Although we intuitively believe that making progress towards any goal is a powerful incentive to keep going, this is not always the case. In fact, progress can backfire .
Psychologists know that it’s not difficult for us to use our progress as an excuse to laze, procrastinate, or slow down.
The paradox of progress
According to Ayelet Feishbach , a professor at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business Administration, and Ravi Dhar , a professor at the Yale School of Business Administration, approaching a goal can act as a kind of sabotage.
That’s at least as suggested by a study they conducted where participants who were dieting were reminded of how much progress they had made toward their ideal weight. Other participants, however, were not complimented.
After the compliments, the participants were offered an apple or a chocolate bar .
85% of those congratulated chose the chocolate bar over the apple, compared to 58% of the participants who were not reminded of their progress.
A second study found the same effect on college goals . Students who were congratulated on how hard they had studied to prepare for an exam were more likely to spend the night playing rather than studying.
Psychologists call this effect "goal release." In practice, it means that one step forward gives you permission to take two steps back. We feel so good for having done things well that we confuse that feeling with the effort that we still have to make to progress towards our purposes .
The reasoning is something like: "I have done well, I have sacrificed, so now I can do what I really want to do."