The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

The Secret to Achieving a Big Goal Is...

Daily habits that keep you productive lead to long-term success and happiness

What is the secret to achieving a big goal? Researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) and Harvard University have found that even offering meaningless small rewards increases human motivation. Even if the rewards are arbitrary, the simple act of 'winning' a token reward inspires people to keep working towards a larger goal.

Structuring your day to give you small hits of dopamine when you accomplish something keeps the 'reward engine' engaged and will fuel you to perform longer and better, even if the task is menial. Everything from making your bed to doing all the dishes will give you the "ding-ding-ding" feeling of having completed a task. Neurobiologically the satisfaction of completing a task creates internal rocket fuel that energizes you to keep working towards your larger goal. 

On May 29, 2013 Scott S. Wiltermuth, assistant professor of management and organization at USC's Marshall School of Business published a study  titled “l'll Have One of Each: How Separating Rewards into (Meaningless) Categories Increases Motivation" The study was co-authored with Francesca Gino, associate professor of business administration at Harvard University and was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Through the study, Wiltermuth and Gino found that individuals were more motivated by obtaining one reward from one category and an additional reward from a separate category than by choosing two rewards from a pool that included all items from either reward category. As a result, they worked longer when potential rewards for work were separated into categories regardless of the prize value. Categorizing rewards had positive effects on motivation by increasing the degree to which participants felt they would "miss out" if they did not obtain the second reward.

Create Structure with Room for Flexibility

One secret to creating daily habits that lead to long term success is to make sure that you remain flexible within the structure of your daily routine. Early on in my athletic career I was really neurotic about my diet and training schedule. I had way too many rules and was unable to go with the flow. Over time I learned that this approach backfires. You want to create habits that don’t box you in, but keep you prolific.

Benjamin Franklin understood the importance of having a daily routine. He structured his days around a ‘scheme’ which allowed him to optimize his time. Please take a few minutes to look at how Ben Franklin organized his day. How would you break down "micro" goals each day to achieve a "macro" goal based on this template?

The Fear of “Missing Out”

In a series of six related experiments, participants in the study at USC were asked to do mundane tasks for either 10- or 20-minute increments for a set number of rewards. Items from a dollar store were presented as prizes.

In the first experiment, participants were told that if they transcribed copy for 10 minutes they could take home one item, and if they worked for 20 minutes they could take two items.

The first group was told they could take two items from either bin, while another group was told they could take one item from one bin and, if they worked longer, a second item from the second bin.

The researchers found that while only 10 percent of those who could take items from either bin without conditions transcribed for 20 minutes, 34 percent of the group whose prizes were from segmented categories did so. Thus, mentally separating these perks into bins or categories increased participants' time commitment to the transcription by playing into their desire to minimize the risk of "missing out."

In a later experiment to test the "missing out" theory, the researchers again offered items from two bins, plus an added condition whereby there were four different bins from which to choose. When four bins were present, telling participants that they could select one item from one category and another from a second category did not improve motivation. Participants were not as excited by obtaining the second reward because there were still two more categories or bins that remained inaccessible.

"It was really the desire to eliminate the fear of missing out that led to people work hard when there were two different categories," said Wiltermuth. "If they couldn't eliminate the fear of missing out, which would be the case when they had more categories of items, they didn't work very hard. They were at levels comparable to the single category."

Conclusion: Create “Micro” and “Macro” Goals

The secret to achieving a big goal is to break it down into doable doses. By creating “Micro Goals” every day you will get the “ding ding ding” feeling of dopamine and keep charging on to accomplish your long-term "Macro" goal. 

"This also could apply to individual goals in the context of, dieting, for example. Wiltermuth, said, "If I drop five pounds, I might get this type of reward. If I drop another five pounds, I'm going to get another type of reward."

In sum motivation boils down to this says Wiltermuth, "Instead of presenting one big reward, set up a few small rewards. Even if they're not all that different, making people think they are different can get people to devote increased effort in pursuit of those goals." "Creating excitement just simply by categorizing rewards could be a key way to get people to try harder, and devote more time to tasks."

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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