One Giant Step Forward, Two Steps Backwards

Jul 04, 2014 1 Min Read
succeed, taking steps forward and back
The Problem With Progress: Goal Liberation

Goal liberation may be denying you an opportunity for greatness

About 10 years ago, when I was younger (and surprisingly a lot less fit), the doctor advised me to get in shape or face serious medical issues. I was flying all over the world weekly and found it hard to pull away from the constant “action” in the workplace. So, I made a resolution to “fix” it. That is what I like to do – I fix issues!

I made sure that I had at least one competitive football game and maybe two sessions of exercise weekly. If something is in my calendar, it usually gets done. True enough, I was a trooper and made sure of it. Even if I had to fly back overnight on Friday from the United States, I made sure I somehow made it for my Sunday football game. I felt proud of myself as I was consistently exercising as planned.

After a year, I went back for the medical check-up. Shockingly, not much had changed. In fact, certain parts of the test had nose-dived for the worst. I could not believe it. I had consistently done the exercises and still did not show any effect. I had to find out why the “hard work” had not paid off. Hence, I reflected on my exercise regime and noticed some little “issues”. After my workouts, I would feel really good and allow myself to indulge in chocolate and other treats, and more often than not, ate more than I should have.

After the football games, I would truly load on the most unhealthy snacks and drinks. I was my worst enemy. I had exercised but would simply undo all the hard work. I literally took one step forward and two steps back.

Two steps and one step

The original phrase “one step forward, two steps backwards” actually came from an anecdote about a frog trying to scale a water well. This frog kept trying to climb up the wall of the well but for every two steps it climbed, it fell back by one step and the term “two steps forward and one step back” was coined.

This phrase was later rearranged to “one step forward, two steps back” to reflect a situation where although you seem to make progress, something bad happens, taking you backwards. So, instead of progress, you end up with digress.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin made the phrase “sexy” when he wrote a book entitled One Step Forward, Two Steps Back about the politics of his day. His book evoked fury among the ruling elite but was popular among the workers in Russia.

I do hope what I am about to share will not evoke similar fury. So, here it is – the majority of us – take one step forward, but then almost always give ourselves permission to take two steps backwards. You might want to re-read that last sentence.

You permit yourself

Yes, you read correctly. We actually permit ourselves to go backwards. Research backs this up. Psychologists term this “goal liberation”. Before we jump into what it is all about, here are a few questions you may want to ask yourself:

  • Have you made a to-do list at the start of the day and then decided that you had to take a short break – even though you had yet to complete a single item on your list?
  • Have you ever given money or resources to a charity and then felt that you deserve a treat for your “good works”?
  • Have you worked hard to save money for years and then in the spur of a moment, spent your savings on something unimportant?
  • Have you done something that you really wanted to achieve and then rewarded yourself by doing the opposite, and thereby completely negating the positive effect of the good that you first did?

Most of us, in some way or form, sabotage ourselves all the time. Our progress, which is good, may actually work against us at times.

The dark side of progress

Stanford University Kelly McGonigal in her excellent book The Willpower Instinct discussed a darker side to progress.

According to her:

Psychologists have found that we are all too quick to use progress as an excuse for taking it easy. In fact, the very act of recognising (our) own success sets (us) up for failure.

She cites research by Ayelet Fishbach, from the University of Chicago and Ravi Dhar, from Yale, which clearly shows that “making progress on a goal motivates people to engage in goal-sabotaging behaviour.”

These professors conducted four different studies with dieters and with students. In the first study, they enlisted successful dieters and offered them an option of a healthy snack (an apple) or an unhealthy one (a chocolate bar). Eighty-five per cent of dieters who were reminded of their progress picked the chocolate while only 58% of dieters who were not reminded picked the unhealthy snack. The same thing happened in the study where students at a large mid- Western US University did something negative to negate their progress.

According to these professors:

[T]hese studies demonstrate that in the course of self-regulation, progress along one goal liberates people to pursue inconsistent goals. Furthermore, merely planning to make goal progress in the future may facilitate incongruent choice of immediate action.

Simply stated – progress on a long-term goal can cause us to shift our focus to the more immediate inner voice of now and self-indulgence. Your brain (and body) craves immediate “success” and this may in some ways undo the hard work of long-term progress you have been working towards.

Goal liberation

To fully understand goal liberation, we need to briefly explore “moral licensing”. What this means is that when we do something good, we give ourselves the licence to sin. For many of us, being good permits us to be “naughty” or bad.

Many years ago, I had to deal with a big successful leader who was driving his business to great heights. However, we had to terminate him as he put quite a few personal expenses on his company card. When questioned, he seemed to justify it as part of him working hard and deserving it.

In fact, for businesses, Yale economist Matthew Kotchen claims that being green may not be a good thing. For one, it allows businesses to feel less guilty when they undertake “green” actions and thereby allowing themselves to feel morally licensed to commit more destructive and damaging ‘crimes’. In fact, McGonigal cites a 2010 study on people who drive hybrid cars (i.e. the good “green” folks). These drivers are involved in more collisions, waste more petrol by driving 25% more than other drivers and receive 65% more traffic tickets. Could driving a “green” car provide moral licensing to negate the good done?

Productivity or distraction?

Recent studies clearly show that social networks sap productivity. A Nucleus Research study exposed that Facebook shaves 1.5% off total office productivity and a British study estimates this waste for Britain at US$2.2bil a year. Fact– 45% of employees work only 15 minutes or less without getting interrupted, and 53% waste at least one hour a day due to all types of distractions.

Just think of the amount of time people waste daily sending and reading tweets. These days, everything from the ice-cream we eat to the colour of the door on the office toilet seems “tweet-worthy”. Many of the tools of productivity in business are also some of our biggest productivity sappers. A case of one step forward and two step backwards maybe? And it happens not just in business but in almost every area of our lives and work.

According to McGonigal:

[P]eople who merely intend to exercise later are more likely to overeat at dinner. This habit allows us to sin today and make up for it later – or so we tell ourselves.

So, not only does actual progress have a dark side, but intention to progress at a later point also seems to have a dark side.

Overcoming goal liberation

How do we overcome our bias to indulge when we feel that we have made progress? We know that when we are reminded of our progress and how “good” we have been, we tend to use that as an excuse to counter all the good we have done.

However, research from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology seems to indicate that if you remind yourself why you had resisted temptation thus far and focus on your long-term goals, you may be able to counter-attack your desire to the indulgence or treat.

When you remind yourself of why you had stayed focused on your exercise or studying or work, the indulgence or treat starts to look like a “threat” to you achieving your goals. This will help you continue to re-focus on your goals and brush aside this “threat”.

So, what are other ways we can deploy to counter goal liberation? Here are a few more:

  • Observe yourself constantly – I finally managed to exercise and get myself back to proper fitness levels once I started observing and questioning everything I was doing, including my “moral licensing”.
  • Plan your celebrations – Instead of celebrating whenever you have made progress, plan your celebrations instead. So, upfront, as you conjure up your goals, also set up rewards for achieving them. If you do accomplish them, then you already have a prescribed celebration. And make sure the rewards are well-thought-out and healthy rewards!
  • Set aside weekly reflection and action planning sessions – Once a week, take 20 minutes to see if you have fallen victim to goal liberation or moral licensing. If you have, quickly formulate an action plan on how you will never fall into its trap again.
  • Get an accountability partner – Find someone you respect in your office who will be able to spot situations where you fall and can quickly point them out to you. This accountability partner can provide you with instant feedback to ensure you quickly bounce back when you do fall.
Roshan Thiran recently read Kelly McGonigal’s “The Willpower Instinct” and recommends it as she shares some great insights on how to overcome “goal liberation’” To interact with Roshan and get updates on his latest videos and articles, connect via Facebook at or connect with him on LinkedIn. For more articles on becoming a leader, click here. 

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Roshan is the Founder and “Kuli” of the Leaderonomics Group of companies. He believes that everyone can be a leader and "make a dent in the universe," in their own special ways. He is featured on TV, radio and numerous publications sharing the Science of Building Leaders and on leadership development. Follow him at


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