Make self-control effortless by choosing goals that light you up

Science says it’s easier to reach goals that feel fun, important, or meaningful. Here’s why.

Riikka Iivanainen
11 min readMar 11, 2024

The internet is filled with tips on how to achieve your goals: start small, set implementation intentions, remove temptations from your environment, build habits, . . . And although such behavioral strategies can be very useful, focusing only on them may miss a crucial aspect of successful goal pursuit: why you’re pursuing the goal in the first place.

Research shows that people are more likely to make progress on and accomplish goals that they enjoy, that are aligned with their values and self-concept, or that they’ve identified as personally important.¹ Pursuing goals due to external or internal pressure — to get praise or approval, gain rewards, or avoid punishment — doesn’t, however, reliably predict goal progress.²

I witness this in my own life all the time.

I had little trouble working on this story every morning before work for several weeks. In the meanwhile, I kept moving a manual, and rather boring, work task from one day’s to-do list to the next — for two weeks. And this is coming from a person who prides herself in having high self-control.

So what’s driving the progress on goals that we perceive as enjoyable, meaningful, or important? (I’ll refer to these goals as “want-to goals” from now on.*)

In this article, we’ll explore the science at the intersection of goal pursuit, self-control, and motivation. It’s a story about what makes the why so powerful. I end the story by answering some questions the research might raise.

If you love what you do, you’ll want to keep doing it. Sounds obvious, but we still easily forget about it. Photo by John Moeses Bauan on Unsplash

Want-to goals feel easier (even if they aren’t)

Some goals just feel easier. This is what a group of social psychologists concluded after studying want-to motivation and goal progress (in fact, it’s the title of their paper).³

They asked about 180 university students to list which three personal goals they were currently pursuing, why, and how difficult each goal was. Then, they followed these students over the course of one semester. Throughout the study, the participants rated how easy and effortless pursuing their goals felt.

“The results suggest that participants found want-to goals easier to pursue regardless of how difficult they had initially rated the goal.”

The results suggest that participants found want-to goals easier to pursue regardless of how difficult they had initially rated the goal. They also made more progress on the goals that they experienced as more effortless.

Another study looked specifically at interest — one facet of want-to motivation — and found similar results.⁴ Participants who reported liking math felt less mentally fatigued after solving (rather dull) math problems compared to the participants who didn’t like math. And they did so despite being more likely to choose harder math problems.

Here’s how the researchers interpreted their results:

“People who enjoy a given task may be more likely to perceive that engaging in the task is easier or less tiring, which in turn facilitates further task engagement.”

So when you do something you consider fun, you don’t find it that draining — even if you’re working hard. And then you want to do more of it.

It also seems like there’s something about want-to goals that makes self-control easier (or even unnecessary).

Want-to motivation makes us less attracted to temptations

“I couldn’t give up cheese.” This is perhaps the most common comment I get when people hear that I eat a (mainly whole-food) plant-based diet. And I don’t blame them; five years ago I could’ve said the same thing when meeting someone who’s vegan.

Because I loved my cheese back then. I put it on bread every morning. I ate “parmesan with pasta bolognese” as my family used to joke. And I considered a nacho platter with a generous helping of cheese one of my favorite foods.

Due to my love of cheese, I’ve been quite surprised by how easy it’s been to say “no” to this and many other delicious animal-based foods. It could be that I just have great willpower. But based on the research I’ve read, it could also be that the source of my motivation — I changed my diet because it was important and meaningful to me — has made it easier to opt for the hummus instead of the cheddar.

Research shows that active goals may shield against temptation by automatically guiding a person towards the goal they’re pursuing.⁵ ⁶ ⁷ Want-to goals seem to be particularly good at activating these unconscious processes and buffering against temptations.⁸

“One study found that participants who wanted to eat healthy for personal reasons implicitly rated healthy foods more positively than unhealthy foods.”

One study found that participants who wanted to eat healthy for personal reasons (want-to motivation) implicitly rated healthy foods more positively than unhealthy foods.⁸ Have-to motivation didn’t show such effects; there was only a minor inclination towards unhealthy foods.†

But do these findings translate into real-life settings, too?

The same researchers ran another two studies to find out.⁸ In these studies, they followed students pursuing some personal goals either over a week or the course of an entire semester. They tracked things like quality of motivation, perceived obstacles, and effort.‡

The two studies had similar results:

  • Participants experienced fewer obstacles (temptations) when pursuing want-to goals.
  • Participants did not exert more or less effort on want-to goals as opposed to have-to goals.
  • Participants were more likely to attain want-to goals.

Based on these results, it does seem like want-to goals shield against temptations even in real life. As a result, we make more progress on those goals without needing to try harder. Maybe this effect has helped me stick with the plant-based diet.

But surely there are times when we need to revert to some good old willpower to steer away from temptations. Does want-to motivation protect us in these situations as well?

Want-to motivation makes self-control less draining

Let’s say I go to a party where my friends are barbecuing but the only plant-based foods on offer are grilled corn and pineapples. While I’m eyeing the veggies with my stomach growling, someone pushes a plate of meaty sausages in my face. Nevertheless, I decide to politely decline the sausages and eat a proper meal once I get home from the party.

Based on the classic — and somewhat controversial — strength model of self-control,⁹ saying “no” to temptation like this would drain my willpower reserves, leaving me vulnerable to further temptations. When I get home, I might snap at my partner or binge on a tub of vegan ice cream as a starter to my meal. (I describe this effect in more detail in my article on effortless self-control.)

But is self-control equally draining for want-to as for have-to reasons?

Well, most of the studies that explore what happens when we exert self-control put participants through a series of arbitrary exercises that require control or inhibition. Some scholars have criticized this approach because it may lead participants to experience have-to motivation.¹⁰

These critics have suggested that modifying the study design might alter the findings. And it has:

  • Participants persisted longer in a self-control task (holding a handgrip) after resisting the temptation to eat cookies when they did so for want-to reasons (because it felt important or like a fun challenge) as opposed to have-to reasons (because they wanted the experimenter to like them or they’d feel guilty if they ate the cookies).¹¹
  • Participants who were rewarded for merely participating in an experiment in which they had to control their laughter during a funny video did better in a subsequent pattern recognition task than participants who were rewarded for their performance (how well they controlled their laughter).¹²

The following quote summarizes the findings well¹²:

“The results suggest that self-control is affected by how one feels about the task. Self-control that feels more externally determined is more depleting than self-control that feels more personally chosen. — — Together, these studies converge on the idea that why someone engages in a task (either making a choice or exerting self-control) matters as much as how much effort he or she puts forth.”

So now we know one reason why it’s easier to make progress on goals that are fun, important, or meaningful: because the (unconscious) mind and body are on our side, effortlessly steering us toward our goal and away from temptations.

So if you want to make a goal easier to reach, choose one that lights you up.

This is where the story ends. Kind of. . .

Q&A: A few questions this story might raise — and a few answers

While I was working on this story, I realized that it might raise some questions in the reader:

  1. Should I just drop all the things I dislike and follow my interests?
  2. Can anyone cultivate these effortless want-to goals?
  3. What if I don’t have any activity that I truly enjoy or value? How do I tap into this?

Next, I’d like to answer these questions. While I do that, I’ll also cover some cool research that didn’t fit into the main part of the story.

1. Should I just drop all the things I dislike and follow my interests?

“Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

I’m sure many of you have heard this phrase. And if we consider the research we just covered, we could say there’s some truth to it. Still, it might not be wise to just drop all uninteresting activities and chase the fun.

Here’s why:

Sometimes boring tasks are part of a generally interesting job (this also goes for hobbies). The work task I procrastinated on for two weeks is an example of that. Yes, it was a bit boring. But most of my job isn’t. I don’t think any job can feel fun, important, or meaningful 100% of the time. But it might feel so 75% of the time. That’s alright. Just get the less interesting tasks done, and move on to the stuff you enjoy more.

It’s easy to fall into the passion trap if we try to navigate work life based on interest: “The more emphasis you place on finding work you love, the more unhappy you become when you don’t love every minute of the work you have.” Research also indicates that people tend to pursue leisure goals for more want-to reasons than academic goals.² It’s only natural that work doesn’t always feel that exciting; you’re often just doing what you’re told (the definition of a have-to goal).

Sometimes an uninteresting activity turns into an activity you enjoy. “Mood follows action,” as the podcaster and ultra runner Rich Roll likes to say. So don’t claim you lack want-to motivation for an activity you haven’t even gotten started on yet. Try it out, and see how you feel while doing it. Many of the work tasks I initially deem as “boring” are, in fact, a lot more enjoyable once I stop procrastinating and actually work on them.

Nothing fun is fun all the time. After a social dancing party last weekend, I talked with a guy who clearly felt disappointed and discouraged by his dancing that day. Nevertheless, he wasn’t planning to quit dancing altogether based on this experience; he knew that on some days, you feel it, and on others, you don’t.

So here’s my answer: No, you shouldn’t drop everything you dislike (unless you want to conduct a personal experiment and take some risks). But. . .

When it comes to picking activities that you don’t rely on to pay for the electricity bill or your daughter’s daycare, it would be foolish to completely dismiss the power of interest, especially since accomplishing want-to goals leads to more happiness than accomplishing other types of goals.¹ ¹³

2. Can anyone cultivate these effortless want-to goals?

The short answer is: “Maybe.” Here’s the slightly longer answer:

Studies have found that about 75–80% of the differences in motivation come from between goals — not between people.⁸ ³ This variability is also reflected in how easy pursuing a goal feels. In other words, it’s not that some people have goals that feel easier; it’s that some goals feel easier than others.

“It’s not that some people have goals that feel easier; it’s that some goals feel easier than others.”

But here’s the caveat: Being in an environment which supports a person’s basic psychological needs (autonomy, relatedness, competence) seems to help people pick goals that truly interest them.¹⁴ So if you find yourself in an environment which undermines your needs — one in which you feel pressured to make certain choices, for example — it can be harder to cultivate want-to goals.

Therefore, the first step is to find environments that feel psychologically safer to you and leave the ones that don’t. Opt for the running group, where you feel the other members’ excitement when you’re out on the trail, and opt out of the dance class, where the teacher harshly picks on individual students.

If I made it sound easy, I apologize. It isn’t. It may take months or even years to start cultivating true want-to goals. In some cases, it may be useful to get professional help. When you feel better, more want-to goals will naturally follow.

3. What if I don’t have any activity that I truly enjoy or value? How do I tap into this?

Needing to know what you like before picking a goal can feel like too big of a demand (I’ve certainly been there). I also think it’s unnecessary. I believe you can find out what you enjoy and value by doing; thinking may actually get in the way of this process.

Instead of getting stuck in analysis paralysis, you can conduct experiments. You can pick a new activity almost at random. Or if in dire need of getting unstuck, completely at random: Pick two activities and flip a coin.

I once signed up for a poetry course after casually searching for interesting courses near me (I was actually looking for a course on improvisational theater). I signed up for it despite feeling terrified of sharing my scribbles with others.

While conducting your experiments, pay attention to how you feel. If some activity turns you into the starry-eyed emoji (bouldering did that to me), opt for that. If it’s a “naw,” continue on to the next one.

It’s OK not to find the Next Big Thing. You may nevertheless learn something about yourself. I didn’t continue on to the second semester of the poetry course, but I learned that I enjoy sharing my writing even if it’s scary.

“Instead of trying to choose goals that light you up, let the goals that light you up choose you.”

The approach I just described flips the search for want-to goals on its head. Instead of trying to choose goals that light you up, let the goals that light you up choose you.

I recently overheard a conversation between two friends on the subway. One of them was criticizing the way in which most people practice an instrument: “People practice boring songs on a boring instrument in boring company. No wonder they don’t feel like playing much.” The two friends went on to share how they’d become more consistent with their hobbies by making them more fun.

So let’s take their advice and choose fun songs to play and play them on a fun instrument in fun company. We just might play a bit longer and more often than before. And become a bit happier in the process.

Notes & references

I collected all the notes and references into this Google Doc. Check it out if you want to dig deeper.

If you’re interested in learning more about effortless self-control, check out my article The secret life of people with high self-control (it’s easier than you think).

If you keep juggling between hobbies and interests, you may resonate with my article On the inability to keep liking things: Confessions of a nomad of interests.

But is self-control always a good thing? More on that in The upside of failing at self-control.



Riikka Iivanainen

Writer, content designer, and user researcher fascinated by the human mind and behavior. I study (social) psychology for fun and love to tell stories.