, “Well, I kinda feel like I want to do just a little something else, too.” In other words — I wasn’t going to train for a marathon (just yet) or lose 60 pounds (just yet) — but I was going to just accept the fact I was there for now and slowly appreciate that I had the ability to move and exercise and that, maybe in time, those 60 pounds would be lifted as dumbells, not hanging on me like an unwanted innertube around my waist.

  • Ravi

    I agree that Success is the journey not the destination. More often than not people forget to enjoy the process while looking at the final outcome

  • jkglei

    That’s great to hear, Jessica. You might also find this tip on building habits helpful. It’s easiest to start in small doses! ; )
    http://the99percent.com/tips/7

    -Jocelyn, Editor-in-Chief

  • Zainal Zulia

    Just what i thought too. I found that i created result and abundance just being gratitude (i wrote gratitude journal every morning for the past 3 years), compare with merely goal setting, which i did before.

    When we are in gratitude mode, everything seem unfolded and fall into places. I don’t think any goal setting will achieve that.

  • James

    I truly loved this, especially since I need to enjoy the experiences more. I find there’s usually two types of people – those who say life is too short and work work work to get to their end goal and on the other hand you have those who say life is a journey and to sit back and enjoy it and relax.

    I think we can all find a happy medium between enjoying the experience and moving towards our goals, even though they usually end up different than how we envision. I find being totally on either end of the spectrum in any life situation does not produce the most optimal results. It’s the happy medium that does.

    Best,

    James

    http://www.facebook.com/lifesk

  • NetCentric

    Totally agree with this. Like most, I’ve done the goal/fail thing plenty. Recently I switched from the concept of goals to using a schedule. I do whatever it is I am supposed to do at nine, or noon or three and that’s all I think about. My “batting average” is definitely much higher.

    After working with this strategy for a few months, I did find I needed to add a bit of psychological jujitsu: I’ve placed myself “under new management”. For example when it’s time for my walk and a voice in my head says, “I don’t feel like going” then the managers voice kicks in and says, “I’m not paying you to think or feel, I’m paying you to walk.” I use a character from a novel for this voice. This eliminates how I feel about the task from consideration.

    Also I do not use goals for the dietary changes I am making. I decided to switch all my complex carbohydrates for legumes. No grains, no rice, no potatoes etc. My mental focus is on the recipe challenges of eating beans or lentils for breakfast, lunch and dinner and on the taste of the food. So far its mostly been yummy. I do want to lose weight but I have no particular goal nor do I ever weigh myself. How my cloths fit tells me all I need to know. So far I am down two belt notches since I began this regime in February.

  • Jacque

    I needed to read this today, as I’ve noticed a waning of my efforts in the past couple of months on my journey toward my dream. I’ve tried focusing on the outcome I desire as a means of recreating the initial passion I had, but after reading this I do believe I will focus more on the process, on the actual day to day activities. Its going to take a while to achieve my goals, so discovering joy in the actual process seems almost necessary.

  • Christopher

    Thanks for this post – feel like this is a theme for almost everything I do; get all psyched up about it and then lose interest and let it float into the ‘in progress’ pile…which has grown into an increasingly massive pile.

    I’ll be keeping this in mind on my next endeavor and see if I can finish it with as much fervor as I started with.

  • Animatron

    After many, many sleepless, dreadful nights I spent thinking why I hated doing something I believed I loved, this makes total sense!!

  • Seang-Lim Tan

    The points are well made, and goal-focus has led to many project faliures in my experience. However, I think that goal-focus vs process focus is a fluid thing. Visualising your goal can for instance get you back on track if your process has lost its way a bit. Process are habits after all, and those habits can be fragile.

  • Megan Kerr

    Fantastic insight – thank you! I find the process vs product a constant tightrope in writing, and I *know* the process works best – but the bitch with the clipboard keeps stepping in! Now I can slap some psych research in her face.

  • Matus Tomasik

    I absolutelly agree what article said. My own experience was the same. I was enrolled in sales team and from beginning I was focused on goals (numbers i need to achieve), I did not have focus on enjoying process of experience, I was working under strees, pressure…my results sucked. Once I have changed my thinking which means i lost concern about getting quotas and i putted my focus on enjoying moment where I was, everything started to seem easier and more fun and of course i hit quotas without any problems. So i encourage lose concern about too specific goals and put your focus to enjoy whatever you do. Keep attitude up and results come along.

  • Jennifer Nash

    Thanks for this article. It describes well what I’ve experienced in my personal and professional lives. If I’m not enjoying the experience, I’m less likely to persevere long enough to reach my goals.

  • neverfi

    There is a book I often reread that hits upon this concept : focus on the process not the product. http://www.amazon.com/The-Prac

  • samedayessay com

    J’ai trouvé votre message d’une telle information instructive et utile sur ce poste, merci pour le partage de la poste.

  • Nick Hevelian

    This is absolutely true to my recent personal experience where, however much I held the ultimate goal/benefits front and center, I found my motivation to complete an important project waning rapidly, and no amount of motivational articles I read could restore it. I knew how important completion was, but each effort felt like running through sand.

    Fortunately I found a wonderful book – The Practicing Mind by Thomas Donlan – written by a wise author who states the exact same idea as above – excessive focus on the goal can makes anything seem like a wearisome chore, even if you enjoyed it to begin with, and so one must focus on the process to restore the intrinsic value to the activity.

    The caveat about goals is useful though – use the goal to get you started in the first place but then keep it quietly in the background and focus on the process.

  • Holokai

    I spent three years preparing myself and my 26′ sailboat to fulfill my dream of long distance sailing. I had wanted to sail from Seattle all the way to the Panama Canal and into the Caribbean, up the East Coast and across the Atlantic back to where I was born in Europe (an ambitious itinerary to be sure).

    I managed to sail as far as Baja Mexico where, for a number of reasons, I just couldn’t go any farther, and I turned back home. In my second attempt to sail long distance I had only one goal, to sail. I had a rough idea of where I wanted to go but just the sailing and the experience of being out on the ocean was important to me this time. My destinations changed as I sailed and at San Diego I took a right turn instead of going straight and I ended up sailing solo all the way to Hawaii. I spent 2 years just exploring Hawaii.

    I was then offered paid crew positions on larger boats to sail to even farther destinations. What I had learned from my first voyage, and applied to my subsequent voyages, was that the destination didn’t matter nearly as much as the experience.

  • annie frieh-gachon

    The important think is WHO chois’se the goal ? When you choise your goal, when you have a great reason to be there, at your goal in 3 month or 6 month, you wil do all so faster and without trouble, because you haveand unterstand the need, so you have the positive attitude, so you find the way to catch your goal. 5sorry of my so bad english !!!)

  • Tristan Enright

    I totally agree with this. As a Personal Trainer and fitness enthusiast it’s my job to sell the benefits and features of PT to get people actively moving towards their goals. Once they are in the door I have to use our session to create a mental shift towards the experience and enjoyment you get from being active, using weights to feel stronger and the great feeling that comes with doing something for the most important person in life, (yourself) on a daily basis. I found this a terrific article and the research is very supportive.
    Thanks for the read.

  • Grace Sia

    its always the journey…NOT the end result that makes you develop and learn

  • David McGuigan

    This study just blew my mind.

  • Majed

    “Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”
    ― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

  • myfeedz

    Makes total sense. I’ve taken up 3 things in the last year, new exercise routine, on-line biz, and Tennis. it may be obvious but besides being a hobby, Tennis was the only one that stuck. It was the least practised in the week as well. But I progressed far more than the other activities, that fizzled out after a while.

    I think the only reason Tennis stuck was because when I progressed I really noticed and felt awesome about it.

  • Tricia-Lee

    It’s good to have articles and discussions like this; however I’m left wondering if the problem has less to do with intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation and more to do with the temporal delivery of reinforcement – i.e., the experience of immediate success. If our efforts today fail to meet up with some kind of reinforcement (not reward…, there is a distinction), then we are likely not to come back. Something has to reinforce our going to the gym – it could be the workout rush, the social aspect, enjoyment of certain physical activities. But, what often happens is the goals we set for ourselves and our focus is often too far into the future (e.g., I want to lose 20 lbs, I want to build strength) with no plan to reinforce our actions today. We ultimately give up when the loss of 20 lbs doesn’t come quick enough and we’ve failed to recognize our earlier achievements. Ultimately, we are not very good at breaking down our goals into smaller more manageable (i,.e., achievable) steps

    When I go to the gym, I prepare a list of actions I want to accomplish that day. I leave the gym feeling accomplished having met my expectations: I lifted 5 more lbs than last week, I maintained 20 minutes on the treadmill (maintenance deserves credit here too!). I pace myself day to day and gradually increase my expectations so that I can still experience success. I also have the added social reinforcement of my husband who sometimes comes with me or follows up with me afterwards. Sharing my today’s success is part of what keeps me going – would you classify that as extrinsic or intrinsic motivation? If it’s extrinsic, does that make is bad, less desirable reason to workout? The workout rush is another reinforcer for me – I feel good when I’m done and I’m ready for my day. I guess you could call that my intrinsic motivation. I just call it a reinforcer.

  • Kuda Kwashe

    I share your sentiments 100%. It is almost as if the process is new, strange and uncomfortable because we haven’t found the value in it. I oft wonder the same thing.

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