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Giving up on your goal? Read this first

So, you've set a goal to eat healthier and you've mapped out a plan of attack. You'll replace those chips with fruit for your late-night snack. You'll switch to whole-grain bread. You'll start buying fresh vegetables.

But then you walk into the grocery store, and the fresh vegetables you wanted to buy for your weekly meal plan are unavailable for the third week in a row. Cue the action crisis.

What the researchers say: "Setbacks present real challenges in pursuing our goals," said the lead author. "When goals are blocked by obstacles, we often feel bad about ourselves and sometimes stop pursuing these goals."

A series of setbacks like this can be defined as an "action crisis," a time in goal pursuit when circumstances cause an individual to question whether or not a goal is still important.

For instance, if the goal is to lose weight, the action crisis may come when the dieter hits a plateau.

All too often, an action crisis may lead a person to reassess the cost-benefits of a goal and consider giving it up. The new research provides a better understanding of how people respond to action crises.

"We really wanted to understand what repeated setbacks and struggles look like," said the researchers.

"The whole project was structured around the idea that this is a common shared experience, so we ran the experiments in different contexts."

One component of the research looked at how people respond to action crises in three different goal situations: a goal to have a stronger patient-provider relationship, a goal to lose weight and a goal to be a more environmentally-conscious shopper.

The experiments, which were administered online through a series of questions, simulated situations in which action crises arose. In each instance, the data showed that the crisis led the person to concentrate on disengagement-focused thoughts rather than reaffirming the goal.

"We found the same pattern across all these areas," they said. "These action crisis thoughts lead people to start devaluing their goal and ratchets up the difficulty of sticking to the goal. It leads people to draw back from their commitment."

However, if a person (or their support network of family, friends, and professionals) were to know ahead of time that an action crisis may be imminent, he or she might be more likely to stick to the goal.

"If we're going to be able to help people as they enter that period of repeated struggles or setbacks, we need to know what it looks like when they face an action crisis. That's why I think this research can be so helpful in a number of areas, including health behaviours, careers, and personal relationships," said the researchers.

"As we learn more about what setbacks look like and how we respond to them, hopefully, we can work to overcome the setbacks to either reach our goals or learn how to use these setbacks to select goals better suited to our situation," they concluded.

So, what?

One of the big problems that my colleague Alicia and I have encountered in the workplace is the emphasis on the achievement of goals, and the prevailing culture of blame when those goals were not met. The truth is that humans are not primarily goal-orientated. We enjoy achieving goals that we are interested in but primarily we do best when we are caught up in the process that leads to the outcome rather than the outcome itself.

This is important research because it outlines why we often give up on a goal and how those who are important to us can give us encouragement and inspiration — the essential job of a good business leader.

However, our own research — and that of others over the past few years — points to a more important lesson that is also mentioned but passed over by the researchers. We are genetically programmed to give up on goals when serious obstacles arise and the attempts to overcome those obstacles can be unduly stressful and lead to very negative psychological and even physical outcomes. Our desire to give up may often be a very useful psychophysical signal that we ought to.

What now?

Business leaders should realise that successful outcomes will only consistently be achieved when the people working on them actually enjoy the process of doing the work — that doing so puts them in what the great psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi called being "in the flow." We work for pleasure — as nearly every recent researcher has pointed out — so we need to get pleasure from our work.

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