Jan. 2, 2023

Ayelet Fishbach | How to Use The Science of Motivation to Accomplish Your Goals for the Year

Ayelet Fishbach | How to Use The Science of Motivation to Accomplish Your Goals for the Year

Learn strategies for self-motivated action and hear compelling stories of those who have motivated themselves to success.

In this episode, we speak with Ayelet Fishbach about how to use the science of motivation to achieve your goals and stay happy. Learn strategies for self-motivated action and hear compelling stories of those who have motivated themselves to success. Tune in for valuable insights on staying motivated and accomplishing your goals for the year.

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Ayelet: No problem, Srini! I'm excited to be here.

Srini: It's funny you say that because as you were saying that, it reminded me of this conversation that I had with Erickson before he passed on the book that he wrote about the expertise. And he was talking about how people who are devoted to mastery, when they choose partners, need people that understand that obsessive drive. He said people think the only reason celebrities date celebrities is because they're both famous. But he said it's actually not true. He said, and I'm paraphrasing, but said, it's because they also have very similar drives to each other where it's like, Hey, here's an artist or an actor who's married to a musician. And when you say it that way, it suddenly makes even more sense.

Ayelet Fishbach: Yes, absolutely. Of course, opportunities matter. There's some data that I think about 20% of couples met each other at work, and that makes sense because you go to work and you meet people. But what makes relationships stick is this feeling that the other person has similar goals and often that they have my goals in mind. They, understand what I'm doing and they are supportive. For that, we basically design our social environment to support the things that we want to achieve in our life.

Srini: For the social environment that you grew up in, did your parents encourage any particular career paths? Because I don't know how it is when you grew up in Israel, obviously if you grew up in India, it's the standard: doctor, lawyer, engineer. My dad's a professor, and so like I come from a family full of academics and here I am, this serendipity God made by giving them to me and giving me to them.

Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah. My, family didn't really have any specific set of expectations for their children. They didn't have a college degree. But I have four siblings and one of them is also a university professor. I take it they were very supportive. They were very supportive of what we do. And, let's connect it back to data. Cause I, I think this is a really interesting point. It helps the child-parent relationship. It helps when the parent pursues similar goals in a sense. If your parent is academic and you are an academic, that makes it easier to stay in a good relationship. But, what matters for success is often not so much the extent to which you have parents or other people around you that pursue similar goals and more of how much they are supportive of your goals. That is, parents that want their children to be successful at school can make this happen or can support it. Okay? The children are more successful at school, and this is regardless of how much the parent themselves is successful at school. Okay? So you don't need to pursue the same goal in order to support someone, you need to understand their goal and want them to be successful, and they will

Srini: Which probably explains why most Indian kids get straight A's in school, because our joke is basically, "Are you kidding? Of course, we got straight A's in school. Our parents would give us up for adoption if we didn't!"

Ayelet Fishbach: Yes. And so it's important to understand that the outcomes affect the decision-making process.

Srini: They don't celebrate it at all. Nobody put our report cards on refrigerators. Anytime we got a minus, my dad would just ask, "Why didn't you get an A+?"

Ayelet Fishbach: What did you miss? Which question did you answer incorrectly? Yes. And it's not about the dead necessarily, like showing their report card. And I'm telling you I did so well at whatever math it's about the expectation that you will be great. And we are talking about parents, but this is true for everybody in our life. It could be a boss or an assistant or someone at the gym that's helping you. Okay? All these people when wanting you to be successful, this is a source of inspiration. These are the best role models. By the way, I don't know how we already got all the way to role models. This is actually the fourth part of my thinking about motivation. The last one

Srini: Don't worry. I've been known to do that to people. The thing that really I realized looking back on this experience with my parents, is that we were just like, this is annoying. You guys are turning this into a giant geek and we have no social life in high school. I think implicitly they were teaching us the value of intrinsic motivation by not rewarding us for getting good grades to the point where, at a certain point, they never had to ask us to study or do anything. We just did it. Which I only recognized in retrospect. But let's come back to that 'cause I know that you write about intrinsic motivation later on. But the other thing I wanna ask about is your time in the military. 'Cause I know that, in Israel, like all the Israelis I've ever met when I'm traveling, usually are traveling because they're in that gap year after they're done with the military service. So, how, what do you learn by serving in the military? How does it differ from the American military? Because here, nobody goes to mandatory military service. So I wonder how that shapes the entire perception. 'Cause I had a peace activist who was an Israeli guy who became an interdisciplinary artist. And he

Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah, I would absolutely identify with that. I didn't really like my time in the Army. I didn't want to go. I was not a great soldier. But I learned that my resistance is much more grounded in ideology. It's not just that it's not something that I enjoy doing. It's something that I often disagree with on a more ideological basis. And that nevertheless, because in Israel everybody had to be a soldier, there are great people. Actually, you know what? It's not just unique to Israel, there are great people in the Army, actually here at the University of Chicago. We get many veterans in my school and they're often my best students. I find myself thinking about how much the military experience either was good for them or that it attracted wonderful people. So I, you can never know whether these people were great, to begin with, or the experience changed them. But what I learned is that, even though I do not support most military actions and do not feel comfortable in a very hierarchical system which is military, I personally feel much more comfortable in the academic system where everybody can argue their point and there's no upper and lower management to some extent. There are things

Srini: Yeah. I definitely want to talk about education 'cause there's no way I'm letting any single professor out of this conversation without talking about education. But before we get there, I wanted to ask you about what your experiences were with culture shock when you first came to the United States. What did you find odd in comparison to where you were before?

Ayelet Fishbach: It would be a much shorter answer if I told you what I didn't find odd. Everything was odd, right? Like you go into the junction when you don't have, like a green light just for you, right? You turn left and people are driving in front of you. That was crazy. Okay. What are they thinking? And then groceries. They're huge. Okay. And you can do your shopping for hours. There's so much stuff. And this is crazy. Who, needs dozens of types of yogurt? Just learning the culture and what people mean when they present information in a certain way. And it's funny because now when I go back to Israel, I often hear from people that Americans are polite and maybe insincere, and maybe it's hard to know. I mean, it's not hard to know you, you just need to be part of the culture. Okay. I actually don't think that people here in Chicago are any less direct than the people in Israel. It's just that they are using a language that's less direct and the cultural code is less direct. And so you need to know how to interpret that. You need to understand when a person wants to

Srini: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. No, I, it's funny 'cause I think you're absolutely right. There are certain cultures or people who would just abruptly end the conversation and, say, "I don't wanna talk to you anymore." I remember a

Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah!

Srini: I ran into someone in college once and she was another Indian girl and I picked up the phone and I was like, "I'm stoned. I just smoked a joint. I don't want to talk to you." And I hung up and she called me back and she was like, "That's not how you talk to girls." I'm like, "Okay, here it goes. But, just, you're right. Like, we definitely are very mindful, we're polite even when we're not wanting to be. Like, we're not, we tend not to say what we're thinking a lot, as Americans, I think."

Ayelet Fishbach: The expression, "see you later." Okay. It doesn't mean anything, right? It's basically the same as "goodbye." Okay? But in other countries, "see you later" is very different than "goodbye." And so if you come here and you don't know the culture, you might be confused about what "see you later" means.

Srini: That person doesn't call you back.

Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah. Okay. That, yeah. Why is there no, yeah, it's not literal.

Srini: Yeah, you're at the University of Chicago, which is one of the most elite universities in America, particularly in certain fields like business and economics. I only know this because it was one of those places where I kept getting brochures. I still very distinctly remember the University of Chicago college admissions essay question. And I remember I wanted to apply just because of this one question, the essay question was, "Write a short story that takes place in the frozen food section of a grocery store," and I never forgot that. But the reason I wanted to ask you about education in particular, you're a person who studies motivation and you're at one of the most elite educational institutions in the world where people, I think just by default, are naturally motivated. People who are in a place like that are motivated. But if you were tasked with redesigning our current education system from the ground up, using the principles of motivation from your research, how would you change it? And I...

Ayelet Fishbach: Oh, wow!

Srini: And

Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah!

Srini: That

Ayelet Fishbach: I mean exactly. I just got either the best job or the worst job, which is designing education and I believe in intrinsic motivation. I, it's not, I believe I can study intrinsic motivation. I like finding that show that intrinsic motivation is probably the best predictor of adherence to whatever people are doing. And of course to education. And so I think that one thing that I would really focus on is how to make studying more immediately rewarding. Okay. How to make the process of studying closer to the goal that you achieve by studying, which is the aha moment. Okay. The feeling that you just discovered something, but you just realize something that you did not realize before, or that you're just enjoying yourself. It's just a fun place, to be. Okay. And the University of Chicago is very much a fun place to be at. Not every academic institution is enjoyable. Okay. Often the classes are too large, so, like you, you don't feel acknowledged, you feel anonymous. Often there is no sufficient challenge. Okay? So it's too easy or too hard, but not quite tailored to your level, to create this level of curiosity and challenge that increases

Srini: Yeah. I think that of all the answers I've heard, this is one of the first ones that people have given. You're the first person who's given me an answer that didn't talk about the content, but about the design of the experience. And that's so fascinating. I never thought about it that way because, yeah, I was a Berkeley undergrad and when you were talking about classes that were too large, I'm thinking to myself, yep.

I'm anonymous. So anonymous in fact, that I had a cousin who was in a math class, calculus class our freshman year, and he said some guy walked up to the professor like 20 minutes after the mid-term ended. Even though the professor had been yelling at him to stop, he went up to the professor. He looked at the professor and said, "Do you even know who the hell I am?"

And then he stuck his exam in the middle of all the blue books and just left.

Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah, yeah.

Srini:  This is what you learn at a place like Berkeley: how to manipulate bureaucracies. But the thing that I wonder is, why are we so resistant to this change? Or why is the system at large so resistant to a change that has been standardized?

Because, you talk about intrinsic motivation, and when I look back at college, granted I also didn't understand a lot of this at that age, but every choice I made was extrinsically motivated. It was like, "Oh, you know what? It's the late nineties. Everybody is majoring in computer science because guess what? Everybody's getting rich in Silicon Valley." So I tried my hand at computer science only to discover I'm terrible at it after two semesters. But I noticed that looking back, I thought to myself, "Wow, every single choice I made throughout college was based, not on curiosity, on how would this help me get a job?"

And I don't feel like I was alone in that, particularly at elite institutions. I think that's quite common.

Ayelet Fishbach: It's not necessarily a mistake to the extent that many things you will find enjoyable. You might not experience this immediately. Okay. So maybe you will enjoy computer science, but it won't be the first couple of weeks of doing that. In another study that we ran, with the Second City Improv Club here in Chicago, which is basically a famous improv club that runs classes where you can go and learn how to develop your confidence and your presentation skills, but doing improvisation.

And most people that are not professional actors, feel very uncomfortable the first time they do this. I know I felt very uncomfortable. And so learning improv is not something that the layperson will do and enjoy in the first class.

Maybe learning computer science will be like that for you, and that's fine. Okay. Actually, what we found is that if we tell people to embrace the difficulty, okay. To, like your goal for the first class is to feel uncomfortable, they were more motivated to come back to the next class. Okay. They felt I had the goal to feel uncomfortable. I feel uncomfortable. That's going well. Okay. And so I am not saying that you should only do what feels immediately comfortable.

Srini: Yeah. Let's get specifically into the book and I think I want to tackle this in probably what is somewhat a non-linear order. First. It's the beginning of the year people are listening to this and the thing that I think happens at the beginning of the year, and we've had Katie Milkman here, whose research I know you cited in the book is that it's a temporal landmark. So despite the fact that there is this power to temporal landmarks, New Year's resolutions often end up being more like fantasies than real plans. And one of the things that you say is fantasies might feel good, but they're largely ineffective as a motivational tool. And when abstract rules become too abstract, they run the risk of turning into fantasies that substitute for action.

And I read that and I just sat here imagining all these people who sit around on New Year's Day making plans that are fantasies or putting vision boards that they're going to stare at and thinking to myself, "So you're just gonna sit on your ass and stare at this thing, and every one of these goals is gonna materialize?"

This is why I wanted to have you as a guest because you specifically told me you think about everything in terms of

Ayelet Fishbach: Yes. I, first, agree that temporal landmarks work. Okay. And around New Year, people think about resolutions. We looked at it for a few years here in the US. Last year we went on some studies in China around their New Year and found that this is a time when we've all set goals. Not all these goals will fail, okay? But a large proportion will and when we follow up in March, there are some people that are still pursuing, but some people have already dropped their goals. Then we keep following these all the way until the following November and by November, most of the people have dropped their goals. Still, about 20% are still doing that. The thing is, it's interesting to think about what makes people stick to their goals. There are a few factors you mentioned. The degree to which the goal is a plan as opposed to a fantasy. And, fantasies, what characterizes them is that you envision yourself already achieving the goal. Okay? So you are already in your ideal physical shape, okay? You are already envisioning yourself winning the medal or the person who has not been drinking or the fully employed person, whatever it is that you want to achieve. And this

Srini: Yeah, you talk about three traps in setting and framing a goal. Once you say is setting a goal that's too specific or concrete instead of an abstract goal. Setting a long-term goal in terms of something you wish to approach rather than something you wish to avoid. And I don't remember what the other one was because I think it was tied to all this.

So what are these traps and how do people avoid them? But then the other thing that struck me was how do you find this balance between abstract and concrete? Because I know in Steven Kotler's research, one of the things he talks about is the fact that clear goals are a flow trigger. How do you tie the abstract to the concrete, I guess that is what I'm asking.

Ayelet Fishbach: Yes. So you, me, you mentioned a few things. The absence, the concrete is interesting. And it's interesting because in a way it's like the show, which is concrete. This is necessary because I think I will not know how to do something unless I answer this question. The why, which is the more abstract, is necessary because like, why would I do it if I cannot answer the why?

Okay. What we find is that you need to ask both questions. Basically, when you set a goal, okay? You want to ask a few why questions. Let's say I need to take a college class. Why? Because if I pass this class, I can take the next class.

Why do you need to take the next class? Because I want to get this college major. Why? Because I want to get into some profession. I want to understand some problems. Ask these questions, okay? Go more abstractly. Understand the reason behind what you are doing. Then at one point the why becomes so abstract, okay?

And if you just ask this question enough times, eventually it becomes just, "I want to be happy." Okay? And at that point

Srini: Yeah. Wow. Let's talk about optimism. You mentioned Gabrielle Ojeda's work and I remember the thing that stood out to me most from that book was the story she tells about Michael Phelps, where she says, people visualize themselves winning the gold medal. Whereas Phelps visualized himself not winning the gold medal because his goggles got filled with water and because of that when it happened, he was prepared.

And this is a battle I have with one of my best friends constantly because he thinks I'm negative and I think he's a delusional optimist. And we balance each other out beautifully. Like I always say, you should anticipate the worst so you can be prepared for when it happens. And he's just like, no, you should just expect the best.

And you talk about this, you say that optimism caused by the planning fallacy is a mistake you'd wish to correct. It happens because when budgeting time and money, people tend to focus on the task at hand while neglecting all other demands on their resources. And I thought about this when I started reading Don Moore's book, Perfectly Confident.

And how we tend to be overconfident about things that we can't control.

Ayelet Fishbach: Oh, that, that's a good one. And I know what I hear you about always planning for the worst. The thing to remember about optimism is that optimism is often a motivational strategy. It's often a way to challenge ourselves when you get up in the morning and say, "I'm going to climb many flights of stairs today, and I'm going to finish a project at work and I'm going to cook an amazing and healthy meal and work to get connected to like some relationships, some people that I didn't talk to." You're optimistic, right? There's no way you can fit all this in, one day. But you are also compelling yourself to work on all these different goals, and what we consistently find is that these optimists, these people that say that they will do more and that they will do it sooner, are doing more and sooner. Okay? That is, they might not quite meet their unrealistic expectations, but they will do more than if they expected very little. Okay. And so when someone when a student tells me that they will finish the assignment way before what I think is reasonable, go for it. Okay? Challenge yourself. Think that you can finish it very quickly and know if

Srini: Yeah, so basically if we're having, we're making a cancer treatment drug or working in a hospital, we want to be aware of the planning fallacy. If we're making art or writing a book, we could use it to our advantage.

Ayelet Fishbach: Yes. Also, if you're at work, if you set a schedule for yourself that will affect other people, then the coordination is going to suffer if your predictions are inaccurate, okay? But if you set some aspirational deadlines for yourself for when you will finish some projects that you have at home, and then no one else is really affected by those, then you are motivating yourself and there is no harm in being behind on your projects. I strongly believe that all these overachiever people, they are very much those people that plan for too much.

Srini: Yeah!

Ayelet Fishbach: That's fine. Yeah.

Srini: Okay, so I think that makes a perfect segue into talking about incentives because you say to optimize the impact of your incentives, you want to reward the right thing, whether it's teamwork, creative solutions, successfully preventing harm or a pest-free neighborhood rather than lots of dead rats. Of course, recognizing that you've incentivized the right thing for yourself.

When I read that, and this just came up in my mind, I thought back to two programs when I was in elementary school, probably, which I'm sure your research has come across: The Drug Abuse Resistance Education Program, which apparently did absolutely nothing to combat drug use.

So I was like, I went to DARE and I had a friend who told me once, he was like, the way he interpreted DARE was, "Don't do any of this stuff; it feels really good and will make you feel really interesting feelings." And he tried every drug under the sun after DARE - I can tell you it didn't work on me. We'll leave it at that.

But then there was another one that I very distinctly remember this in third grade - if you read four books every month, you would get a personal pan

Ayelet Fishbach: So that was a very long question, but let me just clarify something. Okay. I, you cannot possibly argue that pizza is better than Indian food, right?

Srini: I trust me, I made

Ayelet Fishbach: Okay.

Srini: I was in third grade. Then I went to college.

Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah!

Srini: Last month I was just like, God, I want to go home and eat some home-cooked Indian food. Now

Ayelet Fishbach: Okay. Yeah. I

Srini: Mom, if we're ordering out, why the hell are we ordering out?

Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah, just wanted to make sure, because if my parents made the best cuisine on the planet, I wouldn't.

Srini: Trust

Ayelet Fishbach: "For pizza."

Srini: No, that's not right.

Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah, you mentioned, yeah.

Srini: Third-grade thinking.

Ayelet Fishbach: That makes sense. You mentioned that Dad Rice suggested that this could make sense. In my book, I'm talking about the Hanoi massacre, which is basically a French colonial program from the beginning of the 20th century where in Hanoi in Vietnam, they offered residents one cent per dead rat, and surprise, surprise that people were starting to breed rats so that there were more dead rats so that they could claim the money.

Okay. Yeah. That's the way the old adage goes. Okay. So lots of examples of incentive systems that backfire, so you might actually now need to have the right incentive so that you can claim the prize or that you find a different way or that people are doing something that is unethical because this is the way to get the reward.

You are getting paid for reading four books. What if you just say that you have read four books? Just check them out of the library and never read them. So

Srini: Yeah.

Ayelet Fishbach: Find other ways, right? They can. And so this is a, like a problem with incentives. We know that incentives sometimes do work, but now incentives work when we understand them as an additional kind of many golds, please. So there so the main reason that let's say, I think that someone doesn't want to use drugs is because they feel that they will have a better something, a better life. They will be able to experience things, in a better way. And then they can also get something from their teacher as an incentive. The main reason to read a book for a child is that the book is interesting. Okay? The book is not interesting, the child is not going to read the book. And then the incentive that says, and we are also going to recognize you as a person who read their books, to the extent that kids even think that this is a reward.

And then this is useful. The worry with incentives is that often they obscure the purpose of why I'm doing it in the first place. Okay. And so if there is no very clear, long-term reward for pursuing your goal if the only reason is the short-term incentive

Srini: Wow. What about the situation where, as I said, we have an outcome that we can't control, for example, somebody who wants to write a book or grow a blog? Because I know that you tie it to progress. And having read Theresa Molloy's book, it took me a long time to realize that if I could, and this is something I always tell people, to measure your progress with metrics that you can control. Don't measure it based on metrics and things like traffic or how many people want my books. That was a huge shift for me that ironically helped me accomplish my goal of selling a thousand books.

Ayelet Fishbach: Yes. So you want to monitor progress. You want to feel that there is progress and walking towards a goal without experiencing progress can be quite upsetting. Like you feel like you are not moving anywhere. In order to be able to see progress, there are a few things that you can do and what you mentioned, which is probably where I would start, is measuring something that you can evaluate.

Okay? I give the example, I'm not the first one to give it, but I use the example of calories, which are notoriously very hard to monitor. We don't actually know how many calories we consume. We don't see calories. They are very hard to calculate, so it's just not a great metric. Okay?

Having half of your plate filled with veggies is much easier. Okay? This is something that you can see. There, there are other things there. Sometimes it's really hard to see progress when you look ahead. So look back. Okay, if you just started something. Okay. If you mentioned a goal of selling let's say 1000 books.

If you only sold 20 or 30 or 40, then looking back and seeing that you moved from 20 to 40 is much

Srini: Wow, so there's one other aspect of this that you talk about and that is this principle of maximizing attainment when it comes to goals. And I remember thinking to myself, it made so much sense to me because it's okay, I'll make my goal to write a thousand words a day. And it actually helps you accomplish all of these other goals, like writing books, and publishing blog posts consistently. Can you explain the principle of maximizing attainment and how it relates to the dilution principle that you've talked about? Because it seems like the principle of maximizing attainment, correct me if I'm wrong, is the antidote to the dilution principle.

Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah. No, let me think about it. I'm not sure I understand your question.

Srini: Enough. Okay, so your principle, which

Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah

Srini: It, when we're pursuing too many goals, it pulls us in.

Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah.