How the science of motivation helps with New Year’s resolutions

Ayelet Fishbach is a fan of New Year’s resolutions. “When people say that they are not a good idea, it is because they see that they don’t last for long,” says the expert in motivation and decision-making. “If you did it for a month or two or three, that’s better than nothing,” she notes, citing the example of eating healthily or exercising. “We hope that you can find ways to continue doing this until March and beyond, but it’s better to have two months than nothing.”

A common mistake is for people to think about resolutions as “something they will not enjoy doing”, says Fishbach who is a professor of behavioural science and marketing at Chicago Booth business school and author of a new book, Get it Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation. The mindset, she says, is: “I’m going to do what’s good for me and not what I enjoy doing.” This is a problem, however, because it creates an “empathy gap”, by which people do not understand how they might feel in future. “You need to find a way to pursue your resolution that is enjoyable, that is intrinsically motivating. People who do that can stick with their resolutions longer.”

Not that we should only pursue goals that are immediately gratifying. “It is not going to always be fun. And for many of the things that are important in our lives, it will take some time before it’s fun,” concedes Fishbach. Instead, there might be feelings of pride or a runner’s high — but only after several weeks of trudging around the park.

While others perfected the art of the sourdough loaf or DIY during the pandemic, Fishbach’s project was the book. It has been an odd time to write about motivation. “Like most people,” she writes in the book, “I worry, get distracted, and struggle to stay motivated. Over the past several months, I’ve learned to take nothing for granted, be it my health, my job, my children’s education, or meeting a friend for coffee. And even though I love my job, I find it harder to stay motivated.” 

The book’s overriding message is that multiple factors affect motivation. Different personalities need different approaches. She recommends understanding whether you go all-out for something (an “approacher”) or if fear of criticism and mistakes is a driving force (an “avoider). Everyone could benefit from greater preparation for overcoming the obstacles to goals, as well as understanding how your new goals might clash with other existing priorities — and sometimes pull you in opposite directions (there is a chapter on goal juggling). Social support for what you are trying to do is also key.

In Fishbach’s analysis, goals are strongly motivating, yet articulating them requires delicacy. They should be sufficiently abstract that they are inspiring, while also conveying action. So, for example, “exploring career opportunities” is less of a chore than “reading job postings and submitting applications” but more concrete than “be successful”.

I speak to Fischbach in the week that the UK introduced a work-from-home order and with that I feel yet another slump in motivation. How, I ask rather needily, should people keep going when there is no end in sight to the pandemic. She is sympathetic. “We were told that if you get vaccinated, if you put on the mask, you stay at home for a while, then everything is going to be OK. And things did get better, but not everything is OK.” Sustaining motivation towards a moving target is extremely hard, she adds.

In the book, she points out that we celebrate the start of something — a job or a degree course, for example — and then the end, such as graduation or a project’s completion, but never the middle. “It’s during these ordinary times,” she writes, “that our enthusiasm and motivation are the hardest to maintain”.

Instead of bemoaning the lack of clarity about the future, the solution is to look at what has been achieved. For most people, she says, the anxiety about dying has been replaced by a preoccupation with inconvenience. “We made a lot of progress, it’s just that there are setbacks. Think about how much adaptation you’ve already made.” 

When it comes to staying motivated, giving might be better than receiving. Telling another person about how you handle the pandemic can help, she says. “It often helps the person who gave their advice more than the person who got the advice,” she adds.

Loneliness is debilitating not just for mental health but also diminishes motivation, says Fishbach, who grew up in an Israeli Kibbutz. “We know that being socially connected is not only important for wellbeing. It also helps you get up in the morning and do what you need to do. Many of the important goals that we pursue are with another person or people. People become less active, less moveable, less intrigued to think when they sit by themselves.”

But equally, a focus on productivity can harm motivation. “The treadmill of just being productive, productive, productive gets you into answering emails instead of thinking about your priorities. Step back and think about your goals. What’s the best path to get there? How do you fit this with other things that you want to do and who is helping you?” There is a sweet spot between letting your mind wander and procrastination.

When it comes to motivation and the mass phenomenon known as the Great Resignation, Fishbach is ambivalent about the lofty ambitions of finding purpose in work. She believes any lack of joy in what we do is down to “much more immediate” causes. “If going to the office is not fun and I’m bored or I’m lonely, I don’t like my colleagues, the absence of immediate rewards.”

Surveys have long pointed to a mass discontent with work, she notes. “We know people are unhappy and it looks like they are now doing something about it . . . which could result in people shifting to what is really better for them.” But we will only know if the next big survey of employee satisfaction shows they have done something to fix their unhappiness.

The problem is that when people plan a job move, Fishbach says, they usually put more weight on future salary and benefits than they do on the personal issues that they don’t like in their present job. “They say ‘[in] my next job, I [will] care less about doing something interesting with people that I like than in my present job’. That goes back to this empathy gap, not realising that the future self is going to be like the present self.” They fail to appreciate that what makes it hard to summon enthusiasm for the current job will also be true in the next role.

She is undecided about the Great Resignation. A pessimistic prediction is that the people who switch roles will find themselves just as unhappy in future: “70 per cent are going to tell us that they hate their jobs”. But if something really has shifted in people’s attitudes, then future surveys will show that dissatisfaction has decreased.

And that would be good news for those whose new ambition is to move to a new job in 2022.

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