Motivation

Perceptual Tricks to Help You Achieve Your Goals

Psychologist Emily Balcetis reveals the common pitfalls that stymie success.

Posted Feb 14, 2020

mimagephotography/Shutterstock
Source: mimagephotography/Shutterstock

If your 2020 resolutions are long abandoned, you’re not alone. People are quick to set ambitious goals but often fail to follow through.

In her new book, Clearer, Closer, Better, New York University psychologist Emily Balcetis offers tips for harnessing the quirks of perception to make it easier to finish what you started.

PT spoke with her about some of the strategies outlined in the book.

What do we get wrong about setting goals?

We often set goals that are almost impossible to meet—people decide to go from 0 to 100. In thinking about running a marathon, which a lot of goals can be likened to, you can’t come out at a sprinter’s pace and expect to sustain that pace for 26 miles.

If we set goals that are too hard, we lose the reward that comes with having accomplished something. But if we set goals that are too easy, there’s no motivation to meet them. Find the sweet spot where it’s moderately challenging and inspiring, but not impossible to achieve.

(c) Yulia Nar
Source: (c) Yulia Nar

What should we focus on to help sustain motivation?

In the middle of trying to achieve a goal, motivation can get murky and people don’t know what to do or what might work best for them. Should you look back on the progress that you’ve made or look forward at what you have left to do? Both are effective tactics, but you have to know when each works best.

Are you really committed to this cause or does it seem more perfunctory, a “have to do” rather than a “want to do"? If the goal is perfunctory and not core to your self-concept, looking back at past successes is more motivating. It signals that this is a goal you can finish. If the goal is core to who you are, looking forward at the work to come may be more motivating and inspiring.

A good example comes from research on charity donations. People who never donated to a particular charity before were assumed to be less committed, and people who had donated before were assumed to be more committed. When the goal was described as, “We’ve collected $5,000, half of what we’re hoping to get,” essentially looking back on past progress, it was motivating for people who had not yet donated but who were entertaining the possibility. When the goal was described as, “We only have $5,000 to go to get to our goal,” essentially looking forward at the work to come, it was more motivating for people who were committed to the cause.

What other strategies can help us keep on track?

It can be tricky to self-diagnose our progress and know whether we’re on track to achieve what we hope to. The brain is capable of distorting the truth in a way that might be helpful in the moment but unhelpful in the long run. For example, mistakes and failures may loom larger than successes—the negativity bias is really dominant.

Materializing can help. By materializing I mean making concrete what we’ve done, how much farther we have to go, and reviewing the data in full to accurately assess progress. I recommend literally writing your progress down or tracking it with an app, and then putting it in front of you.  

You apply that concept to an interesting example in your book. How can materializing influence voter turnout?

A common tactic is to ask people: “Do you plan on voting?” or “Are you going to vote tomorrow?” A lot of people say yes. But asking that taps into an abstract conception of yourself. Yes, voting could be important to you. But the challenge is translating that abstract goal into concrete action.

When researchers ask specific questions like, “How are you going to get to the voting station?” “When in the day are you going to go?” “What will you be doing before and after?” it makes concrete or vivid the plan to accomplish the goal. It provides an action plan, which increases voter turnout.

How can we avoid temptations that might derail our progress?

We act on the things that we see, which we might not realize in the moment. First, realize that the world is set up in a way that might provide temptations that we want to avoid. Being aware of that can help to curb automatic impulses. But that awareness is also a tool to structure our environment in a way that will increase the odds that we make choices that are better aligned with our goals.

Research across lots of health fields has found what marketers knew all along—that when you put products by the cash register where everyone will see them, it increases the odds that someone decides to grab one of those products, like a box of cigarettes. This is why some countries have implemented legislation to remove cigarettes from the point of sale, especially if younger people might see them. Australia has removed cigarettes from point of sale displays, and smoking rates among teens dropped dramatically within the first months and years of making that change.

What is wide-bracket thinking and how does it help accomplish long-term goals?

Goals are not accomplished through one-off opportunities or single moments. Instead, they require commitment over time, especially health and wellness goals. Any single action isn’t going to make or break the goal. If you make a choice that isn’t in line with your goals, like eating an ice cream sundae, it can be easy to compartmentalize. You might say, “It isn’t a big deal,” “It’s my treat day,” or “I deserve a reward.” It’s easy to rationalize it and forget it. But then we run the risk of repeating that behavior.

By using a wide bracket, or a wide frame, we can spot patterns in our behavior and make better choices in the future. If you’re tracking eating patterns over time, you might notice when your temptation to snack is the strongest. If you’re tracking exercise patterns, you might notice when you have time to exercise or when you scheduled classes that you didn’t end up attending.

How have you used this approach in your own life?

As a case study, I tracked my unintended expenses. I used an app that pinged me every four hours and asked me if I spent any money I didn’t intend to. I answered honestly, and then I downloaded the data after two weeks. I thought that I wouldn’t be splurging very much, because my day is busy and I rarely leave the office, so I’d have no opportunity to spend money.

But after downloading the data, I realized I did. It was on snacks, mostly when I walked my son to school in the morning and picked him up in the afternoon. When I tallied it up, it wasn’t going to break the bank, but it was a substantial enough amount of money that I would have much preferred to spend it on babysitters to get extra time or on exercise classes, which I would have gotten more out of then a fig-pecan bar loaded with calories that made me feel bad about myself 20 minutes later. Taking a step back and looking at small, in-the-moment choices helped me realize something about myself that I wasn’t aware of.

You set a personal goal of learning to play the drums. Did you find any of these strategies particularly helpful?

I tried out all of these tricks, and the takeaway is that there isn’t one strategy effective at every point for every individual. What’s important is to add tools to your psychological toolbox so that you have the ability to be flexible as your goals change. That will provide options to overcome challenges that hinder your ability to be your best self.