Small Victories: Creating Intrinsic Motivation in Task Completion and Debt Repayment

Alexander L. Brown and Joanna N. Lahey
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Key Takeaways

The theoretical model shows that as long as the motivational boost from completing a goal is sufficiently strong, completing tasks in ascending order will lead to optimal performance.

The experiments confirm the theoretical findings: subjects completed a simple typing task fastest when it was divided into segments of ascending order.

The corresponding theoretical model has implications for debt repayment: There are advantages to paying off debts from small to large rather than highest interest rate to lowest, provided that the difference in interest rates are not too great.

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Dividing a large goal into smaller subgoals and completing them from smallest task to largest task boosts motivation and performance more than other arrangements; for small differences in interest rates, this boost may justify paying off debts from smallest to largest balance instead of largest to smallest interest rate as conventional economics would suggest.

“Our results show that subjects complete a tedious task faster when it is broken up into parts in order of ascending length compared with descending or equal lengths.”


Personal finance guru Dave Ramsey recommends ignoring interest rates and paying debts from smallest to largest, which seems irrational—unless it improves motivation.  We wanted to know if there really is a motivational boost from ordering tasks from smallest to largest, and if so, how does this boost occur. Previous psychological literature was torn whether these “small victories” would provide boosts or induce complacency. We hypothesized these boosts would be most effective when tasks were arranged from smallest to largest as in Ramsey’s debt-snowball


We developed a formalized theory of motivation which suggested a series of tasks would be completed fastest if done in ascending order. To test our theoretical predictions, we developed an experiment where students were asked to retype 150 ten-character strings in a Microsoft Excel workbook.


Subjects completed this task faster when it was broken in order of ascending length compared to descending or equal lengths. This is consistent with our theory of motivation and Ramsey’s debt snowball. Interestingly, when asked to choose a task ordering, subjects choose the ascending order least often.


Task completion is something that most of us work on every day.  It is important to know that in addition to breaking up tasks into smaller tasks, the order of the smaller tasks matters for how quickly we complete the tasks.  We do get a productivity boost from checking an item off the to-do list.  An important caveat is that sometimes this motivational boost is still smaller than the difference in “interest rates”, in which case the higher interest rate task should still be assigned first regardless of size.  Managers can use this knowledge to help task completion.  Researchers should consider psychological in addition to rational theories when studying optimal behavior.  Obviously personal finance is an industry that can benefit from the findings, but so can health (exercise, obesity) and the workforce overall (productivity).

Questions for the Classroom

  • What are pre- and post-subgoal motivation and how do they differ? Which is required for the small victories approach to work?
  • Which ordering leads to best subject performance in the typing task? Which do subjects choose most often in the second study? Why might these be different?
  • Explain why there are situations where the traditional economic model of debt-repayment is better than the debt-snowball and vice-versa.

Full Article
Alexander L. Brown and Joanna N. Lahey (2015) Small Victories: Creating Intrinsic Motivation in Task Completion and Debt Repayment. Journal of Marketing Research: December 2015, Vol. 52, No. 6, pp. 768-783.

Alexander L. Brown is Associate Professor, Department of Economics, Texas A&M University.

Joanna N. Lahey is Associate Professor, The Bush School, Texas A&M University.

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Alexander L. Brown and Joanna N. Lahey
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