Yet effective targets should be ambitious. As long as the goal is within reach, the more you expect from yourself, the more you’ll achieve, as people often respond to a challenge by working harder.
Fishbach and her former student, Ying Zhang of Peking University, performed a study in which they gave groups of participants an anagram task. Participants were asked to make new words from a target word. (For instance, from “seat” one can make “east,” “teas,” and “eats.”) But for some of the trials, there were no correct solutions, which allowed Fishbach and Zhang to gauge how much people would persist in the face of difficulty.
The researchers find that people who expected the task to be challenging stated more ambitious goals, saying in advance that they’d do better than two-thirds of the participants—and they persisted at the task for longer than others (almost eight minutes). People who expected the task to be less challenging stated they’d do about average on the task, and they persisted for just six minutes.
Participants’ answers varied according to how much they thought the accuracy of their predictions mattered. Taking the pressure off in terms of accuracy seemed to help people set ambitious goals and work harder: told accuracy didn’t matter, participants predicted they’d finish a hard test more quickly than an easy test, and did just that. But when told that accuracy did matter, people predicted they’d need more time when the test was harder, and then took more time on a harder test.
Break big projects into smaller tasks
Motivation waxes and wanes as you work on a particular goal. You start off motivated, and you are motivated again toward the end of a project. But in the middle stretch, your motivation tends to lag, data suggest.
Fishbach and her former student, Northwestern University’s Maferima Touré-Tillery, observed this across a series of tasks. In one experiment, which involved 10 trials, they asked participants to proofread passages for spelling and grammatical errors, and they had participants determine the length of those passages by coin flips. The results conformed to chance at the beginning and end of the tasks, where participants assigned themselves to read short passages about half the time, as would be expected by random coin flips. But in the middle, participants assigned themselves to short passages 70 percent of the time, suggesting that they probably assisted the flipping process—cheated—in the middle section.
Similarly, when the researchers recorded how observant Jews lit candles throughout the eight-day holiday of Chanukah, they saw people lag in the middle of the task. On the first night, 79 percent of the 202 people they observed reported lighting candles, but that dropped to 49 percent by the fifth night, before rebounding to 57 percent on the final night. And the more observant the participants were, the more likely they were to light candles at the beginning and end of the festival, “but behaved like less religious participants in the middle,” the researchers write.
Your motivation can lag along the way
Participants in a study started relatively strong, cut corners in the middle of the process, and focused once again toward the end.
Fishbach and Touré-Tillery saw the same pattern when they asked people to cut out a series of shapes. “The participants did a better job on the first and last shapes—where they were literally cutting corners—and worse in the middle,” says Fishbach. “This is telling. The beginning and end of a project tend to be motivating.” We identify with our own actions more at the beginning and end of tasks, the researchers say. We see the middle stretch as less indicative of who we really are. So to motivate yourself in the middle of a task, minimize the amount of time you spend there by deconstructing your end goal. “Break a goal into shorter subgoals to maximize beginnings and ends, and to minimize middles,” says Fishbach. “Instead of an annual goal, set a monthly goal. Instead of weekly, make it daily.”
Work by Washington University’s Hengchen Dai and University of Pennsylvania’s Katherine L. Milkman and Jason Riis suggests that how we time our goal pursuit may also help us stay motivated. Making a goal on a landmark day—such as New Year’s Day or even just a Monday—is more motivating than beginning it on a regular day, they suggest. People are more likely to visit gyms on Mondays or to start working toward goals on the first day of spring, a phenomenon the researchers dub “the fresh start effect.” The fresh start represents a break from our former ways, as the researchers also find that it distances us psychologically from our past selves and failed attempts.
That’s why it can help to construct a goal out of smaller subgoals. With each step forward, we can feel as though we’re advancing toward future successes and away from past failures. Reach your annual goal by setting monthly markers along the way. To reach your goal for the week, outline daily tasks. And if you can’t even remember your resolutions for 2017, that’s OK—set a goal for this month, and create milestones for each week.
Celebrate your progress, however small
People are more motivated, and tend to move faster, when the end is in sight. This phenomenon is known as the goal gradient. Say you’re trying to run 5 miles: each increment of progress you make initially seems small, because that first mile you run represents just 20 percent of your total goal. Meanwhile the last mile you run completes the goal, so it feels more substantial.
This insight comes originally from academic research into animal behavior, including studies of rats in a maze, says Chicago Booth’s Oleg Urminsky. “Proximity to the goal increases motivation. If you’re a rat in a maze, you run faster the closer you get to the end. So we tested this in people, in the context of a loyalty program in coffee shops.”
When Urminsky was a doctoral student at Columbia University, he and his advisor, Ran Kivetz, and Yuhuang Zheng, now of Tsinghua University, demonstrated this phenomenon in coffeehouses on an urban college campus. The team gave people cards to be stamped each time they bought a cup of coffee.
Focus on what you’ve accomplished
Seeking an approach that would bring sushi restaurant customers back sooner, researchers find that initial progress was a factor.
People bought coffee more frequently the closer they got to earning a free cup, the researchers observed. “The closer you are to the reward, the more likely you are to pursue it,” says Urminsky.
Later, Urminsky and his colleagues tested out two types of loyalty cards. Half the cards were numbered from 1 to 10, as before. In the other, “accelerated” group, the cards were numbered from 1 to 12 but had two of those slots already prestamped. People in the accelerated group completed their purchases an average of three days sooner, thanks to an illusion of progress. If you feel like you’re already two stamps closer to the end point, you’re more motivated to get there.
This same idea can get you more than free coffee. “Be aware of the fact that when the goal is far away, it’s going to seem harder,” says Urminsky. “So people should supplement with other methods earlier on.” For example, if your goal is to exercise more, consider starting out by exercising with a buddy, as social pressure is another motivating factor that will get you to the gym. (More on social pressure later.)
And make sure to take stock of what you’ve done, especially when you’re just starting out—measuring early progress at the beginning can be as motivating as using a goal that’s in sight at the end to spur you to the finish line. Using a similar setup to Urminsky’s, Fishbach, along with Minjung Koo of Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, Korea, created stamp cards for a sushi restaurant, designing them to draw attention either to what had been accomplished or to what was left to do. The researchers measured how frequently the people using these stamp cards returned to the restaurant.
Connecting with our future selves can help us make wiser decisions in the present, from saving money to cutting calories.
“Near the beginning, people are motivated by what’s been done,” says Fishbach. In the restaurant study, people who had eaten just a few meals at the restaurant were motivated by what they had accomplished to earn the reward (a free meal). People who had eaten there a lot were motivated by the diminishing number they had left to eat. Fishbach and Koo call this the “small-area hypothesis,” indicating that we’re motivated by whatever is the smallest amount of progress, done or left to do.
Others of Fishbach’s studies have found that one’s commitment to a project also follows the same pattern. People who are not so committed or who are new to a pursuit (for instance, new employees) are also more motivated by what they’ve done already. But those who are highly committed to a pursuit or who are experienced at a project will be more motivated by what’s left to do.
So at the start of a goal, keep your mind on what you have done, even if it’s very small, Fishbach advises. “If it’s your first month in gym, well, you’ve already signed up; you’re already here,” she says. “Employees at a new job—you’ve already applied for, interviewed, and gotten the job. There’s always something that you’ve done.”
Think about the future you
One way to change your behavior in the present is to think about the future. Urminsky and his Chicago Booth colleague Daniel Bartels find that connecting with our future selves can help us make wiser decisions in the present, from saving money to cutting calories.
Urminsky and Bartels have been studying people’s present and future selves for years and continue to make discoveries. In previous research, they demonstrated that people vary in how connected they are to their future selves, and that degree of connection can be manipulated to nudge people to make different purchasing decisions—be that to save more money or to give more to charity.
In a recent pair of studies, they extend this line of thought to show how people’s connections to their future selves can also be used to influence their choices affecting their health, including what they choose to eat and whether they go to the gym. The researchers interviewed University of Chicago students to measure how connected they were to their future selves. Students who were more connected to their future selves were more fit, as measured by Body-Mass Index, on average. Even among overweight students, those who were more connected to their future selves went to the campus gym more often.
It’s really important for you to enjoy your resolution. That’s not how most people choose their goals—they choose ones they feel are important.
Find what intrinsically motivates you
Participation in a math task jumped when incentives were offered, and returned to normal levels shortly afterward.
Fishbach and Booth PhD candidate Kaitlin Woolley asked people to think about their New Year’s resolutions and to rate how much they enjoyed them. For instance, the researchers asked if the resolution a person had selected was “something that provides you with a positive experience.” And was that resolution “important for you to do?” Two months later, they had people come back and report how well they’d stuck to their resolutions, and how well they expected to stick to them for the remainder of the year.
They learned it’s really important for you to enjoy your resolution. That’s not how people typically choose their goals—they choose ones they feel are important. Fishbach says it’s fine to go ahead and set goals that feel important, but don’t compromise on pleasure entirely. “Don’t choose a New Year’s resolution you don’t enjoy doing.” You’ll be setting yourself up for failure.
So forget about doing something you hate but think is important. Instead, if you’re trying to eat more healthy foods, don’t expect to learn to like all healthy foods—find some you already like. Find an exercise you enjoy. Find books you like reading. Tap into your intrinsic motivation.
Reward yourself, carefully
Economists know well that incentives can be used to motivate people. But incentives have a reputation for killing off the very motivation you want to harness.
“The conventional wisdom in psychology for the last 20 years or so has been that incentives undermine intrinsic motivation,” says Urminsky. For instance, paying people to do a task they already love can sap their joy and make them less likely to do it when not paid to do so. “The policy conclusion is that it is dangerous to pay incentives for things that people might do without an incentive.”
Offer something other than money
Chicago Booth’s Devin G. Pope and University of California, Berkeley’s Stefano DellaVigna looked at how different incentives affected people’s performance on a short but tedious task: pressing the A and B buttons on a computer keyboard. The researchers presented 10,000 participants with a task—to press the buttons as many times as they could in 10 minutes—as well as one of 18 incentives, such as money or a donation to the Red Cross.
Looking at how each incentive affected the participants’ work, the researchers find that offering money worked best, but other incentives also proved effective—including telling people they would see their performance compared to others’ at the end of the task.
“In our context, we find that financial incentives are the most effective at motivating behavior,” says Pope. “However, we also find smaller but real benefits from nonfinancial motivators. While these nonfinancial incentives are not as effective overall, they are cost effective, given that they do not cost money to implement.”
Create personal, flexible incentives
Chicago Booth’s Sanjog Misra has looked at how data from employee performance can be used to understand individual patterns, and, in turn, help optimize how incentives are designed. Misra finds that certain circumstances cause performance to lag—for example, if an employee is far from meeting her quota, or close to the cap of a reward.
“Employees learn quickly about the incentive systems and the best way to make the most with the least amount of effort,” says Misra. “Sometimes incentive systems—for example, goals, quotas, or targets with incentives tied to them—can create distortions in effort. For example, if the quota is too high, employees may give up. If they have achieved the quota, and there are no incremental incentives, they can stop working.”
Misra’s work suggests that to maximize motivation, incentives should be based on the behavior patterns of the individual worker. It can be costly but nonetheless worthwhile to calculate each employee’s optimal incentive structure, says Misra.
Another way to boost effort is to implement systems that are flexible in both how and when incentives are awarded. “Good incentive systems allow employees to find the right part of the system that works for them,” says Misra. For example, a company with a rigid policy might offer a flat, 1.5 percent commission to all sales agents. But if there’s a sliding scale, some agents might be happy to work toward a 1 percent commission, while others might set higher goals and work harder to make 2 percent or more—and this might help the company retain more agents.
Misra says companies that are trying to design better incentive systems should keep the following in mind:
- It’s important to understand how your employees will react to the incentive system you put in place.
- Good incentive systems align goals and should be win-win. You make more if your employees make more.
- Timing is crucial—when you pay is just as important as how and how much you pay.
- Simplicity is good. Complicated incentive plans create more opportunity for gaming.
- An incentives system should be flexible so employees can use it to self-select their optimal effort. This may involve sliding scales of commissions, bonuses, contests, etc.
Understand the risks
Incentives can backfire, and that’s particularly true for negative reinforcement—incentives that seek to punish rather than reward people.
A study by UC San Diego’s Uri Gneezy and University of Minnesota’s Aldo Rustichini asked owners of several Israeli childcare centers to fine parents who were late to pick up their kids, to test whether it would make parents more or less likely to arrive on time. More parents started picking up their children late—as the fine changed the social contract, the researchers surmised. As parents saw the fine as a payment for an extra service, it became acceptable to arrive late. Even when the fine was removed, parents still showed up late, which suggested that in some cases, an incentive (or here, a deterrent) can cause permanent change.
For more, read “Why your sales force needs smarter incentives,” from the Summer 2016 issue.
A little social pressure can spur you
While creating competitive environments motivated people in an exercise initiative, support groups created a sense of inertia.
People who competed against others, either individually or as groups, took significantly more classes than anyone else—90 percent more than in the control group. Yet people who supported each other online took the fewest classes.
It would seem that encouragement is far less effective than good-old competition. “People [in the social support group] did not use their peers as sources of social comparison, but instead as sources of encouragement,” says Centola. “The least-active members of the group created a kind of social inertia that pulled the others to exercise less,” he says. However, when people could see others’ scores, they were motivated to work harder. “If we see others doing better—getting back into shape faster, going to more fitness classes, and losing weight more quickly—it gives us a new goal. Peer competition is very useful for goal setting, and for creating aspirations for getting into shape faster.”
And with competition, we lust after what other people want, not what they have. Fishbach and the University of Florida’s Yanping Tu looked at people’s tastes, from food to items on Amazon. They find that people often choose to make choices that complement but don’t overlap with their friends’ choices. For example, people would buy gum, as their friends had done, but choose different flavors. “Psychologically, people are probably in the mind-set, ‘I’m not buying the same thing as you. But if you like it, then I want to have it,’” says Fishbach.
Looked at together, these research findings can be prescriptive, and help you meet goals you’ve previously failed at. So forget about the person you were when you made your resolutions for 2017. Instead, set a new, optimistic goal that challenges what you think you can accomplish. Predict how you’ll do on it; write down the answer. Think about how your future self will feel when you accomplish it. Make sure your goal involves something you enjoy doing—if it doesn’t, go back and rethink the goal. After that, create realistic, weekly subgoals. Make the subgoals measurable, and reward yourself when you achieve them. Also give yourself a reward for starting this process, that’s akin to one free punch toward a free coffee.
- Hengchen Dai, Katherine L. Milkman, and Jason Riis, “Put Your Imperfections behind You,” Psychological Science, November 2015.
- ———, “The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior,” Management Science, June 2014.
- Ayelet Fishbach, Minjung Koo, and Stacey R. Finkelstein, “Motivation Resulting from Completed and Missing Actions,” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 50, eds. James M. Olsen and Mark P. Zanna, Waltham: Academic Press, 2014.
- Indranil Goswami and Oleg Urminsky, “The Dynamic Effect of Incentives on Post-Reward Task Engagement,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, January 2017.
- Ran Kivetz, Oleg Urminsky, and Yuhuang Zheng, “The Goal-Gradient Hypothesis Resurrected: Purchase Acceleration, Illusionary Goal Progress, and Customer Retention,” Journal of Marketing Research, February 2006.
- Minjung Koo and Ayelet Fishbach, “The Small-Area Hypothesis: Effects of Progress Monitoring on Goal Adherence,” Journal of Consumer Research, February 2012.
- Katherine L. Milkman, Julia A. Minson, and Kevin G. M. Volpp, “Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling,” Management Science, February 2014.
- John C. Norcross, Marcy S. Mrykalo, and Matthew D. Blagys, “Auld lang Syne: Success Predictors, Change Processes, and Self-Reported Outcomes of New Year’s Resolvers and Nonresolvers,” Journal of Clinical Psychology, April 2002.
- Luxy Shen, Ayelet Fishbach, and Christopher K. Hsee, “The Motivating-Uncertainty Effect: Uncertainty Increases Resource Investment in the Process of Reward Pursuit,” Journal of Consumer Research, November 2014.
- Maferima Touré-Tillery and Ayelet Fishbach, “The End Justifies the Means, but Only in the Middle,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, October 2011.
- ———,Yanping Tu and Ayelet Fishbach, “Immediate Rewards Predict Adherence to Long-Term Goals,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, October 2016.
- ———, “When Intrinsic Motivation and Immediate Rewards Overlap,” in The Motivation-Cognition Interface; From the Lab to the Real World, eds. Catalina Kopetz and Ayelet Fishbach, New York: Psychology Press (in press).
- ———, “Words Speak Louder: Conforming to Preferences More Than Actions,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, August 2015.
- Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach, “For the Fun of It: Harnessing Immediate Rewards to Increase Persistence in Long-Term Goals,” Journal of Consumer Research, February 2016.
- Oleg Urminsky and Daniel Bartels, “Connectedness to the Future Self Shapes Self-Control: Planning, Choices, and Goal Persistence,” Working paper, January 2017.
- Richard Wiseman, “New Year’s Resolution Project,” Quirkology website, (richardwiseman.com/quirkology/new/USA/Experiment_resolution), Accessed January 2017.
- Jingwen Zhang, Devon Brackbill, Sijia Yang, Joshua Becker, Natalie Herbert, and Damon Centola, “Support or Competition? How Online Social Networks Increase Physical Activity: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” Preventive Medicine Reports, December 2016.
- Ying Zhang and Ayelet Fishbach, “Counteracting Obstacles With Optimistic Predictions,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, February 2010.
- Øystein Daljord, Sanjog Misra, and Harikesh S. Nair, “Homogenous Contracts for Heterogeneous Agents: Aligning Salesforce Composition and Compensation,” Working paper, September 2015.
- Stefano DellaVigna and Devin G. Pope, “What Motivates Effort? Evidence and Expert Forecasts,” NBER working paper, April 2016.
- Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini, “A Fine Is a Price,” Journal of Legal Studies, January 2000.
- Sanjog Misra and Harikesh S. Nair, “A Structural Model of Sales-Force Compensation Dynamics: Estimation and Field Implementation,” Quantitative Marketing and Economics, September 2011.
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