Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Purpose in Goal Pursuit Practical Tools for Purpose

How to make the first step less daunting: The importance of seeing the future as now

By Haotian Zhou, Alex Shaw


The 18th century French noblewoman Marquise de Deffand once said “The distance doesn’t matter; it is only the first step that is difficult”. This sentiment is as true today as it was then.  People often find it challenging to start a new goal, which can unfortunately detract from their sense of purpose.  Leading a purposeful life requires having the initiative to take that daunting first step toward pursuing a new goal. Thus, it is important for behavioral scientists to explore ways that we can push ourselves toward this path to purpose.  Thankfully, new research by NPP network member Professor Dillip Soman at the University of Toronto and PhD student Yanping Tu at the University of Chicago addresses this important issue by suggesting that that we can help ourselves get started on our goals by changing how we think about the future. 

Image ©: 2004 Paxson Woelber

According to Tu and Soman, any future time point can be viewed as either similar to the present or dissimilar to the present, it all depends on how you think about the future point. For example, a month from now can be viewed as if it's just about to happen (i.e. similar to the present) or like it is in the distant future (i.e. dissimilar to the present). These researchers further hypothesized that people who see a future time point as being similar to the present would be more likely to take the first step toward pursuing their goal than those who think of the same future time point as being dissimilar to the present. They formulated this hypothesis based on past research on goal pursuit, which suggests that when people are faced with a task, they often go through two stages. In the first stage, the deliberative stage, people collect relevant information about the task, weigh the pros and cons and contemplate various strategies for implementing the goal. Then, they go to the second stage, the implemental stage, in which they engage in actions that can bring them closer to the end goal. The deliberative stage is more future oriented and the implemental stage is more present oriented--you deliberate and plan for the future, you act in the present. Thus, thinking about a future time point as being similar to present should lead people to be more likely to act than thinking about the future as the future.  To test their hypothesis they investigated the relationship between how one thinks about a future time point and one’s willingness to get started on a task that must be done by that future time point. 

In one of these experiments, the researcher approached two comparable groups of farmers living in a rural community in India. All of the farmers were given a goal that was designed to help them better manage their money: Open a bank account and then accumulate at least 5000 Indian Rupees (roughly 85 US dollars). They were asked to complete this goal by no later than 6 months after receiving the goal.  The two groups of farmers differed in when they were approached for the study, one was approached in June 2010 (June group) and the other was approached in July of 2010 (July group). Therefore,  the June group’s deadline would be in December, 2010 whereas the July group’s deadline would be in January, 2011. The researchers reasoned that for the June group, the deadline would still be in the same calendar year (2010) as the moment they received their task and so the deadline would be more likely to be viewed as similar to the present. However, for the July group, the deadline would be in a different calendar year (2011) than when they received the task and so they would be more likely to view the deadline as dissimilar to the present. The researchers measured how many of the farmers took the first step (i.e., setting up the bank account) immediately and also how many of them reached their ultimate goal.

The researchers found that a much higher proportion of farmers in the June group (32%) immediately took the first step necessary for completing the task than the July group (8%). Moreover, a much higher proportion of farmers in the June group (28%) actually completed the task before the deadline than the July group (4%). It seems that when the future task deadline is viewed as similar to the present, people are more likely to commence the task in question. In several experiments involving drastically different tasks (e.g. preparing for a large party, finishing data entry job etc.), Tu and Soman consistently found similar results.

One cannot lead a purposeful life without accomplishing the various goals, grand or mundane, that are subordinate to one's ultimate purpose. More often than not, we fail to realize our goals not because of the setbacks suffered during the pursuit but because of the seemingly unyielding inertia that prevents us from taking the first step. The aforementioned new research shows that we can break free of this insidious inertia without so much as breaking a sweat. We can improve our purposeful goal pursuit with nothing more than a shift in the perspective. Seeing the future as now appears to be a powerful way to improve our purpose today! 



Haotian Zhou is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
Alex Shaw is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Purpose in Goal Pursuit Practical Tools for Purpose

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