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3 Ways to Overcome Obstacles and Achieve Your Goals

Research examines why some people encounter fewer obstacles during goal pursuit.

Key points

  • Sometimes people pursue goals that reflect their interests (“want-to motivation”) and sometimes only because they should (“have-to motivation”).
  • Have-to motivation is related to preference for settings with obstacles more numerous or placed closer to the person.
  • Want-to motivation and self-control are related to preference for settings with obstacles less numerous or placed farther away.
Source: juliana-maria85/Pixabay

Why is it, have you ever wondered, that certain goals are very difficult to achieve? Is it because you don’t want to pursue these goals but have to? And is that challenging because you lack discipline and self-control?

Or does the answer have to do with your perception of obstacles—seeing obstacles as acute, numerous, insurmountable, and so on?

A recent paper provides some answers. Let me first introduce a few concepts before I discuss the paper, which was written by Leduc-Cummings and collaborators and published in the August issue of Journal of Research in Personality.

Want-to motivation, have-to motivation, and self-control

Sometimes people pursue a goal that reflects their interests, preferences, desires, and values. This means they have want-to motivation. For instance, a person very interested in getting fit will likely have high want-to motivation—to exercise, learn about exercise routines, diets, supplements, etc.

Other times, people pursue a goal because of pressures and expectations. For example, if a person has no interest in getting fit but is told she must lose weight for health reasons, then she has greater have-to motivation than want-to motivation for working out.

Another concept related to goal pursuit is self-control.

Self-control refers to the capacity to bring one’s responses in line with valued goals. Self-control is often associated with self-discipline, willpower, and the ability to remain patient and reject short-term pleasures for long-term benefits.

An important question is whether people high in self-control are good at resisting temptation or if they experience fewer temptations in the first place.

Previous research indicates that many people who are successful at self-control engage in effortless self-regulation, which means they encounter fewer temptations. Why?

Possibly because they select relatively obstacle-free environments or modify their setting to reduce distractions, temptations, or competing goals (e.g., turning off the phone while studying). Or because they perceive fewer difficulties in the first place. For instance, athletes may not see cold weather as a barrier to outdoor exercise.

These possibilities were tested in the experiments described below.

Investigating trait self-control, motivation, and obstacles

In seven investigations, Leduc-Cummings et al. explored “the relationship between motivation (want-to and have-to) and trait self-control, and the preferred (Studies 1-3a-b) or actual (Studies 4-6) positioning of obstacles in the environment.”

In Studies 3a-b and 4, they additionally examined “the relation between motivation (want-to and have-to), trait self-control, and the subjective perception of obstacles, and compare[d] it to the relation with the preferred positioning of obstacles.”

They used two types of samples (students and MTurk workers), two goal domains (school success, healthy eating), and three settings (real life, laboratory, Internet).

  • Study 1: Participants were asked to imagine scenarios involving obstacles to healthy eating.
  • Study 2: Similar to the previous investigation, but the goal was school success.
  • Studies 3a and 3b: The scenarios once again involved eating healthy, in addition to subjective perception of obstacles.
  • Study 4: This was a field study (library) on actual obstacles to school success.
  • Studies 5 and 6: In-lab situations involving obstacles to the goal of eating healthy.


The results showed that “want-to motivation and trait self-control were related to people setting up their environments in such a way that reduces the experience of obstacles, while have-to motivation was associated with setting up obstacles closer to the self.”

For example, people who were forced to diet had placed, probably automatically and without conscious intent, the bags of chips and cookies on the lower shelves in the pantry, which means these unhealthy snacks were within reach.

Furthermore, “have-to motivation was associated with perceiving obstacles as being more problematic, whereas trait self-control was associated with perceiving obstacles as less problematic.”

Finally, “when comparing the effects of motivation on preferences for positioning the obstacles and on subjective perception, results showed that the relation with perceptions were stronger for have-to motivation, but not different for want-to motivation.”

Source: Pavel-Jurca/Pixabay

Enhancing or sabotaging our efforts to reach a goal

As important as willpower is for successful goal pursuit, research findings show that our environment is important too.

The research reviewed concluded that self-control and want-to motivation (pursuing a goal that is interesting or desirable) are associated with an inclination toward choosing environments with a smaller number of obstacles and with putting more distance between oneself and obstacles.

For instance, if you really want to eat healthy, you are less likely to walk by candy stores or vending machines on the way home from work. And, at home, you place healthier foods closer and unhealthy foods, like candies or ice cream, out of the way.

In contrast, have-to motivation (internal pressures, external demands, “shoulds”) is associated with a predilection toward environments with a larger number of obstacles or with putting less distance between oneself and obstacles.

To illustrate, if you are reading a challenging book only because you have to (reading it for a mandatory class), you may unconsciously have the TV on in the background or a favorite comic book nearby.

Needless to say, in the long run, having mixed feelings and ambivalence toward a goal can have negative consequences, leading to more self-sabotage and even disengagement from the goal.


We all struggle with self-motivation, especially for certain tasks. (This post offers strategies on how to motivate yourself to do chores you hate doing.)

But effective self-control is not so much about resisting temptations as it is about reducing the likelihood or the experience of temptation. How? This may involve setting better and more authentic goals, developing healthy habits, and using situational and perceptual strategies discussed today. In summary, you can use three techniques to achieve your goal:

  1. Situation selection strategies. Examples: working out at the gym instead of at home; avoiding the candy aisle in the grocery store.
  2. Situation modification strategies. Examples: using smaller plates to eat less; putting on noise-canceling headphones when studying in a noisy environment.
  3. Perception modification strategies. These include techniques involving attentional deployment, cognitive reappraisal, and mindfulness. To illustrate, here is a mindfulness technique to reduce chocolate cravings.
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