How Not to Give Up on Your Goals

Have you set goals but then didn't put in enough effort to achieve them? Even when the goal was important to you? If you're wondering why, two new research studies may have the answer. And it's not visualization!

​Key Takeaway

When people set goals, they're driven by the anticipated reward. But when it comes to working on them, they're driven by the effort required, which is where they often fail. And knowing when a task is going to end also makes us work faster and more accurately.

There are simple lifestyle changes that we can make to reduce our risk of dementia and disability in later life. These include managing blood pressure controlling cholesterol, keeping blood sugar normal, getting physically active, eating a healthy diet, losing extra weight, quitting smoking, maintaining social relationships, and managing depression and hearing loss.

The neuroscience and psychological and behavioural economics research differ on what drives us in pursuing our goals. The neuroscience literature says that the effort we put into a goal is driven by the reward. But, the psychological and behaviour economics research says that, when putting in the effort, we're driven by the demands of the task and reward plays little or no role.

To reconcile these two literatures and get to the bottom of what really drives us to work on our goals, in this first study, researchers from Queen Mary University of London asked participants to complete simple math problems or squeeze a hand grip. Before each trial, they had to choose between high (15 or 30 pence per trial) and low (5 or 10 pence per trial) rewards. These reward were combined with high and low effort. Not every reward/effort combination was available on each trial. Effort was manipulated by varying the number of math problems or the squeeze force required.

When it comes down to the actual work, we're driven by the effort required

They found that participants chose the high reward option most often, even when it required high effort. But, when it came to execution, they exerted less effort on the high effort trials, even when the reward was high. So, when it came down to the actual effort they had to put in, they were guided by effort more than by reward.

In a second experiment that looked at the effort required to avoid losing money, the researchers again found that the participants more often chose the high attractiveness options (high reward or low loss), even when it required high effort. And again, during execution, they were guided by effort.

When we're setting goals, we're driven by the potential reward, but when it comes down to execution,

we're driven by the effort we have to put in.

In the second research study, researchers from Tel Aviv University asked participants to complete 2400 trials of complex tasks, divided into 10 blocks of 240 trials. One group was told periodically how many blocks were left to complete whereas the other group was not given any information about their progress through the trials. The researchers found that when people knew when a task was going to end, they performed faster and with greater accuracy, especially toward the end of the experiment. And they were less fatigued at the end of task, despite having taken fewer breaks than the group that were not told how much of the task was left to complete. 

When we know when the task is going to end, we feel we can try our hardest without running out of energy

One of the reasons the authors offered for why we do better when we know when the task is going to end: When we don't know when the task will end, we might be conserving our energy to ensure that we have enough left to complete the task. When we know when the task is going to end, we feel we can try our hardest without running out of energy. 

What you can do:
  • Break down your goals into small, manageable tasks you know you can succeed at. This reduces the effort and, when you experience success, it increases your dopamine levels, revving up your motivation for the next task. 
  • Rather than starting your day with the most important (and usually the scariest) task first, start with one of the small, manageable tasks you've identified above. The key is to succeed on the first task of the day because it can set you up for a productive day. The reason is the dopamine, which predicts success on the next task. Everyone I've taught this strategy to has told me this works for them too.
  • When you break down your goals into small tasks, you know when each task is likely to end. This can spur you on to work faster and put in more effort, with less fatigue.
  • If you choose to visualize, visualize the steps you need to take to get to your goal, not having arrived at your goal. When you visualize have achieved success, you're favouring the reward over the effort. Yet it's the effort that will get you over the finish line. I've written an article about how to visualize properly to get results.
  • Ask for help. Working with someone else can make the task feel less effortful. When I was running this article by a friend, she told me about a friend who hadn't done his taxes for several years. The task had now become daunting and he couldn't bring himself to start. She offered to help him organize the documents and slips he had shoved into a drawer and they finished the task in an hour, with a glass of wine. The remainder now feels manageable.

If you feel that others in your circle would benefit from this information, please feel free to share the article, with appropriate credit, of course.


Katzir, M., Emanuel, A., & Liberman, N. (2020). Cognitive performance is enhanced if one knows when the task will end. Cognition197, 104189. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2020.104189

Ludwiczak, A., Osman, M., & Jahanshahi, M. (2020). Redefining the Relationship Between Effort and Reward: Choice-Execution Model of Effort-Based Decisions. Behavioural Brain Research, 112474. doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2020.112474

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