Want-to goals make self-regulation easier than have-to goals

The type of goals you have affects the amount of self-control you need to achieve them.

When you want to achieve goals you need to be able to concentrate on the activities which help to make progress in the direction of those goals. This is not only the case with work-related goals (how can I finish that article on time?) but also with personal goals (how can I eat healthier?). Remaining focused on the activities needed to achieve goals requires that you can direct your attention. In the psychological literature this type of skill is usually referred to as self-regulation.

Conscious self-control is an important skill which enables you to keep focus on goals-directed activities. By exercising conscious control you can prevent being distracted by temptation or discouraged by obstacles. There are also several unconscious processes involved in self-regulation, such as automatic behaviors or habits. Due to those factors it can happen that in some circumstances you have fewer impulsive desires without even being aware of it.

Milyavskaya et al. (2015) examined this unconscious side of self-regulation. They wondered what the effects of different types of goals are on your ability to not be distracted by temptations or discouraged by obstacles when trying to achieve a goal. The goals they studied are usually referred to as autonomous (or self-concordant) goals and controlled (or not-self-concordant) goals but they use the terms want-to goals and have-to goals. In previous articles I have written that want-to goals have many advantages over have-to goals (for example, read How do you get goals that work?). The authors wonder in particular whether want-to goals are better than have-to goals because they lead to better conscious self-regulation or to fewer impulsive desires. If the latter is the case that means that with want-to goals you need less conscious self-control (because your impulsive desires are weaker).

In four experiments the researchers found that want-to motivation results in fewer impulsive desires. In other words, without you being aware of it you are less focused on distractions and temptations which might keep you from your work. Furthermore, people with want-to goals notices fewer obstacles and distractions than people with have-to goals. Because of this you are more easily distracted while pursuing a have-to goal. When having a want-to goal you have fewer impulsive desires due to which you need less willpower and self-control. These experiments explain something which I wrote about before, which is that ego-depletion is less likely to happen when people are autonomously motivated for goals (in other words, when they have want-to goals).

The implication of this research? Make it possible for yourself and other people to develop goals for which you/they are autonomously motivated. Read here how you can do that.