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Approaching Success, Avoiding the Undesired: Does Goal Type Matter?

Approaching success or avoiding the undesired: Does goal type matter?

Approach-oriented goals involve reaching or maintaining desired outcomes. Avoidance goals focus on avoiding or eliminating undesired outcomes. Although both types of goals are common in our lives and both are functional, one goal-type is associated with more happiness than the other. I also think that there's something to learn about procrastination here.

Almost anything can be framed as an approach or avoidance goal. For example, I could frame an approach goal as "make my house sparkle" (because I like it that way), or "vacuum, dust and scrub the floors today" (to avoid being criticized again). I could head to the gym “to stay strong and fit”, or “to avoid heart disease.”

Andrew Elliot and Ken Sheldon have pioneered a great deal of research about approach and avoidance goals. Their research indicates that the pursuit of a greater number of avoidance goals is related to:

  • less satisfaction with progress and more negative feelings about progress with personal goals,
  • decreased self-esteem, personal control and vitality,
  • less satisfaction with life, and
  • feeling less competent in relation to goal pursuits.

It seems obvious that avoidance goals are not the goals on which we make a great deal of progress, and they don't lead us to a "happy place" ☺ In fact, Matt Dann and I think avoidance goals are more likely to be related to procrastination, and he's conducting research exploring just this hypothesis.

As we wait for the outcome of his study, I can share an anecdote relating avoidance goals and task aversiveness to procrastination in my own life.

Two-hundred toenails
I have a small team of sled dogs, 11 dogs in my kennel. Of course, this means a lot of daily care. I have many daily goals related to my dogs. Some of these are approach goals, particularly around getting them out on the trail. Some of the goals are avoidance goals, such as scooping "poop" (and lots of it) to avoid . . . well you figure it out.

One of the avoidance goals associated with my dog care is nail trimming. It's an avoidance goal for me because the purpose of this procedure is to avoid split nails and stressed feet (among other things). It also happens to be one of the most aversive tasks that I face. Not all dogs like having their feet handled for nail trimming, even when they accept booties with ease.

Of course, 11 dogs with 18 nails per dog (give or take a few without dew claws) means that I have nearly 200 nails to trim. And, while a few of my dogs will lie patiently presenting their feet gently as if in for a manicure, others remind me of a high school wrestling match, except this opponent has teeth (which is why a muzzle may be involved). I digress.

Toe nail trimming for me is an avoidance goal, it's aversive, and I put it off. The trouble is, putting it off is the worst thing I could do, as the nails get too long. There is an obvious cost to this procrastination. So what's the solution?

Tips for beating procrastination
A key lesson from the approach-avoidance motivation literature is that I might benefit by reframing the toenail trimming goal. Rather than thinking of avoiding split nails and foot injuries, I could think about this aspect of dog care as reaching or maintaining optimum health and fitness. Certainly, anything I can do to reduce the avoidance goals in my life wouldn't hurt.

In the end, I take an eclectic approach to reduce my procrastination.

  1. I work at reframing the goal from avoidance to approach as noted above.
  2. I make an implementation intention to act on a specific day at a specific time.
  3. I focus on the positive and the progress I make with each nail and each dog.
  4. I don't give in to feel good (i.e., give up until another day) when a particularly reluctant dog makes the task difficult.

Taken together these strategies work, and once I "just get started," I feel great about getting the job done.

I think each of us faces "two-hundred toenails" in different ways everyday.

Elliot, A. J. & Friedman, R. (2007). Approach-avoidance: A central characteristic of personal goals. In B. R. Little, K. Salmela-Aro, & S. D. Phillips (Eds.), Personal project pursuit: Goals, actions, and human flourishing (pp. 97-118). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Elliot, A. J. & Sheldon, K. M. (1997). Avoidance achievement motivation: A personal goals analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 171-185.

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