We've all been there, whether it's trying to get to the end of your workout or fighting exhaustion to get a tough assignment done by deadline. It's gotta get done, even though it can be unpleasant or downright painful to complete the task at hand, so how do you force yourself to push through to the end?

A popular strategy is to add some distractions, like putting on background music or perhaps letting your mind drift elsewhere during periods of high physical exertion. 

But according to new research in the European Journal of Personality, distracting yourself as a strategy for getting through adversive challenges actually seems to lead to less success.

"Perhaps because distraction makes us more inclined to give in and do something more pleasant," speculates cognitive neuroscientist and author Christian Jarrett in his review of the new research for the British Psychological Society Research Digest.

The research team led by Marie Hennecke at the University of Zurich conducted a pilot study that involved basically surveying hundreds of participants about the mental strategies they use to complete challenging and often unpleasant tasks like running on a treadmill. In a separate study, participants were asked to log the challenges they faced each day, the strategies they used to approach them and how successful they were. 

The results revealed that thinking about the positive effects of getting to the end of the challenge was the most popular strategy correlated with success. Thinking that the end is near was the second most popular helpful strategy, while monitoring progress towards the goal and trying to keep a positive emotional state were also associated with success.

Surprisingly, the time-honored strategy of simply setting goals was also not correlated with greater success.

The notion that focusing on rewards at the end of a challenge is a solid strategy actually contradicts previous research that argues it is more helpful to focus on finding enjoyment in the process of completing the challenge itself, but it seems both approaches may have merit. 

The researchers speculate that focusing on outcomes may become a more productive strategy when challenges are more aversive and therefore harder to enjoy in the moment. 

The study is clearly not the final word. The research is limited in the fact that it relies on participants to self-report their challenges, strategies and successes. We aren't always so great at evaluating these parts of our lives objectively and it would be interesting to see how these different approaches stack up when someone else is in charge of setting up the challenge and measuring individuals' success at surmounting them.

Until then, just keep focused on getting to the end!

Published on: Jan 17, 2019
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