Difficult, Not Easy

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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.

discontinuous model of expectations (small)

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?

Inspiration Box

Goal Setting


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Previous Post: Now, Not Later

Next Post: The Myth of Inspiration – Why Feeling Excited Isn’t Enough


1. The Effects of Holding Goal Difficulty Constant on Assigned and Participatively Set Goals, 1979.
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.
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4 thoughts on “Difficult, Not Easy”

  1. 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 🙂

          If you scroll to the bottom of the post or hit ctrl + F and then type in references, a blue rectangle with the word references at the left will appear. Once you see it, click on the text, and the list of references will appear below. You need to have javascript enabled.

          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:



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