Motivation, Happiness and the Goldilocks Rule

October 17, 2017 in Fitness, Health, Psychology of Food by Joyce Bunderson

James Clear, an author that I find interesting for his insights on motivating people to build better habits, posted an article on that subject, which I want to relate to changing our eating habits. Because it’s a fun article with great examples, you may want to read his fairly short article on the Goldilocks Rule in its entirety so here is the link.

He tells us one result of decades of studies by scientists — a most consistent finding, is that work on tasks of “just manageable” difficulty is very motivating. Clear and many behavioral scientists he studies (he is an insightful writer, photographer, and weightlifter), call this phenomenon The Goldilocks Rule. He says that; “Human beings love challenges, but only if they are within the optimal zone of difficulty.” In his article he explains that tasks significantly below your current abilities are boring; beyond your abilities are discouraging, but those right on the edge of success and failure are incredibly motivating to our human brains – they’re just right, like the not-too-hot, not-too-cold porridge Goldilocks selected from the bear’s table. Little did the little innocent know that her quite sensible choice would become known years later as “The Goldilocks Rule.”

I think that creating and improving exercise and eating habits could benefit from looking at “Not too hard;” “Not too easy;” and “Just right.” When setting goals, it’s important to try to discover “what’s just right” as far as difficulty. It’s critical to continued success to be sure that sufficient victories keep motivating us and a few mistakes keep us working hard.

In my experience I’ve noticed that when deciding on goals many people (usually filled with extreme emotional motivation and desire) choose goals far past their ability to accomplish. The goals are too perfectionist. Instead of being clearly do-able, and giving some kind of leeway for error they are too hard, too discouraging. Sometimes hopeful people try to make a leap from horrible health habits to extreme exercise and perfect eating in a single leap. When the individual fails to be perfect, they’re filled with discouragement and often give up immediately, instead of adjusting the goal; or observing what led to the failure and how it might be avoided and/or corrected. The simple, sensible type of choice modeled by Goldilocks should indeed inspire these people.

In addition, to working on challenges of an optimal level of difficulty, Clear says that there is a bonus – happiness. He advises that working on challenges at optimal level of difficulty is not only motivating; but also has been shown to be a major source of happiness. He quotes Gilbert Brim; “One of the important sources of human happiness is working on tasks at a suitable level of difficulty, neither too hard nor too easy.” He goes on to discuss “flow” which is a blend of happiness and peak performance. Clear explains that the state of “flow” gives immediate feedback about how you’re doing and that “seeing yourself make progress in the moment is incredibly motivating.

It’s worth the few minutes that it would take to read Clear’s article. He ends by sharing the two steps in sticking with and staying motivated in goals to improve our lives:

  1. Stick to the Goldilocks Rule – tasks of just manageable difficulty.
  2. Measure progress and receive immediate feedback whenever possible; then repeat the process.

We’re just about to begin the eating season. The kickoff often begins when the Halloween candy comes home for the little ‘trick or treaters;’ Wink! Wink! and it ends with the remorse of the New Years Eve celebrations. Why not consider some doable goals; build in immediate feedback on “just right” tasks and discover if this ‘eating season’ can be a little happier?