Some people say that to keep your motivation high you need to review your progress frequently.  Others say you should keep your eye on the prize and notice the gap between where you are and where you want to be.

bigstock_Teenage_girl_studying_at_the_d_13025183Is one of these perspectives right and the other wrong?

It turns out that psychologists have studied this question and their answer was surprising to me.

Each of these ways of thinking about your goal can reduce motivation or increase motivation depending on your level of commitment to your goal.

If you are highly committed to your goal, thinking about how much you have left to do called to-go thinking raises motivation but thinking about how much you’ve accomplished — to-date thinking — reduces motivation.

The opposite is true if your level of commitment is uncertain or low.  Thinking about how much you’ve accomplished will raise motivation and how much you have left to do will lower motivation.

One of many studies that demonstrate this point was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In this study researchers had college students who were studying for a core-course exam think about their progress in terms of how much studying they’d done or how much studying they had left to do.

These students were highly committed to getting a good grade on the exam because it was for a core course and those that thought in terms of how far they’d come, had less motivation to study and studied much less than those students who thought in terms of how much work they had left to do.

In the same study another group of college students were assigned time to study for an elective-course exam – this would be something they had low and/or uncertain commitment to.

Some of these students were made to think in terms of how much progress they had made on studying for the exam and others were made to think in terms of how much work they had to do.

And these students experienced the opposite effects of those studying for the core-course exam.

Those thinking about how much work was left to do studied less and reported feeling less motivated.  Those thinking about how much work they’d accomplished felt more motivated and studied for more hours.

But why does thinking about how much work is left to do or has been done have different effects depending on your level of commitment?

Researchers say this is because when you think in terms of how much progress you’ve made on something important to you, it activates a drive to achieve more balance, so you end up spending more time on other goals.

And when your commitment is low or uncertain it’s as if you ask the question “How committed am I?” and you look to your own behavior for evidence of commitment.  If you see that you have been putting time and energy into a goal, you decide that this goal must be important to you.  Thinking about how much is left to do does not provide evidence of commitment and so does not raise your motivation.

So now you know what to do to raise your commitment to your goal if it is low and how to keep your motivation high if you’re already highly committed to achieving your goal.

How will you use this information to get more done and reach your goals?

Leave a comment with your answer below.

Dynamics of self-regulation: How (un)accomplished goal actions affect motivation. Koo, Minjung; Fishbach, Ayelet
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 94(2), Feb 2008, 183-195. doi:


How Thinking of Failure Can Help You Succeed

by Rodney Daut on October 26, 2010

I know the title of this post sounds strange and may even be impossible to believe.  However, recent research shows it’s true – thoughts of failure can help you succeed.  And more surprisingly thoughts of success can help you fail.  It all depends on how many successes or failures you are thinking about.

In one study conducted by Leila Selimbegovica, Isabelle Régnerb, Rasyid Bo Sanitiosoc and Pascal Huguetd participants were divided into four groups.

Members of each group were asked to think about math memories before taking a math test.

One group was asked to think of one time they succeeded in math.

Another group was asked to think of one time they failed in math

A third group was asked to think of several math successes.

A fourth group was asked to think of several math failures.

Which groups did best on the test?

The group that thought of several successes in math AND the group that thought of only one failure in math did better than the other groups.

But why?

Researchers explain that when a person thinks of just one failure or one success they think that the event was produced by external factors.  So the failure or success was caused by something other than the person’s traits.  This means that thinking of one success makes you think that you are not responsible for the success which lowers your confidence and performance.  And thinking of just one failure makes you feel you are not responsible for that failure which surprisingly raises your confidence and performance.

However, when you think of several successes or failures, the only thing in common with all those experiences is that they happened to you.  And your mind infers from this that something about you produced those successes or failures.  As a result, thinking of many successes makes you confident and thinking of many failures makes you lose confidence (no surprise there).

So how do you use this information to better your life?

Before an important meeting or performance, think of the many times in the past you have succeeded or if you don’t have any past successes, think of one and only one time you failed.

You’ll give yourself a confidence boost that will increase your chances of success.


Influence of general and specific autobiographical recall on subsequent behavior: The case of cognitive performance.
Leila Selimbegovica, Isabelle Régnerb, Rasyid Bo Sanitiosoc and Pascal Huguetd.


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