When you start a new project, do you expecct to achieve steady progress toward your goal, week after week? If so, you might be fooling yourself. Progress on a challenging initiative is rarely that steady over time. Expect bumpiness! Perhaps even more importantly, you might find it difficult to stay as motivated during your work if you have these misguided expectations.
Check out this new experimental research by Gráinne Fitzsimons and Jessica Paek of Duke University. They conducted an experimental study in which people were asked to complete tasks for compensation. Research subjects earned a small amount of incentive pay if they achieved the goal of performing more than 50% of the tasks correctly. In the experiment, one half of the research subjects achieved steady progress toward their goal, while the others encountered a much more uneven set of results over time. These scholars found that the latter became less motivated as they worked. However, if people recognized at the outset that the progress toward the objective would be uneven, they did not have the same type of demotivating experience. Fitzsimons explains, “Being unrealistic and expecting steady progress is going to make it harder to stay motivated when you meet those inevitable bumps in the road."
For me, this research reminds me of the work of cognitive scientist and learning specialist Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia. Willingham argues that teachers need to assign work that is "desirably difficult" if they wish to maximize learning by their students. The challenge is very much a Goldilocks story. If the work is too difficult, students become easily frustrated and demotivated. If it's too easy, then they don't learn very much. The sweet spot is when students are challenged, but they can see themselves making progress toward the goal. Of course, for many students, that progress is uneven. Some expect a smooth learning process, and that can be problematic. Learning a new skill is rarely free of obstacles, frustrations, and even dead-ends. If we expect to see those challenges along the way, we have prepared ourselves for some frustrations. If we expect smooth sailing, we are setting ourselves up to fail. As this research by Fitzsimons and Paek demonstrates, the same type of dynamic applies to all of us in our work, not just students. We have to set the appropriate expectations for ourselves and our team members BEFORE we begin a challenging task. The key is to frame the work appropriately. If we frame the project as a learning/development opportunity that will involve challenges, then we are preparing ourselves to succeed. If we frame it as a routine endeavor that should proceed smoothy, we are setting ourselves up to fail.
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