How to finally get it done—the surprising science of motivation

How to finally get it done—the surprising science of motivation | Madefor

Madefor Co-Founder and former Navy SEAL, Pat Dossett, sat down with author, professor, and expert on motivation and decision making, Ayelet Fishbach, Ph.D. With nearly a month into the new year and, of course, new resolutions, they discussed why 75 percent of people don’t complete their New Year’s Resolutions. Dr. Fishbach broke down the science of motivation and provided actionable steps anyone can take to bring their goals to fruition.


Intrinsic Motivation and "The Middle Problem"

Let’s start with the ten million dollar question – Why don’t people stick to their resolutions? Dr. Fishbach told us what predicts how much people stick to their resolution is how much they are intrinsically motivated, that is to say, how much they found that something that feels right to them as they are doing it. Very few people set resolutions thinking, “This is going to be so fun to do!” Most people set resolutions because they think they are meaningful to their future self, i.e., “I need to work out four days each week to be healthier.”


However, the problem is it doesn’t matter how meaningful or important a goal is; it matters how much you are enjoying achieving it. How internally connected are you to the goal? Sure, importance is important since many goals are usually health-related, but feeling good and right while doing it is critical because it means you are more likely to keep doing it. Something to keep in mind though is the longer the time between the goal you want to achieve and the activity, the less intrinsic motivation you will have. 


“It’s hard to stay motivated. In the beginning, your first step is 100% of the progress. In the end, your last step is 100% of achieving the goal. In the middle, it doesn’t feel like we’re doing all that much, so we work less hard and cut corners.”
~Dr. Ayelet Fishbach


When we start working toward our goal, it’s with a lot of enthusiasm. In the middle, it’s hard to stay motivated – hard to do the work, hard to invest resources, and it’s also hard to do a good job. Our performance drops off. We’re more likely to cheat a little in the middle. Why? Because in the middle, you don’t feel like your actions have much impact.


Consider this: Let’s think of a 10-step goal. Up until the fifth step, if you look back on what you’ve already done, your next step feels like you’ll double your progress – you’ve come so far! From that fifth step same space, if you look ahead, it feels like you have to do so much more of the work, and it doesn’t feel like you’re making any headway. This is called the Psychophysics of Goals. You can avoid that pesky Middle Problem by adjusting how you create goals. Here’s a hint: take your time.


“Go slow now, so you can go fast later.”
~ Pat Dossett

The Right Goal Makes All the Difference

Dr. Fishbach talked about goals in terms of two kinds of goals, approach and avoidance. Approach goals are in pursuit of something, whereas avoidance goals are made to avoid something. Approach goals are better for the simple reason that when you try to avoid something, you check yourself by bringing the thing you are trying to avoid back to mind. It’s like repeatedly inviting a pink elephant into the room. Avoidance goals do have one advantage, however, and it’s that they feel urgent. There’s also another interesting trend in why people make each of these types of goals. People with power set approach goals, while people who lack power set avoidance goals. Those who set approach goals are also genuinely excited about what they are doing. Which kind of goal are you making?


Another element to the success of goal progress is the Empathy Gap. When we don’t care or take into consideration how our future self will feel, it can create an Empathy Gap. To avoid this, we have to consider all barriers and challenges we may face and how we can deal with them before committing to a goal. The goal also has to fit with the reality of who we are. By predicting how our future self will feel about a goal, we can anticipate challenges and have ready-made solutions, know that the goal is in line with our identity, and feel excited about not just achieving the goal but knowing ways we can be sure to enjoy the journey. This all helps us avoid that “Middle Problem” where we lose steam, performance falls off, and ultimately we quit.


Another critical part of making and realizing goals is having clarity of the bigger goals at hand. There is a hierarchy of goals and, likely, your goal is actually a sub-goal of a larger, more general goal. For example, the general goal is being healthy. Sub-goals that then would be things like improving in areas like eating, sleeping, exercising, etc. Then those sub-goals will often have activities that act as a means to achieving that goal. So if the goal is exercise, there could be many means to that end like running, yoga, weightlifting, boxing, etc.


From there we can then separate (sub)goals into two specific structures: (1) two or more activities that serve the same goal, and (2) the same activity serves several goals. This is important for a few key reasons. When we have activities that serve several goals, they can be classified as good activities that help us achieve more with fewer actions. When we think about all the goals connected to the same activity, it increases our motivation. When several activities are connected to the same goal, we call these backup plans or alternatives. 


For instance, running each morning with your dog can serve many goals such as improving your health, getting out into nature, and spending time with your pup. Now let’s say you injure your foot, and running is out of the question for six weeks – do you give up? No! You use one of your backup plans until you can run again. Do yoga with your dog in the backyard in the morning instead. Having those backup plans can not only give you options for when something happens, but they can also help keep you excited and fend off boredom. 


Finally, you need a support system to help you achieve your goals. Reach out to others in your circle to help you stay on track, participate with you, or just serve as your cheerleaders. We as people need other people. 

“We really care what others think about us. We need to feel supported, we need to feel like this (our goal) is the right thing to do. We are looking for role models, and we find the best role model is not the one who does it well, but the one that wants you to succeed.”

~Dr. Ayelet Fishbach


Dr. Fishbach's #1 Tip for Making it Happen

With so much great information from this Basecamp and in her book, Get it Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation, Pat asked Dr. Fishbach, “If you were to leave everyone with one takeaway as it refers to motivation and goal setting, what would it be?” Her response was maybe a little surprising when she said, “My number one tip would be, when you are struggling with something, advise someone else who is struggling with the same thing.” When you give advice, you feel motivated by your own advice. Advising another person can bring to the front of your mind everything you know about that specific area of life where you are struggling.


Make her advice actionable with these three steps:


1️⃣ Journal: Sit down and take some time to think about your goals. Ask yourself:

    • What goal am I currently struggling with?
    • Who do I know that is struggling with the same thing? You may need to reach out and check in with a few people, but engaging your tribe is always a good thing, right?
2️⃣ List all the advice you could give the person you selected.
3️⃣ Reach out! It could be in-person, via phone, email, or text. See how they are doing and offer advice. If you aren’t sure how to give advice, use phrases like, “I find xxx helps me” or “I’ve been reading about (insert process/routine/regimen here), and it’s working for lots of people.” If the conversation goes there organically, all the better!


In closing, take your time when creating your goals before committing to them. Think out all the angles. Have backups at the ready and see where your big goals intersect. Find a support system. Be deliberate and detailed and you’ll experience a higher rate of success.