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I’m terrible at estimating distances. I’m actually good at it in terms of my goals — my goal with distance exercise is to make sure I get a minimum, and so I always estimate in a way that ends up “over,” sometimes way over. But I get teased from time to time by other people — who don’t share my goal perspective and just want to have real information for planning purposes. I always knew there was a method to my madness — it turns out I may actually be “blind” to the difference.

What We See Is What We Get

Emily Balcetis studies visual perception and motivation at NYU, and is interested in the way they relate to behavior. We see the world through glasses that might be half-full — or half-empty. In this video, she discusses fascinating research showing that people with smaller waistlines (a loose proxy for better physical fitness) estimated a distance (that they were asked to cover) as shorter than people with larger waistlines did. Pursuing the question, they found that even people with larger waistlines estimated the distance as shorter if they were highly motivated to exercise.

How Can I Use This?

Balcetis’s team also compared two groups: one group was told to focus strongly on a finish line they were then sent toward. The other group was not — in fact, they were primed that they would notice other things around the finish line. The “Eyes on the Prize” group reported that the exercise was easier, but timing showed that they moved faster, too — a lot faster. There is no reason for us to be surprised by this. The team’s very label for this focusing exercise — Eyes on the Prize — is precisely the conventional wisdom meant to make this happen.

Here are some ways you can keep your Eyes on the Prize:

Focus on your end point: We don’t always see the finish line, but when we do, that can elicit a “kick” — a burst of energy to get across. We can also track our time or distance remaining, or urge ourselves to maintain a pace by figuring out our end time and focusing on it. “The faster I run, the sooner I’m done” — even if you enjoy what you’re doing, it’s nice to get it done.

Make a checklist to work through: “Eyes on the Prize” works great if you’re covering a distance, especially when the end is literally in sight. But not all workouts are set up that way. If you are lifting weights, for example, a checklist or sets/reps plan helps you visualize your workout, see your accomplishment, and track your progress in a similar way. (And keeping a record of what you did is a good idea in any case — it helps keep you on track and can be a helpful reminder of your progress if you happen to have a bad day.)

Compare today’s state to a larger goal: “My goal is to run 30 minutes without stopping. Today I ran 16. I’m more than halfway there!” Or “My goal is to deadlift my body weight. Today I lifted 80% — almost there!” It may help to avoid using a weight-loss goal for this, because weight bounces around a lot normally. Exercise improvements are more predictable.

All of these methods help us build a track record of success. The blinders-on focus on getting there, which may actually make us faster, helps us succeed. The workout log, showing both what we did and how regularly we did it, shows we can follow through on plans that aren’t as obvious as just crossing a finish line. Progress toward our goals shows us they are attainable — and gives us the confidence to set new goals for the future, goals we might once have thought absurd.

Do you have some favorite methods for keeping your Eyes on the Prize?

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