How Not to Convince Yourself to Successfully Crush a Goal

Hint: It’s all about being reminded of what you have to lose if you give up.

Most of us have some sort of goals we’re trying to reach listed on a to-do list that’s pasted to our refrigerators as a constant reminder that you. Must. Complete. This. Goal. My current goals range in difficulty but are equally important to me: finally watch West Wing in its entirety; plan a wedding. (Okay, maybe not quite equally important — but close.)

And I am well aware that right now many of you spectacular humans out there are knee-deep in training for the Broad Street Run. Now, training to tackle a 10-mile run is no easy feat. And chances are, because you’re human, you might’ve thought about throwing in the towel already (who wants to wake up at 5 a.m. for a training run? No one.) — just like I’ve thought about throwing in the towel on my White House 101 Netflix lesson during a particularly snooze-worthy episode. But we’re here with some advice: As Science of Us reports, new research published in Journal of Consumer Psychology hints at what is (and isn’t) most  effective when it comes to motivating us to stay the course and complete a goal. Hint: It’s all about being reminded of what you have to lose if you give up.

Researchers at the University of Winnipeg performed a series of experiments — five total — looking at how different ways of structuring and framing goals affected participants’ behavior. During the process of these experiments, the researchers noted a shift in the way participants thought about their goals as they came closer to completing them: When they first started, they were most focused on all the positive stuff they’d gain from completing the goal; once they were closer to completing the goal, they were more focused on what they would lose if they didn’t complete the goal.

From Science of Us:

Bullard and Manchanda believe these findings could be important to marketers, who could use promotion focuses [thinking about the positives you’ll gain] on consumers who have just started setting out to complete a goal, while using prevention focuses [thinking about what you’ll lose] to motivate people who are further along.

What all this suggests — and as always, one needs to be careful about over-extrapolating from a lab setting to a real world — is that many people could be misfiring in their attempts to motivate others. If someone seeking to lose 20 pounds has already lost 15, for example, it might be that a line like Think how much better you already feel about yourself, and how you’ll feel even better once you complete your goal might not work as well as If you let up now, so close to your goal, you’ll feel disappointed in yourself. The first line references the weight-loser’s initial state, which according to Bullard and Manchanda will be less relevant to them when they’re so far along, while the second line references the possibility of not completing the task.

We’re not really worried about marketers around these parts, but one could assume the same goes for motivating yourself. After all, you might not have been super conscious of this internal shift in motivation when reaching a goal before now. So next time you feel like throwing in the towel on a goal — whether you’re knee-deep in Broad Street training, knee-deep in the actual Broad Street Run course, or just knee-deep in a killer work project — instead of thinking about what you’ll gain by finishing, the best motivation may be remind yourself of what you’ll lose if you bow out. In the case of Broad Street, that would be LOTS of time and energy spent, plus a chance to take a killer finish-line selfie. Oh! And the bragging rights that come with completing a 10-miler, of course.

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