Motivation Isn’t an Art—It’s a Science. Here Are Research-Tested Ways to Achieve Your Goals
Magazine / Motivation Isn’t an Art—It’s a Science. Here Are Research-Tested Ways to Achieve Your Goals

Motivation Isn’t an Art—It’s a Science. Here Are Research-Tested Ways to Achieve Your Goals

Habits & Productivity Psychology
Motivation Isn’t an Art—It’s a Science. Here Are Research-Tested Ways to Achieve Your Goals

University of Chicago professor Ayelet Fishbach has spent the last two decades studying the science of motivation, developing a framework for turning idle ambition into forward-moving action. That framework is the subject of her new book, Get It Done, which our curators chose as one of the best nonfiction titles of the year. Today, one of those curators, Daniel Pink, chats with Ayelet about sure-fire techniques you can use to achieve your goals. Listen to their episode of the Next Big Idea podcast below, or read a few key highlights. And follow host Rufus Griscom on LinkedIn for behind-the-scenes looks into the show.

The four tenets of motivation science.

Ayelet Fishbach: Motivation science—that is, the motivation interventions that we developed as a field—fall into four categories. There are the interventions we use in order to set better goals. There are the interventions we use in order to monitor our progress, in order to go from here to there. There are interventions we use to manage multiple goals, resolve self-control conflicts, and find balance in our life. And then interventions that use the people around us—how we seek social support, how we work with other people on shared goals, how we use their support of our individual goals. So in my book, I took the basic principle that you change your situation to reach your goals. You change your circumstances and exploit these four areas of motivational interventions.

Daniel Pink: So we want to choose our goals. We want to monitor our progress as we pursue those goals. We have to juggle multiple goals. And we are going to need to enlist social support in meeting those goals. That’s a lovely way to think about it.

Why “approach” goals are better than “avoid” goals.

Dan: I started writing down a list, derived from your research into how we choose our goals, and I did it in this very simple-minded formulation of X is better than Y. I’m going to give you one of those, and you can tell me whether it’s right. So “approach” is better than “avoid.” Goals where we are approaching something are generally better than goals where we’re avoiding something. Is that accurate?

Ayelet: This is accurate with one exception. The exception is that avoidance goals sound urgent. If I tell you that you should not eat red meat, you think that you should start now. If I tell you that you should eat more green vegetables, you think that it’s okay to start next week. But with this exception that refers to urgency, approach goals are better. Approach goals are more attractive, more enticing. Avoidance goals—“do not” goals—tend to bring to mind the thing that you are trying to avoid. How do you know that you are not drinking, that you are not thinking of your ex, that you are not doing the thing that you should not be doing? You check yourself. And in the process of checking, you bring this to mind. So this is one problem with avoidance goals. The other problem is reactance—we tend to react against our avoidance goals. We want to do something exactly because we set our mind not to do it.

Dan: Give us an example of what an approach goal is and what an avoidance goal is.

Ayelet: In Dan Wegner’s old studies, an approach goal is to think about brown bears; an avoidance goal is not to think about white bears. In our everyday life, “eat healthy food” is an approach goal; “avoid unhealthy food” is an avoidance goal.

Progress is key—but beware of the midpoint.

Dan: So setting the right kind of goals is very important. Now, we’re in the next stage here—we’ve set our goals. And to use your phrase, we have to keep pulling. Setting a goal is necessary, but it’s not sufficient because we have to continue with our efforts. So let’s talk about that.

One of the most important things that you talk about in sustaining motivation is the importance of progress. Explain why that’s important, and then tell us a little bit about how we can harness that.

Ayelet: Progress increases motivation. With progress we feel more committed, we feel more able. For all-or-nothing goals, there’s actually more that we get for our efforts. If you think about four-year college, the first year only gets you a quarter of a college degree, the last year gets you a full college degree. And so nobody’s quitting college in their last year, but about half of the people that start college will quit in the first couple of years. So progress by itself increases motivation.

And why is that important? Because for every goal that we are pursuing, we can monitor our progress either in terms of the glass half-full (what we have done), or the glass half-empty (what is left to do). And it’s pretty critical that we get that right. At the beginning, when we are not sure about our ability or commitment, we will look back at our baby steps, the things that we have accomplished; after the midpoint, when we are pretty sure that we are committed, look at everything that you haven’t done yet.

Dan: I actually use this myself when I run, and it’s transformative. Up until the midpoint, the best way to sustain your motivation is to look and see how far you’ve come. So if I’m going to run five miles, before I get to the 2.5 mile mark, I want to say, “Wow, I’ve run a mile! Wow, I’ve run a mile and a half! Wow, I’ve run two miles!” Then, when I hit the midpoint, I change. This is what your research is saying. I should say, “Oh my gosh, I only have two miles left. I only have a mile and a half left. I only have a mile left.”

At the beginning, look how far you’ve come. Past the midpoint, look how little distance you have left to travel. That’s been so useful to me.

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