Like anyone with an overinflated motivation to better themselves over the summer, I resolved to spend some weeks doing bike workouts. Like anyone with a death wish, I chose to go up the steepest SoCal mountains I could find. About 90 percent of each ride was spent muttering darkly while I suffered through the slope and sun. But every time, on that final “home stretch,” the ride actually became … easy.
I, along with anyone who has ever used a treadmill or exercise bike, can thank a convenient little phenomenon called the goal-gradient effect for the sudden late increase in ability. Behavioral psychologist Clark Hull first discovered it in 1932, when he found that rats scampering toward a box of food — the goal — automatically quickened their pace as they neared it. Similarly, as I approached the peak of the brutal climb, a surge of energy magically kicked in and helped me on my way.
While the effect is principally seen in physical endeavors, it spills out into our daily lives as well. A Columbia University study by Ran Kivetz, Oleg Urminsky and Yuhuang Zheng investigated the buying habits of coffeeholics participating in a cafe’s rewards program. The subjects would earn a free drink after a certain number of purchases. At the start of the program, most customers resigned themselves to the idea that no matter how many chocolate croissants and lattes they downed, the free coffee was out of reach. Yet as the consumers’ quantity of purchases slowly edged toward the number necessary to earn a free coffee, the frequency drastically increased.
The crucial factor behind this biological wiring is that the ever-parsimonious body reserves energy and adrenaline for when it most needs it, in an attempt to attain a substantial source of food, water or shelter. So although I had been begging my legs the entire way up the hill for a miraculous boost, they steadfastly refused my supplications until the very top. This leads us to the question of whether we can trick our bodies into giving us that little advantage whenever we’d like.
Fortunately, we can. But it does come with caveats. Common wisdom has always advised that long tasks such as boring essays should be broken up into portions, each with its own mini-goal. The expectation here is that there will be a surge of motivation and energy associated with each little mission. Yet just as the body eventually runs out of its supply of calories, endorphins and adrenaline after charging up a mountain pass, too many goal-oriented efforts will end up sapping our resolve. So perhaps it’s a better idea to just endure the drudgery until your brain kicks into high gear.
Though you’re certainly eager to bury yourself in mammalian physiology or differential equations, if you burn yourself out now, you’ll be spent when you need your mental faculties the most. So just relax, and let finals week take care of itself once December swings along. Listen to Blurred Lines another 50 times. Watch some slapstick Vines every now and again. And just have a fabulous fall quarter, everyone.