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Unlocking the Secrets to Self-Motivation

Chicago Booth Professor Ayelet Fishbach talks motivation.

Man in red jacket at the top of a mountain overlooking lake

Ayelet Fishbach, a psychologist and trailblazing researcher in the field of motivation science, opens her new book Get It Done: Surprising Lessons From the Science of Motivation with the story of a group of mountaineers adamantly focused on summitting Mount Everest. She recounts the group did indeed achieve that goal, but never made it back alive.

Fishbach explains the mountaineers stuck too closely to their goal—at their own peril.

It’s a surprising anecdote to be offered by an expert in the realm of setting and achieving goals, but her message gets right to the heart of one of the deceptively simple lessons in her book: choose your goals wisely.

“Just because we can motivate ourselves to do something doesn’t always mean that we should,” Fishbach explained in a recent YCCI Learning from Leaders webinar. The Chicago Booth professor of behavioral science and marketing explained her framework for setting and achieving goals and offered tips and tricks culled from her over 100 published research studies on motivation.

Step number one is setting a goal. Second is monitoring progress, third is assessing and weighing it against the many other goals in your life, and fourth is leveraging social support.

Setting the goal in the first place is perhaps the most obvious one, but as Fishbach explains, there are many ways in which people tend to get it wrong. One step we can take in goal setting is to focus on aligning our goals to our own intrinsic motivation.

Fishbach explained that goals are more likely to be successful in the long term if they’re intrinsically motivated (a concept many misunderstand). Intrinsic motivation means that an activity feels good as you’re doing it and you’re pursuing the task as its own end. In other words, you’re doing it just to do it.

Fishbach added that too many people apply a black-and-white lens to intrinsic motivation and believe that an activity is either intrinsically motivated or not. The truth is it can be a mix. Take going to work; that’s rarely just intrinsically motivated because we want to be paid. But it’s still worth asking how much your work intrinsically motivates you.

Intrinsic motivation is a matter of degree." - Ayelet Fishbach

“Intrinsic motivation is a matter of degree,” Fishbach said. “It’s a matter of how much the thing feels right as you do it. Then we can allow goals that otherwise don’t seem intrinsic, like exercising or studying, to become intrinsically motivating.”

There are ways to dial up the intrinsic motivation factor on goals that are important to you. For example, when it comes to exercise, you can choose a workout that is fun. Fishbach described a study in which she had asked a group of people in a gym to choose an exercise based on how much they enjoyed it and asked another group of gym-goers to choose one based on how important it was that they do a particular exercise. She found that those who chose based on enjoyment worked out longer.

Another guideline in choosing a goal with staying power is to frame it as something you intend to do (an “approach goal”) rather as something you don’t want to do (an “avoidance goal”).

Instead of repeatedly saying to yourself, “I can’t mess up at work,” you can make your goal more effective by instead saying, “My goal is to be excellent in this area,” or “My goal is to make sure my boss sees my great work,” or “My goal is to get a promotion.” Fishbach explained that her research has shown that people focused on approach goals find the process of achieving them more enjoyable and are able to connect to more intrinsic motivation.

In other words, setting the right personal goal calls for a balancing act of sorts. It requires tapping into your intrinsic motivation, shifting from an avoidance to an approach framing, and, through it all, repeatedly checking in with yourself. Consider those ill-fated Everest climbers; it’s not that they had a bad goal, Ayelet noted. On the contrary, their goal to summit the mountain was specific, it was something they could break up and build toward, and it was certainly an approach goal. The fatal flaw of the Everest climbers sheds insight into one of the biggest reasons that people don’t stick with their goals. Often, in a moment of accomplishment, people believe they have solved their motivation challenge. You may feel good at the top, but how do you encourage yourself to continue after that moment?

This type of approach doesn’t only apply to summiting a mountaintop.  Each year over one hundred CEO’s in the S&P 1000 retire after reaching what can feel like a pinnacle in their career, leaving them feeling unprepared for the next phase.

“Motivating yourself is like treating a chronic condition,” Fishbach said. “You don’t treat a chronic condition with a one-time medicine.” Instead of viewing an accomplishment as the end, we can look at our achievements as progress towards a bigger goal that we might wish to pursue.