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Monique Keiran: Focus on the experience, not on the goal

I elected to write about motivation for this week’s column. The editors approved. How timely, they said. Think of all the New Year’s resolutions made, by now quietly regretted but not yet abandoned.

I elected to write about motivation for this week’s column. The editors approved. How timely, they said. Think of all the New Year’s resolutions made, by now quietly regretted but not yet abandoned.

Many people who started 2014 fired up with enthusiasm and good intentions might just now be experiencing the first second thoughts about goals hastily set and commitments rashly made. They might be feeling the first hints of — ugh! not again! — regret and disappointment about persisting with those resolutions.

Right about now.

According to one online calendar of annual commemorative days, Friday was Ditch Your New Year’s Resolution Day.

Yet, while the ghosts of New Year’s resolutions soon-to-be-past stretch their guilt-lashing muscles, lace up their running shoes of remorse and tune their taunting laments, I find myself not writing.

Instead, I attend to tasks I’ve put off for weeks, spend far too long looking at the contents of the refrigerator, dip into my chocolate stash more often than usual, and — I’ll regret this — begin an entire new round of home renovations.

I do this, even though writing the piece will go quickly once I start, and I know I’ll feel happy when it’s finished. Even though the deadline looms, and all I have to show for my (non)efforts are increased stress, chocolate-fuelled blood-sugar levels and clean bathroom grout.

So, whence this procrastination?

One interesting recent bit of research on the subject suggests I’ve over-focused on my task’s outcomes: completing the column and feeling good for having done so. Researchers from the U.S. and Korea have found that, although thinking about the goals and outcomes of an activity tends to increase a person’s intention to engage in the activity, it might decrease how persistently he or she actually pursues it.

The researchers questioned about 100 students starting workout sessions at a gym. They asked half of the students to describe their goals. Responses included, for example, “I want to lose weight.” The researchers asked the other students to describe their workout experience. “First I stretch, then I warm up on the treadmill.”

But the students who were asked to focus on goals ended up exercising less than did students asked to describe the experience. Goal-focused students also later reported the experience of exercising required more effort, compared to what experience-focused students reported.

The researchers found similar results for other activities, including practising yoga, flossing teeth and doing origami.

They concluded that focusing on our goals might detract from the inherent pleasures of the activities we need to pursue to achieve those goals.

And, as we all know from bitter experience, when an activity seems unpleasant, it becomes that much harder to get motivated to start it, let alone stick with it.

Other research indicates rewards and penalties work only for simple, short-term tasks that don’t require much complex thought. In fact, those studies say the greater the reward offered, the less success that might result. Which means promising myself chocolate for finishing this column is counterproductive. (Besides, I already ate that reward.)

With regards to New Year’s resolutions, the online calendar I mention above recognizes that fits and starts are likely. Acknowledging we haven’t yet come to terms with the sometimes unrealistic nature of our good intentions, Sunday is Popcorn Day. Yes, it is officially a day to appreciate that low-fat, guilt-free food after we’ve blown our healthy-eating resolutions yesterday and today. Tomorrow, we start afresh.

However, our frail humanity and all-powerful, pleasure-seeking brain chemistry overcome all on Monday, the official Day of Acceptance.

Which allows us to look forward without guilt to Pie Day (Jan. 23) and Chocolate Cake Day (Jan. 27).

As for me, I’ve finally finished my column.