The Skill You Need to Stay Forever Young

Pros call on agility to win, but this misunderstood ability is the key to an easier, comfier, fitter life for all.

November 12, 2022

Setting your sights on a lofty goal, such as running a marathon, completing a 30-day healthy-eating challenge, or finally nailing a handstand, can be exciting. But why does the motivation to get after a goal often come easily at first, then peter out — or disappear altogether? Because sometimes your ambition is outweighed by the work it takes to achieve it, according to recent research.

“When effort is required, there is a crucial difference between choosing what to do and actually doing it,” says Agata Ludwiczak, PhD, a psychology researcher at Queen Mary University of London. “If people are choosing between effortful options, they tend to concentrate on rewards. But the amount of effort that they actually put in depends more on the effort requirements of the task.” That could explain why you choose to register for the half-marathon instead of the 10K; going after bragging rights can cloud your judgment.

There were two phases of Ludwiczak’s study, published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research. In the first, people were repeatedly provided a series of two tasks to choose from, each associated with different amounts of effort and monetary reward. The easier option often paid less money, while the harder one paid more. In part two, participants attempted to actually complete the task they chose in part one. Researchers found that in part one, people were all about the bigger payout. By part two, they did a one-eighty and focused primarily on in-the-moment effort, regardless of whether or not that effort resulted in the monetary reward they were initially after.

“Our study shows that it doesn't matter if your goal is to run a 5K or a marathon; during each individual training run, your brain will focus on the effort needed for that day,” says Ludwiczak. “If this effort turns out to be much more than anticipated, you’re likely to quit, even when the reward is very attractive.”

These participants were going after a few bucks, so pretty low stakes. But what if the reward is a lifelong dream — say, to summit a tough mountain or do an Ironman? Shouldn’t you reach for the stars? Maybe. But before you commit, you’ve got to know what you’re saying yes to so you avoid setting yourself up for self-doubt and failure. Here’s how to do that.

1. For starters, forget about the reward.“If you’re deciding among options, consider how much work you would have to put in to get what you want,” says Ludwiczak. And don’t sugarcoat it. Love bread? Then perhaps a month of keto isn’t for you. And if you hate waking up early on weekends to hit the trail for a training run, you might want to reconsider an adventure race.

If you hit bumps along the way or you’re feeling like your goal is becoming a chore, try to distract yourself, Ludwiczak says. Listen to music; rope in some friends; or establish smaller, attainable targets to tick off along the way.

2. Check in with yourself.In order to stay on track — especially when a goal spans weeks or months — practice self-reflection, which can help maintain focus and curb self-doubt. A Swiss study asked software developers to make workplace wellness goals, then sit down and assess their behaviors every couple of weeks. The simple exercise improved their awareness of good and bad workplace habits by 85 percent and improved their perceived productivity and well-being by 80 percent, found University of Zurich researchers.

For example, jot down notes about how your workouts make you feel. Then, on a rest day, look back on the training you did that week. Were you able to keep up with the training plan? Did it seem too easy or too hard? Make adjustments accordingly to ensure it’s challenging enough that you’re making strides, but not so challenging that it’s becoming a burden or making you question your abilities.

3. Acknowledge potential obstacles.Positivity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, says Gabriele Oettingen, PhD, a professor of psychology at New York University. Over years of research, she’s found that dreaming big about a goal can actually lead to poor effort and low success when it comes to trying to achieve it.

To help people overcome that, she came up with a mental strategy called WOOP, short for “Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan.” First, identify an important wish that is challenging but attainable. For example, maybe you’re trying to cut out alcohol on weeknights. Then vividly imagine the best outcome and how it could change your daily life. Maybe you’ll sleep better and have more energy. Next, recognize an obstacle that might hold you back from fulfilling that wish. Oettingen says to dig deep and ask yourself, What do I have in me that stands in the way? An emotion, an irrational belief, a doubt, a bad habit? Perhaps having a glass of wine with dinner has become the latter. Finally, identify the action or thought that will help you overcome the obstacle and make an “if-then” plan. That could be, “If I’m craving wine with dinner, then I’ll have a kombucha or seltzer instead.”

“Positive fantasies make people feel like they’ve already accomplished their dreams, sapping their energy,” explains Oettingen. “Discovering an obstacle will provide the energy, and making the ‘if-then’ plan will specify how to overcome it. When the obstacle later presents itself, this response will be automatically triggered, so you will progress toward your goal.”

Most importantly: There’s no shame in aiming for a more manageable target off the bat. Setting yourself up for success can help you work toward those bigger-picture goals when you’re ready — and excited — to take on more.