Avoidance vs. Approach-Oriented Goals: Tools by Maya Shankar


Step one of setting goals is to define them. There are multiple ways to define or frame goals, but Maya Shankar, a cognitive scientist, asserts that framing goals impacts our motivation to pursue them.

Here’s the science-backed step-by-step plan for effective goal setting to significantly impact your behavior and mindset.

Two Ways to Frame Goals (Avoidance vs. Approach Orientation).

  1. Avoidance: An avoidance orientation focuses on what you want to avoid, such as “I want to avoid drinking sugary drinks” or “I want to avoid playing video games.”

  2. Approach: An approach orientation focuses on what you want to achieve, such as “I want to eat healthy” or “I want to spend more time outside.”

Impact on Motivation.

Research suggests that framing goals with an approach orientation is more motivating, as the positive framing creates a sense of anticipation and excitement.

It also gives you a sense of control over your actions. Instead of feeling like you are trying to avoid or escape negative outcomes, you are actively working towards positive results.

Achieving success in approach-oriented goals leads to feelings of accomplishment and perseverance.


Another significant aspect of setting goals for motivation involves ensuring measurability.

Measuring success and progress becomes easier with approach-oriented goals compared to avoidance-oriented ones.

This aspect is vital for effective goal setting, as ticking the box and tracking your achievements play a crucial role in staying motivated in our pursuits.

For example, consider “I want to run a 5km marathon in six months” versus “I don’t want to be out of shape and unhealthy.” The former provides a clear and measurable goal, while the latter lacks a specific way to quantify success and progress.

How to use it?

1. List Down All the Things You Want to Avoid.

Write down all your avoidance-oriented goals – the “negative” things you’d like to avoid.

Example: “I want to avoid using too much phone (I want to use less phone)” or, “I don’t want to wake up late.”

2. Find the “Approach-Oriented” Version of Them.

Now, identify the approach-oriented version of the listed avoidance-oriented goals. Determine actions that are in some way opposite to the things you’d like to avoid.

Example: Change “I want to use less phone” to “I want to read more books” (anything that makes you spend less time on your phone). Similarly, change “I don’t want to wake up late” to “I want to wake up early.”

3. Specify the Endpoint.

Set a clear endpoint or target you want to achieve, and use numbers to quantify your goals.


“I want to read 6 books.”

“I want to make it a habit to wake up at 8 every day.”

4. Make It Time-Bound.

Determine a reasonable but challenging timeline within which you aim to achieve your goal.


“I want to read 6 books by 1 January 2024.”

“I want to make it a habit to wake up at 8 every day by 5 October 2023.”

5. Derive Daily Tasks From Your Goal.

Break down your approach-oriented goals into smaller, actionable daily tasks.


  • Find out which book to buy.
  • Buy a new book and read 15 pages or read for 15 minutes.
  • Purchase a new alarm clock, set an alarm for 10 AM (if you usually wake up at 11), and place it away from your bed.
  • Set an alarm on your alarm clock and place it in the dining room of your house. Additionally, set another alarm 5 minutes earlier on your phone to prevent the main alarm from embarrassing you.
  • Join a gym with your friends for a 9 AM workout.


Test this tool to see if it makes your goal-setting more effective.

If you find value in this tool, you might also enjoy exploring other tools from the world’s best minds.

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Source: Maya Shankar interview.

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