Whether you are trying to lose 20 pounds, get that promotion at work, or quit smoking, sticking to your goal isn’t an easy task – after all, 45% of people drop their New Year’s resolutions after one month. So why is it so difficult to keep motivated – and how can science help us achieve what we’re after?
In one MIT study, students were given two types of tasks. In the first they had to hit 2 keys on a keyboard as many times as possible in 4 minutes, and those that did it the fastest would receive money. For some the reward was $300 while the others only $30. Interestingly, performance was 95% greater in the high $300 group, highlighting how money can be a motivator. But in the second task the same students were asked to solve a more complex math problem, and this time, those offered the high reward performed 32% slower than the small reward group. This is known as the ‘distraction effect’ – when we are given a task that requires problem solving, economic or emotional pressure can cause focus to shift to the motivator, ultimately dividing your attention and reducing performance. When we look inside the brains of individuals, fMRI scans reveal that people who complete a challenge for fun, and people who do it for a reward show similar activity throughout the brain. But interestingly, if those offered a reward the first time are asked to participate again for no reward, scans show a decrease in activity in the anterior striatum and prefrontal areas; parts of the brain linked to self-motivation. It seems that rewards may cancel out our natural sense of play.
So how does this apply to you?
Well, it turns out that ‘play’ is the strongest motivator for sustained behavioural changes. It makes sense that we stick with enjoyable activities, but considering 67% of gym memberships go unused it seems most of us are picking the wrong activities to achieve our goals. You might burn the most calories on a treadmill, but not if you stop doing it after 2 weeks. Pick something you actually like doing!
Your goal itself also matters; a study investigating reasons for exercise found that those focused on weight loss spent 32% less time exercising than whose who said they wanted to feel better in day to day life.
And while it’s always good to have a positive attitude, optimism may not always be the best strategy. In a study of 210 females trying to quit smoking, participants who only imagined major success with few obstacles were less likely reduce cigarette consumption. Positive thoughts can often trick your brain into thinking you’ve already achieved the goal, giving you a sense of reward and reducing motivation. But this doesn’t mean negative thoughts are good – imagining a goal coming true, and then thinking through the obstacles that stand in your way is the best mixed approach. This is known as ‘mental contrasting’.
Finally, try and avoid the ‘what the hell’ effect. This behaviour was first addressed when researchers gave dieters varying sizes of milkshakes – from small to large- and then offered them ice cream afterwards. It turns out, those who had large milkshakes also ended up eating more ice cream because ‘what the hell – I’ve already ruined my diet, I might as well go all out’. Anticipating that you will have some bumps along the road to success, whether it be a fitness goal, quitting smoking or work aspirations, will bring your closer to making your goals a reality.