Having an uncertain reward in mind might be more motivating than a clear-cut one, according to a new study.

The study, titled “The Motivating-Uncertainty Effect,” found that people were more likely to put time, money, and effort into a goal that had an uncertain reward compared to one that had a reward that was set in stone. “We find that people work harder and are more likely to evaluate more advertisements if they expect the prize to be of an uncertain size,” Professor Ayelet Fishbach, a researcher at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business who was also an author of the study, said in a video about the study.

The researchers examined college students in one experiment, asking them to drink a large amount of water in two minutes. They told one group of students that they would receive $2 for drinking all the water, while they told the other group they would give them either $1 or $2. Apparently this slight difference was enough for the students in the uncertain group to finish the water more quickly and effectively. This was dubbed the “motivating-uncertainty effect.”

“People invest more effort, time, and money to qualify for an uncertain reward (e.g., a 50% chance at $2 and a 50% chance at $1) than a certain reward of a higher expected value (e.g., a 100% chance at $2),” the authors write in their Abstract. “This effect arises only when people focus on the process of pursuing a reward, but not when they focus on the outcomes (the reward itself). When the focus is on the process of reward pursuit, uncertainty generates positive experiences such as excitement and hence increase motivation.”

Leaving the reward to the imagination can give the people excitement about the process of pursuing it, rather than focusing on the goal itself. In another experiment, researchers instructed participants to bid on auctions similar to those on eBay. One group focused more on the bidding process, while the other goal was told to focus on the goal or outcome of the bidding process. Those who were more focused on the process were found to be more motivated and excited as a whole about the experience.

Of course, pursuing a goal with no inch of certainty in mind will probably backfire: everyone needs something to look forward to and work towards. But perhaps this study points to the fact that focusing on the journey rather than the destination is the best way to stay on track and motivated: The feeling is the goal, and the goal is the feeling.

Source: Fisbach A, Hsee C. "The Motivating-Uncertainty Effect: Uncertainty Increases Resource Investment in the Process of Reward Pursuit." Journal of Consumer Research, 2014.