'Eyes on the Prize' Is Now a Scientific Principle

Setting sights on a fixed target improves exercise

Jan 20, 2015
Outside Magazine
running science motivation exercise

Focusing on a distant point makes distances feel shorter.    Richard Masoner/Flickr

Experiment participants who fixed their attention on a target in the distance reached it 23 percent faster than those who let their attention wander, according to a recent study from New York University published in Motivation and Emotion.

In one experiment, participants who were instructed to fix their attention on traffic cones in the distance and run toward them reached the cones more quickly and with less perceived exertion than participants who were told to glance at the cones as well as look at their surroundings.

In another experiment, the perceived distance to an object in the distance—a cooler—was significantly shorter when participants were instructed to focus their attention on it as if it were spotlighted as opposed to looking around as they naturally would.

“These findings indicate that narrowly focusing visual attention on a specific target, like a building a few blocks ahead, rather than looking around your surroundings, makes that distance appear shorter, helps you walk faster, and also makes exercising seem easier,” said Emily Balcetis, study co-author and an assistant professor in New York University’s Department of Psychology, in a press release.

One hypothesis as to why certain participants arrived at the goals faster proffers that focusing attention makes tasks feel more attainable, and the body corresponds by kicking into a higher gear, according to the Atlantic.

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