To-Go Thinkers versus To-Date Thinkers, Which Are You?

Accountability Productivity


The Japanese have a great tradition when goal setting. They paint one eye of a Daruma doll black upon setting a goal, the “start,” and then paint in the other eye when the goal is attained, “the finish.” When people work with you, do they believe that you will get done what you started? In other words are you more a finisher or a starter? A recent Harvard Business Review blog by Heidi Grant Halverson got me reflecting on this.

Halverson refers to recent research by University of Chicago psychologists Minjung Koo and Ayelet Fishbach who examined how people pursuing goals were affected by focusing on either how far they had already come (to-date thinking) or what was left to be accomplished (to-go thinking).

The following is her summary: “People routinely use both kinds of thinking to motivate themselves. A marathon runner may choose to think about the miles already traveled or the ones that lie ahead. A dieter who wants to lose 30 pounds may try to fight temptation by reminding themselves of the 20 pounds already lost, or the 10 left to go.

Intuitively, both approaches have their appeal. But too much to-date thinking, focusing on what you’ve accomplished so far, will actually undermine your motivation to finish rather than sustain it.

Koo and Fishbach’s studies consistently show that when we are pursuing a goal and consider how far we’ve already come, we feel a premature sense of accomplishment and begin to slack off. For instance, in one study, college students studying for an exam in an important course were significantly more motivated to study after being told that they had 52% of the material left to cover compared to being told that they had already completed 48%.

When we focus on progress made, we’re also more likely to try to achieve a sense of balance by making progress on other important goals. This is classic good starter behavior — lots of pots on the stove, but nothing is ever ready to eat.

If, instead, we focus on how far we have left to go (to-go thinking), motivation is not only sustained, and it’s heightened. Fundamentally, this has to do with the way our brains are wired. To-go thinking helps us tune in to the presence of a discrepancy between where we are now and where we want to be. When the human brain detects a discrepancy, it reacts by throwing resources at it: attention, effort, deeper processing of information, and willpower.”

Character Move:

  1. Stay focused on the end goal; consciously become more of a “to-go thinker.”
  2. Get motivated by the highlighting discrepancy to the end state.
  3. Do not accept progress as a victory by itself.
  4. Celebrate when the finish happens.
  5. Paint that second eye of your Daruma black and become known as a finisher.

“To-go thinking” in the Triangle,