Do you ever feel like you’re standing at the base of a monumental mountain? You get up every day and push yourself to take a painstaking step towards your goals. But despite your efforts, you feel like you’re on a relentless grind, where each day mirrors the last in an exhausting loop of effort and aspiration.
In a world obsessed with overnight success, we often undervalue the importance of the journey itself. We engage in a self-defeating game where the scoreboard only reflects the grand triumph, leaving no room for the small, critical victories we score along the way. In other words, we have an all-or-nothing stance regarding goal fulfillment.
If you hit or exceed the goal, you’re a winner. If you fall short, you’re a loser. Effort doesn’t matter. Nor how close you get. In this mindset, 0%, 50%, and 95% progress towards the goal are treated the same. You didn’t hit 100%, so it’s a failure.
If you find the above true, then you’re suffering from “negative lumping.”
From a meta-analysis conducted by Prof. Ed O’Brien, covering 14 experiments totaling 10,556 adults, he observed that when people fall short of their goals, there is a strong tendency to dismiss any goal progress they have made, no matter how substantial. He calls this phenomenon, “negative lumping.” In this situation, major and minor progress are treated the same and lumped together as a failure when you don’t reach the target. Eventually, you get so demotivated that you abandon your goal.
In this post, you will learn how the type of goal you set for yourself is critical in determining whether you will achieve success or failure. And how you perceive your progress may be one of the biggest blockers to your success.
Your Goal Type Influences Your Negative Lumping Tendency
For most of us, when you set your sights on a goal, success is measured only by whether you hit the target. You don’t change the target value because that’s like moving the goalposts. And most would regard that as cheating.
For goals based on your current resources, knowledge, and skills, the above makes sense. Called performance goals, these are the ones best suited for the traditional “set a target value and go for it.” These are great when you are leveraging your strengths. In fact, the idea of hard, specific goals was pioneered by Professors Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, who in their book stated that over 1,000 studies consistently showed that such goals increase performance, persistence, and motivation. Much of the popularity around goals stems from their research.
The problem is not all goals should be performance-based. Science shows that performance goals can generate more harm than good if you work on novel, complex, or deeply personal goals. To better understand why, let’s first examine each goal type. (For this discussion, goals and projects will be used interchangeably, as a project is the set of tasks needed to achieve a goal.)
Novel Goals Are Prone to the Planning Fallacy
If your goal/project is novel, by definition, you’re doing something new. Hence, it’s arrogant for you to assume you know all the answers and are aware of the obstacles that will stump you. You can’t know what you don’t know. So, given your lack of knowledge and experience, your odds of picking a reasonable target are likely to be off. Yet, your excitement about doing the project will make you choose an aspirational target value.
Why on earth would you do that? Because you’re excited about the opportunity yet don’t know what you can achieve. But you know what success looks like, so you just shoot for a standard that leaves no doubt. For example, it’s not uncommon for people to imagine winning first place, the gold medal, or creating a best-seller and using that as a target. After all, those are motivating. Yes, some of us think self-publishing a book is an accomplishment, but to write a best-selling book. It is hard to argue that’s not a success.
So, setting up a motivational and aspirational goal might seem like a good idea, except for something called the “planning fallacy.” This is the human tendency to underestimate the work’s difficulty and overestimate how fast you will make progress. This is especially true when working on novel projects where you must develop new skills or behaviors to do the tasks.
Hence, the odds are high that you won’t move as fast as you would like. As a result, you set yourself up for disappointment and frustration.
And it’s not just newbies who are prone to this fallacy. History is littered with projects where things have gone over budget and time by well-experienced and knowledgeable individuals and teams, especially when doing something new or complex, which leads to the next goal type.
Complex Goals Have a Lot Outside Your Control
If your project is complex (and ignoring task difficulty for the moment), these goals often have several steps and a lot of interactions between them. In the former, you need a lot of things to go right. For example, if you’re building a house, it’s crucial that you have the contractors and raw materials ready to go and coordinated so nothing gets bottlenecked.
With tasks that depend on each other, you have a combinatorial explosion, as the choice in one step affects what happens in the next step. You might have multiple routes between where you start and end, but not all of them operate in your favor. For example, consider the case where you must navigate through rush-hour traffic on regular streets. Even with your GPS, a lot can and will go wrong.
In short, if you have a complex goal, setting challenging targets might “work” if you have tight control over the process in both direction and reliability. But note the math still works against you. Consider if you take the simple case of picking the “right” path, but it involves multiple steps. Assume you have a 95% success rate in executing each action. If you have 5 consecutive steps, your overall success rate falls to 77%. This drop gets worse with more steps.
In short, complex goals have an inherent cost to executing them that you need to be aware of. In other words, progress is going to be challenging.
Personal Goals Elevate Stress Levels
But what if you have the resources, knowledge, and skills? In theory, you have all the ingredients for success. So, what can go wrong? Unfortunately, if the goal is deeply personal, that alone can cause trouble.
Consider the following scenarios:
- Sports: A championship football game where the score is tied, and time is running out. One team marches to within field goal range. All they must do is have the kicker score the final point. Something that individual has done countless times without fail. And when their moment to shine comes, they “choke.”
- Job interview: This is your chance to enter the company of your dreams. You’re one of the final candidates. You go into the room and meet the interview committee. You’re presenting great and nailing all the questions, but you see this one individual who doesn’t seem to like your answers. They’re constantly frowning and making what seems like snide remarks. You start focusing on this sole dissenter and ignoring everyone else, causing the interview to go downhill.
- Academia: In many foreign countries, how well you perform on the college entrance examination determines which school you get accepted to. This single multi-hour event will often determine your career trajectory and, some argue your life. It’s not unusual for individuals to buckle under such stress.
The common element above is the enormous personal weight of the goal value. Even well-trained, knowledgeable, and experienced people can crack under pressure.
While a certain level of stress improves performance, in these situations, the stress level is too high and increases your threat sensitivity. Any “imperfect action” is viewed as jeopardizing goal success. Overthinking, perfectionism, and negativity bias play significant roles in increasing negative lumping for personal goals.
The above examples focus on a single event, but imagine if you’re working on a long-term project, such as writing a book, starting a new business, etc. These projects are not only profoundly personal, they take considerable resources, knowledge, and skills and won’t be done overnight.
Since personal goals have a lot riding on their success, research shows that if you feel you’re not making “enough” progress, you are prone to rumination, which leads to demotivation, depression, and anxiety. You focus on all that’s going “wrong,” creating a negativity spiral and ignoring or discounting what’s working. In other words, if you didn’t have negative lumping initially, you might fall victim to it over time.
Negative Lumping is a Form of Self-Sabotage
So for all 3 goal types, unless you have endless grit, willpower, or a high tolerance for failure, focusing on the target increases the odds of burning out, procrastinating, or moving so slowly that you abandon your goal.
In his study, O’Brien observed 2 effects when people perceived their progress to fall short of the target:
1) They were less motivated to invest more effort
2) They were less likely to view what effort they invested as worthwhile
In short, participants became demotivated since they focused more on their “inability” to reach the target than their progress, no matter how substantial.
What’s insidious about this “failure” mode is that it isn’t due to a lack of resources, knowledge, or skills. Your barrier to success is self-generated because of a false perception that you’re not doing enough despite the evidence.
So, if this is you and you’re feeling lousy, the good news is there is a better strategy for how to approach goals. This isn’t just positive thinking but a realistic framework to appraise what you’ve achieved and examine your goal’s feasibility.
So, What’s the Solution? First, Divide and Conquer
When you’re afflicted with negative lumping, focusing on the outcome demotivates the effort needed for sustained progress. While it is essential to know the target value, the effort you make ultimately decides whether you succeed.
The strategy here divides any major goal/project into 2 sections: 1) the effort to reach that target and 2) the target.
Why this separation?
As stated earlier, there are many reasons why your target could be off. But if you’re not making progress, your target value is irrelevant. So, if you’re not succeeding, you need to figure out where your shortcomings are, the effort or the goal.
The system outlined here follows a divide-and-conquer approach. First, focus on your progress. Make sure you’re solid on achieving that. Given your current resources, knowledge, and skills, if you still fall short, assess whether your expectation is reasonable. Examining what others can achieve with a similar background to yours is essential as a reality check. See if what you’re doing is comparable to others at your level. If yes, you’re on track. If no, then you need to find out why.
The above is the standard project management solution to the planning fallacy (looking at comparables). A key reason why this works is that it’s not always easy to see what the constraints are. But once you do this and dig deeper into why people make their choices, you start to see the obstacles they face and must overcome.
Once you double-check your effort and are okay with that, go to the next troubleshooting stage. Ask if your goal is reasonable.
Recall when you start a plan, it’s at the beginning when you know the least about “reality.” You’re more aspirational. After you start the work, you now know more, so it’s fair to revisit your initial targets. See if you set the goalposts too far and reposition them if necessary. You don’t want to fall into the sunk-cost fallacy – committing to achieving the original value no matter what.
Next, Implement This Framework
The previous section is an overview of the solution philosophy. This section discusses the implementation. Again, this framework emphasizes progress first and goals second. To achieve success, you need 3 elements: 1) goal/project breakdown, 2) learning or action-oriented goals, and 3) focus on small wins.
For any significant goal or project, it’s essential to break it down into smaller subgoals and subprojects and then focus on a subset for any given day. Subgoals and subprojects are easier to act on since they are smaller and not as overwhelming to face. Research what others have done if you’re struggling to break this down. Ideally, you want tasks at a level you can get done with the time you have in a day.
One drawback, unfortunately, when you break something down is that it increases the number of things you must do. Hence, it’s important to focus only on a subset to work on. A practice from Agile software development is to put your master todo list somewhere accessible but out of sight, and that is referred to as the backlog. You then pick several items from your backlog to work on during any given time. Generally, you pick enough tasks to fill your capacity – an estimate of how many things you can accomplish in a day. Depending on the size, it can be 3-5 tasks for most folks.
The key is not looking at the backlog until you exhaust your capacity. If you don’t finish by the end of the day, that’s okay. Just roll it over to the next day. And use the opportunity to learn what worked and what didn’t. Was the task sizing wrong, or did you get interrupted? You want to see if it’s a one-off or a recurring event.
This practice mitigates the frustration with large todo lists that seem to be never-ending.
The idea is to chip away over time at your backlog in manageable chunks.
Next, for any goal, try formulating it as a learning or taking action type. Learning goals are ones where you focus on mastering the skills and knowledge associated with the tasks related to the ultimate output you want to achieve. Science supports that challenging, specific learning goals are more effective than performance goals in novel and complex situations.
Taking action goals are where the emphasis is on starting the task, not necessarily finishing. One example is the Pomodoro method, where you block out 25 minutes to work on a task and take a 5-minute break. You repeat this 3-4 times and then take a more extended break. You can vary the work and break duration, but the point is to take action during that time.
The value of these goal types is that they focus on what you have the greatest control over and what is also the leading indicator of goal progress- and that’s taking action. You might think output is essential, but effort precedes output. If you put in no effort, then you get no output.
For those wondering why start and not finish. Some tasks, particularly complex ones like writing or debugging code, don’t have an endpoint you control. You can spend hours/days/weeks on them and still not finish. The advantage of the Pomodoro method is recognizing you don’t have infinite time, energy, and resources to spend. You allocate a budget, and once that’s done, you decide if it’s worth continuing.
Now, if your effort is not creating the desired output level, that’s something you want to know. And that observation highlights a problem to be solved. Either your skills aren’t where you want them to be, or your progress targets are still higher than what you’re currently able to deliver. The point is to figure out what to fix.
Note this isn’t to say that output isn’t essential. Often, performance-based output is excellent when your knowledge and skills are established. So, it can be done later in a project once you’ve built a progress track record. Performance goals can also be motivating when you’re near the target value. But again, start with learning or action goals if you’re struggling.
Finally, when doing all the above, focus on small wins. Popularized by Professor Teresa Amabile and Stephen Kramer, small wins focus on small events that move the progress bar. Naturally, small wins can include completing subgoals/subprojects, but they can also be simply starting on tasks, overcoming minor obstacles, reflecting on new things you have learned, or getting positive feedback on your work. Their research found that recognizing these small wins increases motivation, productivity, and overall well-being. In short, you feel good about what you’re doing.
Combining all 3 elements minimizes the stress and overwhelm by breaking things down into something more manageable. Some may argue that small incremental efforts will not be sufficient, but don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. This methodology allows you to troubleshoot as well as increase in scale. After all, you decide what is small and the breakdown. You can always make things bigger. Finding that sweet spot where you’re moving forward and seeing it is the point.
Note: Many have engaged in the systems vs. goals debate. The reality is you need both. Poorly designed and ineffective systems are just as bad as having rigid and inappropriate goals. The challenge is systems are harder to debug, making it easier to denounce goals when they go astray. The framework here shows systems and goals are dance partners that need to work together so you move ahead.
Summary of Takeaways
In summary, when setting novel, complex, or deeply personal goals, be aware you can be prone to negative lumping effects, which demotivate you to drop your goal pursuit. To mitigate its impact, focus on making progress and acknowledging it. To achieve that, you need:
- Break down your goal/project into manageable pieces you can ideally do within the time you have in a day
- Formulate your goal/project in terms of learning or action-oriented statements to encourage making an effort
- Focus on small wins to keep your motivation up and celebrate your progress
With the above in place, you significantly increase the odds of success. Best of luck!
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