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Get It Done
Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation
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Discover a "compelling" framework for setting and achieving your goals (Carol Dweck, author of Mindset), from a psychologist on the cutting edge of motivational science.A great deal of ink has been spilled on the subject of motivating and influencing others, but what happens when the person you most want to influence is you? Setting and achieving goals for yourself—at work, at home, and in relationships—is harder than it seems. How do you know where to start? How do you carry on in the face of roadblocks and distractions? How do you decide which tasks and ambitions to prioritize when you’re faced with more responsibilities, needs, and desires than you can keep track of?
In Get It Done, psychologist and behavioral scientist Ayelet Fishbach presents a new theoretical framework for self-motivated action, explaining how to:
- Identify the right goals
- Attack the “middle problem”
- Battle temptations
- Use the help of others around you
- And so much more…
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In Rudolf Raspe’s 1785 stories, The Adventures of Baron Munc-hausen, the fictional baron tells many imaginative tales of his extreme resourcefulness. In one story, he accidentally tosses his hatchet all the way to the moon and uses quick-growing beans to grow a stalk tall enough that he can climb to the moon and retrieve it. In another, he fights a crocodile and a lion, surviving because he ducks just in time for the lion to lunge into the crocodile’s mouth. And in yet another tale, he sticks his arm down a wolf’s throat, grabs onto the animal’s tail, and turns it inside out like a glove.
In perhaps the best-known story, Baron Munchausen is riding his horse when he finds himself stuck in a large swamp. As the horse sinks deeper into the bog, the baron glances around, trying to figure out how to get out of this latest precarious situation. He comes up with a somewhat peculiar solution. The baron grabs himself by his pigtail, a long braid and a common hairstyle for men at the time, and pulls himself and the horse out of the swamp by his own hair.
Pulling yourself up by your own hair, even if only metaphorically, seems impossible. But, with exception to the laws of physics the baron breaks, we’ve all found ourselves in similar situations. You may have pulled yourself out of bed this morning or calmed yourself down during a heated debate. Maybe you pulled yourself out of a party when you knew you’d had one drink too many. You surely had to pull yourself through major life changes, as when you moved to a new town, when you launched your career, and when you started or ended a relationship. The baron’s story about pulling himself out of the muck has become an allegory for many of the moments when we have to motivate ourselves.
Like yours, my life has involved a fair amount of pulling. I grew up in an Israeli kibbutz—a communal society where private property was frowned upon and money was considered dirty…and not only because it touched many hands. As part of the ideology, I shared my property, which included my room, toys, and clothes, with the other children my age, even though we weren’t family. Now I’m a professor in the business school at the University of Chicago, which prides itself on embracing a capitalist ideology, including the fundamental value assigned to personal property. During my first week at the university, a colleague politely declined my request to borrow his book, kindly suggesting that professors should own books rather than borrow them. That was a shocking moment for me. I realized I’d need to do a good amount of pulling to switch so drastically from the mind-set I grew up with to the mind-set my new country and my new coworkers valued.
Yet I had already pulled myself to get there. My community cherished agriculture and manual work more than education. A college degree was considered the right move mainly if you were a bright man seeking to learn something useful. I’m not a man and didn’t think I was particularly bright. I also wanted to study psychology, which wouldn’t be considered useful to my kibbutz. People in my community encouraged me to learn to drive a tractor (which I stubbornly resisted) and suggested I study engineering or architecture. Usually, the kibbutz would pay for your education if you spent one year working in the community. I had no interest in the type of work they encouraged me to do, so I moved to the big city. I worked in a bakery, cleaned houses, and saved money to study psychology at Tel Aviv University. I had to pull myself to move out on my own, to work long and arduous hours, and to do well in school.
Fast forward, and here I am. My husband and I pulled ourselves when we moved to the US. We pulled ourselves when we applied to be citizens. We pulled ourselves through raising three wonderful children. And we continue to pull ourselves toward other, smaller goals every day: keeping the kitchen clean, walking our dog, helping our young son study, and so on.
Getting anywhere, as well as sustaining the things you cherish in life, requires a great deal of pulling. If you weren’t pulling, you would barely be moving at all. I write this book in the midst of the 2020 pandemic. Like most people, I worry, get distracted, and struggle to stay motivated. Over the past several months, I’ve learned to take nothing for granted, be it my health, my job, my children’s education, or meeting a friend for coffee. And even though I love my job, I find it harder to stay motivated. To write about self-motivation, I start by motivating myself to write.
So how do you motivate yourself? The short answer is by changing your circumstances.
If you ever put a psychologist, a sociologist, and an economist in one room, that basic principle—changing behavior by modifying the situation in which it occurs—might be the one truth they’ll agree on (and you should expect heated arguments on just about everything else). This principle is fundamental to behavioral science. It also underlies many of the discoveries in the science of motivation.
Motivation science is relatively young. It was born just a few decades ago. But it has been growing exponentially, as has public interest in how circumstances enable personal growth. We most often use insights from motivation science to motivate others. Companies set organizational goals to motivate employees to work harder, teachers give students feedback on their progress to motivate them to keep going, health care workers send messages that motivate people to follow medical advice, and energy companies that care about the environment share information about others’ low energy use to increase energy conservation. We’ve developed valuable insights into the processes of motivating others, be it our students, coworkers, clients, or fellow citizens.
But we can also use these insights to motivate ourselves.
You modify your own behavior by modifying the situation in which it occurs. You might, for example, know that you’ll eat whatever is in sight when you’re hungry. So if you want to start eating better, a good solution would be to fill up your fridge with fresh fruits and veggies. Another way would be to tell your family that you want to eat healthily so they hold you accountable next time you reach for a doughnut. You could also mentally change the meaning of a creamy doughnut from “delicious” to “detrimental.” These very different strategies (more about them later) have one thing in common: they change your circumstances. Filling your fridge with veggies changes the options you have when you’re reaching for a snack. Telling your family you want to eat better changes who you’re accountable to. And telling yourself that doughnuts are “detrimental” changes your mental image of that fluffy fried dough.
In this book, I’ll make the scientific case for how you can use insights from motivation science to guide and own your desires, rather than be subject to them. I’ll share with you the four essential ingredients in successful behavior change.
First, you need to choose a goal. Whether you set your mind to finding romance or doing a handstand, and whether you’re an expert or a novice, you start by marking a destination. Second, you need to sustain your motivation as you move from here to there. You monitor your progress by soliciting feedback on your performance, both positive and negative, and by looking back at what you’ve achieved as well as forward at what is still left to do. Third, you must learn to juggle multiple goals. Other goals and desires will pull you in opposite directions. You need to learn to manage these goals, set priorities, and find the right balance. Finally, you’ll learn to leverage social support. It’s hard to reach your goals by yourself and even harder when certain people stand in your way. On the other hand, when you let others help you, pursuing your goal gets easier.
Knowing these ingredients is just one step. You also have to figure out which ingredient is missing from your recipe for success. You don’t need to add salt to a dish that’s missing pepper, so, for example, gathering social support (which I discuss in Part IV) when you already feel supported won’t increase your motivation. Your problem might instead be that you’re feeling unenthusiastic about your goal. You’ll want to find a path to success that maximizes your intrinsic motivation (which we’ll talk about in Chapter 4).
The four parts of this book each grapple with one ingredient in the recipe. Part I focuses on how to set a goal that’s powerful and specific enough (but not too specific) to pull you toward the finish line. Part II will teach you how to keep your momentum going, through the right way to monitor your progress and avoiding the “middle problem.” Part III explains how to best juggle multiple goals, describing which to prioritize and when. Finally, Part IV teaches you how to both use and help the people in your life as you all try to reach your goals.
Bearing in mind that our problems are diverse and can’t be solved with a single strategy, this book invites you to design your own journey of behavior change and choose the strategies that are right for you under your unique circumstances. At the end of each chapter, I’ve listed questions to guide you as you create your own path to change. As you answer these questions for yourself, think about the goals you wish to achieve, but also keep in mind your specific circumstances, including both opportunities and obstacles.
This book is an invitation to apply the principles of motivation science to yourself. You’ll learn about the goal systems we mentally create, about how different types of goals affect the way you approach them, and about where and when people commonly get stuck. But most critically, you’ll learn how to pull yourself out of the muck by your own hair.
Choose Your Goal
On May 10, 1996, twenty-three climbers arrived at the summit of Mount Everest. They must have felt on top of the world, literally and figuratively, as they looked out and saw a hundred miles in any direction. Their elation, however, didn’t last long. The guides running the expedition grew increasingly worried as their party took too long to get to the top. Though they knew they’d have to start climbing back down by 2 p.m. to ensure a safe return, by the time everyone made it to the summit and was able to enjoy the view, it was four o’clock. Still, the guides thought, maybe it’d be okay. But soon after they started their descent, the weather took a turn. The skies went dark, the wind picked up, and the snow began to fall. The climbers were now facing an extremely risky journey. Not only were they likely to be stuck on the mountain in subzero temperatures overnight, they were running out of supplemental oxygen. It’s extremely difficult to breathe at the high altitude of Mount Everest’s summit, nearly nine thousand meters above sea level.
As the blizzard became a whiteout, at 9 p.m. a group of climbers decided to stop for the night and huddle together to wait for a break in the storm. The wind chill registered 100 degrees below zero and the climbers felt as if their eyelids were frozen together. Many lost hope that they’d make it back to camp alive.
When the weather cleared and rescue missions were able to search, five of the group members were found either dead or so badly injured that they wouldn’t make it back to the base of the mountain. Other expeditions also lost people—in total, eight climbers who were at or near Everest’s summit when the storm started died. The night of May 10, 1996, continues to mark one of the biggest tragedies to happen on Everest. This night also illustrates the power, at times detrimental, of holding a goal.
Reaching Mount Everest’s peak was these mountaineers’ ultimate goal. Even when they felt so exhausted they could barely move, two of the 1996 climbers continued toward Everest’s summit instead of turning around. What made the idea of summiting Mount Everest so powerful that they were willing to pay for it with their lives?
The goal to reach Everest’s summit encapsulates all elements of setting a powerfully motivating goal. First, climbing Mount Everest is not a proxy or a means to another goal. Because mountain climbers want only to reach that summit, not to reach the summit to be qualified for another challenge, they frame their goal as an end and not a means to an end, thus making it feel less like a chore. Second, reaching the summit is a specific goal with uncertain success. That is, you know whether or not you’ve achieved it, just not whether or not you will achieve it. There’s a decent chance you’ll fail, and unless you try, you won’t know. This makes the goal more attractive. Third, there are great incentives for making it to the top. If you live to tell the tale, it’s a story just about anyone would want to hear. Fourth, it’s an intrinsic goal—even if no one else cared that you’d topped Everest, you’d feel endlessly proud of yourself.
We can implement these principles in setting powerful goals for ourselves, while not neglecting the other lesson Mount Everest has taught us: we need to choose our goals wisely. Certain goals put our lives at risk. These goals are set without regard to our circumstances and abilities. They pull us in the wrong direction. Rather than advancing our emotional and physical well-being, such goals blind us to dangers in their path. Take extreme diets, injury-causing sport, or sticking with an unhealthy relationship. Goals are powerful tools and, as such, they should be handled with care. We want to set powerful goals, but only after carefully considering whether they’re right for us.
Powerful goals have the ability to pull us toward our ultimate desires, energizing us to put in the work we need to do to get there. Part I of this book will unpack the features of a powerful goal: that it feels exciting and not like a chore (Chapter 1), that it’s specific and quantifiable (“how much” or “how fast,” Chapter 2), that it includes incentives that will keep you interested along the way (Chapter 3), and that it harnesses the power of intrinsic motivation (Chapter 4).
Goals Aren’t Chores
When Alice asked, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” the Cheshire Cat replied, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
This quote from Lewis Carroll’s famous children’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland reminds me of a popular exercise in my management class. Each year, I ask teams of business students to imagine that they’re passengers on a floatplane that has just crashed. Each team must decide which items to salvage from the plane to ensure that they’ll survive in the wild. There are two approaches my students could take: they could either choose items, like matches and an ax, that will allow them to set up camp and wait until help arrives; or they could choose items, like a compass and a navigation book, that would allow them to leave and search for help. Too often, teams jump into the task of sorting and selecting items without first deciding on their objective: take off or stay put. Not knowing their goal, they make decisions that contradict each other, resulting in an eclectic array of items that serve opposite purposes. In the end, they don’t get anywhere.
While the missteps of Alice and my students may seem obvious from a distance, many of us make their same mistake. If you don’t select a goal to point you in a specific direction, you’re likely to move in circles. You’ll do whatever is at the forefront of your mind, even if it contradicts other actions you might have taken just moments ago. You might decide to go on a diet the same day you sign up for a macaron-making class, or you’ll open a savings account while also taking out a loan for a new car.
The goals we set are powerful motivational tools. A goal doesn’t just point you in a specific direction, it also pulls you in that direction. Once you set a goal, it mobilizes your resources toward achieving it. You’ll spend mental and physical effort, money, time, and your social capital. Consider deciding to become a parent or to change your career. These goals require continuous effort invested over a long period of time. Other goals, like trying to eat more healthily or exercise more, require willpower and self-control. Even goals that seem straightforward—wouldn’t it be fun to adopt a puppy?—might over time prove to be costly. And yet, despite the cost, once a goal is set, you’re willing to expend resources and pay the price.
Powerful goals feel worth the price tag—they pull you toward your greatest wish. And in order to pull you, a goal has to feel more like an aspiration and less like a chore. For example, reaching the summit of Mount Everest is an aspiration, but training for it seems like a chore. Similarly, studying law describes an aspiration, but studying for the bar exam might seem like a chore. And while becoming a parent is an aspiration, doing so because you fear regretting a decision to remain childless makes it seem more like a chore. These examples illustrate three traps in setting and framing a goal: framing it as a means to another goal instead of the end goal itself, setting a goal that is too specific or concrete instead of an abstract goal, and setting a goal in terms of something you wish to avoid rather than something you wish to approach. Falling into any of these three traps will diminish the power of your goals.
Set goals, not means
When it comes to setting a goal that feels like an aspiration and not a chore, the old adage to “keep your eyes on the prize” holds true. A powerful goal defines a desirable state, not the means to get there.
Consider dining out. You might not hesitate to order a $12 cocktail at a restaurant, but you’d think twice, and even drive around the block a few times, before paying the same amount for valet parking. You don’t like paying for parking because parking is, by definition, a means—it gets you into the restaurant and in front of the dinner plate you’d set your sights on. Similarly, shipping and gift-wrapping fees are a means to the goal of getting your friend the perfect birthday present and, indeed, we dislike paying these fees. Many of us would rather pay a little extra for the gift and earn free delivery than pay a shipping fee. In general, we want to invest our resources in the goal, not in the means. And because companies know we dislike paying for means, many online stores will include shipping costs in the product price, giving the impression that shipping is free.
This aversion to investing in means can have surprising effects, as Franklin Shaddy and I found. An experiment we conducted with our MBA students showed us that people are willing to spend more overall to avoid spending anything on a means (as many of us do to avoid shipping fees). In our experiment, we auctioned an autographed book by the prominent economist Richard Thaler, which is something our MBA students would treasure. The average bid for the book was $23. We next auctioned a tote bag, which contained the same autographed book, to another, similarly enthusiastic group of students. While these students were technically bidding on a bag, their deal was economically superior given that the highest bidder would win both a bag and a book. To our surprise, the average bidder was willing to pay only $12, significantly less than what bidders were willing to pay for the book alone. In economics terms, the value of the tote bag was negative, meaning that throwing it in decreased the value of the deal. The reason for this surprising result? It didn’t feel right to pay that much for a bag whose only function was to carry a free book. People don’t want to invest in means.
When you’re setting goals, remember this lesson and choose to define the goal in terms of benefits rather than costs. It’s better to set your goal as “finding a job” rather than “applying for a job,” or as “owning a house” instead of “saving for a down payment.” Finding a job and owning a house are desirable outcomes. Filling out applications and saving for a down payment are the costly means needed to achieve these outcomes. Achieving a goal is exciting; completing the means is a chore.
Set abstract goals
Imagine you’re trying to find a new job. You could describe this goal as “exploring career opportunities” or as “reading job postings and submitting applications.” These are two different descriptions of the same goal. “Reading job postings” is a concrete description that explains how you explore career opportunities, and “exploring career opportunities” is an abstract description that explains why you read job postings. But while they describe the same goal, one description is more motivating than the other. The concrete description emphasizes actions, thus turning the goal into a chore. The abstract description, however, emphasizes the meaning behind those actions.
More abstract goals capture the purpose behind an action, describing what you’re trying to achieve rather than the actions you’ll take to achieve it. And while an abstract goal identifies the purpose of a goal, a concrete goal only identifies the path to get there; it’s a means.
Cultivating an abstract mind-set while pursuing a goal can make any goal seem less like a chore. If you think about your day-to-day life in the abstract—that is, you focus on the purpose and meaning of your actions—your orientation toward specific goals will also be more abstract. To test this principle, psychologist Kentaro Fujita and his colleagues assigned people to an abstract or concrete mind-set by having them answer a series of “why” (abstract) or “how” (concrete) questions. For example, they answered “Why do you maintain good physical health?” or “How do you maintain good physical health?” After answering several such questions, the research participants started to think about their goals either more abstractly or more concretely, depending on the series of questions they’d answered. Those who answered a series of “why” questions were more motivated to channel resources to their goals. They worked harder. So, for instance, they exercised more physical effort when holding a handgrip.
There is, of course, a downside. When you make a goal too abstract, it becomes vague. It may not be linked to a specific set of actions and is therefore difficult to actively pursue. “Explore new career opportunities,” for instance, is miles better than “be successful.” Similarly, “start going to church” is better than “be morally pure.” There are no clear or specific means by which we should pursue success or, if it’s your thing, moral purity, rendering these goals ineffective. When there’s no clear path to get from point A to point B, people revert to fantasizing about their goals instead of taking action toward achieving them.
When we fantasize, we imagine what our lives will look like once we achieve our goal. We envision how great it will feel to wear that graduation gown, medal, or wedding dress. But fantasizing doesn’t generate action. Fantasizing about graduating with honors won’t necessarily make you study harder; fantasizing about coming first in a 5K won’t make you run more; and fantasizing about walking down the aisle won’t make you set up more dates.
Indeed, in one study, the psychologists Gabriel Oettingen and Thomas Wadden had weight watchers rate their expectations (how likely they were to lose weight) and how much they fantasized about weight loss at the beginning of a weight loss program. A year later, those who had high expectations lost more weight than those with low expectations, but those who fantasized more didn’t. Those who fantasized actually lost less weight.
Fantasies might feel good, but they’re largely ineffective as a motivational tool. And when abstract goals become too abstract, they’re at risk of turning into fantasies that substitute for action. Optimally abstract goals describe a purpose without losing sight of the actions you need to take to reach them (“improve my mental health” is better than “be happy”). You should immediately know what to do next (start therapy, for example). They allow you to contrast your current state with where you want to be so that you can connect the dots from here to there by making an action plan.
“Do” versus “do not” goals
When dining out, is it better to define your goal as eating healthily or as avoiding unhealthy food? When playing a sport, should you define your goal as winning or as not losing? “Do” goals, also known as “approach” goals because they identify a desirable state that we’re approaching, pull us toward eating healthily or playing well to win the game. “Do not” goals, also known as avoidance goals, push us away from a state we wish to avoid. These are essentially “anti-goals.”
When we define our goals as approach goals, we move toward those goals (decreasing the gap between us and our desires). When we define them as avoidance goals, we move away from anti-goals (widening the gap between us and the outcomes we want to avoid).
Just as framing your goal as a means or as too concrete is likely to make your goal feel like a chore, framing it as an anti-goal is likely to do the same. If you want to win your school’s championship basketball game, the “approach” frame of winning the game is more enticing than the “avoidance” frame of not losing the game.
- “How do I love this book? Let me count the ways. First, its author. I don't know anyone, scientist or otherwise, who knows more than Ayelet Fishbach about the psychology of goals. Second, its practicality. Like anyone, I have dreams. Every chapter taught me about myself and how I could better frame my goals to make my dreams a reality. Third, the writing: clear, to-the-point and yet warm, intimate, and winningly honest. The list goes on but the point is that truly, I love this book and know you will, too.”—Angela Duckworth, author of Grit
- “Ayelet Fishbach is one of the most interesting psychologists of her generation. And she studies motivation, one of the most important topics in psychology. In this compelling book, Fishbach shows us how we can motivate ourselves—by changing our situations and the way we see them—to reach our goals in life.”—Carol S. Dweck, PhD, author of Mindset
- “Ayelet Fishbach is a leading expert on motivation—her research has consistently produced insights that are both surprising and useful. In this engaging book, she shows what it takes to close the gap between your intentions and your actions.”—Adam Grant, #1 New York Times-bestselling author of Think Again and host of the TED podcast WorkLife
- “If we could ‘just do it,’ we wouldn’t need that advice. But why can’t we? And if we can’t just do it, then what should we do instead? In this smart, delightful, and important book, the world’s leading expert on the science of human motivation answers that question and more. What are you waiting for? Just read it!”—Daniel Gilbert, New York Times-bestselling author of Stumbling on Happiness
- “Fishbach is an expert guide to motivation, and Get It Done addresses this perennial challenge without taking the kinds of shortcuts that can sabotage goal achievement. Leaders are likely to find themselves consulting it on a regular basis as they seek to achieve personal and organizational goals.”—Strategy+Business
- “So many books promise to help you achieve your goals, but this is the only one backed by scientific research, written by the brilliant scientist who actually conducted much of it!Get It Done makes you understand why motivation is so hard to come by at times, and what you can actually do to get yourself more motivated. Interesting. Clever. Most of all, extremely useful!”—Nicholas Epley, author of Mindwise
- “Get It Done is an invaluable resource for anyone seeking to be more productive, focused, and motivated. Fishbach’s uniquely approachable and insightful book will revolutionize the way you think about setting and achieving your goals.”—Itamar Simonson, co-author of Absolute Value
- “Get It Done reveals the whys, hows, and wherefores of our lives, loves, and aspirations, and affords rare self insights into our choices, decisions, and feelings. This book is as intriguing intellectually as it is useful for better navigating our ways in work, play, and connection to others. A must read for anyone with interest in human social behavior and its mysteries."—Arie Kruglanski, PhD, co-author of The Radical’s Journey
“Everyone wants to feel motivated to reach their goals with confidence and regularity. But most of us fail to do so. In this masterfully written and endlessly insightful book, Ayelet Fishbach charts a course for everyone to keep their motivation muscle in shape.”
—Francesca Gino, bestselling author of Rebel Talent
- "A special book. Fishbach provides a masterclass toolbox, accessible to all, for strengthening our motivation, and then using that enhanced motivation in ways to pursue our life goals more effectively. What she has to teach us about motivation is a need-to-know."—E. Tory Higgins, author of Beyond Pleasure and Pain
- “Ayelet Fishbach’s innovative breakthroughs have revolutionized motivation science and shifted our understanding of how people reach their goals. This thoughtful, often funny, and always practical book puts those insights into concrete terms that each of us can apply in our own lives. Get It Done guides you through ways to effectively meet your goals — to pull yourself up out of the challenges of everyday life to accomplish difficult goals that, until now, may have eluded you. I can’t recommend Get It Done enough. It’s a must read.”—Wendy Wood, author of Good Habits, Bad Habits
- On Sale
- Jan 3, 2023
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Little Brown Spark