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Why We Lose Motivation at the Halfway Point

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Image via David Lee/Shutterstock.com
Imagine you're walking across a ten-mile desert. Five miles in, you're just as far from the end as you are from the beginning--it'd be as easy to turn around and go back as it would be to go on and finish. This, say researchers at the Kellogg School of Management, is the "stuck in the middle" trap of declining motivation--and overcoming it depends on how we relate to our goals.

The research casts doubt on the idea that motivation continuously increases in proportion to how close we are to achieving a goal, instead suggesting we lose motivation at about the halfway point. Motivation, the researchers say, only picks back up when we switch from thinking about "how far we've come" to "how close we are." 

According to Miguel Brendl, co-author of the study and an associate professor of marketing at Kellogg, motivation is all relative.

“What we’re saying is that the perception of the next steps toward a goal is different depending on how close we are to the goal,” Brendl says. “There’s a perceptual element in how we get motivated.” When we perceive that our efforts will yield good progress, we feel more motivated, he points out. But when we feel like our efforts will yield little progress, our motivation wanes. Our perception of progress depends on how we measure it. Do we look to how far we have to go? Or how much we have already accomplished?

The danger of getting "stuck" occurs because of a shift in perception as we approach completion. When you're in the early stages of a project, you reflect on your progress ("Look at all the great work we've done!"). As you get closer to your goal, around the halfway point, your frame of reference shifts. You reflect on how much work there is to go ("Look at how close we are to being done!"). If we don't make that shift we're in real danger of getting stuck.

So what can you do to get your team through the middle and on toward your goal?

Brendl has advice for individuals likely to be stuck in the middle en route to their own goals, such as training to run a marathon or learning conversational Italian: “Early in your pursuit of your goal, look backwards at what you have achieved; toward the end, look forward.”

There's much more to the study, including tips for how to overcome getting stuck and a great chart illustrating the "stuck-in-the-middle" pattern, at Kellogg's Insight Blog.

Have you observed this pattern in yourself or on a team? How'd you get "unstuck"?

(Image via David Less/Shutterstock.com)

Mark Micheli is Special Projects Editor for Government Executive Media Group. He's the editor of Excellence in Government Online and contributes to GovExec, NextGov and Defense One. Previously, he worked on national security and emergency management issues with the US Treasury Department and the Department of Homeland Security. He's a graduate of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs and studied at Drake University.

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