Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Succeed By Contrasting

Comparing the present to the future is key to achieving your goals

A big problem in learning to achieve your goals is being selective in what you do.  As much as you might value keeping all of your options open, at some point you have to commit time and energy into particular goals in order to attain them. 

 A key part of being selective is figuring out which goals to pursue and which ones to leave behind.  To make that decision, there are two criteria you can use.  One is to determine how important a particular goal is to you.  The second is to think about how achievable that goal is.  Ultimately, you want to put your effort into things that are important to you that you also believe you can achieve. 

 In the past, I have written about the research of Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues.  Their research suggests that an important part of the process of selecting particular goals to achieve involves comparing the present to the future.  These comparisons highlight what has to be done in order to help you achieve your goals.  When people are forced to make these kinds of comparisons (rather than focusing selectively on the present or the future), they are more likely to commit to achievable goals and to take steps to reach them.

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 How common is it for people to make these comparisons?

 Timur Sevincer and Gabriele Oettingen explore this question in an interesting paper in the September, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin

 First, they developed a scheme for analyzing what people write about their goals in order to tease out whether they were contrasting the present and the future.  To do that, they asked people to write about goals that were important to them.  Some people were asked to focus only on the present and how they were currently achieving the goal.  Some people were asked to focus only on the future.  A third group was asked to contrast the present with the future.  Looking at this writing, they were able to tease out the statements that referred to the present and the future.  People’s writing did indeed show evidence of these instructions.  Those who were asked to compare the present to the future wrote more about both the present and the future than those asked to focus selectively.  This initial study demonstrated that the researchers could identify who was contrasting the present to the future just from the way people write about their goals.

 In a second study, over 300 participants in an internet study were asked to write about a goal that was important to them.  They were given no particular instructions on whether to focus on the present or the future or both.  People were later asked to rate whether they thought the goal was achievable.  Finally, a week later, people were asked a number of questions about how hard they worked that week to try to achieve the goal they wrote about.

 In this study, 9% of people spontaneously contrasted the present and future.  The most common types of writing focused selectively on the present (36% of people) or the future (24%).  The remaining participants talked about their goals in a different way. 

 Interestingly, the people who spontaneously contrasted the present with the future were most selective in their goal pursuit.  They were most likely to take actions to achieve their goals when they thought the goal was achievable and least likely to take actions when they thought the goal could not be achieved.  The people who wrote only about the present, only about the future, or used another strategy were less selective.  They put in about the same amount of effort on their goals regardless of how achievable they thought the goal to be. 

 The researchers obtained a similar result using a laboratory study in which students first wrote about their goal to get into graduate school and then wrote sample personal statements for an application.  In this laboratory study, a somewhat higher percentage of people spontaneously contrasted present and future (27%).  The most common strategy in this study was to focus on the present (51%).  Only 3% of participants in this study focused selectively on the future.

 What does this mean?

 First, following previous work, it is clear that if you want to focus selectively on the goals that you believe you will be able to achieve, then you have to start by contrasting the present and the future.  Figure out what you are doing in the present.  Then, think about what you want the desired future to be and how you will feel if you achieve your goal.  Finally, determine what needs to be done to bring that desired future into being and elaborate on the obstacles that will get in the way of reaching your goal.  That strategy is the best path for success.

 Second, despite the importance of this mental contrasting, it is not something that most people do spontaneously.  People are much more likely to focus selectively on what they are currently doing now or what they should be doing in the future rather than on comparing the present to the future.  Next time you are thinking about goal achievement, make an effort to contrast the present and the future to improve your chances of success.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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