Reducing temptations by setting better goals
By: Marina Milyavskaya
Everyone has goals that they strive towards. Whether it is to spend more time with family or eat less junk food, goals are ubiquitous in our day-to-day lives. However, despite the prevalence of goals, failures in self-regulation abound. You need only to look at the current epidemic of obesity and the parallel financial success of the diet industry to know that while many people have goals associated with weight loss and are sinking money into pursuing them, most are failing at these goals.
Although we set and pursue multiple goals simultaneously, some of these goals are more likely to be attained than others. So am I more likely to attain my goal of reading more, or of going to the gym three times a week? Decades of research on goal pursuit have shown that we are most likely to attain goals that are specific, measureable, and realistic1. We are also more likely to attain goals that are autonomous2. These are goals that we pursue because we genuinely enjoy them, or because they are personally important and meaningful - they are things that we truly want to do. Such want-to goals can be contrasted with have-to goals, which we pursue because we think we should – to fit in with others’ expectations, to mollify our spouse or our boss, or to satisfy our internal critic.
Although research has consistently demonstrated the benefits of want-to goals, it was not clear why people were more likely to attain such goals. When anyone considered the question, the most popular response was effort. Indeed, some research did show that people report putting more effort into want-to goals. For close to two decades, this finding was not challenged – it fit with the conventional thinking that the more effort we put into a goal, the more likely we are to attain it. The problem is that in many cases, such effort requires self-control. You try hard to resist a second helping of cake, or force yourself to focus on work instead of checking your twitter account. Unfortunately, most of us cannot maintain strict self-control in all areas of our lives all the time; we are bound to slip up. And, if our goal pursuit is solely dependent on this strict self-control, such slip-ups will drastically impede goal attainment.
But what is the alternative? If we relax our self-control, we may repeatedly overindulge and forfeit our goal. Or, we may find out that our experiences of competing desires are not all that strong. For example, you may find yourself having few cravings for chips or cake, and instead automatically reach for fruits and vegetables when you are hungry. That is how people who are good at self-control succeed at their goals3. And, as our recent research shows, it is more likely to happen when you pursue a want-to goal4.
In a series of studies, my colleagues and I found that people experienced fewer temptations and reported fewer obstacles that conflicted with want-to goals. For example, the more autonomous a person’s reasons for eating healthy, the more she automatically assessed healthy foods as pleasant and unhealthy foods as unpleasant. In a follow-up study, we asked people about three goals they were pursuing, and found that when people have a want-to goal, they experienced fewer and less problematic obstacles over the following six weeks. Another month and a half later, people were more likely to attain their want-to goals precisely because they experienced fewer obstacles. In another study, we looked at people’s experiences of desire in real time. Participants first told us about their goals, and later completed brief surveys throughout the day for a week when they received a message on their smartphone. In these surveys they reported experiences of desire, and whether these desires conflicted with each of their goals. We found that people experienced fewer desires and weaker temptations that conflicted with their want-to (compared to their have-to) goals.
So what does this all mean? Instead of solely relying on self-control, we can set our goals in such a way to minimize the control required. This involves creating good habits3, and also setting autonomous (want-to) goals. When we set such goals, we do not need to closely control ourselves in the face of imminent threats. If I signed up for kickboxing class for want-to reasons, I will not need to force myself to go to the class, and the alternative to stay at home and watch television will be less appealing. Goal pursuit can indeed be effortless – you just need to set the right goals!
1 Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American psychologist, 57(9), 705.
2 Sheldon, K. M., & Elliot, A. J. (1998). Not all personal goals are personal: Comparing autonomous and controlled reasons for goals as predictors of effort and attainment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24, 546–557. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0146167298245010
3 Gillebaart, M., & de Ridder, D. T. D. (2015). Effortless self-control: A novel perspective on response conflict strategies in trait self-control. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 9, 88–99. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12160
4 Milyavskaya, M., Inzlicht, M., Hope, N. & Koestner, R.(2015). Saying ‘No’ to temptation: ‘want-to’ motivation improves self-regulation by reducing temptation rather than by increasing self-control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000045
Marina Milyavskaya is an assistant professor at Carleton University. She studies goal pursuit and motivation, and is especially interested in understanding how people pursue and attain goals in their day-to-day lives (and not just in the lab). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and found on twitter @MarinaMilyav