One of the hardest tradeoffs for people to make is between what they desire to do in the short-term versus what they want for themselves in the long-term. Exercising now improves long-term health. Studying hard in school can lead to a great job. Practicing a musical instrument can help someone be a stellar performer in the future.
A lot of work in the psychology of behavior change has focused on ways to make long-term goals seem more desirable to motivate people to do things they don’t enjoy in the short-term in pursuit of those goals. A paper by Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach in the February, 2017 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests this may not be the right path.
In several studies, they looked at people’s persistence with goals related to desirable long-term outcomes including eating healthy foods, studying, and exercise. In each of these studies, they asked participants about how much they enjoy the particular activities associated with achieving the goal in the moment as well as the long-term importance of that goal to them.
For example, in one study, people at the gym were asked how much they enjoy their workout. They also asked how important it is for them to exercise to stay physically fit. Then, they measured how long people spent using cardio machines while working out. The short-term enjoyment of the workout was a good predictor of how long people spent working out. The importance of staying fit did not predict the length of the workout. Interestingly, the importance of staying fit did predict how often people say they go to the gym.
In another study, students at the library were asked how much they enjoy their schoolwork and how important school is to their long-term goals. They also asked people whether the short-term or long-term benefits were more important to them. Students reported when they started and completed the studying they did at the library that day.
Students reported that the long-term benefits of school were more important to them than the short-term enjoyment of the work they were doing. Nonetheless, the short-term enjoyment of the work was a better predictor of how long they spent at the library than the long-term importance of the work.
The pattern of results across the five studies paints an interesting picture. Actually doing behaviors that lead to long-term success requires enjoyment of the tasks themselves. It is simply hard to persist at tasks that you don’t enjoy.
That doesn’t mean that you should never start to pursue a long-term goal that requires actions you don’t like. It does mean that you have to find ways to learn to like the activities.
When you study, focus on interesting new facts. Pay attention to the improvements in your skills.
If you start an exercise routine, give yourself some time to get over the initial discomfort that can happen when you start working out after a layoff. Then, think about what aspects of your exercise you enjoy. Make sure you include some of those elements in your routine.
When you start a healthier diet, eat the foods you like least at the start of your meal. Your need to eat influences the enjoyment of what you eat. When you most need to eat, foods taste better. So, if you eat your least favorite foods when you most need to eat, you increase you enjoyment of those foods. In fact, you may soon realize you like those foods quite a bit.
I never particularly liked brussels sprouts, but by eating them at the start of meals, I came to really enjoy the taste and I eat them much more often now than I did when I was younger.
Ultimately, it is important to find ways to enjoy the activities you engage in on a daily basis, particularly when they accumulate into desirable long-term outcomes.
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Woolley, K., & Fishbach, A. (2017). Immediate rewards predict adherence to long-term goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(2), 151-162