This Might Torpedo Your Goal-Setting

Are your goal-setting efforts just not getting you there? Are you setting goals, only to realize you underestimated what it would take to execute on them? New research has zeroed in on what may be torpedoing your goal-setting efforts.

Goals. We’re told from our earliest ages that we need to have them if we want to be successful at anything. The very act of setting an alarm is a reflection of a goal to arise at a specific time. If you pulled that off this morning, congratulations! Goal achieved.

Without well-crafted goals, most people become what legendary sales guru Zig Ziglar used to call “wandering generalities.” Just meandering through life hoping something good happens. Yeah, about that.

In my world, goals matter. My clients set them and we craft plans to achieve them. But I’ve always noticed that some people can stick to their goals and the plans that come from them even when the going gets tough. Others quit on their goals as soon as the effort required to achieve them rises to a certain level.

Now, science has backed up my observations. A team at Queen Mary University of London has published the findings of a study that sheds light on why people often set unrealistic goals that have no shot of being realized and why others set goals and then fall off the path before reaching the brass ring.

Published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research, the study looks at the complicated link between perceived rewards and the efforts required to achieve them. They have pinpointed two important stages in the decision-making process connected to goal-setting and goal-achieving.

Apparently, when you first decide to go after something, your brain focuses strongly on the rewards to be gained. This drives the decision-making early on and leads to the inevitable excitement of the early stages of desire and effort.

As you begin to chase those goals, something else happens that is a bit less magical. You put your plans into action and begin to realize something. The work of achieving your goal is hard. You’ve got to put the work in.

Suddenly, your focus shifts. Your laser focus on the rewards begins to get clouded by the grit of the effort needed to gain them. But what if you flipped that script?

The scientists suggest that the key to goals you will achieve is to think about what you’ll need to do to achieve them first. Then, think about the rewards and attach them to the work. That way, when it comes time to roll up your sleeves and “git ‘r’ done,” you’ll be ready and focused on what matters.


You see, a strict focus on the rewards at the start of any goal-achievement journey will tend to set you up to experience only the joy of winning. That can torpedo your goals when it’s time to work hard.

How did the research team figure this out? To dig in on the connection between effort and reward, they set up two experiments, one involving mental effort and one physical.

On the physical side, they had participants squeeze a joystick to gain financial reward. On the mental, simple math equations were solved, again for financial gain.

The participants were offered different options, all with different linkages between level of effort and level of reward. High or low effort was connected with high or low financial reward in a variety of ways. The study participants were asked to choose from among the combinations.

When choosing their options, the participants chose most often based on the level of the financial reward. However, when it came time to execute, their through-put performance was actually determined by the degree of difficulty to complete the task. The results were similar for both physical and mental tasks.

Dr Agata Ludwiczak, a Research Fellow from Queen Mary University of London and lead author of the study, said: “Common sense suggests the amount of effort we put into a task directly relates to the level of reward we expect in return. However, building psychological and economic evidence indicates that often high rewards are not enough to ensure people put in the effort they need to achieve their targets.

“We have found that there isn’t a direct relationship between the amount of reward that is at stake and the amount of effort people actually put in. This is because when we make choices about what effort to put in, we are motivated by the rewards we expect to get back. But at the point at which we come to actually do what we had said we would do, we focus on the level of effort we have to actually put in rather than the rewards we hoped we would get.”

Dr Osman, Reader in Experimental Psychology at Queen Mary, said: “If we aren’t careful our plans can be informed by unrealistic expectations because we pay too much attention to the rewards. Then when we face the reality of our choices, we realize the effort is too much and give up. For example, getting up early to exercise for a new healthy lifestyle might seem like a good choice when we decide on our new year’s resolutions, but once your alarm goes off on a cold January morning, the rewards aren’t enough to get you up and out of bed.”

In other words, the goal looks amazing and you can “feel” how awesome the reward will be at the beginning. Once the work begins, though, things change in your brain and you begin to focus on the less pleasant elements of achieving any goal – the work.

Don’t let a hyper-focus on the rewards torpedo your goals. Be clear about the amount of work it will take to achieve a goal. If all you ever do is “blue sky” your goals, getting down and dirty to achieve them is likely to derail your efforts and crush your dreams.

Keep the faith and keep after it!

Related Content –
The Factors That Predict Success
Goals Are Great, But…
Your Fitness Is More Than Just Physical, It’s A State Of Mind: Study

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Material Source – Queen Mary University of London

Journal Reference – Agata Ludwiczak, Magda Osman, Marjan Jahanshahi. Redefining the relationship between effort and reward: Choice-execution model of effort-based decisions. Behavioural Brain Research, 2020; 383: 112474 DOI: 10.1016/j.bbr.2020.112474

One thought on “This Might Torpedo Your Goal-Setting

  1. My father asked me once when I was young what was most important: the result or the process. I said the process. He said I was wrong. I wasn’t. It’s about learning to love the process and leaving the result to what it is. A great scene in 28 Days with Sandra Bullock where Viggo Mortenson (sp) is trying to teach her to pitch the ball at a big mattress target. She completely missed it. He told her she needed to concentrate on how she held the ball, her grip, her delivery, her weight, where she stepped — all process. Once the ball leaves your hand, he told her, you have no control over it. That is the secret to life right there. And if you don’t love the process, find something where you do… Lots of the same ideas in The Legend Baggar Vance that the critics and powers that be decided was a bad movie. Probably a bunch of people who aimed for a particular “result.”

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