Ayelet Fishbach
Big Brains podcst

How to stick to your resolutions, with Ayelet Fishbach (Ep. 85)

New book explores science of setting goals, achieving success and learning from failure

Ayelet Fishbach
Big Brains podcst

Show Notes

Every year many of us set New Year’s resolutions, and almost none of us actually follow through on them. In a year when fulfilling our goals and resolutions feels more pressing than ever while our motivation may be at its lowest; let’s do what we do best: Turn to the research to get some concrete answers on how to follow through. 

Ayelet Fishbach is a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the author of a new book, Get It Done: Surprising Lessons from The Science of MotivationShe is one of the leading experts on the research behind what keeps us motivated to complete our goals.

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(Episode published Jan. 20, 2022)



Paul Rand: So, how are your New Year’s resolutions going?

Recording: New Year’s comes with holiday cheer and plenty of resolutions to do better next year.

Recording: I’m just curious, how many of you made New Year’s resolutions? Okay. How many of you kept them?

Recording: All right, doctor, if you wouldn’t mind, set the expectation here. How likely is it that someone will, say, quit smoking, save up for that big trip, lose extra weight by the end of the year?

Recording: Not very likely.

Recording: Really?

Recording: Really. I know.

Recording: Okay.

Recording: I’m sorry. I’m starting New Year’s with bad news. Sorry.

Recording: Let’s be reasonable.

Recording: Let’s be real, right?

Paul Rand: Don’t worry if you’re struggling, because you’re not alone.

Ayelet Fishbach: When we ask people, we find that only about a quarter tells us that they’re still pursuing the resolutions on the following November.

Paul Rand: But we do have someone who can help.

Ayelet Fishbach: Part of the reason that many goals do fail, and fail more than what we might think is healthy, is because we don’t have a good system of following through.

Paul Rand: That’s Ayelet Fishbach. She’s a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago and her brand new book, Get It Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation, is already in the top charts on Amazon.

Ayelet Fishbach: Motivation science is part of the behavioral science, and specifically it’s a field that is interested in how to get people to achieve their goals, what gets us out of bed in the morning and doing whatever it is that’s important for us to do. And I can’t think of anything that is more important to study.

Paul Rand: So in a year when fulfilling our goals and resolutions feels more pressing than ever, while our motivation may be at its lowest, let’s do what we do best: turn to science to get some concrete answers on how to actually follow through.

Ayelet Fishbach: You need to understand what’s missing for you. Not so much about getting everything right, but about what is the ingredient that you need to work on? What will get you to be happier at work or exercise more, or connect to people more? Is it that you didn’t set the right goal? Is it how you monitor progress, how this fits with your other goals or social support? And really understanding what’s the ingredient that is missing in your recipe is often the recipe for success.

Paul Rand: From the University of Chicago Podcast Network, this is Big Brains, a podcast about the pioneering research and pivotal breakthroughs that are reshaping our world. On this episode, the science behind motivation. I’m your host, Paul Rand.

Paul Rand: When it comes to following through on our goals, it’s actually best to start all the way back at the beginning.

Ayelet Fishbach: In order to set a goal that will pull you, a goal that will work for you, you want to start with a goal that is not a means to another goal.

Paul Rand: For example, a goal you’re more likely to be motivated to complete would be get a new job rather than apply for jobs. You want the job itself. The work of applying for it is a chore. If you set the chore as the goal, you’re less likely to be motivated.

Ayelet Fishbach: People don’t like to work on something that is not the thing itself.

Paul Rand: Now this may seem arbitrary, but the science shows it actually makes a huge difference. Fishbach demonstrated the power of this with a study using a book from another U Chicago behavioral scientist, noble prize winner, Richard Thaler. They asked incoming university students to bid on how much they would pay for a signed copy of his famous book.

Ayelet Fishbach: So the average bidder was giving, I think, $23. Then we went to another group of students, and we offer them a University of Chicago tote bag that contained the same signed book. Now this is a better deal, but we asked them how much they’re willing to pay for the tote bag. And we tell them that this tote bag will come with a book inside it, but you need to name the price for the tote bag. And the average person was willing to pay something like $12. Okay?

Paul Rand: Just putting the same exact book in a tote bag caused people to cut what they were willing to pay for it in half.

Ayelet Fishbach: Which makes absolutely no sense, why with a tote bag and a book would be worth less than just the book, but demonstrated our point that people are willing to pay a lot for a book, but not for the thing that will carry that book.

Paul Rand: Because the book itself is the goal, while the tote bag is the means of carrying the book, and our brains don’t like means. This is why many companies build the shipping into the cost of the item. It’s not that you aren’t willing to pay. It’s that you don’t want to pay for the means to the end. This simple idea and goal setting can change your motivation to get it done all the way through. Owning a house is better than saving for a down payment. Getting healthy is better than eating vegetables.

Ayelet Fishbach: Set a goal that is a goal that’s not a means to another goal.

Paul Rand: Which brings us to another important point when it comes to thinking about how to frame our goals: do goals versus do not goals.

Ayelet Fishbach: People often set do not goals, avoidance goals. These are much less effective than approach goals, than do goals.

Paul Rand: For instance, a do goal would be eating healthy A do not goal would be avoiding unhealthy foods. It’s the same goal, but the phrasing makes a big difference for your motivation.

Ayelet Fishbach: Deciding not to do something is much harder than deciding to do something. The classic studies ask people not to think about white bears. This is practically impossible.

Paul Rand: I’m sorry. A white bear?

Ayelet Fishbach: A white bear. Yeah. Try not to think about a white bear.

Paul Rand: You look like a white bear to me right now. Why is that?

Ayelet Fishbach: Right? Yeah. You’re now going through your mind. You are checking, “Am I thinking about a white bear? Oh, I do. Oh no. I should stop.” The cures of avoidance goals, that as you try to avoid it, you constantly think, “Am I still doing it?” And brings it back to mind. So these goals are less effective.

Paul Rand: Now a word of warning, Fishbach says there are some people who actually will do better with do not goals. She calls them avoiders.

Ayelet Fishbach: Yes. Avoiders are a little bit better with the avoidance goals. They are more motivated by avoiding certain states. They are more motivated by avoiding risk, maintaining safety, which tends to be more of the flavor of avoidance.

Paul Rand: A quick way to figure out which one you are. Well, you’re playing a board game or a sport, do you say, “I really want to win,” or, “I really don’t want to lose”? If it’s the second, you’re probably an avoider.

Ayelet Fishbach: Also, I would say that avoidance goals tend to appear more urgent. If you did the exercise of asking yourself, “What do you need to do in order to, let’s say, be healthy?” or, “What do you need to avoid in order to be healthy?” what you need to avoid will appear more urgent. And so in the short run, we are all a bit more avoiders than approachers.

Paul Rand: Okay, so you’re shaping or reshaping your goals and resolutions in your head. Next, we need to figure out how we’re going to measure our progress. And Fishbach says the science shows it’s best to have very specific targets.

Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah. So it’s often nice to have a number when you’re going to have a specific target, which tells you how much and how soon.

Paul Rand: Perhaps you’ve heard of the 10,000 step rule. It’s the number most Fitbits use as a standard daily step goal. And generally doctors agree that the number is best for your health. Well...

Ayelet Fishbach: It was kind of made up, okay? It was a marketer that came up with the idea. It was in Japan in the ‘60s. People were starting to be aware of exercise. They hosted the Olympics at that time. And someone up with the idea that people need to walk 10,000 steps a day. That was, not surprisingly, the marketer of the pedometer. And then it stuck.

Paul Rand: Even though it was made up, it works. Japan became one of the healthiest populations, and the rule went international. Our brains are obsessed with measuring our progress and a specific number gives us a useful tool.

Ayelet Fishbach: If you know that this is your goal, and you just did 9,900 steps, you feel disappointed. Okay? If you did 100 steps above, then you are really not that happier. It really doesn’t matter. Okay? There is something about meaning this specific number that is highly motivating.

Paul Rand: Well, also, in terms of athletic pursuits, is this whole idea of the four hour marathon, isn’t it?

Ayelet Fishbach: Yes. And another research looked at the distribution of marathon running times. And the researchers, two of them are here at Booth, George Wu and Devin Pope, looked at almost 10 million marathon runners in the US and looked at their times. And when they looked at the distribution, they noticed something very odd. There are many more people that finish the marathon at three hour and 59 minutes than four hours and one minute. Now, why is that? Obviously, it’s not easier to finish the marathon two minutes earlier, and these times are very close to each other. But the reason is that people really want to run a marathon under four hours. That target is highly motivating.

Paul Rand: Wow. That’s a really vivid example, because it fell into the same category here of the idea of loss aversion. And I’m wondering what that is and how that fits into this discussion.

Ayelet Fishbach: So loss a version, just to remind people, is the idea that we care about losses more than the absence of gains. To give you an example, we don’t want to pay for the shopping bag when we go grocery shopping, so we’ll bring our bag from home. But if the store is giving us credit for the bag that we are bringing from home, then we don’t really care about it. Okay? The gain is not there. When you pulled in the loss is something that we want to avoid.

Paul Rand: When we have a specific target, it helps our loss aversion kick in and motivates us to finish the goal. But with a wealth of different targets for any goal, it’s important to pick the right one.

Ayelet Fishbach: Yes. So food labeling is an interesting example, giving people information that’s supposed to help them monitor their goal. It’s supposed to help them specifically monitor their food consumption. And supposedly all the information is there. When you take a pack of any food in the grocery store, it tells you everything you need to know about the food, including calories, if you are a monitoring calorie consumption, but all these numbers are just not good numbers.

Paul Rand: Anyone who has ever tried to count calories as their target knows what she’s talking about.

Ayelet Fishbach: They are very hard to intuitively use as you monitor your progress toward your goal, as you monitor your food consumption. In this case, when you look at the dessert, you see chocolate, you don’t see calories.

Paul Rand: But what if instead of calories, food was labeled with the amount of hours you would have to exercise to burn it off? One study found telling teenagers they would have to jog for an hour to burn off a bottle of soda cut consumption.

Ayelet Fishbach: People were trying different systems. One system that seems to be better than calories is the traffic light, basically marking food as red, green, or orange. And green orange, you can eat as much as you want. Red orange, really be careful. And orange in between. Much more intuitive.

Paul Rand: Right, very much intuitive. Well, I guess that kind of gets to this idea of getting incentives and goals aligned. And so if our listeners are at the point of saying, “I want to set up my goals for the year,” how does incentives and goals kind of work together to help folks do that?

Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah. Incentives are interesting. Often we incentivize the wrong part of the behavior. Okay? For example, we might incentivize, say, how quickly we finish a project and not how well the job is. Or we might be too hesitant to use uncertain incentives, which actually work better. So basically three things to be aware of. Don’t use too many incentives. Don’t incentivize the wrong thing. And don’t be afraid with the uncertain or inconsistent incentives.

Paul Rand: What do you mean by an uncertain incentive?

Ayelet Fishbach: Uncertain incentives are incentives where we don’t know if we’re going to get it. Studies that we did with people show that when they weren’t sure how much they’re going to get paid, they were working harder. So to give you example, we did a study in which we asked people to drink a lot of water. And if they can do that, they’re going to, in one condition, that is for some people, they’re are going to get $2. For the other group of people, we told them that they’re going to get either $1 or $2. We’ll flip a coin.

Ayelet Fishbach: This other group is in a inferior condition, right? The most that they can get is $2. This is the guaranteed payment for the first group. Nevertheless, the people that were promised either $1 or $2, that were uncertain about how much they’re going to get paid, were more likely to finish the task.

Paul Rand: OK. And then there’s also this concept of the dilution principle.

Ayelet Fishbach: Yes. The dilution principle refers to activities that serve multiple goals, and activities that serve multiple goals are usually beneficial. Okay? We should usually prefer them. It’s like feeding 10 birds with one scone, if I can be friendly to the vegetarians.

Paul Rand: And the bakers.

Ayelet Fishbach: And the bakers, exactly. But as it turned out, when something serves multiple purposes, we tend to think that it is less beneficial, less instrumental for each of these purposes, for each of these goals. Okay? In a way, the connection, the mental connection between the activity and the goal itself is getting diluted by adding more activity. And one of the earlier studies that my team here ran was with the laser pointer. We asked people to check the laser pointing function of the laser pointer, and then looked at which pen they use in order to write their name. People that had the opportunity to inspect the laser pointing of the laser pen, were not using this pen to write their name. Whereas those that never used the laser pointer, they were barely aware that this pen is also a laser pointer, were using it as a pen.

Paul Rand: The more goals or incentives that something has, the less we connect it to the central goal. One study found the food labels like "Sizzling Sichuan Green Beans with Toasted Garlic" increased consumption over "Nutritious Green Beans" by 30%. When you’re eating, the goal is to enjoy the taste. Emphasizing the goal of health makes us think the food won’t taste good. This is called the over justification effect.

Ayelet Fishbach: So the over justification effect is related to dilution. It happens when you have too many reasons to do something, and so you start to believe that some of these reasons are not really good reasons. More recently, we showed that when you tell kids ages three to five, when you tell them the food is going to make them strong and smart, they conclude that this food doesn’t taste very good.

Paul Rand: Oh, interesting. Okay.

Ayelet Fishbach: It’s the same food. We took three-year-olds and we either told them the same crackers will make them smart or strong, or we didn’t tell them that. And they didn’t like to eat the crackers when they thought it will make them smart and strong.

Paul Rand: Okay. So now we’ve set up the right goal with the right incentives, but it’s halfway through and we’re struggling to keep going. The science behind making it through those tough moments after the break.

Paul Rand: Hello, Big Brains listeners. The University of Chicago Podcast Network is excited to announce the launch of a new show. It’s called Entitled, and it’s about human rights. Co-hosted by lawyers and UChicago Law School professors, Claudia Flores and Tom Ginsburg, Entitled explores the stories around why rights matter and what’s the matter with rights.

Paul Rand: All right. I am putting my goals together in my head. And now I’m going to think about, “How do I keep going?” And you got to this point where you said, by the time you got to the fourth quarter, only a quarter of people are keeping with their New Year’s resolutions goal. So something has fallen off for them. And talk to me about monitoring, because monitoring progress as a whole sounds like that’s a really important component, but I’m not exactly sure, how do you monitor progress on such things?

Ayelet Fishbach: Basically you can monitor progress either in terms of what you have done so far, so your completed actions, or what is left, that is missing actions to complete the goal. And how you monitor your goal would really affect your motivation.

Paul Rand: It may seem like a small thing, but knowing when to look back or look forward can make a huge difference.

Ayelet Fishbach: Let’s take goals that people are less committed to, like students that are studying for a class that they don’t really care for very much, that they’re not really sure that this is for them. What we find is that if they look back at how much they have done, they are much more motivated to study than if they look ahead at all the materials that they haven’t covered yet. Interestingly, this reverses for the highly committed students, for the students that are studying for the most important class, they’re absolutely determine that they need to get an A. Highlighting their missing actions, the materials that they have not covered, will be more motivating.

Paul Rand: Whether you’re looking backward or forwards, I think we can all agree that the hardest part of any goal is the middle, and the science backs that up.

Ayelet Fishbach: Let me mention a couple of studies here. One was very simple. We just asked people that we are observing the Hanukah holiday whether they light the candles on the first night, the second night, all the way to the eighth night. And people who observe Hanukah are supposed to light the menorah over these eight nights. Almost everyone was lighting the menorah on the first night. Many people were lighting the menorah on the last night, in the middle, eh, not so much. Okay? This is when they were busy. We then brought it in the lab and gave people a series of shapes printed on a piece of paper and a pair of scissors. And the first shape that they cut, they did a good job. Okay? They managed to get it just right. The last one, they did a pretty good job. In the middle, they literally cut corners. That is, they cut the corners of these shapes. And so middles are hard. We lose our motivation to work on the goal. We also lose our motivation to do it right, to follow our high performance standards.

Paul Rand: So is there anything we can do about this problem? Well, once again, it’s a matter of framing.

Ayelet Fishbach: The way to combat that is that by keeping middle short.

Paul Rand: What does that mean, keep middle short?

Ayelet Fishbach: It means have a monthly saving goal and not an annual saving goal.

Paul Rand: I see. OK.

Ayelet Fishbach: A weekly exercise goal has a very short middle.

Paul Rand: You can also create artificial beginnings to avoid middles, as Fishbach writes in the book. You can think of lunches happening at the beginning of the afternoon instead of the middle of the day, and you’ll probably make better choices. But what to do about the elephant in the room or the white bear in the room, as it were, temptations? Many times we could have made it through if it weren’t for that piece of chocolate cake in the cafeteria.

Ayelet Fishbach: Temptations are all around us, but the problem with all these temptations or most of these temptations is that if you do it just once, nothing happens. Okay? If you leave a mess in the kitchen once, that’s fine. Your family will not be too upset with you. If you eat just one thing that you shouldn’t be eating or drink just one thing that you shouldn’t be drinking, or smoke just one thing that you shouldn’t be smoking, nothing happens. Okay? Over speeding once, usually you’ll stay alive.

Paul Rand: This can lead to the “what the hell” effect, which you’ll remember if you listened to our episode with Katy Milkman, giving into temptation just once often causes people to give up entirely. Ayelet says the way to combat this is with a broad decision frame.

Ayelet Fishbach: That is thinking about many opportunities together. To give you an example from a study, again, I will refer to another study one of my colleagues here at Booth, Abby Sussman, she looked at how much money people spend on exceptional expenses. Okay? These things that you buy just once in a while, like champagne, a ticket to the theater. And people tend to spend much more money than what they planned on these kind of expenses, because it’s just one, just one bottle of champagne. I don’t know when I will buy another one again, or just one time that I go to theater. Her way of getting people to control their expenses was to get them to think about all the times that you are going to buy champagne this year, the number of times that you will go to the theater. Okay? How many trips, vacations, do you plan to take? How many nights are you going to stay in a hotel? And then people in this broad decision farm, they realize that they should control their spending.

Paul Rand: Another tip Ayelet suggests is to use distant self-talk. Instead of asking, “Should I have this piece of cake?” You should ask yourself, “Should I, Paul Rand, have this piece of cake?” Or of course insert your own name. This helps us to distance ourselves from the temptation. Of course, Paul Rand is going to slip at some point, but Ayelet says that it might not be the end of the world.

Ayelet Fishbach: Well, there are benefits to failing that people often don’t realize. It is surprisingly difficult to learn from failure, which is by the way, in every graduation speech, people talk about how important it’s to learn from failures. In companies, people are talking about how important it is to learn from failure. People talk about how important it is to learn from failure, because it’s really hard to do. And it’s hard to do because first it stinks. Okay? We feel bad when we fail, so we don’t pay attention. In my experiments, when people fail, they say that, “Oh, this experiment is just not for me.” And they just stop paying attention.

Ayelet Fishbach: The other reason is that you need to do a mental flip when you fail. You need to say, “Well, if this doesn’t work, then I should take the other way.” And this is not very intuitive. In our experiments, people often just don’t realize that if one way doesn’t work, then what you need to learn is to use the other way. There is really good information in failure. And so despite the fact that it’s not intuitive to learn from failure, we should try do it.

Paul Rand: What should I learn on a failure, then?

Ayelet Fishbach: First, sometimes there is just more information in failure because there are several ways to succeed, but fewer ways to fail. If you are in a restaurant where all the entrees are amazing except for one, you really want to know about the one that you should not order. If at a university where all the classes are amazing, but there are just a few that are not so great, you want to know about them. There is more information in what can go wrong when it’s rare. Second, when people talk about failures, they are often more thoughtful. They give better information. So when I ask you what went wrong, you will often give me a more detailed answer. You will often reflect on more aspects. And so asking people about what goes wrong often gives you good information.

Paul Rand: And hopefully, you take that better learning to succeed the next time, because you’ve analyzed it more.

Ayelet Fishbach: Yes. So one of the intervention is to ask people about their failures, to learn from others’ failures. It’s actually often easier to learn from others’ failures.

Paul Rand: Which brings us to our final ingredient for following through on our goals, others: our family, and our friends, the social supports around us.

Ayelet Fishbach: Okay. So let’s think about social support. It comes in different ways. First, there are the goals that we pursue with other people. And usually the most important goals in our lives are things that we will do with other people. Okay? It might be professional goals. It might be starting a family, a group project in school, anything that we do with other people.

Ayelet Fishbach: We know that when you put people in a room and they’re all supposed to work on the same thing, then they’re working much less harder than if they were working by themselves. This is the famous social loafing studies. Even in very simple tasks, the task that come to my mind is a study that asked people to just generate a lot of noise. But when they were with other people in the room and everybody was generating noise, each person was generating less noise.

Ayelet Fishbach: So even when it’s really easy, we do less if other people are around us. And if you were ever in any group meeting, you know that you were thinking less hard than if you had to solve that problem on your own. We design interventions such as identifying individual’s contribution or better mechanism of coordinating effort, division of labor, such that people end up doing their best when they are part of a social group.

Ayelet Fishbach: The other part is our individual goals. Surrounding yourself with people that care for your goals, that support your goals, is absolutely critical. One of the reasons that people often fail in pursuing the goals is that they did not have the social support. They did not have people in their lives that were helping them, often just by confirming that their goals are important to them.

Paul Rand: So this concept of telling people what you’re trying to achieve has a lot of impact or potential impact, doesn’t it?

Ayelet Fishbach: Yes. So telling people what you’re trying to achieve and getting them to support that. Okay? And if they don’t support it, then find other people that support that. We find that relationships are built on supporting each other’s goals. When we help each other’s goals, we become friends. When we don’t support each other’s goals, we are no longer together.

Paul Rand: No matter what your goals are this year, we hope that this episode helps you follow through. And from all of us on the Big Brains team, Happy New Year.

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