Have you ever started on a self-improvement program, but given up out of discouragement at your slow progress?
A recent study on consumer behavior may have the answer. Researchers Minjung Koo and Ayelet Fishbach studied people’s motivation to return to a coffee shop when they were given a loyalty card (one that is stamped or hole-punched with each purchase; e.g., buy 10 hot drinks, get one free).
They created loyalty cards that drew customers’ attention either to how many purchases they had already made, or how many they still needed to make to get the free item.
For example, in the images below, imagine that each set of stars represents your drink purchases. In the first image, assume that the three blue stars represent stamps. In the second image, the three blank stars represent hole-punches. Your attention is probably drawn more to the blue, rather than to the blank stars.
What the researchers found
When there were few purchases (e.g. 3 out of 10) people were more motivated to return to the coffee shop when their attention was drawn to the three completed purchases, as in the first image above, than to the seven remaining ones.
However, when the cards were almost full (e.g., 7 out of 10 purchases) people were more motivated to buy more drinks if their attention was drawn NOT to the purchases they had already made, but to the three remaining ones (the second image below) to reach their goal of a free drink.
In other words, motivation to take action was increased when people paid attention to the smaller number. The researchers call this the “small-area hypothesis.”
What does this have to do with New Year’s resolutions?
The small-area hypothesis makes sense when you are tracking your progress toward a goal, as is often the case with New Year’s resolutions. The lesson from this study is:
- If you are still a long way from reaching your goal, focus on how much progress you’ve made so far.
- If you are close to reaching your goal, focus on how much you have left.
In other words, focus on the smaller number.
Example #1: Suppose you’re on the treadmill, with a goal of covering three miles. You’re feeling kind of sluggish. You glance at the display and notice that you’ve reached the one-mile mark.
How you talk to yourself about this information can make a big difference. Which of the following self-statement do you think would give you more motivation to continue:
A. I’m already a third of the way there.
B. Still two thirds of the way to go.
Example #2: You’ve lost 8 lb, with the goal of 10 total. There’s a birthday cake in the break room at the office. You’ve managed to avoid unnecessary sugar for several weeks. Which of the following self-statements would better help you stick to your eating plan:
A. I’ve already lost 8 lb.
B. Just 2 more lb. to go.
Chances are that for both the above examples, focusing on the smaller number is more likely to keep you motivated.
Why this works:
We stay motivated not just by progress toward a goal, but by how much impact the next step will have. The greater the impact, the more motivated we are to continue.
Using the smaller number as a reference point gives you a mental boost of self-encouragement. If you’ve already run one mile, the next half mile is a 50% increase. But if you focus on the two miles left to go, a half mile is only 25% of that. Thus you’ll feel as if you are making more of a “dent” in your progress by focussing on the smaller number.
Whatever your resolution this year, if you can measure it and track it, pay more attention to how far you’ve come in the beginning of your journey. But as you cross the half-way point, keep your focus on what’s left to do.
If your journey is a long one – let’s say you intend to lose a lot of weight, or train for a marathon, or save a big chunk of money – break down your goal into intermediate steps. For each step, apply the small-area hypothesis, focusing on the smaller number during your progress.
… And please leave a comment to let us know if this helped.