Do you want to hit your goals faster?

Posted on July 7th, by Dr Rob Yeung .

Pretend for a moment that you had set yourself a goal at the start of the year to read 20 new fiction books by the end of the year.  We’ve reached the end of June and you’ve already read 14 books.  You’re already way ahead of your target!  How would you feel?

Would you celebrate your accomplishment and the fact that you’re already 70 per cent of the way there?  Or would you focus on the 30 per cent you’ve yet to read to achieve your goal?

Lessons from weight loss

A team of investigative psychologists led by Joyce Ehrlinger at the University of Waterloo in Canada recently tracked 109 overweight individuals over the course of a 12-week weight loss programme.  Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups:

  • One group was instructed to adopt an accomplishment focus, i.e. to track the weight that they successful lost each week
  • A second group was encouraged to adopt a goal focus by thinking about how much weight they still needed to lose in order to achieve their overall weight loss goals.
  • A third, control group was told to lose weight but given no specific instructions on how to measure their progress.

Which set of instructions would you guess was more effective in helping people to lose weight?  The focus on what they had achieved or the focus on what they had yet to do?

The researchers carefully measured everybody’s actual weight losses and found that the participants who had been instructed to focus on their accomplishment on average lost 2.66 per cent of their body weight over the 12 weeks.  But the participants who had been told to adopt the goal focus – to think about how far they still had to go – lost 4.60 per cent of their body weight.  That’s more than twice as much weight loss.

The control group that had been given no special instructions ended up losing around 2.21 per cent of their weight.  That suggests that most people when given no special instruction tend to focus on what they have achieved rather than what they still need to do.

Ehrlinger and her research collaborators concluded in their write-up of the experiment that “focusing on one’s accomplishments might inspire progress-induced coasting and, consequently, decrease motivation.”

In other words, having an accomplishment focus may encourage us to bask in the contented feelings of what we’ve achieved so far, which may inadvertently allow us to slacken off.

Adopting a goal focus

What does this mean?

To get the best results, adopt a goal focus by concentrating on what you have yet to do.

Perhaps you want to lose weight or read a certain number of books.  Or you want to hit a certain sales target or perhaps save a certain amount of money.  Whatever your goals, having a goal focus may fuel your ambition and give you just that little extra boost towards achieving what you want.

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