Direct attention to the smaller part completed or that left to go

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What it is?

A method of keeping motivation on a task.

Why it is useful?

If people are focussing on the smaller part of the task they have already done or the smaller part that is left to go then they are more likely to complete the task.

How do I use it?

Direct attention to the smaller part completed or that left to go in your team

Background information

By Steve Martin, CMCT

In a paper recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research Professor Ayelet Fishbach from the Booth School of Business in Chicago and Minjung Koo from Sungkyunkwan University, South Korea proposed that an individual’s motivation to complete a task could be enhanced if their attention was focused on the smaller amount of progress they had made rather than the larger amount of effort that remained.
One potential reason why directing attention to a small area of progress might increase motivation is because the marginal impact of each action can appear larger. For example, an action that takes someone from 20% completion of a task to 40% is a doubling of progress. In contrast, moving from 60% completion to 80% represents just 33% progress.

To test these ideas a series of studies were conducted including one in a popular sushi restaurant.
Over a period of four months over 900 customers were enrolled in a loyalty programme where they would receive a free meal after purchasing ten lunches. Half of those enrolled were given a card and received a sushi-shaped stamp on it each time they purchased a lunch. As a result their attention was directed towards the progress they were making towards the free lunch. Let’s call those the ‘progress accumulated’ group.

The other half of the sushi eaters were given a card already printed with 10 sushi-shaped stamps. Each time these folks bought a lunch one of the stamps would be removed (with a paper punch). As a result their attention was focused on how much progress remained before they got the free lunch. We’ll call them the ‘progress remaining’ group.But what about when the progress remaining on a given task is actually smaller than the progress made to date? For example if someone has already achieved 80% of a task would they be more motivated to complete if their attention was focused on the larger amount of progress they had already made or would it be more effective to focus their attention on the smaller 20% that remains?

The results indicated that those in the ‘progress accumulating’ group were almost twice as likely to return to the restaurant to collect subsequent stamps compared to those in the progress remaining group. Not only were they significantly more likely to return, they did so in a faster time too, typically returning four days quicker.

Well it turns out that the researchers considered these questions in their studies too and found that their Small-Area Hypothesis held true. Put another way, at the beginning of a task people were more motivated to continue working towards that task when their attention was focused on the smaller number progress made so far, “You are already 20% of the way towards your goal” compared to “You have 80% of the way to go.” But when progress passed the half-way mark people were more motivated to complete the task when their focus shifted from the now larger progress they had made to the smaller progress that remained, “You have 20% left to achieve your goal” compared to “You are 80% of the way to achieving your goal”.
So when seeking to persuade people to keep committed and consistent with a task or goal that they are working towards it appears that the science is telling us that we can increase our effectiveness by focusing their attention on the ‘small area’ whether that represents progress already made or progress that is remaining.

Only 20% left to read.Managers too might find focusing on the small area a useful way to keep staff motivated towards reaching sales and performance targets. In the early stages, providing feedback along the lines of “one week in and you have already achieved 15% of your quarterly target” and as target attainment gets closer “only 10% of your target to go now”.


Koo, M. and Fishbach, A. (2012) “The Small-Area Hypothesis: Effects of Progress Monitoring on Goal Adherence.” Journal of Consumer Research. Vol.39, No.3, pp. 493-509.

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