Is it about the journey or the destination? Goals vs. experience in motivating behaviour change

“The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.” Don Williams, Jr.

The same sentiments are echoed by Emerson, “life is a journey, not a destination”; yet when it comes to behaviour change, goal setting is often considered the gold standard. For example, weight loss is a common goal used by individuals to motivate participation in exercise or to follow healthy eating patterns. A recent study by Fishbach and Choi (1) investigates how focusing on goals influences our motivation to pursue an activity and compares this to the role of the experience of the activity itself.

The authors propose that focusing on the end result can lead to unintended consequences. They suggest that focusing on goals helps kickstart us into action, that goal setting encourages us to begin a new activity. However, they also suggest that too much emphasis on the outcome reduces motivation to continue participation in the activity over time. Instead, an emphasis on experience is more important for maintaining pursuit of the activity.

Fishbach and Choi used four different studies to test their ideas. In the first experiment, participants were asked to either focus on their goals or on the experience of a treadmill workout. Subjects that focused on their goals ran for a shorter time period than they intended too, while subjects who focused on the running experience itself ran for a slightly longer duration than intended.

The subsequent studies examined various other activities, including origami, dental flossing and yoga. Regardless of the activity, whether primarily pursued for its own enjoyment (origami), pursued for function but not normally perceived as “fun” (flossing), or something that has elements of both (yoga), thinking about the goals of the activity increased the intention to start it, but decreased enjoyment in the activity and decreased the continued pursuit of the activity over time.

The results from these experiments suggest that reframing how we support the maintenance of health behaviours may benefit successful behaviour change. Goal setting should not be ignored, but used where it is helpful – in initiating the behaviour change. However, encouraging continued participation in a new health behaviour over time should focus on the pleasure of the experience instead of the goal.

These conclusions fit nicely with two ideas that I believe are important. The first is Dr. Yoni Freedhoff’s philosophy that “the only goal that’s fair to set is to live the healthiest life that you can enjoy“. Secondly, from a complex systems perspective, feedback is likely to be more effective if process based (again, a focus on the experience), rather than outcome based. It’s the pleasure of the experience that keeps us coming back, to do it again and again.


1. Fishbach, A., & Choi, J. (2012). When thinking about goals undermines goal pursuit Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 118 (2), 99-107 DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2012.02.003

Photo: White and orange blur by Martin Newman, August 2012

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