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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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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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