What Separates Goals We Achieve from Goals We Don’t


The importance of delaying gratification is universally recognized. Being able to forgo immediate benefits in order to achieve larger goals in the future is viewed as a key skill. For example, consider the classic “marshmallow test” experiment: children’s ability to delay eating one marshmallow so that they can get two marshmallows later is linked to a number of positive life outcomes, including academic success and healthy relationships.

But wouldn’t immediate benefits also help us follow through on our long-term goals? To explore this question, we conducted five studies, surveying 449 people, including students, gym-goers, and museum visitors. They reported their ability to persist in their long-term goals. They also told us whether they experienced immediate and delayed benefits when working towards these goals. Our paper was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

In one study, we asked people online about the goals they set at the beginning of the year. Most people set goals to achieve delayed, long-term benefits, such as career advancement, debt repayment, or improved health. We asked these individuals how enjoyable it was to pursue their goal, as well as how important their goal was. We also asked whether they were still working on their goals two months after setting them. We found that enjoyment predicted people’s goal persistence two months after setting the goal far more than how important they rated their goal to be.

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Yet people overestimated how much delayed benefits influenced their goal persistence. When we asked people what would help them stick with their goal in the upcoming months, they believed both immediate and delayed benefits—enjoyment and importance—mattered for their success. In actuality, delayed benefits had less influence on persistence; they mainly played a role in setting the goal in the first place.

We found this pattern—immediate benefits are a stronger predictor of persistence than delayed benefits—across a range of goals, in areas including fitness, nutrition, and education. In one study, we measured the number of minutes gym-goers spent exercising on a cardio machine. We also asked them how much they cared that their exercise improved their health (delayed benefit) and was fun (immediate benefit). Gym-goers who cared more about having a fun workout exercised longer than those who cared less about having fun. Caring more about the delayed health benefits of their exercise, such as staying fit, did not affect how many minutes they spent on a cardio machine.

A similar pattern appeared in another study we conducted measuring adherence to healthy habits over time. We approached Chicagoans who were visiting a museum and asked them to rate how much they enjoyed exercising, as well as how many hours per week they exercised over the last three months. Those who rated exercising as more fun exercised more each week over that period. The extent to which these people thought exercising was important for their health goals did not predict the amount of time they spent exercising over that period. Although people reported that exercising was both important and fun, importance did not predict their exercise behavior; having fun did.

We also asked these same museum visitors about their healthy food consumption. They rated the tastiness and importance of eating green vegetables and reported their weekly vegetable consumption. People who really liked the taste of vegetables also reported eating more servings over a one-week period. However, rating green vegetables as more important for their health did not lead to greater consumption.

This effect also appeared when we looked at University of Chicago students’ persistence in studying. Most students study to receive delayed benefits, such as good grades. But studying can also provide enjoyment if the topic is interesting. We asked students working at the University of Chicago library how much they enjoyed their study materials and how important their study materials were for success in their classes. Whereas those who enjoyed their materials more spent more time studying, there was no relationship between the importance of the materials and time spent studying. Even though students study because it is important, this is not what predicted their study behavior.

Harness Immediate Benefits to Increase Your Persistence

How can we use these findings to help people follow through with important goals? Other research we conducted, through four experiments and a sample of 800 students and adults, offers three strategies:

First, factor in enjoyment when choosing which activity to pursue to achieve your goals. For example, choosing a weight-lifting exercise based on enjoyment led gym goers to complete more repetitions of their exercise. On average, they completed 52% more repetitions of the exercise they selected based on enjoyment versus one they selected based on effectiveness. So, if you want to work out more, select a fitness class that you enjoy. If you want to succeed at work, find a work task or a work environment that you enjoy. And if you want to eat healthier, build a diet plan around healthy foods you actually like to eat.

Second, give yourself more immediate benefits as you pursue long-term goals. We found that high school students worked longer on a math assignment when they listened to music, ate snacks, and used colored pens while working. Immediate benefits make difficult tasks seem less like work and more like fun. Making activities more enjoyable, by listening to music while exercising or working in your favorite coffee shop, may help you persist in your goals.

Third, reflect on the immediate benefits you get while working toward your goal. For example, we found that people ate almost 50% more of a healthy food when they focused on the positive taste, compared with another group that focused on the health benefits. When you are pursuing a goal, seeking out the positive experience—to the extent that it offers one—may aid your persistence.

Setting a goal is the first step toward achieving the delayed outcomes you want. Yet, forgoing immediate outcomes or daily pleasures can undermine these goals. By making the experience more rewarding in the moment, you’ll have a better chance at success.

Source: iPromo News