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Why We Ease Off When Our Goal is Near

Have you ever gotten nearly to the end of a significant project and just coasted in? Maybe it was a term paper in your college years, or a critical analysis of a business opportunity during your working years. You put in an enormous amount of painstaking work, making sure every sentence is perfect, until at some point when you stop caring. You just want to turn it in, throw in the towel. Motivation wanes. The desire to be done looms large. You coast through the finish, happy that the first half is excellent, and hoping maybe your audience won’t notice the drop in quality over the final quarter of the project.

We tend to attribute this to the creeping in of a combination of laziness, fatigue, and lack of motivation. You lose the will to double-check the grammar of your essay or take the time to make the final few charts in the reports.

While fatigue and motivation likely play a role, so does a phenomenon that seldom crosses our mind as an explanation: We tend to reduce our efforts when we feel like we’re going to accomplish our goal.

This phenomenon occurs at nearly every race, where runners start to slow down before the finish, easing across the line. The goal — be it to finish, run a personal record, or win — is often in hand. Even though the athlete might have to produce effort for a few more seconds, the temptation to cruise across the line is too strong.

The same phenomenon happens in other aspects of life. How do we explain this conundrum of reducing effort when our goal is near? Researchers hypothesize that “people generally interpret positive feedback on their rate of goal attainment (e.g., feeling good) as a signal that they can attend to something else.”

Also, recall that when it comes to the hormone that’s tied to desire and motivation to continue, dopamine, it’s released before we reach our goal, to spur us along, not when we achieve it. From a biological standpoint, then, if we are assured of reaching our goal, there’s no longer a need for a hit of dopamine to propel us onward.

If you feel your motivation wane as you reach the conclusion of a project, that’s normal. We have to train against this natural desire, teaching our mind and body to hold ourselves to the quality that we had when we were filled with enthusiasm at the beginning of the project. Make it a habit. Or, as the track coaches of the world always say, “Always practice running through the line, not to it!”


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