The power of memory is elusive. It is difficult to quantify, yet it is undeniable that memories are often times what we yearn to create. The goals you set are also almost always tied to creating memories, or at least they should be, as the power of memory can help you maintain your motivation.
Salient vs. Gist Memory
Consider the difference of setting a goal to run the Boston Marathon verses the more general goal to lose ten pounds.
How might the power of memory influence your motivation in trying to achieve these goals? Running in the marathon is specifically designed to create a unique, salient memory, whereas losing ten pounds does not have this same formula. Both will require repetitive action, but only the marathon will culminate in an unforgettable, episodic experience. The goal of losing weight will form a gist memory, one day at the gym blending into another, culminating in a fuzzy memory that will fade much faster and lose significance over time.
The reason creating salient memories can be important in achieving your goals is because of the potential impact in can have on your motivation. A powerful memory can be relived, triggering the same areas of the brain, triggering similar emotions to those you experienced during the original event. This can be understandably difficult if you are negotiating a trauma, but highly motivating when pursuing a well structured goal. A salient memory can help remind you of the emotional rewards associated with the pursuit of your goal and increase the intensity of your efforts. The greater salience can also help ensure that you are well calibrated moving forward, being more capable of accurately judging your strengths and potential weaknesses.
How to Create a Salient Memory: Milestone Motivation
Many, if not most goals, have milestones you need to establish along the way. Unless you are already in great condition, you don't simply run the Boston Marathon. Instead, you will need to train and build up your ability to first run 5k, then 10k, and ultimately get into a position where you can finish the 42k (26 mile) race. How you design these milestones can either help or hinder your progress.
Use each milestone as an opportunity to intentionally create a salient memory. Instead of running a 5k along the same route you have been using to train each day, enter a local race. Make it a special day, make it a day to celebrate. Do things that day that will help you remember the progress you have made, that etch into your memory the good, the bad, the ugly. By designing a milestone to be unique experience, it will create a memory marker that will not simply blend into all the other days you have been striving to achieve the bigger goal of running a marathon.
The same as the goal to run a marathon, you can use a similar strategy with other goals. Whether you set a goal to get a college degree, climb a mountain, write a book, or any other sizable endeavor, make sure the milestones you set harness the power of memory. Structure your milestones to provide unique rewards or experiences that will provide strong, positive emotions.
A Note of Caution: The Downside of Salience
Running a 5k in a chicken costume to create a unique memory will work, but it can distract from the aspects you want to remember that are important. When it comes to the next milestone of running a 10k, you want to be able to accurately recall and calibrate yourself for the upcoming challenge. This means you want to relive the memories that are relevant, the challenges you may have faced, the strong wind, the cold weather, the incredible feeling of renewed energy as you saw the finish line and then elation as you crossed. This doesn't necessarily mean not to ever wear a fun costume, but it is a caution against creating a memory that can distract rather than add to achieving a longer term goal.
The Bottom Line
When trying to achieve a long term goal, use the power of salient memories to enhance your motivation. While the research is not entirely clear, there is an undeniable role played by emotion and memory in helping individuals to correctly calibrate the direction and intensity of their effort. Use milestones to create salient, unique memories that can help keep you motivated and on track.
Bagozzi, R. P., Dholakia, U. M., & Basuroy, S. (2003). How effortful decisions get enacted: The motivating role of decision processes, desires, and anticipated emotions. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 16(4), 273-295
Hoffman, B. (2017). Hack Your Motivation. Oviedo, Florida: Attribution Press.
Kaplan, R. L., Van Damme, I., & Levine, L. J. (2012). Motivation matters: Differing effects of pre-goal and post-goal emotions on attention and memory. Frontiers in psychology, 3.
LaBar, K. S., & Cabeza, R. (2006). Cognitive neuroscience of emotional memory. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 7(1), 54.
Zogby, J. P. (2017). The power of time perception: control the speed of time to make every second count. London: Time Lighthouse Publishing.
Richard Feenstra is an educational psychologist, with a focus on judgment and decision making.
Bobby Hoffman is the author of "Hack Your Motivation" and a professor of educational psychology at the University of Central Florida.