Researchers determine we often reach a motivational valley of death partway to reaching a goal.
Everyone knows fresh beginnings are great for motivation--just observe the crush of newcomers at your local gym every January or the surge of enthusiasm you feel embarking on a new project.
Endings offer a similar excitement. When you're closing in on, for example, a fundraising or sales goal, you're likely to feel pumped up to reach the finish line. But what can you say for the middle of a project? Apparently, that the central stretch of the road to any goal is often a wasteland of motivation, according to new research out of the Kellogg School.
"What we're saying is that the perception of the next steps toward a goal is different depending on how close we are to the goal," one of the researchers, associate professor of marketing Miguel Brendl, told Kellogg Insight, which reports findings of the school. "There's a perceptual element in how we get motivated."
Through a series of three experiments, Brendl and his colleagues developed a model of motivation in which enthusiasm fluctuates in relation to where we are in the process of reaching a goal. Kellogg Insight explains:
Typically, any goal-oriented undertaking can involve two reference points: the beginning and the end. Take a summer reading assignment. A student striving to finish the assignment will regard reading one more page as more important when just 50 pages remain than when there are 200 pages to go. For that individual, motivation will increase as the distance from completing the assignment decreases. But a student who measures progress in terms of the distance from the beginning of the assignment will take a different view. In this case, reading one more page will seem to yield less progress after having read 200 pages than after having read 50 pages.
"We suggest that people tend to adopt their initial state as the reference point at the beginning of goal pursuit and the desired end state as their reference point when nearing the goal," the researchers write…. It is the "attentional shift" from the initial to the final state of the endeavor that causes the level of motivation to reach its nadir roughly halfway toward the goal, when both the initial state and the end state seem distant.
Or put simply, motivation is U-shaped, starting high and sinking to a low point about halfway through the process before rising steadily again as we approach the goal we have in our sights. And it's that midway low point that can be deadly to plans, projects, and dreams of all sorts. But as we know from G.I. Joe, knowing is half the battle, and understanding the likely fluctuations in your motivation can help you compensate and power through rough patches to reach your goal. The researchers offer two examples:
Organizations that offer rewards, such as points toward prizes that customers can earn by buying their products, might consider increasing the customers’ ability to accumulate points—by earning two points rather than one for each dollar spent, for example—halfway to the total they need, when their motivation is low.
Brendl has advice for individuals likely to be stuck in the middle en route to their own goals…"Early in your pursuit of your goal, look backward at what you have achieved; toward the end, look forward."
JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist. @EntryLevelRebel