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Category: Motivation

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:

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.

How A Sexy Poster Can Increase Your Will Power

How A Sexy Poster Can Increase Your Will Power

There’s a whole area of study in psychology called priming.  It’s the study of how things that are often outside our awareness can influence our behavior without our knowing it.

Well, in one study of priming researchers wanted to know if just seeing the right kind of image could cause participants to think of dieting and be more resistant to “unhealthy” food items.

So they got together 4 groups of women but I’ll only discuss the two groups that mattered.  One group entered a room with three nature photos on the walls and a soda they could choose to drink or not

A second group entered the same room with three photos of fit females.

The women in both groups were asked to estimate the amount of calories in the soda.

Those who saw the pictures fit females estimated the number of calories in the soda to be much higher than those who saw the nature photos.

This is what psychologists call “counteractive construal.”  It’s a process that increases your resistance to temptation.

So as a result, the women who saw the fit female posters had greater resistance to drinking the soda.

How can you use this information to help yourself?

When trying to achieve a goal, put visual reminders of the result you want to achieve when in places you would be tempted to violate your plans.

If you want to eat healthier, put images of healthy people on the fridge (or any place else that has snacks).  If you’re a student who needs motivation to study, put pictures of people in graduation uniforms near your desk.

What kinds of pictures will you use to prime yourself to resist temptation so you can achieve your goals?  Tell me in the comments below.

Reference to study mentioned above:

Counteractive Construal in Consumer Goal Pursuit

Ying Zhang, Szu‐chi Huang, and Susan M. Broniarczyk.  Journal of Consumer Research. Volume 37, Issue 1, Page 129–142, Jun 2010

How To Gain The Critical Mindset Proven By Science To Make You Successful

How To Gain The Critical Mindset Proven By Science To Make You Successful

Did you know that there is a critical mindset that’s proven to make you more successful?  I’ll tell you exactly what it is today and how to develop this mindset.

This critical mindset was discovered by Carol Dweck of Stanford Univeristy.  She found that how you think about abilities like intelligence—whether they can be developed or are fixed can influence how successful you are for the rest of your life.

She calls the belief that abilities are fixed the fixed mindset and the belief that abilities can be developed with effort and learning new strategies that growth mindset.

In one of many studies that show this effect, two groups of seventh graders were divided into two groups to see whether teaching about the growth mindset would make a difference to their grades.

Both groups were given eight weeks of instruction. One group was taught study skills in a workshop format.  Another group was taught through citing scientific studies that the brain is like a muscle and that it’s connections grow and develop as we learn.  As a result, they came to believe that their intelligence could be developed.

Their grades in math – one of the most challenging subjects for middle-schoolers – were measured before the workshop and weeks later.  Only the students taught that intelligence can improve with effort had better grades.  The other students experienced a decline in math grades (something that is very common with middle-school students).

The teachers of both groups of students knew they were in a special program but didn’t know exactly what they were being taught.  However, they started sending in reports about changes they noticed in some students.  Here are just a few quotes from the teachers of the growth mindset students.

Jimmy, who never puts in any extra effort and often doesn’t turn in homework on time, actually stayed up late working for hours to finish an assignment early so i could review it and give him a chance to revise it.  He earned a B+ on the assignment (he had been getting C’s and lower).

Here’s another:

M. was far below grade level.  During the past several weeks, she has voluntarily asked for extra help from me during her lunch period in order to improve her test-taking performance.  Her grades drastically improved from failing to an 84 on the most recent exam.

A Way To Develop The Growth Mindset

So how can you change your mindset (if you need to)?

Unfortunately, when you’re an adult merely learning that the brain can grow and change may not be enough to get rid of years of believing that abilities are fixed.  However, there are some strategies from another intervention using self-persuasion theory that may be helpful.

Try answering these questions and sharing your answers with others in written or verbal form.

1.  What are at least three reasons why it is important to realize that people can develop their abilities? Include implications for yourself, your family, friends and co-workers.

2.  What is an area in which you once had low ability, but now perform quite well? How were you able to make this change?

3.  Write an email to an imaginary person who is struggling in life with advice to help them improve, include anecdotes about how you have personally dealt with developmental challenges.

4.  Identify three instances in which (a) you observed someone learning to do something they were convinced they could NEVER do, (b) why do you think this occurred? And (c) what may have been the implications.

Each of these questions is based on different psychological theories about how people change their beliefs.  To go into the four different theories to explain why these questions are so useful would make this post too long.

However, if you try them, you will experience a shift in your mindset especially if you share your responses with others.

What do you think about the growth mindset?  Leave me your comments below.

Reference to study above:

Blackwell, L., Trzesniewski, K., and Dweck, C.S. 2007. Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention. Child Development 78 (1): 246-263.

Dweck’s book that describes the life-changing results of developing the growth mindset in more detail than I ever could on this blog.

Dweck CS 2006. Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

How To Increase Persistence In 60 Seconds

How To Increase Persistence In 60 Seconds

Would you like to know how to increase your persistence in just a few seconds?

Research done by Ronald Friedman and Andrew Elliot at the University of Rochester shows how.

They asked two groups of people to solve an unsolvable anagram.  One group was asked to place their hands on their thighs.  The other group was asked to cross their arms.

The ‘hands on thighs’ group spent only 30 seconds on the anagram.  The ‘arms crossed’ group spent 55 seconds – nearly twice as long.

Friedman and Elliot reason that this effect may occur because over time we’ve come to associate arm-crossing with persistence.  As a result, arm crossing actually stimulates us to become persistent.

However these two researchers also caution though that crossing your arms may only produce this persistence effect in achievement situations because body position can have different meanings in different contexts.

For example, I suspect that in social situations, this arm movement may cause unwanted effects such as stubbornness or close-mindedness because that is how many people perceive arm-crossing when in a social environment.

So next time you feel a need for a persistence boost when working on a challenging project, or you’re tempted to throw in the towel when things get too tough, try crossing your arms.  This simple act may make a world of difference.

When will you use this idea?  Tell me when and how you’ll use this simple technique in the comments below.

Reference to study mentioned above:

European Journal of Social Psychology
Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 38, 449–461 (2008)

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.

The One Belief Proven By Science To Make You More Successful

The One Belief Proven By Science To Make You More Successful

Yes the headline above is true.  There really is a belief proven by the past two decades of research into people’s beliefs about themselves that proves there is one belief that will help determine how the rest of your life turns out.

Before I tell you what the belief is try responding with an “agree” or “disagree” to the following four statements (your responses won’t be stored).

  1. Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t change very much.
  2. You can learn new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are.
  3. No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit.
  4. You can always substantially change how intelligent you are.

If you answered “agree” to statements 1 and 2 you probably have what’s called a fixed mindset when it comes to intelligence.  So you believe that people’s intelligence is fixed and you have what’s called a “fixed mindset” with regards to intelligence.

If you answered “agree” to statements 3 and 4, then you probably have a growth mindset when it comes to intelligence.  You believe that people’s intelligence can grow with effort and you have a “growth mindset.”

Whether you believe that people’s intelligence is fixed or can grow, that belief will determine how successful you can be, how well you bounce back from adversity, and how much you actually grow as a result of your life experiences.  In short it literally determines your potential for success and happiness.

Believing intelligence is fixed leads to a desire to “look smart” and so those that have this belief have a hard time dealing with failure because each failure shows they lack ability.  They tend to avoid challenges.  They give up easily, ignore feedback and often feel threatened by the success of others.

The belief that intelligence and other abilities can be developed through effort leads to a desire to learn.  These people embrace challenges, persist in the face of obstacles, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from criticism and find lessons and inspiration in the success of others.

For a much longer list of the differences between people with the two types of self-beliefs click here for a PDF graphic that shows the differences side-by-side.

Here’s an example from the research that shows how people might pass up an important opportunity that could improve their lives due to their mindset.

This study was conducted at the University of Hong Kong in which everything is in English—classes, textbooks and exams—everything.  But some students are not fluent in English.  So if they got a chance to get better in English—something that would impact their success in college—you’d think they’d all jump at the chance right?

So researchers asked those students not fluent in English if they would take a course on English if the university offered it.  The researchers also asked students to fill out a questionnaire with questions like the one above such as “Do you think intelligence is something that cannot be changed?” to measure their mindset.

Students who had a growth mindset said yes.  Those with a fixed mindset said no.

Why would students with a fixed mindset say no?  Because taking a course in English might reveal their deficits in English.  And they would rather feel smarter in the present even if it’s at risk to their college careers in the long run.

This is just one of many studies showing the power of mindsets in determining whether or not a person will take advantage of learning opportunities.

In another study, students making the transition to junior high were followed for two years.  They had been tested to see which of them had growth or fixed mindsets.

As I’m sure you know, junior high is a difficult time for many students.  Classes are harder, instruction is less individualized, teachers are more remote etc.  These challenges and others caused many students grades to slip.

However, only those with the growth mindset maintained their grades.  The fixed mindset students grades continued to drop as the study went on.

The interesting thing is that both groups had the same records to start with.  So the lowered achievement of the fixed mindset group can only be attributed to their mindset and no other factor.

So what can you do if you have a fixed mindset and want to change it?

Unfortunately, mindsets are habitual so you can’t just decide to change and have that change last.  You will need to work at changing your mindset.

Here are some suggestions from the research to help you.

1.  Understand that the brain can never perform a task as well today as it can tomorrow.  Why?  Because when you learn a new skill the brain grows new connections, and these connections get stronger after you go to sleep and wake up.  This means that—everything else being equal–you are likely to do better the next day just because your brain has grown.  If you keep this in mind, you’ll be better able to focus on the learning that can only happen over time.

By the way underperforming students who were taught brain facts such as this gained lasting improvement in their scores in math—usually underperforming student’s worst subject (Mindset p218-221).

2.  Consciously set learning goals along with any outcome goals you create for yourself.  Goals can become habitual if set often.  So if you create learning goals each day, you may find after some time that you unconsciously look for learning opportunities and grow your growth mindset.  Examples of learning goals for me are: Learn how to write enticing headlines for my posts and learn how to do interval training without harming my hamstring.

How valuable will developing a growth mindset be for you?  Let me know by leaving a comment below.


Blackwell, L., Trzesniewski, K., and Dweck, C.S. 2007. Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention. Child Development 78 (1): 246-263.

Dweck, S, Carol 2006. Mindset. New York: Random House. 218-221

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.

How To Create Instant Habits

How To Create Instant Habits

I know my title is probably hard to believe.  However, research done over the past 13 years by Gollwitzer and many others has shown that it’s actually possible to create instant habits by using a very specific kind of simple plan.

This simple plan is called an “implementation intention” by scientists like Gollwitzer and has been proven effective in a variety of domains from helping students study during Christmas break, to getting women to do regular breast self-exams, to taking medication regularly.

But because the term “implementation intentions” is kind of a mouthful, let’s use a variation of the term Chip and Dan Heath used in their book Switch and call them “verbal action triggers.”

So what is a verbal action trigger?  It’s an if-then plan you use to connect a specific cue to a specific behavior.  For example, I created the following action trigger for myself “If I sit down at my desk, then I start writing my next post.”

It’s a great way to get yourself to do a specific task that you want to do right now but it’s real power is it’s ability to get you to engage in new habits practically overnight.

In one study 114 adults who had a heart attack were put into two groups to see how well verbal action triggers might affect their level of physical activity.

One group was given instruction in how to use verbal action triggers, another group was not given this instruction.

Both groups were given short-term rehabilitation of about 8 weeks and were told that they should continue to exercise on their own 3 times a week.

Eight months later only the group taught verbal action triggers maintained the recommended level of exercise.  The other group’s activity level had dropped off sharply.

So now that you know that this technique works, I’ll give you some specific instructions on how to use it as well as a caveat that explains why it won’t always work.

Here are the instructions:

1.  Pick a goal.  It can be as simple as getting a top grade in a math class. Or getting into physical shape.

2.  Pick a specific action that will help you achieve your goal.  For exercise it might be to go to the gym.

3.  Pick a specific cue that tells you when to engage in the action.  You might decide that when you leave work is the best time to get to the gym.

4.  Put the cue and the behavior into an “if-then” statement.  For the example above “If I leave work, then I go to the gym.”

What you’ll find is that when the time comes you are more likely to remember the goal and more likely to take the action specified in your verbal action trigger.

Now here’s the caveat:   It won’t always work.  In every study there are some people that didn’t respond to the verbal action triggers.  Other studies have been done to find out what make this technique work more often.

Here are some guidelines from the research that can increase your chances of success.

1.  Make sure that you believe you can take the action you are specifying.  The research shows that your belief in your abilities affects the likelihood of a verbal action trigger helping you.  If you don’t think you could ever go to the gym straight after work, this technique won’t help you do that.  So find a behavior you believe you can do at least once.

2.  Make sure you are committed to your goal.  It’s OK if your commitment is an “I have to” commitment as opposed to an “I choose to” commitment.  The research shows you’ll get the same results either way.  But if you are not committed at all and just don’t care about the goal, you won’t get results.  You can increase your commitment to your goal with a technique called Mental Contrasting which I wrote about in my last post.

3.  The strength of the mental connection made by the if-then plan is important.  So if you make up the statement on the fly while distracted by other things the link may not be strong enough.  So repeating the statement it several times in a quiet place where you can concentrate can be helpful.  Also visualizing yourself responding to the plan in the third person has found to make the connection much stronger.

With these three tips, you’ll be much more likely to benefit from verbal action triggers.  Since they take so little time and so little effort to use, you may as well try them several times to see when they do and do not work for you.

So will you use this technique today?  Consider forming an if-then plan then writing about it below.