With the new year just around the corner, and many people preparing to make New Year’s resolutions, you might be interested to learn about the studies of social psychologist, Emily Balcetis about perceptions, motivation, goal-setting, and decision-making. Her research at New York University explores how small adjustments in your perception can have potentially major consequences. Balcetis’ studies are wide ranging; that is, they show how our perceptions impact many areas of our lives from how we approach exercise to which political candidates we vote for. By unveiling these biases whether they be from conscious or non-conscious levels, she hopes to make people aware of the powerful phenomenon of perception, and to make our personal hurdles less daunting, and inspire a mind frame that helps goal-setting seem easier.

Balcetis explains that scientists who specialize in vision know that the amount of information an individual is able to see with clarity and precision is comparable to the surface area of our thumb when our arm is stretched out before us. Besides that small, clear visual range, everything else is blurry in comparison, and needs to be interpreted by the brain, or the “mind’s eye.” This mind’s eye is used with such regularity, that it may seem that you actually are focussing clearly on far more than you actually are. But indeed your brain steps in to make sense of the environment when your eyes see blurry images. “As a result, perception is a subjective experience, and that’s how we end up seeing through our mind’s eye,” Balcetis insists.

Fascinated by the way two or more people can look at the same thing yet perceive it quite differently, she wondered, “What is it about what one person is thinking and feeling that leads them to see the world in an entirely different way?” In her quest to learn more about this phenomenon, she looked into how people perceive health and fitness. In her initial studies, she noticed that people who were unfit actually perceived the distance to a designated finish line as significantly further away as compared with those who were more physically fit. But upon further studies, she noticed that a person’s motivational level made a difference: The research indicated the people who were highly motivated to exercise, perceived the distance as shorter–even the most unfit  individuals. Her further studies revealed that those people who were asked to keenly focus their eyes on the finish line while exercising both found the exercise less daunting and more enjoyable.

“So our bodies can change how far away that finish line looks, but people who had committed to a a manageable goal that they could accomplish in the near future and who believed that they were capable of meeting that goal actually saw the exercise as easier,” Balcetis explains.

It’s nothing new to hear that being motivated can help a person be more likely to achieve his or her goals especially when it comes to exercise. But Balcetis’ ideas on what to focus your eyes on–and not to focus on–when going after a goal might speak to you. Her contention is it’s simpler than you might think to get the kind of results you want by literally keeping your “eyes on the prize.”