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The harder the goal, the smaller the motivation. Right?
Unless the reward also got better, the effort wouldn't be worth it anymore.
That's why I use to choose easy over difficult. When trying to accomplish difficult long-term goals, I would break them up into easy sub-goals.
Easy means reason for optimism and less effort. That should increase motivation.
But it doesn't. Reality works the other way around.
Up to a point, difficult goals are more motivating than easy ones.
As I looked through the goal-setting research literature, I discovered something surprising.
Up to a point, difficult goals are more motivating than easy ones, even if the reward stays the same.
In other words, if you want to feel more motivated, select a harder goal.
Your Brain, Uncle Scrooge
Scientists call it the discontinuous expectancy model, but the math can be summed up into one sentence,
We are motivational misers who constantly fine-tune our effort levels so that we strive just enough for success.3
We're less likely to pursue difficult goals. Why do so few people aspire to become millionaires? Often because they lack the confidence. In my case, because I'm not at all sure that the crazy amount of effort involved would be worth it.
But once a challenging goal is selected, that same difficulty which was a source of resistance becomes a source of energy. Those with a goal of becoming a millionaire access more motivation than those with a goal of staying debt-free. In part because the vision of being rich is more inspiring, but also because becoming a millionaire requires more motivation.
Having made up its mind, the brain provides as much motivation as it thinks is necessary, but no more.
Motivation is low for easy goals because the brain is frugal – there's no point getting excited and wasting energy on something simple and easy, like eating breakfast, taking a shower, or sending an e-mail. As goal difficulty increases, motivation rises in step – for example, getting a training certification requires more energy than taking a shower, which the brain provides by increasing motivation.
However, after a certain level of difficulty motivation immediately drops to near zero, as the brain feels that the task is too challenging – that even with a high level of motivation, their resources or abilities are not enough.
The peak of that line is the sweet spot.
Aim High & Shoot Middle
In order to accommodate the fact that our brains are short-sighted, in the last post you took your long-term goal and converted it into a short-term sub-goal.
The next step is making that short-term sub-goal challenging enough to be exciting. Simply by making the sub-goal harder, you'll have more motivation, even if the reward stays the same.
But difficult goals are less likely to be achieved. That's why most people suggest aiming low and shooting high. Okay.
If your intention is to feel satisfied with yourself, aim low and shoot high. Seriously – setting challenging goals will reduce your satisfaction.
But if your intention is to actually get something done, aim high and shoot middle.1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 ,11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18
Even when I fail to achieve the difficult sub-goals I set for myself, I'm happier for the experience – having something challenging to work towards is exciting. I learned, I made a little progress, next time I'll do better.
Challenging But Doable
You started with a long-term goal for which you've continuously made little or no progress, and now you'll create from it an exciting short-term sub-goal.
Do that, and you'll have targets which have to be hit NOW, not the ever later. And now, hopefully, you've got something exciting to work towards over the following few days or weeks.
Without going overboard, what can you transform your sub-goal into so that it is challenging and exciting but doable?
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It's been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will.
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.
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: The Myth of Inspiration – Why Feeling Excited Isn’t Enough
2. The Effect of Beliefs on Maximum Weight-Lifting Performance, 1979.
3. Another Look at The Relationship of Expectancy and Goal Difficulty to Task Performance, 1980.
4. Increasing Productivity With Decreasing Time Limits: A Field Replication of Parkinson’s Law, 1975.
5. Interrelationships Among Employee Participation, Individual Differences, Goal Difficulty, Goal Acceptance, Goal Instrumentality, and Performance, 1978.
6. A Study of The Effects of Task Goal and Schedule Choice on Work Performance, 1979.
7. Knowledge of Score and Goal Level as Determinants of Work Rate, 1969.
8. Studies of The Relationship Between Satisfaction, Goal Setting, and Performance, 1970.
9. The Effects of Participation in Goal Setting on Goal Acceptance and Performance, 1975.
10. A Two-Factor Model of The Effect of Goal-Descriptive Directions on Learning From Text, 1975.
11. Additive Effects of Task Difficulty and Goal Setting on Subsequent Task Performance 1976.
12. Role of Performance Goals in Prose Learning, 1976).
13. The Motivational Strategies Used by Supervisors: Relationships to Effectiveness Indicators, 1976.
14. Effects Achievement Standards, Tangible Rewards, and Self-Dispensed Achievement Evaluations on Children’s Task Mastery, 1977.
15. Systems Analysis of Dyadic Interaction: Prediction From Individual Parameters, 1978 .
16. The Interaction of Ability and Motivation in Performance: An Exploration of The Meaning of Moderators, 1978.
17. Effects of Goal Level on Performance: A Trade-off of Quantity and Quality, 1978.
18. Importance of Supportive Relationships in Goal Setting, 1979.
4 thoughts on “Difficult, Not Easy”
You make some great points here. When you set the bar far too high, you’ll assume it’s unachievable so why bother putting in a lot of time and effort? On the other hand, if you set goals too low you don’t have any real motivation to do them since they are so low. So maybe somewhere in the middle is the right choice?
I’d like to say that setting goals a little higher than that is a good thing. it’s surprising how often I’ll achieve high goals I’ve set for myself that I initially wasn’t sure if I could do it. Maybe the inspiration and motivation to get those goals finished is what did it for me.
Yup. Some people call it intrinsic motivation, but I definitely find myself more excited to complete difficult but do-able goals. It’s great that you’ve been able to surpass your expectations. The only time I’ve done that is when I’ve selected easy goals. When I set challenging goals, I never go above and beyond. Probably because I think too highly of my potential ability and set the targets too high 🙂
Hello again, and cheers for another interesting post.
Is the bibliography available on your website?
(i’m speaking about this list: “But if your intention is to actually get something done, aim high and shoot middle.1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 ,11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18”)
Hi Pierre, happy to see you again 🙂
Most people aren’t interested in the bibliography, so I hide it away in a small corner.
Let me know if you have any trouble.
Also, I put up summaries of some of the relevant literature on this page: