Having Trouble Staying Motivated? Science Unlocks a Possible Reason

By Tiffani Sherman
July 25, 2017

Research shows people — including physicians — travel through two stages while pursuing a goal. Understanding the process can help them stay the course. 

Have you meant to get that certification but never gotten around to it? Or have you started working toward a fellowship but lost interest? There might be a scientific reason for being good at starting things but not finishing them. Understanding the process could help you stay motivated and reach more goals.

 “As you go through goal pursuit, things tend to change; how you view them and represent them in your mind,” says Olya Bullard, PhD, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba. She is the lead author of a study about motivation published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

 During five experiments, her research team determined that people have two motivational systems: promotion-focused and prevention-focused. “In early stages, we need to engage one system, and in later stages, the other,” Bullard says.

olya bullard

Olya Bullard and her team determined that people have two motivational systems: promotion- and prevention-focused. The switch flips from the former to the latter automatically. | Naniece Ibrahim/University of Winnipeg.

 When we first make a goal for ourselves, we are promotion-focused, meaning we want to obtain positive things. During the later stages, we switch to being prevention-focused, meaning we want to avoid punishment and negative things like making mistakes.

“The attention switch happens naturally,” she says. “We use the reference point that is closer.”

 Losing weight is an example Bullard uses to explain her findings: In the beginning of a quest to lose 10 pounds, motivation may come from the idea of looking better, buying new clothes and having more energy. That leads to a fast start.

 “When we make progress toward our goals, we tend to assess goal progress,” Bullard says.

 For example, we see ourselves smaller and tell ourselves we’ve already lost 3 pounds. Eventually, there is a shift toward prevention-focused motivation. Instead of being happy we have lost 7 pounds, we’re looking at the fact we still have 3 to go.

 “Once you are over the hump at the midpoint, your motivation changes,” Bullard says. People begin to focus on what would happen if they can’t fit into a new piece of clothing or the possible embarrassment of not reaching a goal.

 The shift happens naturally, and understanding it can help the motivation continue. “Make a conscious effort to engage that system,” Bullard says, meaning make minor changes in how to think during the later stages. “Think about what you can avoid to help you reach your goals.”

 For example, tell yourself don’t sit too long instead of thinking you should go for a walk. “The action can be the same, but how you think about it can be the difference,” Bullard says.

 Another example, in the earlier prevention stage you tell yourself to eat a vegetable, but at the later stage it’s to avoid eating that cupcake.

 “People naturally change their reference points, but we don’t always change what we are doing,” Bullard says. “In order to stay motivated, you need to engage your prevention system to match how you view the goal.”

 It’s a different way of thinking for many of us because of how we were raised.

 “In North America, people are predominantly promotion-focused,” Bullard says. “The way our society works people tend to grow up with a stronger promotion system. We’re good at starting things.”

 That isn’t the case in Bullard’s native Russia, where people are more prevention-focused. Bullard says she has a difficult time starting tasks, including a recent deck-painting project, but once she starts, she has no trouble finishing. Some people who grew up with Asian influences also are more prevention-focused, Bullard says.

 There is little gray area for people who are more prevention-focused. “They either reached the goal or they didn’t,” Bullard says. If getting an A in a class was the goal, an A-minus is not reaching that goal. For more promotion-focused people, they will see that A-minus as better than a B.

 Neither system is superior, but knowing both is the key to staying motivated. “Just apply the means appropriate for your stage of goal pursuit and that creates a boost in motivation. Be mindful of switching to avoidance-based means,” Bullard says. “Switching how you think in later stages of avoidance mindset will create a fit with your view of the goal and boost motivation.”

 Bullard says the findings are generalized and can apply to many goals, including marketing, saving money, losing weight, getting a promotion or earning a higher education degree or fellowship.

 So, if motivation seems to run out early in the process of pursuing something like a degree, Bullard recommends focusing on going to class and studying often as possible. “When studying for an exam think about your goal of doing well on that exam in terms of getting a B is better than C, getting an A is better than B,” she says. If you do well, reward yourself with something positive, such as going out to dinner or buying a small present.

 Once past the halfway point, the motivation needs to change to avoidance and negative reinforcement. “For example, focus on not missing class and avoid skipping study sessions. When studying for an exam, set a goal in terms of a grade you want to get and try not to fall below that grade, treat anything below that grade as equally disappointing,” Bullard says.

 The reward also needs to shift to removing something negative from your routine, like skipping a chore.

 This kind of understanding can help keep you on the right track. “Everyone sets goals. The finding itself is so basic you can take it and use it depending on the relevance to you,” Bullard says. “Essentially goals drive our lives, so understanding this motivational switch will help people obtain these goals.”

 Tiffani Sherman is a freelance health care writer based in Florida.

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