A few tips to stay the course with your goals

Sticking to goals is a difficult task, no matter what their severity.

For those facing the daunting tasks of keeping to a New Year’s resolution, the odds are against you, as more than 45% of people end up dropping them after a month.

Given these odds, how can we stay motivated, and how can science help us? Have a look at this video, or keep reading to find out.


In one recent study, two groups of students were given two types of task to complete. The first task the groups were given was to strike two specific keys on a keyboard as many times as they could within four minutes.

One group was told the person who was most efficient would receive $300, while the other group was given a prize pool of only $30. Not surprisingly, the effort and efficiency of the first group was 95% higher, suggesting that money can be a large motivating factor.

However, the same amount of money ($300 and $30) was proposed to both groups during the second task, in which they were told to solve a complex math problem, and the higher-earning group actually held a 32% deficiency in the overall effort and efficiency of their efforts. So, what gives?

Scientists have come to call this the “distraction effect.”

Simply put, when given a task that requires problem-solving and involves economic or social pressure, the amount of thought we give to the motivator (money, in this case) becomes greater, ultimately dividing our focus. This results in lower performance levels at the task.

In recent MRI scan studies, it has been shown that people experience similar positive brain activity both when completing a task for a reward, and for no reward at all.

However, if a person who was previously offered a reward is then asked to perform the same task again without the award, they experience decreases in activity in both the prefrontal and anterior striatum areas of the brain, which are both linked to self-motivation.

Because of this, it is reasonable to come to the conclusion that awards can naturally diminish our enjoyment of things meant to be “play.” They can also reduce our performance levels.

The idea of play, or participating in an enjoyable activity, is one of the greatest motivators for continuing the performance of a task.

This makes sense, which makes it obvious that we may be choosing the wrong activities to reach our goals in some cases (such as buying a gym memberships to lose weight). While a treadmill will burn your calories quickly, it won’t help you out much if you stop after two weeks. Simply put, to reach a goal, you need to find the right activity-motivator balance for you.

Your overall goal is also important to consider. A recent study done on exercise routines found that individuals focused on weight loss spent roughly 32% less time exercising than those who simply wanted to feel better in day-to-day life.

Optimism then seems like the key to success, but it may not be the best strategy in all cases. One study of 210 females who were trying to kick a smoking habit, those who were optimistic about the amount of obstacles they would have to confront to quit, were significantly less successful in actually decreasing the amount of cigarettes they consumed.

This occurs because positive thoughts can sometimes give your brain the same feeling as reaching a goal, which decreases your overall motivation.

However, negative thoughts are not helpful in most scenarios either. Being realistic about the various obstacles in your way, using what is known as “mental contrasting” is perhaps the best way to tackle goals such as weight loss, and quitting smoking.

Finally, you must always try to avoid the “what the hell” effect. This occurs when you say “what the hell” after participating in one negative behavior, and allow that to lead you to more negative behaviors that continually push you away from your goals.

For example, if you were attempting a fat-free diet, and broke it to eat an ice cream, you would be suffering from the “what the hell” effect if you then let that allow you to be seduced by more fattening foods.

Once again, it is important to be realistic about the obstacles you will face along the way. Do not let one small mistake snowball into a complete relapse of your progress. You can always get back on the horse of progress.

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