The perspective of learning a new language It can be daunting, especially for an adult. Devoting dozens of hours a year to classes only to make slow progress in a new skill can seem out of reach, especially when juggling work and family responsibilities. That was certainly how one of us (Lechero) felt about his decades-long ambition to learn Spanish.
However, that all changed when a popular language learning app introduced a more engaging approach: complete a lesson (only six or seven minutes long) every day to eventually become bilingual. This adds up to about 40 hours of study each year, the equivalent of a full work week, but comes as a small daily commitment.
At first glance, breaking down a larger goal into smaller pieces may seem like a superficial “reframing trick.” It’s actually a versatile goal-setting strategy that you can apply to almost any ambitious goal, whether it’s learning a second language, acquiring a new skill at work, starting an exercise regimen, or saving for retirement. But how sure are scientists that this trick is effective? Through a large field experiment that lasted several months, recently confirmed the power of this technique, which validates much older research with contemporary scientific standards.
In the 1970s the psychologist Alberto Bandura and their contemporaries conducted a series of pioneering studies with small populations of students and community members that suggested the benefits of breaking down an ambitious goal into small “subgoals.” Since then, surprisingly little research has explored this. In particular, experimental research employing large sample sizes, naturalistic settings (i.e., places where people go about their daily lives), and prespecified analysis plans has been lacking. Recently, our team conducted a new massive field experiment using state-of-the-art methods to evaluate whether breaking down big targets into small pieces can really significantly improve results. We published our findings last year in the Journal of Applied Psychologyand our results offer several ideas for tackling your New Year’s resolutions (and other goals).
For our study, we partnered with Crisis text line (CTL), a nonprofit organization that provides free crisis counseling via text message. All CTL volunteers are asked to commit to completing 200 hours of crisis counseling within one year of completing a lengthy crisis counselor training program. This goal is quite ambitious, given that Americans who formally volunteer in organizations register less than 70 hours a year, on average. We were curious if breaking down this big 200-hour goal could make it more accessible and increase actual hours worked.
We randomly assigned more than 9,000 CTL volunteers to receive biweekly emails for three months that varied in their description of the volunteers’ annual 200-hour commitment. One group was encouraged to reach the 200-hour mark by volunteering “a few hours each week,” without providing a breakdown of tangible goals. However, two other groups were given clear subgoals: we encouraged one to volunteer for four hours each week and the other to volunteer for eight hours every two weeks (either approach added up to 200 hours in a year). We then tracked how much time each group of trained crisis counselors actually spent volunteering during our three-month study.
Breaking down big goals into small chunks had a significant and sustained impact on volunteering. Both groups that were encouraged to focus on a smaller subgoal (volunteering four hours a week or eight hours every two weeks) volunteered 7 to 8 percent more than their peers who were simply encouraged Reach your big goal with a little work each week. This may seem like a modest increase, but when scaled to an organization with thousands of volunteers, our intervention translated into thousands of additional hours of volunteering each month, at virtually no cost to the organization.
We also found suggestive evidence that the more flexible “eight hours every two weeks” framework, in particular, generated more lasting benefits over time. Although volunteering decreased each week during the 12-week experiment for all participants, this decrease was slower in the “eight hours every two weeks” condition than in the more stringent “four hours every week” condition. This finding suggests that making modest goals more flexible could encourage greater long-term perseverance.
Our work fits with other research of recent years by behavioral scientists Hal Hershfield and Shlomo Benartzi, both of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Steven Shu of Cornell University, showing that people are four times more likely to enroll in a savings when described as a deposit. $5 a day instead of (the equivalent) $150 a month. Hershfield and his colleagues theorized that consumers may find it less painful to give up smaller amounts of money more frequently compared to an equivalent lump sum. Similarly, we believe that one of the reasons subgoals motivate people is that these goals make them focus on committing small amounts of time or money to achieving their goal in the near future, which is less daunting than assuming equivalent but larger and longer-term commitments. hours or cash. Taken together, this new research suggests that whether goals require taking a single action or “keeping your nose to the grindstone,” subgoals can help.
So don’t plan on running 365 miles this year; Aim for seven miles per week. And instead of vowing to dedicate 200 hours to a goal in a year, mark four hours a week or eight every two weeks on your calendar. As for Milkman, after 365 days of practice, lo and behold, becoming bilingual is finally on the horizon for her.
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