It’s the end of January, which probably means you’ve already forgotten about your New Year’s resolutions. That’s ok. I’m here to help with today’s annoying overly simple trick for getting past a psychological hurdle you are facing. Want to achieve that goal you’ve given up on? Move the finish line closer. Really!
I’m exaggerating, but only a little. As people (and animals) get closer to the finish line, they naturally exert more energy. The kick-towards-the-finish-line phenomenon has withstood nearly 100 years of testing. It’s known as the Goal-Gradient Effect among social scientists. And it really is something new that might help you achieve your New Year’s goals, even if you’ve suffered the dreaded “goal release” already.
PeopleScience.com recently asked me to examine Goal Gradient for my Know Your Nuggets series. This one is both fun and helpful. As always, there are caveats. You’ll have to read ’til the end to see them.
Before I get to the excerpt, don’t overlook the more traditional keep-your-goals advice, which I’ve covered in previous stories, and in my book, The Plateau Effect — things like set specific, not vague goals; set small, not large goals; be sympathetic, don’t be a perfectionist; and join a group for accountability and motivation.
But if you’ve tried all that, consider this, from my Goal Gradient story:
Move the finish line closer. That’s not cheating. It’s motivating. Turns out there’s something radically inspiring about the words, “You’re almost done.”
In laboratory experiments, humans reliably exert more energy when a goal is nearly reached, and appearances matter — a lot. Rajesh Bagchi at Virginia Tech and Amar Cheema and the University of Virginia had interview subjects sustain grip a hand dynamometer for 130 seconds. Those shown a countdown clock squeezed harder as the 130-second mark approached than those who couldn’t tell how much time was left.
The phenomenon has been repeated in multiple commercial contexts, too. Coffee shops that offer a free drink after 10 purchases see greater returnswhen they offer consumers loyalty cards with 12 empty circles, but two “credits” already applied. In fact, other research has shown that as caffeine lovers approached their free gift, as the card starts to fill up, they accelerate their rate of purchase. Similar research on free car washes showed the same result. (Editor’s note: These examples also show the effect of Endowed Progress.)
Other projects show that consumers are more likely to donate to charitable causes when they’re told the fund-raising goal is almost reached. For some reason, the donation feels more valuable or impactful when it might be the one that puts the charity over the top. In one experiment, contributions doubled when consumers were told a charity was more than two-thirds of the way towards its goal vs. less than one-third along the way.