Succeeding at goals may sabotage willpower

TL;DR: Making progress on a goal motivates people to engage in goal-sabotaging behavior. When reminded of how much progress one’s made toward a dieting or studying goal, one is more likely to indulge.  The solution is to focus less on how you feel about progress but more on how committed you are toward the goal. Rather than focusing on a successful incident of resisting temptation, remember why you turned it down in the first place (“I’m a dedicated person”).

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!). 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.

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.


One thought on “Succeeding at goals may sabotage willpower

  1. mindcolor says:

    Even visualizing reaching a goal can decrease motivation to realize it and succeed. When we imagine having reached what we want, our brains fall for the trick. Source:

    (But perhaps visualizing a desired physiological or behavioural state would be helpful in achieving that state? e.g. walking into a room with confidence)

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