Yeah, that’s what we thought.
We all start out with the best intentions, but somehow or other, it doesn’t always work out the way we planned. We SWEAR we’ll exercise every day — and for a while we do — but soon it dwindles to three times a week, then twice a week, then never. Or we PROMISE to eliminate all junk food, and for a few days we make Richard Simmons proud. And then — Poof! We’re back to the Doritos and jellybeans.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, new research by Himanshu and Arul Mishra, husband and wife assistant professors of marketing at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah, not only think they know why failure seems to stalk the resolute – they believe they have found the key to turning that sorry trend around.
The answer? Stop being so specific with your goal.
The authors believe that when it comes to achieving goals, “fuzzy boundaries” often boost performance better than rigidly defined objectives.
In their paper, “In Praise of Vagueness: Malleability of Vague Information as a Performance Booster,” to be published in an upcoming edition of the journal Psychological Science, the Mishras, along with Stanford Marketing Professor Baba Shiv, acknowledge their findings may seem counter-intuitive to consumer mindsets, where precise information and goals are dogma.
“That has long been the presumption, that people make the best decisions when they have the most accurate and precise information [about what determines success]. Actually, where it comes down to behavior, people do well when they have the ability to distort that information,” Arul Mishra says.
For example, Americans spend some $70 billion on weight-loss products and programs every year, determined to lose a specified amount of weight. Others join health and exercise clubs, setting precise goals for strength measured by weights lifted or distances run over set times. When those firm goals are not completely reached, consumers brand themselves as failures and desperately move on to another product or program, or just give up entirely.
In addition to observing how exact versus “fuzzy” motivational data affect ultimate success in weight loss and physical fitness, researchers also studied implications of having precise versus more flexible standards for gauging mental acuity. In all three cases, the researchers found improved performance when motivational information was more vague than precise, allowing participants to perceive their progress in a more positive manner.
Allrighty, then. So, what exactly does this mean for YOU? Fitsmi talked to Himanshu Misra so you don’t have to:
FItsmi: What, exactly, is a fuzzy boundary?
A: It’s information that is presented in the form of a range. People can easily convert it to a precise form (e.g. a range of 1.5 to 2.5 lbs can be converted to its more precise “average” form of 2 lbs).
Fitsmi: Why do ‘fuzzy boundaries’ trump rigid goals?
A: When people are motivated to pursue a desired task (e.g., physical performance or doing well in a mental acuity task), vague information allows them the flexibility to distort the given information and generate positive outcome expectancies. This distortion of vague information helps them to act in line with those expectancies (akin to placebo effects), resulting in outcomes that confirm those expectancies and leading to a performance boost.
Fitsmi: So “fuzzy motivational data” would be…?
A: Vague Information (in the form of a range) that can be perceived in a desired manner. So, if you want to pursue a goal of running 2 miles, a vague goal in this situation would be attempting to run between 1.5 and 2.5 miles.
Fitsmi: So what does this mean as far as weight loss goals go? Don’t weigh yourself? Don’t try on your clothes to see if they are bigger?
A: No, it means not setting goals which are too precise. A higher degree of preciseness de-motivates a person when he/she is not able to achieve that goal. Consider two people who both want to run two miles. One sets a vague goal (like running between 1.5 to 2.5 miles), and the second person sets a goal of running exactly 2 miles (a precise goal). If both end up running just 1.6 miles, the person with a vague goal will be more motivated to persist in her goal than the person with a precise goal.
So there you have it! Don’t fixate on losing a certain number of pounds, running x miles per day, or doing anything too absolutely or precisely (i.e. saying that you’ll never eat ice cream again or only consume 1 ounce of chocolate every other Tuesday). Say instead that you’re on a path to lose weight and get healthy in 2011, and stay positive about any progress you make towards your purposely fuzzy goals!
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