Goals are easy to set but hard to reach, and maintaining your motivation is everything (which is why focusing on a system is so much better than focusing on the goal itself). A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology sheds some light on what motivates us best.
Photo by Caleb Roenigk
Researchers looked at how subjects handled their goal-setting, depending on how far along they were in accomplishing the goal. Specifically, they looked at two different styles of motivation: Promotion and prevention.
With promotion motivation, you're focused on your aspiration. You're hopeful and eager to get things done and accomplish the goal. You're excited to get that budget started because how good would it feel to have extra money at the end of the month?
Prevention motivation, on the other hand, is a little more defensive. You're focused on avoiding something negative, like a failure or bad habits (or just losing your progress). For example, you're extra vigilant about your budget because you don't want to go back to living paycheck-to-paycheck again. That's prevention motivation in a nutshell, and it's probably why focusing on systems is crucial. It's all about maintenance.
Both strategies can be effective, but in a series of five studies, subjects were more motivated by one method over the other, depending on what stage they were at with the goal. At the beginning of their pursuit, they were more motivated by promotion. As they made progress, they were more motivated by prevention.
Based on the results of the five studies they conducted, researchers suggested tailoring the right method to the right stage. So when you first set your money goal to get out of debt, focus on all the positive things that will come of that: You can start saving for your holiday, no more throwing money away on interest, and so on. Once you start making some progress, focus on what you want to maintain instead. The researchers put it this way:
...you make a list of the "right things" you can do to make goal progress, take note of some of the positive things you will attain by reaching your goal, and reward yourself when you make progress in the early stages of goal pursuit (as long as the "reward" does not undermine your actual goal progress, of course!). You are likely to find such things motivating. When you reach the later stages of goal pursuit, focus on the duties you have in your life and how goal attainment will help you feel that you are taking care of these responsibilities.
Of course, the usual "your mileage may vary" applies here -- not all of us are motivated by the same methods. If you're having trouble sticking to a financial goal, though (or any goal, really), try tweaking your motivation strategies and see what works best for you. To read more about the study, head to the link below.