The mistake everyone (including you) makes when pursuing goals

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the key to willpower is learning to delay gratification.

The marshmallow test is the iconic example: Kids who can avoid the temptation to eat a marshmallow, in exchange for two marshmallows later, do better socially and academically later in life.

But this universal truth may actually be an alternative fact. We get a bigger boost to willpower when we think about short-term benefits rather than long-term benefits, according to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Kaitlin Woolley, a doctoral candidate in behavioral science at the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business and Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing also at Booth.

Woolley and Fishbach conducted five surveys involving a total 449 people who included students, museum visitors, and gym visitors. The researchers asked respondents about how well they stick to their goals and what kinds of short- and long-term benefits they experience related to those goals.

Woolley and Fishbach found that respondents overestimated the degree to which long-term benefits would help them stick to their goals. In fact, the people who were most likely to stay on track for their goals were those who experienced short-term benefits.

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The trend held across a variety of different types of goals. For example, people working out at the gym who focused on having fun spent more time exercising than those who were not thinking about having fun, even if they focused on long-term benefits like better health. Similarly, people who like the taste of vegetables eat more of them than people who don't like the taste but know they're important for being healthy.

Based on additional research involving 800 students and adults, Woolley and Fishbach suggest three strategies to help harness the power of short-term benefits to achieve your long-term goals:

  1. Find a task or environment you enjoy and incorporate that into your plan for achieving your goal. For example, to improve your diet, focus on the healthy foods you find tasty rather than forcing yourself to eat food you don't like.
  2. Look for ways to make working toward your goal more fun. For example, students study longer if they listen to music, eat snacks, and use colored pens.
  3. Focus on the ways that working toward your goal is fun in the short term. For example, people eat more of a healthy food when they think about how good it tastes, rather than how healthy it is.

(Fishback/Woolley, Harvard Business Review, 4/26).

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