Sticking to our goals can be difficult, with many New Year's resolutions falling by the wayside after just a few weeks. The good news is, the science of motivation is a growing field whose findings can improve the way we tackle our goals.
Researchers Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach suspected that focusing on the immediate positive outcomes of a long-term goal would increase persistence towards that goal. These immediate positive outcomes, or immediate rewards, refer to the benefits we feel during or very soon after pursuing a goal-related activity, for instance, enjoying how a workout makes you feel or how it clears your mind.
The researchers hypothesize that focusing on these immediate rewards increases persistence more than focusing on delayed rewards, such as getting in shape. To test this hypothesis, they carried out an experiment at a campus gym.
This study sought to “examine whether gym-goers bringing immediate (vs. delayed) rewards into their workout selection persist longer in their workout” (Woolley & Fishbach, 2016). There were 2 experimental groups: one in which participants would choose to focus on an immediate reward (enjoying the workout), and one in which participants would choose to focus on delayed rewards (achieving their health goals), while working out. This is how the experiment was conducted:
61 gym-goers were approached by an examiner and offered to participate in the study in exchange for a granola bar. Each of them received a list of six exercises of similar difficulty: shoulder press, bicep curl, triceps bench press, dead lift, lunge with weights, and squat with weights. Participants in the immediate-reward focus group were asked: “Choose from this list an exercise you plan to do that you most enjoy doing, one that you like to do more than the other options (…)”, while participants in the delayed-rewards focus group were asked: “Choose from this list an exercise you plan to do that you find most useful for your health goals compared to the other options (…)”.
After participants selected a workout, they were asked by an experimenter to persist on the exercise they chose for as long as they wanted.
Participants began their exercise, and an experimenter recorded the number of sets and repetitions per set that each participant completed. To ensure participants were not persisting longer because they were doing less work, the amount of weight they participant used in their workout and the number of minutes they spent on it were also measured.
These were the results:
As the researchers predicted, participants focusing on immediate rewards completed a greater number of sets than participants focusing on delayed rewards.
It is important to note that there was no significant difference on what exercises were chosen by the two groups. The two groups chose similar exercises. Also, there were no significant differences in the amount of weight used by the two groups, nor the number of minutes spent exercising. The authors state that, “by completing more sets, participants in the immediate-rewards condition did not compromise the number of reps for each set, which tends to be fixed and was indeed similar between conditions” (Woolley & Fishbach, 2016).
According to their research, Woolley and Fishbach found that “attending to the immediate rewards of health and academic activities increases persistence in these activities to a greater extent than attending to delayed rewards” (Woolley & Fishbach, 2016). This phenomenon can be attributed to the fact that “positive feelings provide an intrinsic reward that creates an incentive and increases motivation” (Berridge 2001 and Bindra 1974 in Woolley & Fishbach, 2016).
In a nutshell, focusing on the immediate rewards of our goals can help increase our motivation and persistence. Next time you're feeling unmotivated or like giving up, maybe try to remind yourself of the small, immediate rewards that come with working towards your goal. It might just give you the boost you need to keep going!
Wooley, K. & Fishbach, A. (2016). For the Fun of It: Harnessing Immediate Rewards to Increase Persistence in Long-Term Goals. Journal of Consumer Research, 42 (6), 952-966.
Article written by Maggie Stilman.
The Considerable Journal.
The Considerable Journal's mission is to bring relevant scientific findings closer to people who seek evidence-based paths to integral well-being, by providing briefed, straightforward expositions of scientific research regarding mental and physical health, relationships, habits, and more.