Have you ever set a goal you really wanted to reach, but despite your good intentions, fell short? For me, that goal is regular exercise. And my recent interaction with my doctor made me think more about the motivation to reach that goal. How can I be more successful reaching my goal? Like me, do you have good intentions but somehow don’t quite get it done?

Here is what got me thinking about my motivation. During my annual doctor visit, the physician kindly “lectured” me on doing more exercise and avoiding fried or fatty foods. Now, “lecture” is a strong word in that she was simply giving me advice. She was trying to motivate me to make a change. The only problem was she wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know. And the result of her direct advice did not motivate me to change anything. One reason is, I never eat fried and fatty foods. So she missed the mark on that one. But I do know that exercise is a problem. I sit in front of a computer most of the day doing my job. My  intentions are good to exercise every day, but somehow, I don’t get it done. And yet, simply telling me to do it was not motivating.

So what will work to get me off the computer and on to the elliptical?  The science of motivation gives us insights. I recently listened to a podcast with Daniel Pink, author of  Drive  and Ayelet Fishbach, author of Get it Done,  a social psychologist. Here is what Dr. Fishbach tells us. It may help us all better achieve our goals.

1. Set better goals: Dr. Fishbach distinguishes two types of goals: approach and avoidance goals. She says, approach goals are better than avoidance goals. for example, telling me to avoid fried foods is not as effective as telling me to bump up my healthy eating. Seems obvious, but approach goals are more enticing than avoidance goals. The reason has to do with the brain. When we try to avoid something and tell ourselves we can’t do it, we tend to focus on it more and do it more. So “take a walk” (an approach goal) is better than, “stop sitting at your computer” (an avoidance goal). Think about your goals. Are they avoidance or approach?

2. Monitor progress: OK you have your approach goal, now how do you motivate yourself to keep going? It helps to monitor your progress. When you focus on progress, you build confidence to keep going. For example, “I did two more days of exercise. I am on a roll and can do two more.” Paying attention to progress helps you look at what you have done versus thinking about what you haven’t done.

3. Focus on the goal itself, not the means to the goal. What are you trying to achieve? Focus on that, not how you are going to get there. The reason for this is that we don’t invest our efforts in the means to our ends. We don’t excited about the how we are going to get there.  We get excited about the goal itself. So, keep your focus on the goal.

4. Have fewer incentives to reach your goal. This one sounds counterintuitive, right? Isn’t more better? Apparently not because the brain gets too confused with too many incentives. Cluttering our path to the goal with extra “rewards” distracts us. We lose focus on the reason to pursue the goal. Same thing happens when we make multiple goals at one time. It’s too much for the brain, so simple is better.

5. Intermittent rewards are more effective than rewarding yourself routinely. What? Rewards work better when they’re not scheduled or expected. The reason is because we’re more motivated by unexpected rewards. Thus, you will continue to work toward a goal when we’re unsure of “applause.”  It is more exciting to get a reward that is a bit unpredictable. Expected rewards lose their effectiveness.

6. Make your goal exciting. This one really surprised me. Excitement is more predictive of accomplishing a goal than the importance of the goal. So once you set a goal, make it exciting and challenging. Change your environment to create excitement.

7. The goal should be inherently valuable. In order to achieve a goal, it needs to feel right to you. This is what intrinsic motivation is — it comes from actually doing the thing.  Intrinsic motivation provides you immediate internal feedback and keeps you motivated.

Given these tips, I am rethinking how to make exercise more exciting, the rewards more intermittent, and focusing on the goal, not the means. I’ll let you know how it goes, but I certainly appreciate the tips based on the research.




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