On Wednesday, February 17, Ayelet Fishbach presented insights into the psychology of motivation and goal-setting to a live webinar audience of more than 1,000 people as the Center for Decision Research continued its popular Think Better speaker series. An expert in the field, Fishbach is the Jeffrey Breakenridge Keller Professor of Behavioral Science and Marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Following her presentation, Fishbach was joined in conversation by Rima Touré-Tillery, associate professor of marketing at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management.

Fishbach’s talk, “Stay Motivated,” discussed what behavioral science can teach us about achieving our goals: From eating healthier to completing work tasks more efficiently, we often find ourselves making goals, yet we too often fall short of fulfilling them. How can we reframe and structure our goals so that we are more likely to achieve them?

Fishbach explained how self-motivation might seem oxymoronic through the story of Baron Munchhausen: stuck on horseback in a swamp, the Baron attempts to pull himself up by his own hair to get out. Self-motivation can seem difficult, if not impossible. But psychological research has discovered insights into how we can pull ourselves out of the situations that become barriers to our goals.

4 Keys to Goal-setting and Motivation

1. Set a Goal

Fishbach recommends aiming for something that is ambitious and an end within itself. The motivation to complete one’s goal must be intrinsic, like a climber setting a goal to climb Mt. Everest. Fishbach also stressed the importance of implementing simple incentives to achieve one’s goal, such as giving colored pencils and snacks to school children while they do homework.

2. Sustain Motivation

Fishbach emphasized that sustaining motivation is also key to achieving one’s goal. Celebrating one’s progress can bolster commitment, but paradoxically, progress can also decrease motivation due to self assurance and licensing.

So should one look back at what they’ve already accomplished or look ahead at what’s still left to be done? Fishbach recommends celebrating your progress early on to jump-start your motivation. But when the end is in sight, focus on how little there is left to go.

3. Addressing Multiple Goals

Addressing multiple goals is also conducive to achieving one’s goal. Fishbach explained how equifinal goals—increasing the number of means to a particular goal—can increase our confidence, while multifinal goals maximize attainment by finding multiple purposes for a means.

4. Designing Social Support

One can increase their success in self-control by removing temptations and identifying role models to follow. Spending time with others who have similar goals is also a simple strategy to adopt for creating accountability and support.

Q&A: Motivation in a Pandemic, New Year’s Resolutions, and Social Scientist Disagreements

In conversation with Rima Touré-Tillery, Fishbach answered questions that participants had submitted prior to the webinar. How can one utilize support groups during a pandemic? Fishbach explained that while online groups can help us to an extent, in-person support is still more effective for achieving our goals.

Despite New Year’s resolutions often falling flat, Fishbach believes that they still have merit. Lofty goals are not necessarily bad, because even if we do not fully achieve them, striving towards them still leads to self-improvement.

Fishbach offered her opinion on a point of contention in the study of motivation: whether focusing on abstract goals or day-to-day steps is more helpful for accomplishing a goal. Fishbach believes that in rough patches, focusing on each step makes a lofty goal more digestible, but in promising times, imagining one’s goal can inspire success.

Fishbach also previewed content from her upcoming book tentatively titled Get It Done.

About the Series

The Think Better speaker series welcomes leading scholars and practitioners to discuss how insights from behavioral science affect society, shape policy, impact business, and improve individual lives. The topics are relevant to anyone interested in understanding why people think, judge, choose, and act as they do.

Save the date for the next Think Better event featuring Katy Milkman (Wharton, Choiceology podcast) on May 20, 2021.

Related info: 

  • Video: Yuji Winet's motivation study debrief
  • Sign up to take paid studies in the CDR Virtual Lab