We generally assume that if we face too many obstacles while pursuing a goal, it takes a toll on our motivation levels. However, a new study published in the Journal of Research in Personality turns this logic on its head, suggesting that it is actually your motivation that determines the number and difficulty of obstacles you face.
“When pursuing a goal and trying to change behavior, most people have great intentions. But often those intentions don’t translate into action,” says psychologist Marina Milyavskaya of Carleton University in Canada.
According to Milyavskaya, any temptation that stands in the way of you attaining your goals constitutes an obstacle. For example, junk food is an obstacle when your goal is to eat healthy and cell phones and other distractors are obstacles when your goal is to study or work.
But this is where it gets complicated. Milyavskaya explains that obstacles (and their level of difficulty) can be perceived differently by different people. People’s personalities, the type of goal they are trying to achieve, the strength of their desire (etc.) are all factors that play a part in determining our perception and relationship toward obstacles.
Another important factor, according to Milyavskaya’s study, is our type of motivation. The study distinguishes between two different kinds of motivation we experience while pursuing a goal:
- Want-to motivation represents our internal motivation — doing something because it’s personally important to us, it’s interesting, or it fits well with our values.
- Have-to motivation, on the other hand, involves behaviors that we feel like we should be doing, either because someone else requires or expects it of us or because we would feel guilty if we didn’t do those behaviors.
Milyavskaya and her team conducted seven studies testing participants’ motivation levels by assigning them different tasks and exposing them to various temptations (like pizza during a boardroom meeting).
They found that people who showed want-to motivation — that is, people who did the tasks with feelings of personal interest — consciously placed themselves away from obstacles, thus making the goal-attainment easier on themselves. The opposite was true for people who were functioning with have-to motivation.
This means that goal pursuit is not about being extraordinarily strong. Instead, it’s about knowing the things that make us weak and keeping a safe distance from them.
How does this solve the motivation problem? Milyavskaya gives two small suggestions to help tackle the unavoidable problem of doing things because we have to do them. Instead of groaning your way through such a task every single time, we can try to generate ‘want-to’ motivation by:
- Thinking about how the task fits into your values and identity. We reframe it as something that is more of a want-to. Maybe I value being a conscientious worker so completing that dreaded project report fits in with this value. Or, I want to eventually become a veterinarian so doing my math homework is important to accomplish that goal.
- Making it more enjoyable in the moment. Pair it with something else that is fun or enjoyable, such as listening to music or having a tasty treat.
“If you find you are pursuing a goal for have-to reasons, then you are more likely to struggle with that goal,” she says in conclusion. “Perhaps it’s worth replacing that goal with a goal that is more personally meaningful or important? Or, can you find more want-to reasons for that same goal instead.”
A full interview with psychologist Marina Milyavskaya discussing her research can be found here: New psychological research shows how to trade weak motivation for strong motivation