What Keeps You From Your Goals?


Think back to the last time you spread your life-plan out across your work desk...

What are you hoping to accomplish in the next year? 5 years? 10 years? What sorts of accolades and achievements are you hoping to hang in your living room? If you’re a particularly ambitious or motivated person, you’re actively working toward each goal, taking carefully planned steps towards your dreams. For the rest of us, the real question is whether or not we’ll be able to stay the course until those dreams are realized! We all feel bursts of motivation from time to time, but they don’t last forever. When they fade, we usually forget our big dreams and imagined futures - and fall back into old habits.

So what does goal setting entail for the rest of us?

Typically, a person will create a goal, define what steps need to be taken to get there, and then set off down the yellow brick road towards their personal Emerald City. Over the years, a myriad of approaches have been developed in order to facilitate this practice. From relatively straightforward list-making, to the widely popular SMART (Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) model, managers and employees everywhere are refining and perfecting the process of setting and achieving goals.

Unfortunately, the path towards triumph is not always so straight, nor is it easily walked. In the pursuit of discovering what is the most effective goal-setting methodology, psychologists have unearthed a few surprising phenomenon that can present substantial road-blocks.

Non-Conscious Cessation of Goal Pursuit

It’s something that’s happened to everyone at some point: Suddenly, without warning, all motivation to achieve your objectives evaporates. What’s going on here?

Henk Aarts, Ruud Custers, and Rob Holland (2015) wondered the same thing, referring to the concept as non-conscious cessation of goal pursuit. To test this, the researchers designed a simple task where people’s performance might be altered by seemingly unrelated information without their awareness.

First, Aarts, Custers, and Holland had participants engage in a basic “dot-detection task”, where the goal was to quickly determine the location of a dot on the screen. The dot would either appear above or below a word: these seemingly unimportant words were either neutral (like sidewalk) or negative (like pain). The purpose of this portion was to subconsciously prime people with negativity, or not.

Participants were then asked to complete a word-recognition task, where fake words like ‘BARGLE’ or real words like ‘TABLE’ would flash on a screen, and they would indicate whether they were actual words or not. Easy, right? Who could have trouble with that?

It turns out, participants who had been primed with negative words in the first task took significantly longer to recognize words than those primed with neutral ones!

What does this mean? If, by accident, you subconsciously associate a goal or situation with negative feelings, you are more likely to completely drop all pursuit of said goal. The most interesting part is that this can happen without you even noticing.

So what can be done about this? Associating negative feelings with a goal make the goal seem less achievable. It’s possible that remembering WHY you want to achieve that objective, and how it made you feel before may help in undoing this effect! Researchers have found that merely thinking optimistically about your goals can improve your problem solving, boost creativity, and augment persistence in the face of difficulty (Oettingen, 1996). According to this, reminding yourself that your objectives are achievable makes your better at achieving them!

It may also help you to simply be aware of what is happening when your motivation suddenly deactivates; it isn’t because you, the person, is no longer interested, but because of a much more basic process that is easily set off by outside influence.

The Negative Effects of Accessible Alternatives

Turns out, staying focused on a goal is important for a multitude of reasons. In everyday life, individuals are most likely pursuing a few different goals simultaneously, that may or may not have anything to do with each other. For example, someone might strive toward a second degree while also attempting to teach themselves to play an instrument. Someone else might attempt to lose weight while trying to be the best parent for their children.

But is dividing focus helping or hurting?  James Shah from Duke University and Arie Kruglanski from the University of Maryland (2002) set out to determine exactly this.

In a rather clever experiment, they had participants working towards a primary task, while being continuously reminded of an unrelated secondary task they could be working on. In this case, the primary task was creating as many words as possible out of an anagram. The secondary, non-important task was the Box Task, where they would come up with as many creative uses for a box as they could. Afterwards, researchers counted the number of anagrams participants were able to come up with. If the participants rated the Box Task as really easy, they had fewer anagrams. Participants who rated the Box Task as not-so-easy ended up having significantly more anagrams! So essentially, if the second task was perceived to be easy to complete, individuals were more likely to divert attention, reduce persistence, and decrease commitment from the focal goal.

But the researchers didn’t stop there! In later experiments, the researchers were able determine that if a secondary task is seen as accessible, participants were more likely to divert cognitive resources from the primary task to complete the secondary one. Further, they’re less motivated by feedback regarding their progress toward their primary goal! They just don’t feel compelled to achieve it!

What does this mean for you? We often have things we’d rather be doing – watching Netflix instead of jogging, for example. Some of us also get caught up in all the things we could be doing to pursue our chosen self-improvement goals, and suffer from ‘analysis paralysis’. Each new goal is more appealing than the last, and people find themselves dropping something they just picked up to pursue something else -ultimately going nowhere!

Letting yourself constantly think of these other ‘goals’ shuts down your motivation to keep at your primary goal.

How can this be avoided? Simple: pick a lane. Focus on one goal at a time. If your objectives conflict, or simply aren’t related at all, place one on the shelf for later! This can be difficult, but by focusing on one thing at a time, we make more progress in all domains. As the Roman philosopher Seneca once wrote, “…it is more important for you to keep the resolutions you have already made than to go on and make noble ones.”

Goal Intentions Vs. Implementation Intentions

Sometimes it’s all in the wording!

Peter Gollwitzer and Veronika Brandstatter (1997) had an inkling that individuals would be more or less likely to complete a goal depending on the way that they worded their intentions. The researchers hypothesized that participants who specifies when and how their goals were to be achieved, would be more likely to do just that. They referred to this specific description as an “Implementation Intention”. You may have heard of this term before – that’s because it took off in the self-help and self-improvement industries as an incredibly powerful way to get yourself to do what you want to do!

To test this, the researchers had participants write about what they did on Christmas Eve (a truly riveting assignment), and then divided the group into two: the first group was left to complete the assignment uninfluenced, and the second group was asked to report how, when, and where they planned on writing this report. This way, all the participants had the same goal intention (complete the assignment), but only half had implementation intentions (how, when, and where the assignment would be done).

The completion rate in the first group was around 32%. When implementation intentions were thrown into the mix, completion jumped to 71%!

What does this mean for you? Don’t just write down what you plan on doing to get to your goal. Include HOW you are going to get there, and WHEN you plan on it, and WHERE you will complete each step. Implementation intentions are so simple and so powerful, even children benefit from setting goals this way (Duckworth, Kirby, Gollwitzer, & Oettingen, 2013)!

Are You Reaching Your Targets?

In short, if your objectives aren’t getting checked off of your to-do list, re-examine your approach. You may just be falling into one of these psychological potholes!


[/vc_column_text][social_buttons facebook="true" twitter="true" linkedin="true" pinterest="true"][toggles][toggle title="References" color="Default"][vc_column_text]References:

Aarts, H., Custers, R., & Holland, R. (2015). The Nonconscious Cessation of Goal Pursuit: When Goals and Negative Affect Are Coactivated. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(2), 165-178. Doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.92.2.165

Duckworth, A. L., Kirby, T., Gollwitzer, A., & Oettingen, G. (2013). From Fantasy to Action: Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions (MCII) Improves Academic Performance in Children. Social Psychological and Personality Science4(6), 745–753. doi:10.1177/1948550613476307

Gollwitzer, P., Brandstatter, V. (1997). Implementation Intentions and Effective Goal Pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 186-199.

Oettingen, G. (1996). Positive Fantasy and Motivation. The Psychology of Action: Linking Cognition and Motivation to Behaviour, 236-259. New York: Guildford.

Shah , J. Y., Kruglanski, A. W. (2002). Priming against your will: How accessible alternatives affect goal pursuit. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 368–383. Doi: 10.1016/S0022-1031(02)00005-7[/vc_column_text][/toggle][/toggles][vc_column_text]Post By: Victoria Parker

Victoria HeadshotVictoria Parker is an Honours Psychology Graduate from Wilfrid Laurier University. Though venturing out into the world of marketing for a time, the allure of the human mind dragged her right back to research! Her research is primarily focused on gratitude, happiness, and mindfulness in and out of the workplace. Working as a research assistant has provided her with exposure to many fascinating and forward-thinking projects and ideas. Additionally, her previous experience in the corporate jungle left her with not only a refined work ethic, but a keen interest in the experience and satisfaction of her fellow employees. A minor in Philosophy, delving largely into Theories of Mind and Reality, further fuelled her interest in social psychological concepts such as the self, identity, and motivation.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Jennifer Moss

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