With summer approaching, many people will be embarking on new goals such as graduating from university with a good degree or losing some weight before an upcoming holiday. While we always start our goals with the best intentions, we often find that our motivation to continue fades over time. Researchers from the University of Manitoba in Canada, however, have recently offered a possible explanation for this; claiming that our source of motivation changes as we progress towards our goal.
Their study further explored the theory of Regulation Focus originally proposed by Higgins in 1997. This theory states that there are two main drivers of motivation: promotion-focused or prevention-focused. Those whose goals are promotion-focused are driven to pursue their goals by hopes, aspirations and ideals of the future (getting a good degree). Those who are prevention-focused are influenced by a sense of duty, responsibility or obligation to something in the present (getting into that bikini). What the researchers in Canada found, is that an individual’s motivation and psychological states do not remain constant while working towards their goals. In fact, the researchers found that individuals will change their motivational drives from promotion-focused to prevention-focused half-way towards achieving their end goal.
At first glance, this may seem like another psychological theory that seems irrelevant to everyday life. However, it’s not hard to find everyday examples of this theory in practice, the obvious example coming from today’s dietary and fitness crazes. Fitness, activity and diet trackers – available through various technology wrist-bands, watches and phone apps – allow us to track and visualise our goal’s progress.
Initially, we are motivated by aspirations of becoming fitter and healthier (promotion-focused) and are encouraged by looking at the total number of steps increasing throughout the day, and seeing how many calories this has burned. Over time, however, this is not enough, our motivation changes. Instead, we may become motivated by a responsibility to obtain a minimum number of daily steps or to achieve a higher count than the previous day. This motivation can lead us into choosing to go for a walk after dinner, instead of watching TV, in order to ensure we reach our minimum number of total steps that day (prevention-focused).
So, how can these findings help us achieve our goals and stay motivated?
One of the main applications of these findings is the benefit of trying different motivational strategies and being more aware of what drives us to achieve our goals. When setting goals, we should also identify our reasons for trying to achieve them; are we motivated by the thought of future change (promotion-focused)?
Or are we driven by the desire to avoid or resist something (prevention-focused)?
As well as monitoring and reassessing our goal progression, it may be beneficial to also reassess our motivators. Most fitness and dietary apps enable this process through a ‘Notes’ sections, where users can record any changes in drive. Similarly, if you’re currently working towards a goal but feel your progress is fizzling, perhaps you could take some time to reassess your different drives and change your motivational style, which may help you get back on track.
Marios Adamou is a professor of psychiatry based in Yorkshire, England