Every night before bed, I make a to-do list for myself. I write down all of the things I know I have to do the next day so they don’t get lost in the shuffle, and it generally works out fine. I do the things and I cross them off. Except for one bullet point. Inspired by a co-worker’s sagely advice, I’ll usually include something like: “Wake up an hour early and write at least 500 words.”
I get to cross off this to-do almost never.
A new study from researchers at Queen Mary University of London, published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research, suggests a reason for my perennial, self-inflicted failure. I’m too focused on the reward (having written) and not focused enough on the effort (waking up and writing).
In the study, researchers presented participants with a form of physical effort, squeezing a joystick, and a form of mental effort, solving mathematical equations. They were also presented with combinations of high or low effort and high or low financial rewards and asked to choose which they wanted to attempt.
The study found that although participants typically chose high effort and high financial reward, ultimately their performance depended not on their desire for that reward but instead on the amount of effort they had to expend.
In a press release about the study, Dr. Agata Ludwiczak, the lead author, said, “We have found that there isn’t a direct relationship between the amount of reward that is at stake and the amount of effort people put in.” She says this is because when we choose what goals to attempt, we’re motivated by their rewards; but when it comes time to actually do them, we’re stymied by the effort they take.
Dr. Osman, co-author of the study, said in the same press release, “If we aren’t careful our plans can be informed by unrealistic expectations because we pay too much attention to the rewards. Then when we face the reality of our choices, we realize the effort is too much and give up.” She suggests this explains why so many New Year’s resolutions are abandoned once it becomes time to actually, ah, do them.
Their suggestion is to be mentally aware of the effort your goal will take when setting out to achieve it, rather than focus on the reward. Then, only when you’re in the middle of the effort, you should attempt to propel yourself forward with thoughts of the prize at the end.
Will this knowledge help me get out of bed an hour earlier and write 500 words? Well. We’ll see tomorrow.