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Personal Growth

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)
  • clvngodess

    Success is a path of many many little wins accumulated over a span of time. It’s not a singular event. It is a process. Remember process, artists?

  • Will Roffé

    Great article, thanks. I think the goal is the impetus to start — you want “xyz” — but enjoying the experience and journey makes it become part of your everyday lifestyle, an add-on to “your DNA”. I’m going through a weight loss journey at present. I know what my end goal is, but by removing the “pressure to perform” and other anxieties/pressures, and just enjoying the new knowledge and ways of living, it is much more pleasurable and is now part of my life moving forward. Healthy living for a longer and better life versus DIEt and suffering. Much more inspirational. 68.5 pounds so far :).

  • Deanna Evans

    Thank you! In a world where constantly reminding yourself what you’re working *toward* is the only accepted means of motivation, being told to simply enjoy the process is a breath of fresh air! And here I was thinking that I’m somehow broken for not feeling endlessly motivated by the vision of a perfect-but-intangible future…No more!

  • Panayiotis Karabetis

    I’m a firm believer that form follows function and that process/journey triumphs over product/end result. While I could talk about it all day, I believe there are too many choice in today’s fast-paced world and that is one of the reasons for our waning motivation. Information overload and the ability to know about anything at a moment’s notice keeps us from enjoying our experiences because of constant interruption and curiosity.

    Anyway, great article!

  • cameronbailey

    I’m now determined to reach my goal of staying focused on the process!

    Wait a minute…

  • Jonathan Kahn

    Thanks for the reminder! Good to know there’s some evidence backing up the old wisdom of focusing on the journey rather than the destination.

  • Ash Morris

    I certainly know this first hand. Recently started at the gym, and started with a vague goal of being more fit and toned, and found myself losing motivation when I wasn’t seeing results. A mind-shift to the enjoyment of the process has really helped – in the back of my mind I tell myself that as long as I prevent myself from giving up, I’ll eventually reach my goal. I’m not convinced yet, but it’s only been 6 weeks.

  • Ben Linford

    Well quoted majed.

  • Grant

    Excellent article – I have just finished reading a great book that talks about the issues surrounding positive thinking and how it can actually produce negative results, very closely linked to what this article covers.

    Check it out when you have a chance, its called Antidote – Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking (….

    Enjoy 🙂

  • mswans

    This makes makes sense. Several months ago I endeavored to create my portfolio website, having finally achieved some noteworthy freelance (writing) projects that could be touted to increase my income. As I focused totally on the end result of (hopefully) making more money, I got really fearful that I wouldn’t be able to take things to the next level, that the end result might not occur after the site is published, etc. And so, I’ve basically been dragging my feet, focused solely on the outcome I hope for.

    I’ve recently found my motivation again, realizing that to move forward for better or worse, I need to finish it. And at my third attempt (I scrapped two previous almost-finished sites) I’m kind of zen-ing out and making sure to stay focused on the task at hand. For example, “Okay, today, it’s just the lifestyle slideshow. I finish it completely before I move on to the next thing.” And I’m less nervous, getting more joy out it. Thinking about finishing one small piece at a time and focusing only on that, is definitely helping my anxiety about the entire project. And I’m the happiest I’ve been yet with the visual results.

    In more general terms, I’m happier when I focus on the work I have “today” and getting it completed well than when I’m thinking about where I want to be a year from now, where I want to be living, what job I want to have, where I want my income to be at, etc.

  • disqus_Ksx7lOQv0Q

    I was reading through some of the comments and am so thankful that I came across this one. I believe both the destination (a visual cue of what success looks like) is just as valuable as the journey (a well though-out plan that is manageable/realistic). From my perspective, the journey is what gives us insights into what worked and what did not. If it worked, then great! If it did not, well, then one must ask why not and what can be modified to get to that destination? Also, it is important to set realistic goals or break things into chucks in order to reach that destination–otherwise, we set ourselves up for disappointments and give up prematurely.

  • Elmarié Porthouse

    This was the perfect article for me at just the right time. I have been starting to lose focus of my goal and felt so guilty about it that I could not enjoy the process anymore. Now I will just focus on enjoying the process and if the goal is meant to be accomplished, it will be so.

  • Paul N

    Intrinsic motivation vs Extrinsic motivation. Very interesting research and I’m happy I read this today! As I reflect this stands true for myself. I need to stay in the present and focus on the process rather than the end result or goal. After all life is all about experiences.

  • Sean Power

    I generally need a goal when I’m working out but when I’m working out I’m working out. I think you need both sides of the equation the enjoyment of the experience and the goal.

  • t4msync

    It’s simply ‘living in the Now’ again, isn’t it. And yes, I agree, from my experience, NOT thinking about the next task makes me much more likely to do it.

  • philip

    Gettting the product to the buyer is my end result, its the least important part and least enjoyable part of the process, although the most important.. But I need to forget about that and dream up what and make the actual product enjoying every moment of that process, then the end result will be determined.

  • Red C.

    Ding, Ding, Ding! Just what I needed today. This clears the fog as to why I am sooooo OFF the mark. Thanks for the insight.

  • Paul Montwill

    Agree. I have the same with excersises – when I focus on the experience I run with pleasure. If I focus on a goal then it becomes extrinsic motivation and I struggle to move on.

  • Ryann Wayne

    Being in the moment is really powerful.

  • Guest

    Personally, I have to be motivate by the end result in order to begin acting upon the long term goals. However, goal-oriented activities are often in consistent and I may find an excuse to skip one or two tasks whenever I feel like it. Enjoying the process or the activity itself, without a doubt yields more inefficiency. For example, I ride my bike every other day. Its an activity that I enjoy doing. It gets me out of the house to explore my city and refresh my mind. Considering the long-term goals, riding a bike has a lot of health benefits, but they are not my primary focus, instead, they are motivational factors.

  • Vladic Sandulyak

    Personally, I have to be motivate by the end result in order to begin acting upon the long term goals. However, goal-oriented activities are often inconsistent and I may find an excuse to skip a tasks here or there whenever I feel like it. Enjoying the process or the activity itself, without a doubt yields more efficiency. For example, I ride my bike every other day. Its an activity that I enjoy doing. It gets me out of the house to explore my city and refresh my mind. Considering the long-term goals, riding a bike has a lot of health benefits, but they are not my primary focus. Instead, they are secondary motivational factors.

  • Lee Beckwith

    Speaking of jujitsu… I actually used to love doing jujitsu until I got too serious about it, had way too many goals (e.g. go to the Mundials lol), and not surprisingly dropped out. I wish I had read this article sooner. But not all is lost, I think I’ll go back to jujitsu soon. =)

  • Kaitlyn

    I think this is really a very nice post.

  • spravka

    I think your blog will easily get more traffics with good branding
    because its having the good information. so most of them likes your
    informative blog.

  • Susie W

    What is the goal of the goal? When the goal is to be able to run a marathon without getting injured, training helps you work toward that “hard” goal. When I wanted to take surfing lessons, the contract stated I needed to be able to swim 750 meters without stopping. While I’d barely swum since high school, I trained twice daily using the horror visual of them telling me I couldn’t take the lessons upon arrival (or of course drowning as a motivator works too). As someone who’s tried to get in the habit of yoga, while the peace and good feeling after class make me realize how great it is, I can easily find reasons not to go or do other exercise. I still believe that starting with a vision or the classic “end in mind” helps, even if that end is amorphous in the back of your mind. Striving to be able to do a head stand for 10 minutes by having a role model in mind would focus me on continuing with yoga more than being present as I’d tend to forget I had that goal.

    As for flossing, I’m using tooth decay as my stick, and it works a lot more than focusing on the flossing experience, which I don’t find pleasant. That study is particularly interesting!

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