Chicago Booth Review Podcast What’s the Best Way to Motivate Yourself?
- August 09, 2023
- CBR Podcast
Hal Weitzman: At the start of this year, I had a plan to read to a book a month. So far, I’ve read one. I don’t think I’m unusual. Many of us have abandoned our new year’s resolutions within a month or two. The gym membership sits unused at the back of the junk drawer, the breadmaking has long been abandoned, and the books collect dust on a bedside table.
So how can we set better goals and follow through on them? Welcome to the Chicago Booth Review podcast, where we bring you groundbreaking academic research in a clear and straightforward way. Today, a conversation about how to get and stay motivated, with two experts, Chicago Booth’s Ayelet Fishbach and the University of Pennsylvania’s Katy Milkman.
The conversation was filmed in June 2021 as part of our Big Question video series, which brings together faculty from Booth and elsewhere for an in-depth discussion.
I began by asking Ayelet Fishbach where we should start to try to reach our goals.
Ayelet Fishbach: I suggest in this book a framework that has four steps. Start by deciding: What is it that you want to achieve? Where do you want to get? What’s that goal? And there are some techniques that we can use to set goals that actually work, then have a plan for: How are we going to get from here to there? How are we going to monitor our progress? How are we going to learn from feedback? Then, think about everything else that is going on in your life. How are we going to pursue this goal that you listed, given all the other goals that you want to achieve simultaneously? What supports it? What conflicts with it? And then the fourth component is social support. Who in your life is going to help you achieve this goal?
Hal Weitzman: Mm-hmm. I mean, you’re actually talking about writing stuff down. Is getting this stuff down going to help you sort out what’s important?
Ayelet Fishbach: Well, it certainly will help you start somewhere, to know where you want to get. So, yes, I encourage writing down what is it that you want to achieve.
Hal Weitzman: OK. Katy Milkman, let me bring you in. You’ve also written a terrific book. What’s your advice for people who are just at this time feeling completely overwhelmed about their situation and the things they want to get done, but they just don’t know where to start?
Katy Milkman: Yeah, it’s a great question. By the way, I also want to say thank you for having me, and what a treat it is to be here with Ayelet, who I know . . . we wrote separate books, but I think, well, her thinking has certainly influenced me immensely, and her research makes many appearances in the book I wrote and has influenced me just more than I can really say.
When I think about being overwhelmed, and one thing that I can add to all the great advice that’s already been shared, the thing that comes to mind is looking for a moment that might feel like a fresh start. I’ve done a lot of research on the idea that there are some moments in our lives that stand out from others that feel like new beginnings, so they can be as small as the start of a new week or more momentous, like the celebration of a major birthday, or the start of a new year or a millennium.
Those moments give us a sense that we have closed one chapter and can open another, and can help us take that deep breath we need when we’re feeling overwhelmed, get the motivation to say, “OK, that was the old me that was overwhelmed and couldn’t achieve these goals, and the new me maybe could do it in this new era.” I would say, one thought, given the evidence that those fresh starts can be motivating if you’re feeling overwhelmed, is: Can you identify a moment that might feel like a new beginning to you? Maybe you’re about to return to work after a long time away. Maybe you’re planning a vacation with your family, and when you come back, you could think of that as a fresh start and a moment when you want to actually do exactly what Ayelet just suggested. So, write down those goals and so on. But you may be more motivated to do so, more able to deal with that overwhelming feeling if you can give yourself the sense of a fresh start.
Hal Weitzman: And since you mentioned fresh starts, something that I worried about when I was reading your book is that it just becomes another delaying tactic. It’s the old, “I’ll begin the exercise regime next week.” Then on Monday morning, it doesn’t feel so good. So, “I’ll begin next week.” How do you avoid that? Because as you say, there’s always an opportunity for a fresh start.
Katy Milkman: Yeah, it’s a great question. How do you avoid the constant delay? It’s a great question. And honestly, there are different tactics that I would propose for that. If you always have a fresh start coming and you’re never actually beginning, that would be a problem. Our research suggests that that doesn’t seem to be the dominant way that fresh starts operate. The dominant way we use them is to gather motivation rather than to procrastinate. But when it comes to procrastination, that’s a huge barrier to overcome in order to achieve our goals. And one of the most useful tactics for overcoming procrastination is actually setting firm commitments and using what’s called a commitment device.
A commitment device is a tool where you basically treat yourself the way you would normally think of a government or a manager treating you. You give yourself deadlines, maybe with penalties associated with them for failing to achieve a goal. The firmer your commitment, the harder it is to back down and procrastinate. There’s even websites you can use, like stickK.com and Beeminder, where you can literally put money on the line that you’ll be forced to forfeit if you fail to achieve a goal by a certain date, and you can be held accountable for that by a referee who you name. And that really helps a lot of procrastination, because now, you have a penalty that you’re going to incur if you don’t achieve your goal by this stated date. That might be one tactic.
Hal Weitzman: Excellent. Now, I drag both of you straight into the weeds because we were responding to this poll about our participants today saying they feel overwhelmed, but I want to take a step back. And reading these great books, there’s a slightly different approach here. Ayelet Fishbach, you’re focusing on motivation and, as you say, how to set and achieve goals and targets.
Katy Milkman, you’re focusing on making change and getting rid of the obstacles that are standing in the way to that change. I just wanted to ask you, what made you come up with that particular approach to this issue?
Ayelet Fishbach: You captured it very well. Also, I want to clarify that Katy’s amazing book is out there. And so, we can all read it. My book is—
Hal Weitzman: But we can be preorder your book?
Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah, my book can be preordered. And I bet that is going to influence your life, but maybe waiting will have some extra benefit as well.
Hal Weitzman: Maybe the fresh start could be when your book arrives, then I’ll get on with everything.
Ayelet Fishbach: Exactly. And so, I had the advantage of reading Katy’s book, and it was very interesting for me, because now you would think that we are two people looking at the same world and so we will see exactly the same thing. And you need to know, it’s a bit like wondering how two painters created different paintings, given that they were looking at the same world. And we did come up with quite different paintings. I think that I was trying to see what I have learned in many years of writing about motivation and doing motivation research. And what is the process by which people motivate themselves? Where do they start? What happens next?
And it was kind of like these phases, can you start with the call? But then, you need to get from here to there, and then you need to look around at everything else that is going on. And I was trying to organize everything that I know in a framework that makes sense for me and that is useful. And then, I will let Katy maybe explain what she was trying to achieve in her amazing book.
Katy Milkman: I love the analogy of painters who we were familiar with the same research literatures. We’ve spent a lot of time talking and thinking about similar ideas, but ended up seeing different ways to communicate what came out of that and synthesize it for our broad audience. I think that at the heart of the book I wrote is the premise that it’s really important to match the solution you’re using to try to achieve to whatever the obstacle is that might be standing in your way. And so that means a lot of tailoring. Actually, I think it’s very complimentary to what you’re saying, Ayelet, about having a staged approach, because what I’m also acknowledging is that it depends. You’re thinking about where you are in the process, and I’m saying it depends on what your current barrier is. That may be very much a function of where you are in the process.
And I break it down into a series of particularly common obstacles that I’ve seen, including the getting started problem, and fresh starts are a big part of that. And then other barriers include procrastination, which we just mentioned, impulsivity, where Ayelet’s research features really prominently into what I describe as a solution, as well as forgetting, laziness, which, another kinder way of saying that is inertia and habit, which we need to be able to overcome. And then of course, there’s having the confidence to begin. And finally, I talk about social support and how important that is, which I know is also a part of Ayelet’s step-by-step process.
Hal Weitzman: OK, excellent. And I’m glad, Katy Milkman, that you mentioned that it depends on the individual, because you put out in your book, Ayelet Fishbach, that a lot of the evidence on behavioral motivation appears to be contradictory. It’s something to do with the situation, but it’s also a considerable amount to do with the individual. How do you know what kind of an individual you are, what your weaknesses are, where you’ve been going wrong? Because many of us have been doing the same thing over and over again, failing over and over again. And we are sort of blind maybe to our own weaknesses or our own strengths. How do you identify those?
Ayelet Fishbach: Lots of self-reflection. When I teach our MBA students, I sometimes talk about it as the salt-and-pepper problem, which is if you cook some dish and it’s missing pepper, then just don’t add too much salt. It’s just not going to help. So very much along the lines of what Katy said about identifying your barriers is self-reflecting on what is stopping you. And if you don’t have social support, then it’s really hard to do something. If I try to save money and I am married to someone who’s spending a lot of money, it makes it very hard to do. But if I have the same goal, I want to save money and my family and friends and everybody else around me supports that, then I need to think about what else is going on. OK. Do I also have conflicting goals? Am I just too vague in how exactly I’m going to pursue this one? So there was quite a bit of analysis of what works for me, what helps me achieve the goal and what stands in the way, and then making a plan that takes what I have into account.
Hal Weitzman: So if you have someone that you can ask, “Where am I going wrong?” presumably that helps. If you don’t have someone, you’re suggesting that what you . . . Again, you document what happened, what failed, do some reflection.
Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah, well, first, if you don’t have people that support your goal, then you have to find these people.
Hal Weitzman: OK.
Ayelet Fishbach: OK. I don’t think it’s very possible, or at least it’s extremely hard to do anything by yourself without social support. So if that’s the problem, if you embark on that goal and no one around you seems to support it, then get the support. OK? It’s like that. College kids that find friends that will support their academic pursuit, because being friends with those people that only like to party is not helping. And then, now on top of that, just figure out what’s missing in your recipe for success.
Hal Weitzman: Got it, and presumably experiment with things that you haven’t done before and see if they work.
Ayelet Fishbach: Great point. Experiment. Katy and I strongly believe in experiments. Here’s another point where we are on the same page. Try out things. Be willing to fail.
Hal Weitzman: Excellent. We have had some great questions coming in and please continue to send us your questions. I want to put one of these to you, Katy Milkman, from Leandro De Sa. And it’s essentially: How do you go beyond simple behavioral change that might not lead to permanent deep change? So you talked about fresh starts, and I remember a period of my life when giving up smoking was easy. I did it 20 or 30 times. So how do I avoid getting into that situation where I’m constantly having to make a fresh start and actually can make it a habit?
Katy Milkman: Yeah, it’s a fantastic question. And by the way, I want to note that that is one of the biggest problems with the research we’ve done on the fresh-start effect is that it doesn’t take you very far. It gets you motivated to begin, and then we see that most goals actually fail after people begin. Right? So most new year’s resolutions fail fairly quickly, and that’s why we need so much more scaffolding to build upon, and so much more behavioral science than just that new beginning to kick things off.
In terms of how we create enduring change, one of the things that I hoped to study in my career was that very question, and I will say for a while I was looking for what I now think of as something like the fountain of youth. Like a silver-bullet solution. If we could just put people through this, give them the set of nudges for a few weeks, we could just change them forever after. After we pulled back, we could build a habit that would last forever.
And I will say, research on habits and the research I’ve done related to habits suggests that when we repeat a behavior, we’re rewarded for that behavior over a long enough time period, enough repetitions, which it varies by context. Maybe exercise you can repeat for a month or two months. Something more micro, like making yourself coffee, doesn’t take as long. Once you do that and you take the rewards away, some of the behavior does continue. And we know this from animal experiments that have shown the same kinds of patterns that we see in human behavior, but only maybe 30 percent. And if you take away whatever the tools and tactics are that are supporting change—I know we’re going to get into more of those shortly—most of the behavior actually extinguishes. And what that has taught me is I don’t think there is a silver bullet. There isn’t a month of programming you could go through that will carry you forward forever after if you just quit at that point and say, “OK, I’m all set.”
What we need to do instead is build structures, build goal setting. We plan social support networks, feedback mechanisms, and so on that stay with us so that we don’t treat change as a short-term problem but rather something we need to consistently work at, that we need to consistently use the tools that behavioral science has proven can help us create change, and think of this as something that we do day in, day out, month in and month out, as opposed to temporarily in order to enact a change that will then last.
Ayelet Fishbach: Perfect example for the point that Katy just made about chronic change and about constantly needing support at this is that from relationships, because I think that most people intuitively understand that there is no one thing that you can do to have great relationship. You will have to come up with new things every now and then. You don’t just do it once, but people sometimes make the mistake to think that for other goals, such as a healthy eating or exercising, there is just a one thing that I can do and that will take me for the next 10 years. And that just doesn’t work like this.
And speaking about how to move from a novice to an expert. One of the things that we looked at in our research is how people monitor their goals. And for novices, it’s really good to look backward at how much you’ve done. So if you can add just one mile, or you’ve only done it for a month, look back and say, “Hey, I can already run one. I’ve already been doing it for a month.” If you are a marathon runner, or just a runner, if you feel that you are more of the expert, then look at what’s missing. Look at that as the glass half empty. OK. And then you will realize that, “Oh, well, I haven’t been running enough this week. I should put on my gym shoes and go for 180.” It really helps in the beginning to look back at an the event, look at what’s missing, how far I am from where I want to be.
Hal Weitzman: And that sounds a lot like your research on feedback, which is so interesting, that when someone’s new to a task, you encourage, very positive, someone who’s an expert. And you give the story, Katy, but you start with talking about Andre Agassi, if you’re an expert or professional, the type of coaching you want is very critical and very specific.
Ayelet Fishbach: Absolutely. It’s hard to learn from negative feedback. It’s much easier to learn from positive feedback. The problem is that there was actually really good information in negative feedback. So while it’s hard, we should be paying attention. But when we are new to something, or where we are, we’re not the expert in the room, then it makes it even harder to learn from negative feedback. And this is why we give novices positive feedback. And for ourselves, when we start on something, we should really focus on getting positive feedback on seeing what we’re doing right. Encouraging yourself with the successes. And later on, open up to hear how you can still improve.
Hal Weitzman: I want to bring in another audience question. This is from Carly, and I apologize if I’m not saying your last name correctly, Kadlec. Is it difficulty in achieving personal goals that we create goals based on unrealistic expectations, where they’re just not practical and achievable for us?
Ayelet Fishbach: So a bit of optimism is actually pretty good. Personal example: I have the goal to exercise daily, and I don’t quite reach it on most weeks. So I mean, this is just way too optimistic. Usually something happens. There is at least one day that I miss, and then that’s fine. OK. So it’s better to set your goals so that they are a bit more optimistic than what is feasible than that they are not optimistic enough—
Hal Weitzman: And then be kind to yourself that you didn’t actually hit them.
Ayelet Fishbach: Exactly. But then if you achieve 80 percent of the ambitious goal, that’s fine. We only set these targets to motivate ourselves, so we should not be too tied up to them.
Hal Weitzman: But I wonder, listening to you speak about the way that you organize your goals, if they’re not organized, you can say, “Well, I want to learn the piano. I also want to play football and I want to learn learn Spanish,” whatever. So you just have too much and you haven’t actually been forced to pick what is important. Is the prioritizing going to help you to organize these things and then make it more achievable because you think, “OK, I’ll leave Spanish and I’ll focus on playing the piano.”
Ayelet Fishbach: Absolutely. And my colleague here at Booth just told me this morning, Emma Levine, that she had created now two lists on a whiteboard, urgent goals and important goals. And the frustrating thing is that she found out that she works more on the urgent than the important, so shift a bit more to the important. Yeah, it starts with an organization.
Hal Weitzman: I mean, that’s very practical, isn’t it? What you just described. For example, on the email, we’re often pulled into doing stuff that’s urgent but not important and getting it out of the way. And then we find that the day is gone. Katy, I want to turn to you. Same thing, are we setting the bar too high? We know from behavioral-science research that people are usually hopelessly optimistic about lots of things. Do we tend to set the bar too high?
Katy Milkman: I completely agree with Ayelet’s feedback on that, but it’s important to have stretch goals. The research is very clear that we want to be setting the bar high for ourselves. And then the real challenge is that we aren’t going to reach the bar quite, and how do we deal with that? Ayelet pointed out that she’s setting a tough goal for herself of exercising every day, but then she misses a couple of days and she’s able to cope with it. I want to actually highlight some great research by my colleague, Marissa Sharif at Wharton, and also Suzanne Shu at Cornell, that gives a very specific tactic we can use to not be too dissuaded when we set those stretch goals that are good for us, but inevitably make some mistakes.
Marissa realized that she was having the exact same experience as Ayelet, trying to run every day, but she couldn’t quite get it done. And sometimes she’d sort of throw up her hands and give up on the goal of running every day, a week, when she had missed. It’s called the what-the-hell effect. And she came up with a really clever solution, which was, she actually labels and allocates herself two emergency reserves whenever she has a goal of doing something seven days a week. And that turns out to be more effective than just saying, I’m going to try not to give up on myself. Those emergency reserves are sort of chits she only uses when she has a real disaster strike. So she doesn’t take them just when she’s feeling a little bit tired. It has to be something truly meaningful that gets in her way that she’ll say, “All right, I’m going to use an emergency reserve. I’ll still say I’m on track for my seven days this week. I get two of those allocated.” And she’s done research showing that giving people emergency reserves, rather than ranges of goals or lower goals, even though they amount to exactly the same thing, those emergency reserves are more motivating because we don’t want to dispatch them unless it’s truly an emergency, and it helps us also recover if we do have a failure and still feel that we’re on track.
Hal Weitzman: Excellent. Both of you recommend tapping into intrinsic motivation, but if you just don’t feel intrinsically motivated, can you develop it? Are intrinsic motivations just there, or can you develop them?
Ayelet Fishbach: Well, intrinsic motivation [crosstalk 00:24:03].
Hal Weitzman: Maybe just first describe what it is, before we—
Ayelet Fishbach: Absolutely. OK. So intrinsic motivation is when you do something as its own end. You do it because you want to do it. In extreme or pure instances of intrinsic motivation, it’s even weird to ask why you are doing it because the only reason to do it is that I want to do it. It’s a stroll in the park. It’s eating that cake. It’s sex—as long as you’re not doing it because you are trying to conceive. Most of the things that we do are not purely intrinsically motivated. I go to work partially because I need to get paid. But I actually think that I’m pretty intrinsically motivated to do my job, which means that I am excited to do it. And I tend to be sorry when the day’s over when there’s so many things that I want to finish.
So most of the time what we do is between being purely intrinsically motivated and not at all. And then there are strategies that we both have studied on how to increase intrinsic motivation. So I will let Katy talk about some of the amazing work that she did on that, how to add some sugar to your goals.
I would say that we found that focusing on what you like about what you do, focusing on the intrinsically motivating aspects of that action are helpful. Focusing on some immediate rewards that you get from doing something, what is immediately gratifying, is helpful. Often, finding a way to do the same thing, such that it feels more pleasant at the moment, is the trick. So it’s like finding the healthy food that you enjoy eating, or finding the workout that is most pleasurable for you. And more strategies for you, Katy?
Katy Milkman: Yeah. And by the way, I just want to say, I think this insight from your work, really, and your work also with Kaitlin Woolley is so important, that so many of us make a mistake in thinking if we have a goal to pursue, we’ll just go for it, try the most effective way to get there. And we don’t appreciate that the experience in the moment of goal pursuit, if it’s not enjoyable, we will quit. So we need to find a fun way to pursue our goals. I think it’s so important—and maybe the most important insight about behavior change that there is.
And actually, before I knew about that research, because it hadn’t yet been done, I did something I would say that I think of as a bit narrower, but that achieves the same end, which was I tried it myself and then I studied it. It was research. I did something I call temptation bundling. This’ll be familiar to some people who probably used it themselves. I realized if I could make a chore more pleasant by linking it with something I enjoyed, I would get the chore done more often. So for me, as a graduate student, I found it to be a bit of a chore to get to the gym. It was hard for me to motivate myself to exercise. And my guilty pleasure, when I should’ve been doing my problem sets, was binge-watching TV or reading tempting novels. And so I came up with a solution. I temptation bundled. I only let myself enjoy those indulgences, indulgent entertainment, while I was exercising at the gym. And suddenly I found myself craving trips to the gym to get my entertainment fix in. The time would fly while I was there. And then I’d come home, motivated and ready to do my work because there were no distractions. I had already gotten to do the thing that would normally be the temptation pulling me away.
I realized you could use this tactic in lots of other settings as well. So you can only let yourself listen to your favorite podcast while you’re doing household chores or only open your favorite bottle of wine while making a home-cooked meal, only pick up a snack you most crave or the coffee you love when heading to hit the books at the library. Lots of ways we can do it. And we’ve studied it with exercise, and found that if you essentially hold people’s entertainment hostage, so they can only access it at the gym, it increases the amount that they visit. But again, you can use this more broadly. And I think it ties really nicely to Ayelet and Kaitlin’s really critical insight about if we make it fun. This is just one way to make it fun. Then we persist much longer. So it’s really important to try to engineer solutions that make it enjoyable to do whatever normally feels like a chore.
Ayelet Fishbach: And Katy, can you say something about the Mary Poppins effect, so that my comment on the sugar will not seem completely obscure?
Katy Milkman: Yes. In my book, I write about this idea as relating to the Mary Poppins insight that a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. If you bundle that spoonful of sugar, which in the case of my exercise, the spoonful of sugar was entertainment, like binge-watching Bridgerton, say, while you’re at the gym, that makes the chore no longer feel like a chore. The spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down pleasurably.
Hal Weitzman: I wanted to turn to something that both of you mentioned in your books, and I think I’m right in saying both of you have been involved in research around this idea, which is this remarkable finding that advising or mentoring other people can actually help motivate you and make you better. So talk about that, and how does it actually work?
Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah, so it turned out that when you give advice, given that you believe yourself more than anybody else will believe you, you are very persuaded by your own advice. And so for me, working with students and constantly trying to explain to others how to do certain things, I don’t know how much I influence them, but I certainly influence myself. In research that we . . . I have a paper with Laura Eskreis-Winkler and Angela Duckworth, and Katy has another paper with the same coauthors, that looked at this advising effect. What we found is that even if you ask people who feel that they don’t know something to give advice, that will motivate them.
So for example, we asked people that were looking for a job—these are unemployed people—to give advice on how to get a job. The first response is usually like, “Who am I to—
Hal Weitzman: You ask unemployed people to give other people, other unemployed people, advice?
Ayelet Fishbach: On how to get a job. OK. So the first response is, “Well, I don’t have a job. How can I give you advice on how to get a job?” But then you say, “Well, I think that you actually know something. You’ve been in the situation. What would you say?” And people give good advice, and they find their own advice much more motivating for them than reading the experts’ advice. So maybe this is not something that I should say here, because maybe then people will listen less to me and more to the advice that they give to themselves. But taking this risk, I would say, give yourself advice.
Hal Weitzman: OK, excellent. And Katy Milkman, how does that apply to a team setting, an office setting where I might say to, well, somebody who’s struggling . . . Counterintuitively, I might say she should give advice to another staff member, another employee, and that will help motivate her and get her more engaged.
Katy Milkman: That’s right. Yeah. So, the really interesting implication of this work that Lauren Eskreis-Winkler has been leading, that Ayelet and I have both gotten to be involved with, is that sometimes when someone is struggling, you can help them most by putting them in the position of a mentor. And I think, for instance, Alcoholics Anonymous knows this. They not only assign you a sponsor when you join their program to help you have social support, but the sponsor is actually getting a benefit by being a mentor as well. So I think it’s a tool we use too infrequently.
There’s another tactic that you can use to help yourself that Ayelet and I should really run an experiment on this, but it’s a natural outgrowth of what we’re both saying here. And I’ve used it in my life and found it hugely helpful, which is to form an advice club of similar-minded people with similar goals. You can gain social support from a group of people who are all trying to achieve a similar goal, but need someone to ping when they’re not sure exactly how to approach a new challenge that arises.
And I’ve done this in my professional life. I have a group of women who are at a similar stage in their careers with similar career goals. When we get a request to do something, we’re not sure whether or not this is the right use of our time or how to respond, we ping each other. And it has two values, even though I initially only saw one. I initially thought, “Wow, this is so great. It’s friendship and free consulting from brilliant people to help me think through my problems.” But what I recognized over the years is not only am I getting those huge benefits, but whenever I am pinged and have to think about a problem that a colleague is facing who has similar career goals, I’m preparing for facing that myself. And the advice I give ends up influencing my own decisions in the long run and building my confidence that I can actually figure out great ways to handle these kinds of challenges.
So I think advice clubs are probably something we should use more, given the dual benefit of that social support and the advice giving that you do and how that improves your own outcome.
Hal Weitzman: I just wanted to ask you very quickly to dig into the science that was actually going on. You talked about it a little bit, Katy Milkman, but is it just that by articulating what I think you should do, I’m more likely to do it? What’s the mechanism there?
Katy Milkman: [crosstalk 00:34:12] That’s great.
Ayelet Fishbach: Oh, Katy, go on. Yeah.
Hal Weitzman: Go ahead, Katy Milkman.
Katy Milkman: So, Ayelet, I am sure, would give them the same answer to this one. I’m sorry if I’m chiming in out of turn. In the book I wrote, I focus on this as a particularly useful tool when confidence is a barrier to change. And one of the reasons I think it’s so useful in that context is that when you’re asked for advice, it boosts your confidence and makes you believe someone thinks that I’m worthy of reflecting on this, of coaching others on this. And so if you were previously lacking in confidence, and Ayelet gave the great example of someone who was out of work and was trying to find a job, they may not believe in themselves and think, “This isn’t going to go well.” But someone comes along and says, “I think you know a lot. I think you could give advice.” That’s a big ego boost, and that could be helpful.
Katy Milkman: And then once they start introspecting, they’re going to discover they do actually have that knowledge. This is what the research is showing. People do have insights. They just might not be motivated enough to dredge them up unless they have to articulate them for someone else. And then of course there’s the saying-is-believing effect. Once you give this advice to someone else, you’re more likely to believe it because it came out of your own mouth, and you don’t want to feel like a hypocrite and not take the advice. So all of those mechanisms, I suspect, are pooled and make this such a powerful tool for changing behavior.
Hal Weitzman: Katy Milkman, what are your thoughts about removing the barriers to changing an organization, making a whole organization behave differently?
Katy Milkman: Maybe one thing to point to that we haven’t talked much about . . . We’ve talked about social support, but I want to mention the great work on social norms and how conveying that everyone else is doing X can be really informative and influential if you are trying to convince a few folks who aren’t towing the line to also change their behavior in that direction. For instance, telling people, “Look, the majority of your peers are reusing”—this is kind of a funny example, but I do love this study—“They’re reusing their towels at the hotel you’re staying in,” increases the likelihood you’ll reuse your towels too, which it seems like a funny thing, but just learning that everyone else was doing it, it does two things. One, it makes it seem like, “Oh, this is normal. I thought maybe it was a weird behavior, but I guess it’s not.” And also, it can make you feel like I don’t want to be the oddball.
And in an organization where there’s lots of people, that peer pressure can be a powerful and useful tool to leverage. It’s also important to note that there’s lots of ethical considerations, right? You could see this being used for evil. And in fact, it was first studied by social psychologists who were trying to understand how the Nazis created so much conformity in so many regular people. So it’s an important and powerful tool, but also one that can be wielded irresponsibly. So we have to be thoughtful, very thoughtful, and careful about that.
But I do think social influence and recognizing its power is useful to organizational leaders who are trying to create change. And there’s new research showing that you don’t even need to be able to point and say, “Hey, look, the majority of your peers are doing X,” to change behavior. You can just show an increasing trend and say, “Look, 20 percent were engaging in remote work one day a week before, and now it’s up to 40 percent.” And even though it’s still not the majority, seeing that trend turns out to propel people to change their behavior in the direction of that. It’s called an increasing social norm. So that’s a tool that may be particularly useful to mention.
Hal Weitzman: OK. Excellent. Thank you. I do want to get to this question that came in from Micaela Saviano. “Please discuss mommy guilt.” Mommy guilt being presumably the idea that—or daddy guilt—you’re not being a good parent.
Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah. Well, all three of us are parents. That means that all three of us are probably guilty at times. This is a great example for goal conflict. But what we know is that people can either see their goals as conflicting with each other or as complementing each other. And I personally think that the best way to deal with guilt is to remind yourself that by finding the right balance between your parenting goal, your professional goals, your social goals, seeing friends, your traveling goals, you’re actually a better parent. OK? These tend to complement each other. I’m a better employee because I have a life outside of work, because I have perspective. I am a better parent to my children because I was able to raise them to believe that a parent, and in particular a mom, can have a career and family and hobbies and a bunch of other things. So my personal advice is I think about this more as complementing goals.
Hal Weitzman: But I wonder, given the experience that many of us had working from home, but also the experience that’s been going on for many, many years of, that work never stops. You get emails and are expected to respond to stuff in the evening. And as much as we might have the best intentions of putting the phone away as soon as we get home, it’s just very hard to do that. It’s not to mention that the way that the phone is set up is designed not to do that. To what extent is this just a state of the fact that we feel that we’re multitasking more and more and we don’t have time for the things that are really important.
Ayelet Fishbach: So asking Katy or me about work-life balance is kind of asking the poor how to save money.
Hal Weitzman: Well, according to you, that’s what we should be doing.
Ayelet Fishbach: Exactly, right. So this is when I give advice on the first thing that I don’t do.
Hal Weitzman: So let’s try to help you.
Ayelet Fishbach: In my mind, these calls often support each other. I try to make sure that I do what I’m most excited about. So it might not be email, but I will work on my book over the weekend when I’m probably supposed to do something else with my family. I’m very forgiving and I try to be forgiving to others and to myself, try to do what’s important, not necessarily what is urgent, try to balance between everything, but just don’t be too judgmental. OK? It’s hard.
Hal Weitzman: You mean of oneself?
Ayelet Fishbach: Yes. Yes. Or you of me.
Hal Weitzman: Yeah, right. Well actually, Katy Milkman, any thoughts on mommy guilt or parental guilt?
Katy Milkman: Well, I think Ayelet put it beautifully when she said that these are complementary goals. I guess I’d add a couple of tactics that might be useful to think about. One is that I talked about commitment devices earlier, where we can sort of treat ourselves the way we’re used to... We’re used to somebody fining us if we speed, somebody else imposing rules on us, but it’s a little funny to think about imposing rules on ourselves. And yet, that can be really useful when you anticipate goal conflict, when you anticipate temptations getting in the way of doing what you know is in your best interest is to set up structures that will create boundaries. So when you’re in the heat of the moment and you’re tempted to look at your phone, it’s harder to do so.
So, for instance, you can make sure the phone is in another room when you’re having a meal with your family so that even if you’re tempted to pick it up and then get sucked into a work funnel, it’s not easily available or accessible. I went on a short vacation to celebrate an anniversary with my spouse recently, and I wanted to have my phone so that if there was an issue, my child wasn’t with us, but we could get contacted right away if there was an issue. But I moved my email off of my phone during that trip so I wouldn’t be tempted to look. So you could be strategic about what you have access to. When you know a temptation could be a problem, you can eliminate it from the situation.
And then, the other thing I would say is there’s some wonderful work on two topics that can help make transitions. One suggests that commutes are useful because they’re a ritual that helps us sort of transition from one stage to another. And we may want to insert other rituals into life if we’re not commuting to help make those transitions: pacing around your office a few times, listening to some music to transition from one stage to another can be helpful in shutting down one part of life and going the other.
And then, there’s research showing if we treat weekends like vacations, think of it as if it’s a vacation, that can help you do things that are more fun, which we know is great for so many reasons, and get more recharged during that time away.
Hal Weitzman: Excellent. OK. Well, I think we’re coming up to final questions. So there’s one thing I wanted to ask you because we were talking about advice so much. I wanted to ask you, what is the one piece of advice you give either in your book or generally that you find hard yourself to take?
Ayelet Fishbach: Oh gosh. Can Katy go first?
Hal Weitzman: Katy, you want one—
Ayelet Fishbach: I’ll think about something.
Hal Weitzman: Should I be giving you a minute to . . . I didn’t give you a heads-up on this question, so should I give you a minute to think about it? Maybe I can say while you’re thinking about that, maybe what I’ll do is I’ll pre-thank the audience. So unfortunately this is going to be our last question. So thank you very much for joining us. This has been a great discussion. And I did want to say thank you also for your questions.
If you are interested in hearing more about research of behavioral science, economics, accounting, finance, marketing, and everything else that we study here at Chicago Booth, I encourage you to come to the Chicago Booth Review website at Review.ChicagoBooth.edu, where you can find great videos, summaries of research, feature articles, and lots of other material that will help you keep abreast of academic research in lots of different fields.
OK. I hope that was enough time for you guys to think about what you’re going to say. Katy Milkman, what’s the one piece of advice that you find it hard to take?
Katy Milkman: One thing that I have found surprising is that most of us underappreciate the importance of memory to achieving our goals—that we often just forget to do things that we intend to do, and that can be a real disruptor. And there’s research that I and others have done showing that we undervalue having reminders and structure to make sure that we won’t slip up. And I think I’m guilty of this. I have created more and more structure around sort of recognizing that I can’t live without my calendar. And if someone else doesn’t tell me to do it, or if I’m not reminded to do it, it won’t get done. But I think that’s the one I slip up on the most and regret, and that making sure that we don’t rely on our own memory for follow through is a really important one and a tough one.
Hal Weitzman: That’s it for this episode of the Chicago Booth Review podcast. It was produced by Josh Stunkel, and I’m Hal Weitzman. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and please do leave us a 5-star review. And for more insights from Chicago Booth faculty, visit us online at chicagobooth.edu/review. Thanks for listening—until next time.
Trying to spare someone else’s feelings can leave the person feeling insulted.Why Posting about That Promotion Is Better than Keeping Quiet
Chicago Booth’s Alexander Todorov and University of Chicago’s Wilma A. Bainbridge and Ben Zhao discuss biases relating to faces and the implications of facial-recognition technology.Is it Ethical to Use Facial Imaging in Decision-Making?
We want to demonstrate our commitment to your privacy. Please review Chicago Booth's privacy notice, which provides information explaining how and why we collect particular information when you visit our website.