We are all familiar with the experience of setting ourselves goals — to pass an exam, run a marathon, lose weight or get promoted at work.  Achieving the goal can be a tough process, but maintaining the goal or the change in behaviour into the future can be even more difficult. Ask anyone who has regained lost weight or got the promotion only to find that keeping the job is harder than they expected. It can be really discouraging!

Given how important our goals are to our physical and psychological wellbeing, however, we don’t actually want to give up on them. In this encouraging study just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers offer a solution.

People are more likely to maintain good behaviours over time, if instead of thinking about achieving a goal as “arriving at a destination”, they view it as “completing a journey”.

How did the researchers show this?

Originally, the researchers (Szu-Chi Huang and Jennifer Aaker at the Stanford Graduate School of Business) suggested that thinking about a goal as the completion of a journey might prompt people to reflect on how they had been at the start, and all the ups and downs along the way. This might make them feel that they had changed to be the kind of person who engages in these specific change behaviours, and make them more likely to maintain them.

Then their research showed this expectation to be true.

They conducted a series of six studies involving more than 1,600 people, first investigating two groups of 400 American students and university staff who had recently achieved either an academic or a fitness goal. Participants were asked to think about how their experience of attaining the goal was either like “completing a journey” or “reaching a destination”, or they were told to just think about achieving the goal without a metaphor attached. Those who viewed the goal as the completion of a journey not only expressed stronger intentions to continue the goal-related behaviours, but actually did so(the fitness journey group were more likely to sign up for an ongoing fitness programme, for example).

In follow-up research, the research team further demonstrated this effect. In one study, 265 dieters set themselves daily calorie intake goals and tracked their consumption over seven days. After the end of the diet programme, those who thought about their achievement as the completion of a journey were again more likely to indicate that they would continue their dieting behaviour.And importantly, this group also had greater feelings of personal growth, suggesting this could be the underlying mechanism for the effect.

Another study, which involved a 14-day walking programme with a goal of achieving 100,000 steps, revealed that the journey metaphor encouraged beneficial behaviour after participants had attained their goal, but not when they were getting close to achieving it. When a goal is in sight, but not yet achieved, “focusing on the destination aspects of this path could be more motivating, likely because it accentuated the end goal that one still needed to achieve,” the researchers noted.

In a final study, the researchers followed 106 executives who were finishing a business education programme in Ghana. In what they were told was an exit interview, the participants were encouraged to describe their attainment of their qualification using either a “journey” or a “destination” metaphor. Six months on, members of the “journey” group were more likely to be using practices they had learned on the course.

What can we learn from these and other research findings to help us maintain our goals?

  • Identify the journey for each goal: perhaps your journey is to move more in your day, or to have greater work life balance, or to spendbetter quality time with family – there’s no end goal, it’s a process of ongoing steps.
  • Then, flesh out the journey with more details and steps along the way and what it will be like when achieved. Write these down or draw them or tell someone.
  • Now, break the journey down into smaller steps – like we plan stages of a trip – what does your map look like along the way?

It can also help to:

  • Connect the journey with your meaning and purpose – What’s important to me? – as this will increase your motivation, e.g. I’m running a marathon to get fitter so I can run around with my kids.
  • Recruit support for your journey – friends, family, colleagues.
  • Celebrate your successes along the way.

Read the study