April 2, 2018

“I’m going to write a novel!” I proudly proclaimed to anyone who would listen. It was 2010, and I was a wide-eyed college student who had recently discovered NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), an annual nationwide effort to write 50,000 words during the month of November.

The future was bright; I had publicly shared my intentions and people were “holding me accountable.” Two key things that will help us achieve our goals, right?

Except I never did finish that novel. While I did hit the 50,000-word mark, I abandoned the manuscript in its preliminary editing stages. So what happened?

Some research suggests that praising my novel-writing intentions is precisely where I went wrong. Let’s dive into the science-backed reasons you may want to praise your process—not your end goal—and ask the same of the people who support you.

'Process Praise' Packs the Most Punch

woman-working-at-home

In a Reed College study, researchers attempted to gauge the effect certain types of praise have on our motivation. They assigned 111 college students to one of three groups:

●︎ Person praise: Feedback related to the individual.

●︎ Process praise: Feedback related to the method taken.

●︎ No praise: No feedback.

Each group was then asked to complete three puzzles.

After completing the first two puzzles, students in the person praise group received written feedback such as, “Excellent! You must have a natural talent!” Students in the process praise group received feedback such as, “Excellent! You must be using some really effective strategies!” And the third group received no praise.

The third and final puzzle was meant to induce failure, and students in all groups received feedback that simply said, “You didn’t do as well on this last one.”

Following the first two puzzles, questionnaire answers showed there was no effect on the participants’ intrinsic motivation. But after the third “failure” puzzle, results showed that, across all grade levels, person praise was less motivating than process praise. Seniors, in particular, reported greater intrinsic motivation after process praise versus person praise or no praise at all.

These results led researchers to infer that “all age groups beyond preschool appear to be more positively affected by process praise than person praise after encountering failure.”

While it’s natural for the people you love to praise you after you announce an intention, this study suggests that when someone praises you for an inherent trait that you have little to no control over, it isn’t very helpful. Further, in some cases, it may be less motivating than receiving no praise at all, particularly after you experience failure.

It’s more helpful if people respond with praise focused on your process.

So, for example, if you were to announce that you want to become fluent in Mandarin, and everyone responded with person praise, such as, “Wow, you must be really smart!” and then you fail your Mandarin test, that setback could negatively affect your motivation to achieve your goal. It’s more helpful if people respond with praise focused on your process, such as, “That’s awesome that you practice new vocabulary every morning!”

So, What’s A Goal-Getter To Do?

woman-at-work

As with any advice, this isn’t one-size-fits-all. Studies can only take us so far. But what the research suggests is that if you’re going to share your goals with others or praise your own goals, do it strategically. Before you get excited about your intention, think about celebrating the process, too.

While I never followed through with publishing my novel despite announcing that goal to everyone I knew, I’m not too upset that it fell by the wayside. I’ve since shifted my focus to nonfiction instead.

So does that mean I’m writing a memoir now? (I’m not telling.)

A version of this article originally appeared on blog.trello.com


Read next: We Make 35K Decisions a Day—Here's How to Beat Decision Fatigue)


Live in NYC and want to help more than a million people start their day empowered? Shine's hiring across content, product design, and engineering. Check out our job openings here.