We all know that there is a difference between activities that help us to achieve something we want and those that help us to avoid a certain situation. After all, there seems to be a different motivation when you want to exercise because your goal is to be slim and feel healthier, or because your doctor told you that if you don’t start with it, you are likely to have a heart stroke in the coming months.
The concept of the difference between approach and avoidance goals has been discussed since the first Greek philosophers. And it is clear that the main difference between these two goals is the way in which they provide motivation.
Imagine yourself wanting to run a full marathon, you have come so far, there is just one mile left to run. But your feet hurt, you can barely breath and you think about giving up. But then this little voice in your brain shouts at you! It spurs you on, tells you that you have come so far to finishing the marathon and you just can’t give up. So you take every little piece of energy that is left in your body and -like a zombie- you run. You run and run and – you finish.
Now in contrast to that, imagine there is a person who doesn’t smell well walking right behind you. This person just follows you, and you can’t stand the smell anymore. Incidentally you are just now wearing your running gear. So you come up with a quick solution – you run. After twenty seconds the smell is much less. You keep on running, but maybe not as fast anymore. After a minute, you can’t see or smell this person anymore. So you stop running.
I proudly confirm that my stories up there are probably not very promising Hollywood stuff. But I hope they make a point. If you want to approach a goal, you try everything in your power to get to this goal. The closer you get, the more you are able to mobilize everything you have to reach the goal. The opposite is true for avoidance goals. You want to get away from something. And while you might exert much motivation when the thing you are trying to avoid is still close, your motivation decreases the farther you get away from it. And once it is sufficiently far away, you just stop.
But why am I telling you this?
The reason is, that we can define almost any goal as either an approach or an avoidance goal. And we should carefully consider how we want to perceive them – and if possible at all, define them as approach goals. So instead of eating less unhealthy food (avoidance), we might want to set eating more healthy food (approach) as our goal. Think about it. If your belly is full with vegetables, lean proteins, fruit and other healthy things, will there still be space for unhealthy food? And if there will be still place, will this be enough space to have a negative influence on you?
If we define a goal that clearly lines out a way to work more focused (approach) it might help us much more than a goal that relates to procrastinating less (avoidance). Consider how often you have set yourself avoidance goals, and think about how you could change these to approach goals. I know it’s sometimes difficult – as an example stating: “I want to be smoke free” doesn’t make so much of a difference to: “I want to stop smoking”.
But keeping this in mind will help us in almost all of the cases, to define smarter goals that pull us towards them rather than pushing us away from something. And the closer we get, the more energy and power we will have to walk these last, crucial steps.