Approach or Avoidance?
What is better when setting goals, approach or avoidance? Is it better to focus on avoiding things you hate and want to avoid or focus on the positive things you want from life?
This post takes a deep look at approach vs avoidance to find out if it is more motivating to set goals that help you change those things you hate or focus on your dreams, desires and positive outcomes from life.
Let’s get to it!
Approach vs Avoidance: Which style of Goal Setting is Better?
Working hard in order to avoid looking like a fool is more motivating than working hard in order to do well. It is just human nature.
That’s why, no surprise, many goals are formulated as a means to avoid things you don’t want to do.
I want to… lose weight to avoid being made fun of. I want to… make more money to avoid being in debt. I want to… stop procrastinating to avoid missing deadlines.
Avoidance goals work – the prospect of loss is more motivating than the prospect of gain. But they’re also stressful and sometimes less effective than goals formulated as a means to approach.
|“I will try to get a good grade”||or||“I will try to avoid getting a bad grade”||?|
|“I will try to look good”||or||“I will try to avoid looking fat”||?|
|“I will try to get a good performance review”||or||“I will try to avoid getting negative feedback”||?|
Each goal type is a simple reflection of the other.
One focuses on the positive, the other on the negative.
There’s nothing wrong with an occasional focus on the negative if it actually helps you achieve something positive.
For most of high-school, it was avoidance that drove me to work hard – I didn’t want to disappoint my parents. So I studied, a lot. Much more than I would have if I had tried focusing on the positive.
So, which should you use – approach or avoidance? Here are two guidelines to help you decide which type of goal-setting is better: approach or avoidance.
Approach Goals Are Pleasurable; Avoidance Goals Are Stressful
With three hours left to go before the deadline, you can bet I’m motivated.
But motivated isn’t the same thing as excited. Someone being bullied can be highly motivated to learn how to fight. But I’m willing to bet that they also feel miserable. They’re anxious to learn as much as possible. Anxiety is motivating, but it’s also unpleasant.
“I want to lose weight in order to look sexy.” If you have an approach goal and think about it, it will leave you excited and feeling good.
“I want to lose weight in order to stop looking fat and ugly.” If you have an avoidance goal and think about it, it will leave you anxious and feeling bad.
Sometimes anxiety is worth the cost. After all, I feel happy after completing my goals, whether they were motivated by excitement or anxiety. But most people are over-stressed. Adding even more stress may not be worth it.
Avoidance Goals Are A Double-Edged Sword
Anxiety isn’t just motivating – it’s also risky. Sometimes, avoidance goals are too emotionally charged – producing so much negative emotion that rather than shocking you into action, they shock you comatose.
Psychologists almost universally recommend approach over avoidance goals. That’s the reason.
In one series of studies, those who were encouraged to write an avoidance goal were significantly more likely to procrastinate than those encouraged to write an approach goal.1 In another series of studies, those who were encouraged to write an avoidance goal performed worse – getting lower grades, completing fewer tasks, and running shorter distances.5
However, keep in mind that those in the avoidance group did worse, but only as an average. Most did worse, but some did better. If you’re able to handle stress and don’t flinch away from anxiety, avoidance goals will work for you.
The workplace is full of avoidance goals, “I will avoid upsetting my boss”. “I will avoid getting noticed”. “I will avoid being late”. “I will avoid missing the deadline”.
These types of goals are stressful. For many people, those goals could become more effective and less stressful by being rewritten as approach goals, “I will please my boss”. “I will stand out and shine”. “I will be on time”. “I will finish ahead of the deadline.”
Avoidance Goals Help Smokers Quit
In one long-term study of smokers wanting to quit cold-turkey, those in the avoidance group were able to keep away longer than those in the approach group.3 One study does not make science, but it’s suggestive that in some areas of life, fear of death and disease can be useful.
On the other hand, not all of those in the avoidance group did better. For some, the fear was so overwhelming that it created anxiety. Guess how they relieved that anxiety? By smoking.
Approach or Avoidance?
So, which goal type do you think better suits your goal?
Approach – focusing on the positive, or avoidance – focusing on the negative?
Rewrite your subgoal in terms of the goal type you think is a better fit!
Want to learn more about goals? Check out some of the science behind goal-setting theory. Want to be happier? Check out my massive post on 54 Ways to Be Happy.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below? Which is better? Approach or avoidance?
- Latham 1974 – 1 day goal setting workshop given to 20 tree loggers increased productivity over the following 3 months, valued at a quarter-million dollars.
- Cambell 1976 – Chess players given a hard goal were more likely to successfully complete higher-level chess problems.
- Ivancevish 1976 – Sales personal given training in goal setting sold more.
- Becker 1978 – Two groups of people given goals on conserving energy. Those given the easy goal did no different, while those given the hard goal cut household energy expenditure by 14% over the duration of the study.
- Latham 1978 – Typists given hard goals increased their performance.
- Latham 1982 – 39 truck drivers were assigned goals. Over the following four months, their performance increased, being valued at $2.7 million dollars.
- Reber 1990 – Factory workers walked through a goal setting workshop and provided feedback increased safety compliance from around 50% to almost 100%.
- Rothman 2005 – Smokers helped in setting quit goals were almost twice as likely to have abstained after a quit attempt. This held true even after 18 months.
- Seo 2009 – Students walked through the goal setting process were less likely to procrastinate.
Read Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation: A 35-Year Odyssey for more.
A goal is a dream with a deadline.
All who have accomplished great things have had a great aim, have fixed their gaze on a goal which was high, one which sometimes seemed impossible.
Failures do what is tension relieving, while winners do what is goal achieving.
Learn from the past, set vivid, detailed goals for the future, and live in the only moment of time over which you have any control: now.
Goals are the fuel in the furnace of achievement.
If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.
In absence of clearly defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily acts of trivia.
The person with a fixed goal, a clear picture of his desire, or an ideal always before him, causes it, through repetition, to be buried deeply in his subconscious mind and is thus enabled, thanks to its generative and sustaining power, to realize his goal.
–Claude M. Bristol
Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.
Failure is not reaching your goal, but in having no goal to reach.
Think little goals and expect little achievements. Think big goals and win big success.
David Joseph Schwartz
The reason most people never reach their goals is that they don’t define them, or ever seriously consider them as believable or achievable. Winners can tell you where they are going, what they plan to do along the way, and who will be sharing the adventure with them.
The higher goal a person pursues, the quicker his ability develops, and the more beneficial he will become to the society. I believe for sure that this is also a truth.
“If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy and inspires your hopes.
If you’re bored with life — you don’t get up every morning with a burning desire to do things — you don’t have enough goals.
Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.
The last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion. That’s what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they’ll go through the pain no matter what happens.
The only limitations one has, are the ones they place on themselves.
Winners compare their achievements with their goals, while losers compare their achievements with those of other people.
Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.
Pain makes me grow. Growing is what I want. Therefore, for me pain is pleasure.
One man has enthusiasm for 30 minutes, another for 30 days, but it is the man who has it for 30 years who makes a success of his life.
–Edward B. Butler
If we each get on a treadmill right now, one of two things is going to happen… either you’re going to get off first or I am going to die. Period.
A year from now you will wish you had started today.
Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.
–Neale Donald Walsch
Once you learn to quit, it becomes a habit.
Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.
Just do it.
If you don’t do what’s best for your body, you’re the one who comes up on the short end.
If you want to look young and thin, hang around old fat people.
You have to stay in shape. My grandmother, she started walking five miles a day when she was 60. She’s 97 today and we don’t know where the hell she is.
Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.
No one can cheat you out of ultimate success but yourself.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
My philosophy of life is that if we make up our mind what we are going to make of our lives, and then work hard toward that goal, we never lose, somehow, we win out.
I like thinking big. If you’re going to be thinking anything, you might as well think big.
Lazy men are soon poor; hard workers get rich. A wise youth makes hay while the sun shines, but what a shame to see a lad who sleeps away his hour of opportunity.
–The Living Bible
An average person with average talent, ambition and education, can outstrip the most brilliant genius in our society, if that person has clear, focused goals.
The man says, ‘If I had a fortune, I’d take good care of it. But I only have a paycheck and I don’t know where it all goes.’ Wouldn’t you love to have him running your company?
Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.
A year from now you will wish you had started today.
All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous and unpremeditated act without benefit of experience.
Wealth depends chiefly on two words, industry and frugality; that is, waste neither time nor money, but make the best use of both.
Something in human nature causes us to start slacking off at our moment of greatest accomplishment. As you become successful, you will need a great deal of self-discipline not to lose your sense of balance, humility, and commitment.
The art is not in making money, but in keeping it.
Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.
If you would be wealthy, think of saving as well as getting.
When I was young I thuoght that money was the most important thing in life; now that I’m old I know it is.
It is not the creation of wealth that is wrong, but the love of money for its own sake.
For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.
Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, and insist upon it.
– Elizabeth Gilbert
It’s been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will.
– L.M. Montgomery
Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.
Tell the negativity committee that meets inside your head to sit down and shut up.?
A bad attitude is like a flat tire, you can’t get very far until you change it.
Happiness is not something you postpone for the future; it is something you design into the present.
Life is not about making others happy. Life is about sharing your happiness with others.
If your happiness depends on what somebody else does, you do have a pretty big problem.
Someone else is happy with far less than what you have.
Talk about your blessings more than you talk about your problems.
Those who bring sunshine to the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.
–James M. Barrie
I am determined to be cheerful and happy in whatever situation I may find myself. For I have learned that the greater part of our misery or unhappiness is determined not by our circumstance but by our disposition.
Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.
Happiness is not a feeling, it is a choice.</span
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Next Post: Not Making Progress? Raise The Stakes
1. The Relationship of Procrastination With a Mastery Goal Versus an Avoidance Goal
2. The Hierarchical Model of Approach-Avoidance Motivation
3. Avoidance Goals Can Be Beneficial: A Look at Smoking Cessation