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The Problem with Progress: Why Succeeding at Your Goals Can Sabotage Your Willpower

Are to-do lists perilous to your goals?

Most of us believe that making progress on our goals spurs us on to greater success. But some of the most fascinating research on goal achievement points to a dark side of progress. Psychologists have found that we are all too quick to use progress as an excuse for taking it easy.

For example, Ayelet Fishbach, a professor at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, and Ravi Dhar, a professor at the Yale School of Management, have shown that making progress on a goal motivates people to engage in goal-sabotaging behavior. That's right, the very act of recognizing their own success sets them up for failure. In one study, they reminded successful dieters of how much progress they had made toward their ideal weight. They then offered the dieters a thank-you gift of either an apple or a chocolate bar. 85% of the self-congratulating dieters chose the chocolate bar over the apple, compared to only 58% of dieters who were not reminded of their progress.

A second study found the same effect for academic goals: students made to feel good about the amount of time they had spent studying for an exam were more likely to spend the evening playing beer pong with friends.

Progress can cause us to abandon the goal we've worked so hard on because it shifts the power of balance between two competing goals. By definition, a willpower challenge involves a conflict. Part of you is thinking about your long-term interests (e.g., weight loss); the other part wants immediate gratification (chocolate!). In the moment of temptation, you need your higher self to argue louder than the voice of self-indulgence.

However, self-control success has an unintended consequence: it temporarily satisfies-and therefore silences-the higher self. When you make progress toward your long-term goal, your brain—with its mental checklist of many goals—turns off the mental processes that were driving you to pursue your long-term goal. It will then turn to its attention to the goal that has not yet been satisfied—the voice of self-indulgence. Psychologists call this goal liberation. The goal you've been suppressing with your self-control is going to become stronger, and any temptation will become more tempting.

In practical terms, this means that one step forward gives you permission to take two steps back. Setting up your automatic retirement investment may satisfy the part of you that wants to save, liberating the part of you that wants to shop. Getting your files organized may satisfy the part of you that wants to work, liberating the part of you that wants to watch the game on TV. You were listening to the angel on your shoulder, but now the devil seems so much more compelling.

Even the most trusty tool of goal pursuit, the To Do list, can backfire. Have you ever made a list of everything you need to do on a project, and then felt so good about yourself that you considered your work on that project done for the day? If so, you're not alone. Because it's such a relief to make that list, we mistake the satisfaction of identifying what needs to be done with actual effort toward our goals. (Or, as one of my students said, he loves productivity seminars because they make him feel so productive—never mind that nothing has been produced yet.)

Although it runs counter to everything we believe about achieving our goals, focusing on progress can hold us back from success. That's not to say that progress itself is a problem. The problem with progress is how it makes us feel—and even then, it's only a problem if we listen to the feeling instead of sticking to our goals. Progress can be motivating, and even inspire future self-control, but only if you view your actions as evidence that that you are committed to your goal. You need to look at what you have done and conclude that you must really care about your goal. So much so, that you want to do even more to reach to it. This perspective is easy to adopt; it's just not our usual mindset. More typically, we look for the reason to stop.

These two mindsets have very different consequences. When people who have taken a positive step toward meeting a goal-for example, exercising, studying, or saving money-are asked "How much progress do you feel you have made on your goal?", they are more likely to then do something that conflicts with that goal, like skip the gym tomorrow, hang out with friends instead of studying, or buy something expensive. In contrast, people who are asked "How committed do you feel to your goal?" are not tempted by the conflicting behavior. A simple shift in focus led to a very different interpretation of their own actions—"I did that because I wanted to," not "I did that, great, now I can do what I really want!"

How do you focus on commitment instead of progress? A study by researchers at Hong Kong University of Science and the University of Chicago provides one strategy. When they asked students to remember a time they turned down a temptation, 70% took the next opportunity to indulge. They rewarded their good behavior with a little indulgence. But when the researchers also asked the participants to remember why they had resisted, 69% resisted temptation.

Remembering the why works because it changes how you feel about the reward of self-indulgence. That so-called treat will start to look more like the threat to your goals that it is, and giving in won't look so good. Remembering the "why" will also help you recognize and act on other opportunities to accomplish your goal.

This blog post is an adapted excerpt from Chapter 4, "License to Sin: Why Being Good Gives Us Permission to Be Bad," of The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal, PhD (Penguin/Avery 2011).

Studies referenced:
1. Fishbach, A., and R. Dhar. "Goals as Excuses or Guides: The Liberating Effect of Perceived Goal Progress on Choice." Journal of Consumer Research 32 (2005): 370-77.
2. Fishbach, A., R. Dhar, and Y. Zhang. "Subgoals as Substitutes or Complements: The Role of Goal Accessibility." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 91 (2006): 232-42.
3. Mukhopadhyay, A., J. Sengupta, and S. Ramanathan. "Recalling Past Temptations: An Information-Processing Perspective on the Dynamics of Self-Control." Journal of Consumer Research 35 (2008): 586-99.

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