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Effort Matters! The Effect of Self-Control on Perceived Goal Progress

Effort Matters! The Effect of Self-Control on Perceived Goal Progress

Antea Gambicorti and Niccolò Piccioni

Journal of Marketing Research Scholarly Insights are produced in partnership with the AMA Doctoral Students SIG – a shared interest network for Marketing PhD students across the world.

Say you set a goal to finish a book by reading ten pages every night instead of watching TV. One night, just as you’re about to open the book, a new episode of one of your favorite TV shows comes on. Despite it being difficult, you focus and read the book instead. The next day, there’s nothing tempting on TV and you read ten pages easily. When comparing these two situations, it’s clear that you made the same amount of objective progress toward your goal each night—but is that how it feels?

Accomplishing goals relies not only on getting started but also on the amount of self-control required to accomplish goal-consistent tasks. In a recent Journal of Marketing Research study, researchers Hoori Rafieian and Marissa Sharif show that when consumers exercise more self-control in choosing an option that is consistent with their goal (vs. an inconsistent alternative), they perceive that they have made more progress toward the goal. This is because when consumers exert more (vs. less) self-control to choose a goal-consistent task, they infer higher commitment to the goal. Subsequently, this leads consumers to perceive that future goal pursuit will be less challenging.


When consumers exercise more self-control in choosing an option that is consistent with their goal, they perceive that they have made more progress toward the goal.

The authors study the role of app notifications, before and after the activity, to motivate and make consumers reflect on the self-control exercised to complete it. They also analyze the effectiveness of digital badges, rewards, and incentives that acknowledge the effort put into the activity, hence allowing consumers to feel closer to achieving their goal and making them more likely to continue engaging with the app.

This has important implications for marketers of applications such as Weight Watchers, Mint, or Todoist that help consumers achieve their weight loss, saving, and task completion goals, respectively. These apps can remind their users of their self-control effort or encourage them to approach their to-do list by completing tasks that require higher self-control. The findings suggest that these users will not only find the app more helpful but they will also be more motivated to engage with the goal and stay with the app further.

We interviewed Hoori Rafieian and Marissa Sharif to discover how the outcomes of this study can shape managerial practices.

Q: What motivated you to study the effect of self-control on goal progress perception? Why do you consider this an important topic for researchers and consumers?

A: We decided to study this research question due to noticing an interesting trend in our own behavior. We both use to-do lists (as many people do) to complete our tasks. Some of these tasks on our to-do list often feel difficult to initiate, even if they only take a few minutes to complete, such as calling to make a doctor’s appointment. However, we noticed that after completing these tasks that were difficult to initiate, but not necessarily difficult to complete, we felt that we had made a lot of progress toward finishing our to-do list. Further, we felt substantially more progress completing these tasks than other items on our to-do list that would take the same amount of time and effort to complete but were easier to initiate (e.g., responding to an email). In diving into this question, we realized that tasks that felt difficult to initiate were tasks that required more self-control to complete. Exerting self-control to merely initiate a goal-relevant task leads people to feel like they have made more progress.

We decided to dive in further because perceptions of progress, regardless of how well-calibrated they are, play an important role in understanding and predicting consumer motivation. However, there is a paucity of research that explores how people form these perceptions of progress. By exploring this question, we contribute to this small but growing area of research.

Q: Self-control can be implemented before, during, and after an activity. In this regard, what type of information should companies collect, and what practices may then stimulate the effect of self-control on goal progress perception in each step?

A: In our research, we find that merely having consumers reflect on the self-control they have exerted in the past can similarly boost perceptions of goal progress. Thus, companies can send messages to consumers that have them reflect on the self-control they exerted, after successfully completing a task. This does not only increase consumers’ perceptions of progress but also improves perceptions of the company itself. Thus, companies can simply track when consumers are able to successfully complete a task and have them reflect afterward on the self-control they had to exert to complete such task.

Q: Can you elaborate on the “starting problem” effect? How can companies address the challenges emerging from this problem?

A: According to the “starting problem,” when people are far from reaching a goal, or when they feel that the goal is difficult to achieve, they may have a harder time motivating themselves to start/initiate a task related to that goal. As described above, while the starting problem can pose a challenge to task initiation, our results suggest that companies can have users retrospectively think about the self-control associated with the task, any task, which they successfully completed, and in that, both increase users’ perception of progress they have made on their goal and motivate them to work on the remaining tasks.

Q: Let’s assume that a consumer uses a fitness app on a frequent basis. How can companies avoid using repetitive messages at the end of every workout to maintain goal progress perception across the week?

A: For one, companies can ask consumers to reflect on the self-control that they had to exert each time. In particular, they could ask consumers which obstacles they faced on a particular day. This is likely to vary from day to day and week to week. They could even ask users to assign a self-control score each day they complete a task (e.g., each day of workout). For example, a user can assign a high score to complete a run after it has been raining. Companies can further gamify the process by giving badges or points for every retrospectively high-difficulty task the user completes.

Relatedly, companies do not necessarily need to message consumers every day that they complete a task. For example, companies could ask consumers to reflect on their self-control after their first day of completing a goal-relevant task, after successfully completing two consecutive days of completing a goal-relevant task, and then after completing a week, and then a month. That is, they could message at different milestones and then taper their messaging accordingly. 

Q: What other sectors (beyond fitness, healthcare, and money-saving) could the study be extended to, and why? Do you think there might be sectors where excessive self-control may backfire?

A: Our findings are relevant to any goal-setting context, from health and finances to work and learning a new language. In each of these areas, some self-control is required to prioritize a goal-related task over an outside option that is more attractive at the moment. In our experiments, we manipulate the difficulty, or the self-control required, to choose to initiate the task. We suggest that the mental difficulty of choosing to do a task is not the same as the objective difficulty of completing the task. Thus, we do not think after completing a task that requires more (vs. less) self-control to choose to complete that there would be negative effects, as the task itself is not more physically draining and/or does not take more time.

Importantly, we concentrate on the downstream consequence of successfully completing a task that requires more (vs. less) self-control to choose to complete. However, it is possible that highlighting the self-control needed to choose to complete a task before choosing to do so could lead consumers to be less likely to start the task at all. Thus, we think it’s important for companies to highlight the self-control that consumers exerted after completing the task to reduce this possibility.

Q: Do you think there might be differences between consumers from different cultural backgrounds?

A: While the idea that effort and outcome are positively correlated is commonly emphasized in American culture (e.g., in popular expressions such as “no pain, no gain”), the relationship between hard work and success is not an exclusively American notion. For example, there are similar popular slogans in the Persian literature that encourage hard work if one wants to achieve success. But whether and how effort is translated to progress and motivates further effort across different cultures are interesting questions that should be examined in future research.

Read the Full Study for Complete Details

Read the full article:

Hoori Rafieian and Marissa A. Sharif (2023), “It’s the Effort That Counts: The Effect of Self-Control on Goal Progress Perceptions,” Journal of Marketing Research, 60 (3), 527–42. doi:10.1177/00222437221123969

Antea Gambicorti is a doctoral student in marketing, University of Pisa, Italy.

Niccolò Piccioni is a doctoral student in marketing, Sapienza University of Rome, Italy.