Will specific steps help you reach your goals?

We’ve all done it: set a goal or resolution, then felt enthusiastic and committed to achieving it...for about a week, after which life returns to normal and the budgeting workbook or the fancy gym clothes lay forgotten in the corner.

We’ve all done it: set a goal or resolution, then felt enthusiastic and committed to achieving it…for about a week, after which life returns to normal and the budgeting workbook or the fancy gym clothes lay forgotten in the corner.

We’ve all done it: set a goal or resolution, then felt enthusiastic and committed to achieving it…for about a week, after which life returns to normal and the budgeting workbook or the fancy gym clothes lay forgotten in the corner. However, according to a new study, the reason we fail to accomplish certain goals is not because we’re too lazy to track our spending or go to the gym. Rather, it’s because we’re giving ourselves too much flexibility in the pursuit of that goal.

In the study in the Journal of Consumer Research, authors Ying Zhang, Szu-Chi Huang and Liyin Jin found that people who need to complete a specific series of steps to attain a goal have a higher degree of goal-completion than people who have a goal and are told they can pursue it in any way they want. In one experiment, for instance, participants were to go to a frozen yogurt store offering a buy six, get two free yogurt deal. Half the participants could buy the different flavors of yogurt in any order they chose (but had to buy six different flavors); the other group had to buy the yogurt in a set order of flavors. Zhang and his co-authors found that 41.7 percent of people in the fixed-flavor-order group completed the challenge, while just 26.7 percent of people in the flexible-flavor group hit the six-purchase goal.

“We think flexibility will help us, but no. It’s really a mentality difference,” Zhang explains. “You switch from ‘doing’ mentality to ‘thinking’ mentality. You’re thinking, debating, which one should go first,” instead of just doing the task, he says.

Zhang acknowledges that it’s counterintuitive, but the less choice we have when doing a series of tasks in pursuit of a goal, the more likely we’ll be to achieve that goal. Taking the choice out of the equation means we can leave more brain space to just doing what we’re supposed to do.

“[A rigid schedule is] something that helps you avoid distraction. If you have a goal, you want to focus. You want your mind to be attuned to things that will help you achieve the goal,” he says. “Deciding, ‘oh I’ll do this first,’ does not help you. By taking that out of the process… you’ll be less likely to be distracted.”

The study did find that requiring people to complete a task in a fixed order can make fewer people want to do that task (in the yogurt example, 12 percent of participants adopted the fixed-flavor challenge, compared to 30 percent who accepted the flexible-flavor challenge), which Zhang thinks is particularly interesting because it provides insight into what motivates people — and how what motivates someone to start pursuing a goal might not be the best motivation to help them actually accomplish that goal.

“Generally people talk about motivation as if it’s something that’s very static. ‘I want to look good so I’ll go on a diet,’” he reports. “The assumption for many years is that if something can motivate someone to do something, it can motivate someone to finish something. But from my perspective, that is not right. … Something can motivate you to start something, but it cannot guarantee you to finish it.”

While instituting different motivations throughout a journey and keeping to a strict schedule or plan are two excellent ways to increase your odds of accomplishing a goal, Zhang says there’s one more important thing to keep in mind when trying to accomplish a task: get over being told you need to keep to that strict schedule. “We hate when we’re being dictated to or asked to do something. But even if you don’t like it, it will help you a lot,” he says. “Trust me, if the end result is what you desire, follow [a set plan]. It’s much better to have a plan.”

Jean Chatzky

About Jean Chatzky

Jean Chatzky, the financial editor for NBC’s TODAY show, is an award-winning personal finance journalist, AARP’s personal finance ambassador, and a contributing editor for Fortune magazine. Jean is a best-selling author; her eighth and most recent book is Money Rules: The Simple Path to Lifelong Security. She believes knowing how to manage our money is one of the most important life skills for people at every age and has made it her mission to help simplify money matters, increasing financial literacy both now and for the future. In April 2013 Jean launched Jean Chatzky's Money School , a series of college-style, interactive online personal finance courses that give men and women across the country the opportunity to learn from and interact directly with her. Jean lives with her family in Westchester County, New York.
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