Browsed by
Category: Goals

Common Advice Scientifically Proven To Kill Motivation

Common Advice Scientifically Proven To Kill Motivation

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:

An Illusion That Can Prevent You From Achieving Your Goals

An Illusion That Can Prevent You From Achieving Your Goals

Did you know that if something is difficult, we’ll often think it’s important for reaching our goals?  This can actually make it harder to get what we want in life.

Recent research done at the University of Chicago shows why.

Sixty-two college students participated in the study.  Half were primed for the goal of becoming a kinder person and half were not.

Of those primed for the goal of becoming kinder, half were given materials on a non-profit organization called Kids In Danger that were easy to read and another half given materials that were difficult to read.  All participants were asked to donate money to the charity.

Those who had the goal of becoming kinder donated more money when the materials were difficult to read than when they were easy to read.  Also those who did not have the goal of becoming kinder did not donate more money when the materials were hard to read.


The researchers noted that past studies show that people associate effort with things that will help them achieve their goals.  And they also do the reverse: If something takes effort they think it must be helpful in achieving their goals.

So participants who wanted to become kinder people thought that Kids In Danger would be more helpful in achieving that goal when the information they were given was harder to read.

Why is this important to know?

Because without realizing it, we often think that a hard path to achieving our goals is the most fruitful.  This is not always the case.

A recent example of this is a friend of mine who spends many hours at the gym yet isn’t getting the results he’s looking for.  I told him of a fitness program that may get him better results in much less time.

He told me “It can’t be that easy.”  And dismissed the idea totally.

While I can’t say that this other fitness program would guarantee him the results he wants, I do know that just because it takes less time (and less effort) doesn’t mean it won’t produce better results.

What examples do you have of people (yourself included) who’ve taken a hard road to achieving their goals when an easier approach was available?

I’d love to hear your answers and any other comments you have below.

Reference to study above:

Psychological Science 2009 Jan;20(1):127-34.
The “instrumentality” heuristic: why metacognitive difficulty is desirable during goal pursuit. Labroo AA, Kim S.

A Common Self-Help Technique That’s Proven To Cause Failure And What To Do Instead

A Common Self-Help Technique That’s Proven To Cause Failure And What To Do Instead

Many a self-help book touts the power of positive visualization to help you achieve your goals.  However, recent research shows that a common type of visualization often advocated in these books can actually keep you from achieving your goals.

In one study done at UCLA, one group of students was encouraged to visualize getting a great grade on their upcoming final exam.  Another group was not asked to visualize.  Both groups logged their study hours and exam results.  The group that did positive visualization got the worst grades and studied for fewer hours.

Similar results have been found in many domains including weight loss, finding a romantic partner and quitting smoking.

Why should fantasizing about a great future be such a hindrance?

It may be that when people fantasize about things going perfectly that they are then ill-prepared to deal with setbacks.  And since you’ve actually experienced success in your mind you are less motivated to get success in the real world.

However, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.  Haven’t we all heard of athletes that practice visualization and gotten great results?

It turns out that there are at least two types of visualization that helps improve both motivation and performance.

One is called Mental Contrasting which I wrote about in another post.

Another is called process oriented visualization.

In the same study I mentioned above there was a group of students that imagined studying for their upcoming exam.  That group of students spent the most hours studying, had the least pre-exam anxiety and got the highest grades.

So if you want to achieve your goals, don’t visualize success.  Instead, visualize yourself taking the actions that will produce success.  You’ll be much more likely to put in the hours it takes to reach your goal.

In fact, that’s what great athletes do.  They don’t visualize the celebration at the end of the game.  They visualize the process of shooting in basketball, the process of hitting the ball in baseball or the process of catching the ball in football.  Visualizing how to properly do these specific skills is what helps boost their performance.

What do you think of this research? Will you start visualizing the actions needed to achieve your goals like many great athletes do?  Please leave a comment below.

Lien B. Pham, Shelley E. Taylor (1999) From Thought to Action: Effects of Process-Versus Outcome-Based Mental Simulations on Performance

How Being Negative Can Get You To The Gym

How Being Negative Can Get You To The Gym

Most self-help gurus will tell you that if you want to motivate yourself to do something focus on all the benefits you’ll gain from taking action.  However, if you’re procrastinating current research suggests that a very different approach may be even more helpful.  A specific kind of negative thinking and feeling may be much more motivating than a positive feeling.

Researchers assembled 229 people with gym memberships and asked half of them to think about how much they might regret not going to the gym.  The other group was asked how much they intended to go to the gym.

They then measured how much both groups exercised after two weeks.

The group that was asked how much they would regret not exercising exercised much more than the other group.

Why might this be?

Some researchers believe that anticipated regret may be more powerful than actual regrets. And I think that may be part of the reason anticipated regrets are such powerful motivators.

So next time you are hesitating about starting an important task – whether it’s going to the gym, writing an article or getting out of bed – think of how you’ll regret NOT taking action and you just may find yourself ready to get started.

British Journal of Social Psychology 2003 Dec;42(Pt 4):495-511.
Acting on intentions: the role of anticipated regret.  Abraham C, Sheeran P.

Improve Will Power In 30 Seconds With Scientifically Proven Method

Improve Will Power In 30 Seconds With Scientifically Proven Method

Would you like to know how you can boost your will power so you can resist temptation and do the “right” thing in just a few seconds?

It turns out that research into a concept called mental construal has the answer.

Construal level theory suggests that people have more will power when thinking abstractly and less will power when thinking concretely.

In one study for example, participants were put into two groups.  One group was asked to ponder why we should maintain positive relationships with others to get them to think abstractly.  The other group was asked to think about how we maintain good relationships so they’d think concretely.

Next they gave both groups an implicit associations test to see what kinds of unconscious thoughts they now had about apples and candy bars—something completely unrelated to relationships.  They did this because thinking abstractly or concretely for a few seconds tends to spill over into your thinking on the next topic.

Members of the abstract thinking group thought of apples positively and candy bars negatively.  Those in the concrete group thought of apples negatively and candy bars positively.

Next both groups were asked how much they wanted an apple or a candy bar right now.  The concrete thinkers chose the apple over the candy bar only half the time.  The abstract thinkers chose the apple 76% of the time.

So by thinking about something in the abstract for just a few seconds you can boost your will power.  Other studies have shown that thinking abstractly increases endurance and resistance to pain.

So how can you use this idea to help yourself?

Next time you are tempted to do something that will interfere with your goals, try thinking abstractly.  You can do this by thinking about why you want to achieve your goals or by thinking abstractly about anything else.

When you do you’ll find that all-of-a-sudden you’ve gained an increase in will power that will allow you to resist temptation.

Reference to study mentioned above:

Fujita K., Han H.A.  Moving beyond deliberative control of impulses: The effect of construal levels on evaluative associations in self-control conflicts
(2009) Psychological Science, 20 (7), pp. 799-804.

How To Avoid The Type Of Goal Proven To INCREASE Your Chances Of Failure… And The Kind Of Goal You Should Set Instead

How To Avoid The Type Of Goal Proven To INCREASE Your Chances Of Failure… And The Kind Of Goal You Should Set Instead

There are at least five different types of what are called achievement goals by social scientists.  Some goals increase your chance of failing and some increase your chances of succeeding according to the research.

I’m only going to discuss the two most important of these five types of goals.  The one that can help you the most and the one that can hurt you the most (you can find a scientific paper describing all five here).

The type of goal to avoid is the ability goal – whose purpose is to prove you have the ability to do something.  For example, if you need to give a presentation and you have the goal of proving how well you can speak, you have an ability goal.

The type of goal that is most helpful is a learning goal.  In this type of goal you would approach a public speaking situation with specific ideas in mind for what you can learn from the experience.  For example, you might decide you’d like to improve your ability to connect with the audience, your cadence or your use of pauses.

Learning goals are linked to many positive outcomes.  Students with learning goals for example use deeper processing strategies in their courses such as “elaborating” and “networking.”  People with learning goals also tend to increase their efforts after failure.

Although individuals with ability goals can experience high levels of motivation when they are succeeding, they tend to use more superficial learning strategies and when they experience failure they experience more negative feelings and reduced effort.

In one study pre-med college students taking a general chemistry course were tested to see whether or not they endorsed ability goals or learning goals or one of the other types of goal.

After the course their grades were tabulated.

It was discovered that overall the students with learning goals outperformed all other students.  In fact many of those with low performance at the start of the course got better grades on the final exam than they had on any previous exam.  Students with ability goals that performed poorly at the start of the course performed worst of all on the final.

So what does this mean for you?

To achieve the most out of life you should set learning goals whenever possible.

If you want to build a successful business focus on the outcome but also focus on what you need to learn to achieve that outcome.

If you want to be more organized, discover what skills you need to gain to achieve more organization and then set about learning those skills.

Focus on what you need to learn and avoid all focus on proving how smart or competent you are.

This can be challenging though as we actually set many goals without being consciously aware of them.  And the types of goals you focus on are determined by your mindset.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the kind of mindset that allows you to naturally focus on learning goals.  It’s a mindset that’s also been proven in over 20 years of research to increase your achievement.

Until then, please tell me what you think of the idea of learning goals in the comments area below.

Reference to study discussed above:

Grant, H. & Dweck, C. S. (2003). Clarifying achievement goals
and their impact. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
85 (3), 541-553.