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Feedback and setting goals are keystones of keeping us motivated and on-task

While goal-setting can help us keep focused and productive with tasks, receiving feedback is much more effective, according to new research.

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Everyone has, at one point in their lives, lost motivation for a project they were initially keen on. If you’re the exception, I envy you. But a new paper holds some clues about how we all could have an easier time staying motivated and on the task at hand. According to the findings, receiving feedback in conjunction with reaching individual goals can go a very long way towards keeping us focused and involved with tasks or projects.

The findings can help employers keep their employees happier and more productive, but can also help us in our personal lives.

How to keep at it

“Sustaining one’s attention is notoriously difficult. The longer that an individual performs a task, the worse their performance tends to be,” said Matthew Robison, University of Texas at Arlington assistant professor of psychology and first author of the study. “If you want to encourage people to maintain focus on a task, whether it be learning or job-related, or if you are designing something that you want people to engage with, giving feedback about their performance is a very powerful motivator.”

Having a roadmap of several goals is an effective way to keep us involved with tasks over a longer period of time. Mixing feedback into that process, however, can produce an even more powerful effect, according to new research.

The study involved four rounds of experiments during which participants were asked to perform a simple but attention-intensive task for 30 minutes at a time. Across these different experiments, the researchers tracked how effective three approaches were at increasing the participants’ ability to sustain attention on the task at hand. These approaches were goal-setting, feedback, and incentive manipulations. After each experiment, participants were asked to provide commentary on how motivated and alert they were during the tasks, and to rate their attention levels as either ‘on-task’, ‘wandering’, or ‘absent’.

The first experiment involved task-setting. The results show that having a specific goal in mind helped improve the participants’ ability to sustain their attention over time but didn’t influence their engagement with the task. Task engagement was defined as having higher motivation and lower levels of thoughts unrelated to it.

During the second experiment, the researchers split the task into several time blocks and gave participants feedback at the end of each. The results here showed that the participants had a greater ability to maintain attention and felt greater motivation to complete the task. Feedback, even by itself, was also effective at limiting task-unrelated thoughts, the authors explain.

Incentives by themselves did little to increase either task engagement or performance, they add. Some of the incentives offered to participants during the third step of the study included cash bonuses or early release from the experiment, to mimic the same types of incentives employees are likely to be offered at work.

That being said, participants showed a decline in performance over time during all three experimental stages. As they spent more time with the task, all participants reported feeling less motivated, more fatigued, and that they had a harder time keeping their minds from wandering.

“Even in conditions when people report feeling motivated and engaged, it is difficult to maintain optimal performance, especially if the task is attentionally demanding,” Robison said.

So why are these findings important? It pays to keep in mind that, as humans, we have a set of cognitive limitations that we are forced to work with. This is especially important in settings where constant attention is required, such as for lifeguards or air traffic monitoring. Although important events in such fields are rare, the need for constant vigilance does take a sizable toll on workers, and it can push their attention beyond the limits that individuals can feasibly maintain.

“We need to be cognizant of the level of difficulty involved in sustaining attention when we ask others to perform tasks where they must be attentive for long periods of time,” Robison said. “It is possible that we put ourselves in harm’s way by relying too much on the human attentional system to accomplish feats that may not be achievable.”

The paper “Examining the effects of goal-setting, feedback, and incentives on sustained attention” has been published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance.