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One surprising way to get ahead in your career

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Photo: Unsplash/Corinne Kutz

Whether it’s setting a goal at the gym, tackling a home improvement project (hello, decluttered oasis), or competing for a promotion at work, have you ever noticed that once you just know you’re going to crush it, your momentum slows down? It’s not just in your head—new research shows that your “I’m so ahead of the game” confidence can actually backfire.

According to a forthcoming study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychologyhaving frontrunner status can cause you to underperform because your brain is calculating how much effort it takes to complete the task—and sometimes, it’s a little off.

“People who are leading underestimate the effort they need to invest, hence they relax prematurely.”

“People who are leading underestimate the effort they need to invest, hence they relax prematurely,” writes Szu-chi Huang, the lead researcher and an assistant professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Through several studies, researchers found that at the beginning of a competition, when you’re concerned about whether you can meet the challenge, being ahead of the game early makes winning seem more attainable—and the resulting swagger feels motivating. But in the final phase, confidence can have the opposite effect.

In one of the studies, for example, researchers staged a six-day book-donation drive competition, where the campus that collected the most would get $500 for the library. On the fourth day, each team was told who was leading. What happened? Motivation fell immediately, with the participation rate dropping to 3.9 percent.

But a select number of students were actually energized—their participation rate rose to 8 percent, and they were donating more books per person, compared to the larger group. The difference was that they had gotten an extra message: that sign-ups were still 10 percent lower than a previous record-breaking year.

“By focusing on another standard that’s higher than where you are, you’re able to sustain motivation,” concludes Huang. So, just like your mom told you: It’s not just about winning and losing. Dream bigger, and you’ll be hitting a new PR marathon time—not to mention reaching your ultimate girlboss potential—in no time.

For more work advice, here are 5 surprising ways that successful women power their careers. And here’s how to ooze confidence and professionalism at the office.