Goals: They can be easy to set but hard to keep. Now, a new study led by scientists at Queen Mary University of London provides clues why. 

For the study, a group of participants was asked to choose a task from a variety of options, all of which required different levels of effort with varying degrees of financial reward.

As it turns out, a big payout isn’t always enough to coax out our best efforts.

Effort can be a roadblock

“Common sense suggests the amount of effort we put into a task directly relates to the level of reward we expect in return,” Dr. Agata Ludwiczak, a Research Fellow from Queen Mary University of London and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

“However, building psychological and economic evidence indicates that often high rewards are not enough to ensure people put in the effort they need to achieve their targets.” 

As expected, the volunteers involved in the study gravitated toward tasks with the highest prize, but their performance dwindled upon execution. 

That’s because when we set goals we focus on rewards, Dr. Ludwiczak says, but when we work towards them, our attention shifts toward the amount of work required and we tend to lose interest.

“If we aren’t careful our plans can be informed by unrealistic expectations because we pay too much attention to the rewards. Then when we face the reality of our choices, we realize the effort is too much and give up,” Dr. Osman, reader in experimental psychology at Queen Mary, says.

“For example, getting up early to exercise for a new healthy lifestyle might seem like a good choice when we decide on our new year’s resolutions, but once your alarm goes off on a cold January morning, the rewards aren’t enough to get you up and out of bed.”

Read the full paper here.