Getting Big Projects Done: Balancing Task-Focus with Goal-Focus

Psychological research suggests success in big projects depends on shrewd shifts of focus between tasks and goals.

Successfully completing large, complex projects can bring great commercial, scientific or artistic rewards. Unfortunately these types of projects, by their very nature, also provide endless opportunities to falter along the way.

Early hiccups can send motivation into a tailspin, doubts cloud good judgement and the wood is lost for all the trees. There are so many reasons to jack it all in or do a bad job, and we need only choose one. That’s why any insight from psychology is welcome.

Recent psychological research suggests one of the keys to getting big projects done is balancing up individual tasks against the grand vision. It’s all about knowing when to flip the frame of reference from looking closely at the details of individual components of a project, and when to look up and see the project’s grand sweep.

Two new psychological studies published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin and the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggest how to divide our attention between task- and goal-focus. These techniques may help us avoid being put off by early failures, feel better about our progress and stay motivated to reach our ultimate goal.

If you prefer to skip the experiments, go straight to how to balance task-focus with goal-focus.

Coping with demotivating failures

How we react to failure along the way is a clear predictor of ultimate success (or otherwise). That’s why Houser-Marko & Sheldon (2008) set up an experiment to see how people reacted to failure depending on whether they were thinking about the individual task or their overall goal.

In the first experiment participants played a computer word game that assessed their verbal ability. They were initially told their primary goal was to get the best final grade in the game, and to do this they had to earn the most points for each individual task.

After completing each task they were given feedback about how they were doing – except this feedback was completely fictional and was actually used to create four experimental conditions. Here’s what they were told:

  1. “You are on target to receive an A.” Participants told they are on route to a top grade in the game.
  2. “You are on target to receive a D.” Participants told they are on route to a poor grade.
  3. “For this block you are in the 87th percentile.” Participants think they’ve done well, but only on the specific task.
  4. “For this block you are in the 47th percentile.” Participants think they’ve done badly, but only on the specific task.

The experimenters were interested in seeing how being in the different groups would affect a variety of factors: how good (or bad) they felt (what psychologists call positive and negative affect) and how they expected to do on the test as a whole. Specifically: how does perceived success or failure at achieving either overall goals or the specific tasks affect motivation?

What they found was that being told they were doing badly made participants feel bad and lowered their motivation. No surprise there. But what they were really interested in was whether their level of focus – either on the individual task or the overall goal – affected their motivation. They found that it did: those told they were doing badly but only on the specific task didn’t feel as bad, and didn’t expect to do so badly in the future, as those who were focusing on their primary goal. So it seems that when doing badly on a task it’s better to keep focusing on the individual task rather than start contemplating the ultimate goal.

Real-world motivation

This is a nice finding in the lab but Houser-Marko & Sheldon (2008) wanted to see if the effect could be observed in the real world. So they set up a similar experiment but this time participants were set real-world goals. As they were students, participants were given the primary goal of achieving a particular class grade. Then they were asked to set themselves a certain number of hours to study each week in order to achieve this goal.

The two groups were created by asking one group to evaluate their progress by focusing on their individual tasks, the number of hours they studied each week, and the other group on the primary goal, of obtaining a particular grade.

The real-world results backed up the lab work. Just as before those doing badly and focusing on their overall target grade tended to experience more negative emotion and thought that their actual performance was worse. In contrast those doing badly but focusing on their individual study hours experienced less negative emotion and thought their performance was better.

Eyes on the prize

This suggests more positive emotions and higher motivation are a result of staying focused on low-level tasks, rather than the ultimate goal. But there are two reasons goals can’t be forgotten. Firstly in the real-world experiment when participants, rather than failing, had been successful in their tasks, they were better off to focus on their ultimate goal. Then they experienced more positive emotion and felt they were doing better.

The second reason we can’t forget goals is demonstrated in a recent study I covered on how to improve self-control. This showed that using abstract reasoning and high-level categorisation helps improve commitment to the task at hand. In that experiment participants who focused on ends rather than means stuck to their task for longer. At first glance these results seem to conflict: one says keep your eyes on the prize while the other says stay task-focused. Which one is right?

Actually they’re not as contradictory as they first appear, it all depends on the context. In the current experiment participants were engaged in evaluating their progress and in this case a task focus was useful, especially when the task was hard and they were likely to fail. But when actually engaged in the task itself, the self-control experiment suggests it is better for motivation to keep the ultimate goal in mind.


How to balance task-focus with goal-focus

Here’s what the research means in practical terms:

  • To stick to a task, while carrying it out, keep the ultimate goal in mind. Self-control is increased by global processing, abstract thinking and high-level categorisation. Taking the first step on the long road to your goal may require a greater focus on the destination.
  • When evaluating progress on hard tasks when the chance of failure is high, stay task-focused. At the start of your journey, when evaluating progress, it’s often better to focus on the individual steps. Comparing recent failure with the ultimate goal destroys motivation – instead narrow focus to succeeding on the individual task.
  • Once tasks are easier or the end is in sight, a goal focus is once again the psychological approach to choose. It increases positive emotion, decreases negative emotion and increases perceived performance.

Think of it like a 100 hundred metres runner. Moments before the race they look off into the distance, in the general direction of the finish line. Moments after the starting gun fires they stare down at the ground and their feet. Smoothly the head comes up, then, towards the end of the race, they have just one focus: the line.

Only most projects take a little longer than 9.69 seconds.

[Image credit: margolove]

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 28 November 2008

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