The New Year brings a number of resolutions that span a wide spectrum of personal and professional goals. Motivation in pursuing these goals can be an ultimate marker of success, or failure, for many. Research by Kaitlin Woolley, associate professor of marketing and management communication at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, highlights what the data tell us about staying motivated when pursuing your goals, whatever they may be.
Achieving personal growth often requires experiencing discomfort – both emotionally, such as feeling awkward, or physically, such as “feeling the burn” during exercise. Previous research offers interventions for increasing motivation by avoiding and counteracting discomfort. However, Woolley suggests in a new paper that people can harness discomfort by seeking it as their goal. Doing so motivates personal growth as people come to see discomfort as a sign of goal progress.
Across 55 improvisation classes, Woolley and her colleague tested whether seeking discomfort as a sign of growth is motivating. Comparing the impact of instructions to seek discomfort – urging students to “feel awkward, uncomfortable” – with standard instructions, such as to “feel skills developing,” Woolley found that seeking discomfort was indeed motivating and caused students to persist longer in the exercise and take more risks.
“Experiencing discomfort can be seen as a stepping stone to getting to that goal that you care about—the key is to embrace discomfort as your goal, rather than avoid it,” Woolley said. “We also know from exercise studies we piloted that feeling discomfort, either during or after a workout, can actually help people stay motivated to workout – gym-goers saw the discomfort as a signal the exercise was working.”
However, Woolley is quick to point out that there are times when discomfort should be a cue to stop, rather than a sign of progress. Because of this, it’s important to know one’s limits.
Shift your focus through categorization
When pursuing a goal, Woolley has found that categorization cues lead individuals to perceive the steps they take in pursuing their goal are in separate categories. As a result, goal progress is viewed as the proportion of categories completed, and is less affected by the total amount of progress made than when categorization is not present.
“When starting a new exercise plan, categorization is beneficial. Instead of considering a workout regimen as lasting for a month, you should think about it in terms of weeks – this week, and next week, and the week after,” Woolley said. “As progress has been made and you find yourself towards the end of the month, at that point people should shift away from categorizing exercise as a weekly workout, and actually start to think about the monthly workout routine, as they have almost achieved their monthly goal. This strategy helps people start the goal, and stick with it after it’s progressed.”
The reason? Woolley’s research suggests categorization leads goal-seekers to infer greater progress when they are actually farther from their goal, and to infer less progress when they are closer to their goal. So, if you hit a wall, think about how you are organizing your goal, and what stage of goal pursuit you are in, i.e., early versus later stage.
Reward yourself early and often
“Often people set goals that they plan to reward only after attaining that goal, such as buying that dress you really want after achieving your goal to lose 10 pounds,” Woolley said. “But our findings tell us that reward may be coming simply too late to be effective.”
Woolley’s research advocates for giving oneself intermittent rewards as progress is made to help motivate and keep moving forward. In one paper, Woolley compared immediate versus delayed rewards, predicting that more immediate rewards increase persistence by making the activity more fun to pursue – that is, more intrinsically motivating.
Across five studies, and two supplemental studies, Woolley found evidence that immediate rewards increase intrinsic motivation by strengthening the association between the activity and the reward. Participants were more motivated to perform a task after framing the rewards for doing so as arriving immediately versus with a delay.
“You need smaller rewards leading up to your final goal, so feel free to buy yourself something when you are halfway there, or throw in a cheat meal here and there,” Woolley said. “It’ll make the reward bleed into the goal you’re pursuing – be it healthy eating or exercise or work – making goal pursuit more enjoyable.”
Stephen D’Angelo is a writer and content strategist with the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business.