Journey vs. destination: Motivation experts break down which one to focus on to reach your goals

New studies reveal how to use metaphors to motivate yourself.

New studies reveal how to use metaphors to motivate yourself

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

There's nothing more natural than using path- and travel-related metaphors. We've all spoken of "long roads ahead", "heading in the right direction", or "taking a wrong turn." Szu-Chi Huang and Jennifer Aaker, psychologists at the Stanford School of Business, say that path-metaphors aren't just a convenient way to describe our goals. They recently conducted six studies involving over 1,600 people who were pursuing fitness, diet, and educational goals and found that whether people focus on "the journey" or "the destination" makes a big difference to motivation and success. We reached out and asked about the differences between the two kinds of metaphors, and how we can use them to motivate ourselves at each stage on the way to our goals.

Journey versus destination

The destination is "like a dot on the map," says Huang, "It's the desired end-state of all our striving." If you're trying to lose 20 pounds, then 20 pounds lighter is the destination. According to Huang, thinking about the destination highlights the difference between where we are now and where we want to be: "Knowing there is an ideal state and they are not there yet, that gap motivates people," she says. It's not just the beauty of our goal, it's the pain of not yet having achieved it.

Journey metaphors, by contrast, "draw a line from your current state to your future state and illuminate what it looks like." Thinking about the journey calls our attention to all the things we'll need to do, the obstacles and milestones, the highs and lows along the way.

Starting the journey

Big goals can be exciting, but they don't come with directions. It's easy to say "I'm going to get into great shape this year," but that doesn't tell us what to do tomorrow. Therefore, thinking about the journey is especially important right at the beginning.

If you're setting out on a fitness journey, for example, Huang recommends prepping the same way you would for an actual physical trip. "What do we do when we're going on a trip? We buy the equipment we need: the appropriate shoes, the gym membership, whatever tools we need. We prepare by reading books or taking a course." Also, notes Huang, most people don't like to travel alone, so this is the time to find travelling companions with similar goals.

Focusing on the journey also "helps us to map out the milestones and sub-goals that we'll need to reach along the way." At the outset, focusing only on the final destination can be discouraging if we don't have a clear path to get there. Huang says setting out milestones gives us immediate direction, allows us to experience small successes along the way, and builds in opportunities to review whether our companions and equipment are still right for the next stage in the journey.

On the path to victory

According to Huang, whether we should keep our eyes on the prize or focus on putting one foot in front of the other depends on where we are in the journey.

In research for a 2017 article, she found that thinking about the destination can be demotivating in two ways. When our goals seem unattainable, "we tend to disengage because we don't like to commit to things that are impossible." This is especially a problem in the early stages of a journey when the destination is still far-off and we haven't proved to ourselves that we can hack it.

Yet we also disengage when goals are too attainable. "It's a tortoise and hare effect," says Huang, "Losing one more pound sounds simple and I won't care about it much, so maybe I'll just go grab a dessert." When a journey is going well and the end is in sight, small sub-goals seem less relevant and we start to slow down.

When this happens, "It's time to bring back that big destination." Huang suggests using visualization to help bring your final goal to life. "If I want to lose five pounds, I visualize the dress I want to look good in or imagine myself in a situation where my friends can compliment me on feeling so much fitter in my workout class." When we visualize things, it engages our emotions and makes it personally relevant. For Huang, saying she wants to "lose five pounds" won't do the trick, "A number is just a number. There's no emotion around it, no relevance."

How to keep climbing once you've reached the summit

When we reach our goals, it's normal to relax and forget about the long slog that got us there. This makes sense when our goals are limited in scope. But many goals are really about lasting personal change. As Aaker puts it, "The point of education is not the diploma, it's to keep learning in the future. The point of getting in shape is not to lose the extra five pounds, it's to keep the weight off and maintain your healthy habits into the future.… In this light, success isn't the short-run win; it's the subsequent activity that you adopt after you achieved your goal."

If we're trying to establish long-term changes, focusing on a destination that we've already reached might hurt our chances. We've closed the distance where we are and where we want to be that used to motivate us. This is why people tend to revert to their old behaviours once they've achieved a fitness or weight-loss goal. 

The six studies on fitness, dieting, and educational goal that Aaker and Huang recently published revealed that, "Across each of these studies thinking about success as a journey helps people see greater change and personal growth," says Aaker, "which fuels them to continue eating healthily and continue learning after achieving their original goals."

The reason that focusing on the journey helps people keep up their good behaviour is that it reminds us of the distance we have crossed, the gap between who we were when we set out and who we are now. "When we have positive change, we want to hold onto it. We don't want to go back to how we were," says Huang.

It also helps us internalize the behaviours that we used on the way. As Huang puts it, "If I think about the journey, I feel like I've changed. I'm now the person who works out or is mindful about eating." And when the behaviours become part of her identity, Huang says "I'll do it with or without reward. You don't need to incentivize me and give me points for going to the gym anymore, this is part of who I am."

How do we take advantage of this powerful effect? When you've achieved a goal, take some time to reflect on how you got there. Think of the ups and downs on the way and link the behaviours that you used with the positive change that you experienced. To make this reflection more powerful, Huang recommends documenting your progress along the way. "Take photos if it's a physical change. Journal and take notes along the way, the more personal the better." If you haven't recorded your journey, says Huang, it's still worth doing. "Close your eyes and think for a few minutes about what happened last month. What changed in the last month? These are the things we want to make a connection to using this journey mindset." Either way, the key is to find a sense of positive growth and link it to the behaviours that helped you achieve your goals.

Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.