We once talked with a work-life balance researcher who advocated breaking big work projects into manageable, bite-sized pieces in order to stay on task and get more done, making the time you do spend on the job more productive and hopefully leading you toward a more successful and lucrative career.
In our personal lives, we’re taught to accomplish goals much the same way. Want to lose 30 pounds? Try for two, then another two, then another two, and so on. Want to be able to do 100 push-ups? Start by doing one really good push-up and work from there. Want to quit smoking? Get yourself down to a couple cigarettes a day, then one, then, eventually, zero.
But this piece-meal approach to achieving goals is only effective for so long, new research has uncovered. As you get closer to achieving your goal—whatever it is—you might find yourself needing to change your thinking and your strategy.
Once you near the finish line, it’s better to think about the end goal rather than the next stop along the way, found the research team of Szu-chi Huang, an assistant professor of marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business, by studying the behavior of students and workers in a series of experiments.
“When you are just starting a pursuit, feeling reassured that it’s actually doable is important, and achieving a sub-goal increases that sense of attainability,” Huang said to the university.
But once you’ve been making progress for a while, you want to start feeling that what you’re doing is still pushing you toward what you initially set out to do. Without that feeling of reaching the end, you’re liable to lose motivation and run out of steam.
“At that point, to avoid coasting and becoming distracted, they need to focus on that final goal to see value in their actions,” Huang said.
Think about yourself at the beginning of high school or college. At that point, you might have worried that you wouldn’t make it through the four years to the other side. Maybe, rather than focusing on graduation, you just tried to pass every exam you had to take, breaking a bigger goal into smaller, more manageable chunks.
Taking your degree one exam at a time is one way to tackle it, but near the end of those four years, you might experience a senior slump. You’re no longer worried about passing your classes—you’ve been doing that for a while now. But you still have a semester to go. How do you make sure you get there? After all, even if you’re close to achieving a goal—like graduating—you still need to actually do it for it to count.
At that point, Huang would argue, you need to remember what you originally set out to do. That change in perspective will propel you across the finish line.
“What motivates people changes, so the structure of the goal should change accordingly,” she said.