The Science of Accomplishment – 30 Motivational Skills To Get Your New Year’s Resolution Done
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Confident that you’ll achieve your New Year’s resolution?
Most people are. Only 12% succeed.1
88% of New Year’s resolutions fail.
Let’s make this time different.
Gamble and wish for the best, or take the long-term approach and guarantee eventual success.
Develop The Skill of Accomplishment
Accomplishment is not one inspirational technique or burst of willpower away.
It’s a skill, with lessons to practice and techniques to internalize.
The skills on this page have been tested by over 100,000 people across 103 scientific studies, to:
Accomplishment is hard. It has never in the history of human-kind ever been so unnatural.
Our brains weren’t designed to resist fatty food or exercise because the doctor said so.
Luckily, we happen to be the most adaptable species in the galaxy. We can rewire our instinct-driven behavior into goal-driven behavior.
Done right, we can even make pursuing our goals enjoyable.
Let’s take a look at the achievement equation. To hack it, we must first understand it.
If you’re not making the progress you want, one or more of those factors needs tweaking.
Let’s get started.
Scientific self-help is a new field. As a result, there is no unified theory which I can point you to.
As the model I use merges together the findings from many different lines of study, is reflects a large portion of our current scientific understanding. Still, it is nothing more than a useful approximation, helpful in organizing and understanding the variety of goal achievement strategies and techniques introduced on this page.
This resource is a work-in-progress. If you know of any techniques which you believe should be added to this list, please let me know!
Obviously you care about your goal – otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this. But knowing your goal is important isn’t enough. You’ve got to feel that it’s important.
Our brain acts more on what it feels than on what it thinks. Let’s not fight it.
We could try to control our emotions and develop indomitable willpower… but that’s no fun.
There’s an easier way. We can translate what we know into what we feel.
When you’re tired or unhappy, the brain shifts towards short-term goals. A promotion years away may have once excited it, but bombard your body with fatigue or anxiety, and it will start to care much more about satisfying your instincts. On the flip side, when you’re happy or energized, even the most grueling of tasks can seem enjoyable.
- ↑Energy & Mood
When you have low energy, you are signaling to your brain that you are in a dangerous situation – that you are hungry from lack of food, or exhausted from having just run a long distance. When you are in a dangerous situation, our instincts kick in.On the other hand, when energy is abundant, our brain shifts its preference and allocates more value towards long-term goals. It thinks to itself – “I’m fed and energized, I can probably afford an hour to go dieting/exercising/working.” That’s why goal achievement doesn’t just become easier, it also becomes more enjoyable – we now have greater intrinsic motivation.
Of course, these signals are now completely incorrect. For most of us, energy is essentially infinite, in that we can just eat more food after we’ve used up our calories from pursuing our goal.
The problem is that ‘blah’ is an invention of the modern world. In our rest state, many of us feel less than vibrant – from lack of sleep, poor diet, stress, lack of exercise. Worse still, many people have adapted to that ‘blah’ feeling, not recognizing the vast energy explosion awaiting around the corner.
In order to reach our motivational prime, we’ve got to have lots of energy.
Scientists like to use stuffy language, calling it emotion regulation. I call it emotion convincing. Sometimes our heart needs a reminder or two for why it should care.
The easiest way to reach success is to put yourself in a social situation where achievement is the only acceptable option. We care what other people think. Rather than pretending that we don’t, let’s use that to our advantage.
We’re all natural optimists, over-estimating our chances of success. That’s often a good thing – if we didn’t think our effort was going to make a difference, we wouldn’t try.
You’ve got to make this year different. Not because there’s anything wrong with you as you are, but because for every year that you don’t make a change, you make your failure habit stronger, closing up the possibility of future change.
How much harder would you give this time a try if you thought you had a 100% chance of making it – of losing weight, getting published, or kicking your addiction?
100% is impossible, but you can do better than what you’ve been working with. You can increase your expectations of success.
Our forefathers didn’t have the luxury of worrying about retirement – of some uncertain event 30 years into the future. For them, every week was a challenge enough. They couldn’t afford to spare any energy.
Now it’s the other way around – those who invest do the best. But still, our natural inclination towards the present remains unchanged.
No surprise that school children are unmotivated – we adults often have difficulty motivating ourselves for rewards that lie just a few months away (e.g. cookie now vs. look good four months later); children are expected to train for adulthood that is years into the future? Absurd!
It’s easier to bring our rewards closer to the present than to suppress our natural, short-term orientation.
Value is relative. Growing up, my parents didn’t allow me to watch TV or play video games. Reading and playing with the neighbors was a joy because compared to my next best options of studying or doing nothing, they were so much better.
If you want your kids to read, don’t force them. Rather, setup their environment in such a way that reading becomes enjoyable – make it their best form of entertainment.
When I wanted to start eating healthy, I threw away all of the junk food in my home and paid others to shop for me (the candy was too tempting in person).
If you want to get work done on your computer, disconnect from the internet – deal with the distraction.
All the motivation in the world is useless if you’re doing the wrong things. Most personal goals fail, but often because of lack of knowledge, not lack of motivation.
Most of what we read on the internet about dieting is worse than garbage – making it near impossible to keep off any of the weight that we manage to lose.
Pursuing your goal without building expertise is like gambling – maybe you’ll get lucky and do the right things, maybe you won’t.
A little effort upfront can save you dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of hours of unnecessary floundering later. Almost 4 out of every 5 small business owners fail. It’s not because they’re lazy.
There are almost 15,000 words on this page, enough to fill a 30 page e-book. Overwhelming, I know.
The point of this article isn’t for you to pick out a single technique and then go running. It’s to transform the way you look at accomplishment from yes/no, success/failure into structured training, gradual experimentation, and consistent progress.
For that to happen, you have to know which combination of accomplishment sub-skills to deploy against each unique challenge. Then you’ve got to be able use them effectively. Over time, you’ll develop those abilities.
Maybe you’re already a super-achiever. Maybe not. Doesn’t matter.
Accomplishment is a skill, with dozens of sub-components to be studied and trained. Level 10 or level 0, all of us have room for tremendous improvement.
To get started right away, I recommend trying out a few of my favorite cocktails.
If you already have a goal in mind, consider which part of the achievement equation could use improvement. Is your reward too far out? Then jump to the ↓Delay section. Afraid your effort won’t pay off? Jump to the ↑Likelihood section.
Let’s get to it! Click below or keep on scrolling.
- ↑Energy & Mood
Exercising regularly is one of the best things I’ve ever done for my productivity. The energy from just a few minutes of intense jogging can propel me throughout the day. I use to loath physical exercise. Now I’m a junkie – whenever I’m tired I go for a quick sprint or pull out some squats. 30 minutes later, I’m perked up and work is fun again.
I don’t do it because I care much about my health. I do it for the energy and motivation it brings.
Why: Exercise reduces symptoms of fatigue, increases vigor, reduces stress, and may increase mood almost as effectively as the anti-depressant Zoloft. 2,3,4,5 Exercise has been repeatedly shown to increase workplace performance.
In eight studies which implemented workplace exercise programs, burnout and anxiety were reduced and productivity and job satisfaction increased.6 Employees performed better on exercise than non-exercise days.7
Time Commitment: medium
For folks just getting started – walking is not exercise. It’s better than sitting… but you’ll only be getting a fraction of the productivity and mood gains.
At the same time, studies have shown that non-exercisers going harder than they are capable may make them feel worse – both physically and emotionally. The key is to self-select a challenge you think you are capable of handling; it is in those cases that participants have reported the greatest mood and energy improvements.3
Don’t worry if you have to start really low. When I started training for my 8k over six months ago, all I could run was .2 miles before getting wiped out.
Exercise is great, but not in the beginning. Ever wonder how regular exercisers seem to be able to easily motivate themselves to get out of the house? It’s not because they’ve created a habit. Sure, that makes something hard easier to do. But most people don’t really look forward to, say, brushing their teeth. But plenty of people, myself included, look forward to exercising.
The reason is simple. Exercising dramatically boosts mood, energy levels, and productivity. The catch is that exercise may make sedentary and depressed individuals feel worse the first few times.2,8 Sadly, these are the folks who need to get exercising the most.
In several studies, performance was measured using days absent from work, performance as measured by coworkers or superiors, workplace stress, vigor, job satisfaction, and self-reported work ability.6,12For example:
In one study which asked participants to complete a work ability survey, there was no improvement in work ability, although job satisfaction increased by 6%.9
In another study, exercise had a small correlation with work ability, but a much larger correlation with perceived work difficulty. That is, work seemed to get easier after subjects started exercising.11
In another study, work speed was directly measured. As subjects were data entry professionals, it was possible to quantify their productivity gains. Despite taking time out of work to exercise and stretch, overall output increased. 10
The overall performance gains were small across most studies. This is likely because it was difficult to quantify performance. However, mood, perception of effort, work satisfaction and perceived difficult almost always improved with exercise.6
In the short-term, exercise may make depressed individuals feel worse, more so than if they were just sedentary. The results have varied depending on the study, indicating that different groups of people respond differently to different types of exercise.2 However, in the long-term treatment of depression, there is perhaps no better remedy than exercise.3
It may take several sessions over two to three weeks before exercise increases rather than decreases energy and mood.
2. Consume Caffeine
Caffeine is a wonder drug – more than 90% of Americans take at least one hit a day. The few who don’t are often under or over-sensitive, unable to access caffeine’s benefits.
Why: Caffeine is awesome.13
Time Commitment: low
Studies have suggested that many habitual, heavy coffee drinkers (300mg+ per day) have lower mood and greater anxiety and irritability than non-consumers.14,15,16 Because we quickly develop tolerance, much of caffeine’s mood boost then comes from withdrawal alleviation.
Although the scientists are still debating the specifics, the underlying principle is clear – those who regularly consume large amounts of caffeine are doing it wrong.
Near all habitual caffeine, drinkers have developed tolerance – where one soda once sufficed, three cups of coffee are now required. The tolerance is only partial – although they may have lower baseline mood, their overall concentration will be still higher.16
But heavy drinker or not, by keeping in mind a few principles and exercising some self-control, you can maximize caffeine’s mood and productivity-boosting potential:
- In one study of habitual drinkers, consuming caffeine again after 4 to 6 hours had no overall impact on mood – the total quantity of caffeine and its resulting tolerance was too strong. On the other hand, those who waited 8 hours saw an increase in energy and relaxation and a much larger increase in cognitive performance.17 Other studies concur – less is more, even if it seems like less at first.
- Don’t drink before sleeping. Caffeine stays in our systems for five to ten hours. Although you may not have any trouble falling asleep, your sleep quality will be reduced, hurting your mood and energy levels.18,19
Because I’m a slow metabolizer (drugs last in my system much longer than in normal people), my optimal dosing schedule is 100mg of caffeine and l-theanine once every other day first thing in the morning. Much more effective for me than twice or thrice daily consumption.
Good! I like a little skepticism. Different people respond differently to differing amounts of caffeine. So I’m not confident at all that caffeine lowers your mood, only that there is room for improvement.
On the other hand, there are reasons to be concerned.
In a 2002 study, participants either consumed caffeine or a placebo twice a day for one week, and then switched (those taking a placebo then took caffeine for a week, and vice versa). During their week of sobriety, participants reported significantly less tension, and slightly higher mood.16
Tolerance is our body keeping us safe.
Consuming caffeine increases the quantity of several neurotransmitters, like adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine. In order to maintain balance and avoid being overwhelmed by outside interference, the brain temporarily reduces its sensitivity to those chemicals. That is, it takes more and more caffeine to get the same stimulation.
The reasons heavy caffeine consumption is so addicting is because their brain’s sensitivity to dopamine and other chemicals has been reduced so much that it can no longer function properly without a constant influx of coffee. They’ve become dependent. That’s not always a bad thing. But in this case, it’s definitely sub-optimal.
Tea is more calming than coffee, while often being just as invigorating. One reason is that it usually contains less caffeine. The other is that it contains a mix of relaxing chemicals. One of those chemicals is L-theanine, which can be purchased for cheap in pill form. According to a 2008 review, the combination of L-theanine and caffeine is more effective in promoting concentration and enhancing mood than just caffeine alone.20 I take L-theanine with my caffeine, but don’t be surprised if you try it and notice no difference – the effects are more subtle than those of ingesting coffee.
3. Listen to Music
The sweet sound of Lady Gaga or Britney Spears… what could possibly be more motivating?
Why: In the short-term, music is distracting. It has been shown to reduce reading comprehension, memory recall, and performance on a variety of other cognitive tasks.21,22,23,24,25 But still, music is awesome – it releases serotonin and dopamine, effortlessly increasing mood and motivation.26
Time Commitment: low
Music is more distracting than it is motivating, which is why, on balance, it reduces short-term performance. However, because it increases mood and motivation, music makes work seem less demanding (perhaps even
bearable pleasurable), extends the amount of time we can focus (often more important than having optimal performance), and makes boring tasks more tolerable (where it doesn’t matter if our mental performance has declined – drudge work doesn’t usually require peak intelligence).
Vocal music is more distracting than non-vocal music. Even if enjoyable, the brain must further split its attention to process the lyrics.27
But don’t switch to classical music just yet. What’s more important is that you enjoy the music; otherwise, you won’t find any of the benefits.30
Classical music doesn’t make you or your baby any smarter.
- As the study was originally performed, participants first listened to Mozart music, and then afterwards took a test. Who does that? I work while listening to music, not after. It makes a difference.28
- A number of follow-up studies were unable to replicate the original results.29 Hype but no substance. My guess? In the original study, the participants particularly liked Mozart.
- Because preference matters – if you don’t like Lady Gaga, her voice isn’t going to get you excited. There is a ‘Shubert effect’ for those who like Shubert, and a ‘Stephen King effect’ for those who enjoy his narrated stories.30 Arousal is key. No, not that kind of arousal.
4. Increase Your Positivity Ratio
Make happiness an active priority – practice gratitude, do yoga, make more time for friends, exercise.
Why: One of the primary functions of positive emotion is to signal safety and satiety.
See what Barbara Fredrickson, the discoverer of the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotion, Has to say about increasing yout poditivity ratio.
“When there are few threats demanding intense, narrowed attention, positive emotions allow us to pursue our long-term interests. In our ancestors, transitory states of positive emotions led to behavior that may seem pointless or extravagant from the perspective of immediate survival, but that conferred serious advantages in the long term.”
When we are happy, short-term distractions become less biologically important, and therefore less psychologically alluring (e.g. fatty food and facebook become easier to resist).31
Time Commitment: high
For me, happiness and goal achievement are a positive spiral – the more I achieve, the happier I am, and the happier I am, the more energy I have to achieve.
Where happiness shifts focus towards the long-term, unhappiness shifts focus towards the immediate, disrupting progress and harming concentration. The occasional anxiety is normal, but the pervasive low mood is bad – both for your mental health and for your productivity. If necessary, see a psychologist or psychiatrist.
I’m sure you’ve noticed it yourself – when you’re anxious you have trouble concentrating on the work at hand. Worse, many people deal with anxiety by drowning themselves in mindless work or entertainment, taking them further away from their goals.
More on the power of positive emotion.
5. Eat For Energy
Don’t skip breakfast and try to avoid large, carb-heavy lunches. I won’t say more than that, anything else and I’ll be treading into quasi-religious territory. Everyone has their own ‘true’ beliefs (and for good reason, nutrition science is hard stuff).
Why: Without energy, work just isn’t going to get done – low energy equals low motivation. My afternoons became a lot more productive once I stopped gorging on Indian food for lunch.
Time Commitment: medium
You don’t need me to tell you how to improve your diet. You already know how. Just don’t underestimate its impact on your productivity. Like I said with exercise when I do eat healthily, I don’t do it because I care about my body, I do it because I want to be energetic and productive.
6. Change Your Environment
Go somewhere different. Now pursue your goal. If you’re trying to get into an exercise habit, drive to a park; if you’re trying to study for an exam, go to the library. Once you feel your motivation dropping, move somewhere else.
Why: As we become more and more comfortable in the same environment, our level of energy decreases – we feel safe and no longer need to be as alert. In which environment do you think you’d feel more motivated – sitting in your office, or sitting on top of a moving train?
Sitting on top of a moving train is probably too much, but we could often use a splash in the face. Moving to a new environment can give you just that, but without the cold punch.
Time Commitment: medium
When I have trouble motivating myself, I either go for a quick run or drive over to my local library. The change of environment gets me re-energized. After an hour, when my motivation has started falling low again, I’ll go to the local cafe. After another hour, I might go to Barnes & Nobles.
Because of all the driving, I’m spending less time actually working, but the effort I do put in is of higher quality.
Every change of scenery replenishes my motivation.
7. Improve Your Sleep
Why: 150 research studies confirm what you already knew – poor sleep impairs health, lowers mood, decreases life satisfaction, and cuts productivity.37 For a laymen friendly review of the research, read this article: Lack of Sleep in the Workplace: What the Psychologist-Manager Should Know About Sleep.
-Poor sleep costs the US economy between $16 and $136 billion a year in lost productivity.
-Routinely getting poor sleep (e.g. insomnia, less than 7 hours of sleep a night, drinking caffeine in the evening): slows response times, causes lapses of attention, reduces mental endurance, impairs learning, reduces willpower and goal commitment, and increases impulsivity.
-In a 2007 survey of 28,902 American workers, 38% reported feeling fatigued at work within the past 2 weeks.38
Is that extra hour or two really worth it?
Time Commitment: high
I know it can be tough – I’ve been fighting with sleep problems my entire adult life. But by treating sleep like a skill, rather than a one-off problem to be shooed away, I’ve made slow but consistent progress.
I have a condition called idiopathic hypersomnia. Hypersomnia is the opposite of insomnia – it means I have trouble staying awake.
It’s not as bad as narcolepsy, where I would be uncontrollably falling asleep. Rather, I have the mental endurance of a monkey – if I’m not doing something interesting, I start to get really sleepy. Put me on a couch, and I’ll fall asleep within 30 seconds.
Idiopathic means the doctors have no idea what the cause is – idiopathic hypersomnia = you’re really tired, and we don’t know why.
So I’ve made lifestyle changes to adapt – I exercise regularly, reduce my exposure to artificial light in the evening, put on nose-strips before I go to sleep, take naps in the afternoon, and so on.
One experiment a doctor ran on me was having me take the drug GHB before falling asleep. It is, to my knowledge, the most powerful legally available sleep drug (it’s a schedule 1 controlled substance, so it’s not so easy to get a prescription). The doctor hoped that I was perpetually tired because my sleep wasn’t deep enough, which the drug would fix.
The way the medicine works, you take it, get knocked out, wake up after 4 hours feeling refreshed (yes, the drug is that powerful!), take it again, and then get knocked out for another 4 hours. It didn’t help, and even caused dysphoria a few times, so I stopped taking it after a few months.
After years of experimentation, I started to make progress. It was worth the patience. It turns out that I had adapted to my low energy state, not even noticing all that I was missing.
P.S. For you dieters – poor sleep is correlated with future weight gain.39
8. Implementation Intentions
Write down or verbalize your response given a set of two to five triggers, in the form ‘when [trigger], I will [action]’. For example, if you’re trying to lose weight:
1. ‘As soon as I come home from work, I will change clothes and then go for a 10-minute jog.’
2. ‘Whenever I am given unhealthy food, I will throw it into the garbage.’
3. ‘When I am hungry in-between meals, I will eat an apple.’
Why: Planning when and where to implement an action strengthens the mental association between a particular situation and its desired action.45 For example, implementation intentions helped participants of one study to more regularly consume a vitamin – when they encountered certain triggers (e.g. finishing breakfast, getting home from work), their emotions were trigger in such a way to encourage consumption of the vitamin.40
This skill has a strong track record, having been used to increase grades, increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, increase physical activity, and reduce alcohol consumption.41,42,43,44
A review of 94 implementation intention studies showed a consistent result – it helps.46
Time Commitment: low
Flossing regularly before going to sleep will form a subconscious trigger – making it easier and easier with time. This is why habits are so powerful. Implementation intentions helps form habits without the need to actually perform the actions, making it easier when time comes to actually do it.
Implementation intentions works because it translates temporary goal commitment into long-lasting mental re-wiring. The key variable is commitment. In studies where participants exhibited low commitment (e.g. they didn’t really care about losing weight), implementation intentions was less effective.46
That is because those participants formed fewer and vaguer intention statements. The fewer and especially the more vague, the weaker the mental re-wiring. This is also why this skill is best deployed in moderation.
The more goals a person tries to pursue at once, the lower his commitment to each one. In one study, implementation intentions was ten times more effective when used on one goal vs. six. However, those with higher commitment were able to use it on more goals at once without as large a drop in effectiveness.47
You know your personality the best – if you can give each goal the commitment and emotional energy is deserves, go for it. But if not, implementation intentions is best used in moderation.
9. Process Visualization
Visualize yourself in the process of completing the steps involved in your goal in such a way that leads to success. For example, if you wish to get good grades, vividly visualize yourself studying in a way that leads to your getting an A – visualize the locations that you will be studying at, you flipping through your notes, eliminating distractions, turning down your friend’s offer to go partying, and so on.
Why: Process visualization creates two positive changes:
1) The process of mentally rehearsing the steps required to achieve a goal reduces the stress and anxiety that thinking about it generates – students are able to get themselves to more easily study after process visualization in part because the act of studying is no longer as aversive (“I visualized it, and it wasn’t so bad”). As a result, they study longer and get better grades compared to those who do nothing special or use outcome visualization (4 more hours studying for an exam & a 9% higher grade).49
2) Process visualization translates vague goals into concrete steps, taking the S in SMART goals a step further. Furthermore, the act of visualizing these steps convinces the brain that they are more do-able than previously thought. When the brain thinks its effort is more likely to pay off, motivation further increases. Those students who used process visualization were three times more likely to complete a school project by a self-selected deadline (as opposed to the usual last minute).49
Time Commitment: low
Although process visualization easily makes up for the time commitment required, there is a technique that requires just a bit more effort, but is much more powerful.
10. Internalize The Why
Write down three to ten positive changes that will occur if you successfully complete your goal. Now list three to ten negative aspects of reality which will not change if you do not successfully complete your goal.
Why: We can convince our subconscious that a goal is more important than it previously thought by bringing to conscious awareness particular reasons, positive or negative, why it should devote more of its scarce energy towards that pursuit. The more emotionally evocative the reason the better.
If you cannot immediately and without effort name five to ten reasons why you are pursuing a particular goal, you have yet to internalize your motivations for pursuing it. The more internalized a motivation, the more powerful it becomes.55
Time Commitment: medium
To maximize the effectiveness of this skill, re-read your reasons for pursuing your goal until you can effortlessly recall them from memory. At that point, verbalize that list in your head (or out-loud if you’re alone or not self-conscious) whenever you need a boost of motivation.
It is as yet unclear if daily repetition is more powerful than as-needed repetition.My concern is that if the practice is done daily after the motivations have already been fully internalized, they may lose their power through the process of adaption (it becomes rote vs. emotionally evocative). However, this concern could be unfounded – the science is unclear.
11. Join a Success Circle
Join a physical or virtual community of people who are successfully pursuing the same goal(s) as you.
Why: We are social creatures:
- We subconsciously value higher those goals actively pursued by others, even strangers.50,51,52
- The higher the group standard, the greater the loss of status when you underperform.51 Loss of status is one of the most powerful motivators in the world.
Time Commitment: medium
Asian American immigrants are not smarter than you – they just get whipped when they don’t get A’s.
In middle-school, my friends were normal – anything higher than a B was enough to impress. Come high-school, I randomly found myself friends with the over-achievers:a B+ stood for bad+, being vice-president of a club was considered slacking, taking a break over the summer was for underachievers.Having a straight A GPA, being president of at least 2 clubs, and going to Princeton or Harvard for summer classes was the norm (not exaggerating). From middle-school to high-school I went from being ‘normal’ to a ‘highest achiever’. I wasn’t ostracized by my friends when I did poorly, but because it was normal for them to work hard, it became normal for me. Because it was normal for them to find school interesting and full of opportunity, it became normal for me.
We weren’t really ‘working hard’, we were just playing in a way much different from most people. It was because of them, my first success circle, that I was able to become a ‘high-achiever’.
When failure becomes common in a group, standards lower and your chances of success plummet. Success becomes extraordinary, and failure becomes okay.Just don’t bite off more than you can handle – otherwise the positive accountability will become devastating stress and inferiority.
Finding a physical group of successful dieters, lovers, or meditators can be hard or impossible if you don’t live in or near a big city. I know – where I live now there are few communities of the kind I’m looking for.
The web has success groups of every kind, many available for free. If you detect low standards, you can easily leave and try again elsewhere.
I’m currently a member of 3 success circles, without which I never would have made it as far as I have. They’ve helped me recover when I was faltering. They’ve infused what could have been solitary with fun and community. They’re worth the time.
12. Get Accountable
Find someone else who is trying to achieve a goal. If it’s the same goal, that’s even better. A few times a month, check-in with each other. Discuss progress. If there’s been no progress, discuss roadblocks and potential countermeasures.
Don’t find a nagging partner, but someone who can help you stay true to your own intentions.
Why: It’s not so embarrassing to make excuses to ourselves when we fail. But once we’ve made a public commitment to someone we respect, those flimsy excuses no longer hold up as well. Within cooperative environments, we have a strong instinct to appear consistent and reliable – of doing what we said we’d do.53,54
Time Commitment: medium
A wise life coach once said to me that the most valuable service she provided was accountability. Lucky for us, we don’t need to pay $80 an hour to get that service – all we need is a willing friend or family member.
13. Choose Your Own D*mn Goals
Excuse my language, but I’ve got a long personal history of relentlessly pursuing goals not of my own choosing. These goals were self-initiated, it’s not as though someone else explicitly told me to pursue them. But just as social pressure can be a powerful tool for promoting goal achievement, it can be a powerful tool for goal dissonance – for pitting one part of our self against another.
So ask yourself – “am I pursuing this goal because I really want to?, because it matches with my broad goals in life and is enjoyable? or because social pressure is making me feel insecure?”
Why: There’s nothing wrong with losing weight because you’re insecure about your appearance – the world would be a disgusting place (probably) if no one showered, everyone weighed over 500 pounds, and walked around naked.
The problem is that the further the goal from your underlying values and desires, the more difficult it becomes to generate and sustain motivation. Just as important, the further your goal from your core desires, the smaller the emotional benefits from making progress on and completing it.55,58
Time Commitment: high
One reason work is often such a chore is because we have little intrinsic motivation – we do it for the money. Sadly, money is a necessity.
Many of our goals are not. They should be relentlessly discarded and selectively pursued – after all, our time is limited. Better to spend it on things we actually care about.
Participants across several studies were asked to complete the following four-item questionnaire. You should complete it as well if you’re unsure about one of your goals.On a scale of 1 ( not at all because of this reason) to 9 ( completely because of this reason), you strive for this goal because:
1. somebody else wants you to, or because the situation seems to compel it.
2. you really believe that it’s an important goal to have.
3. you would feel ashamed, guilty, or anxious if you didn’t.
4. of the enjoyment or stimulation which that goal provides you.
Add up your responses from items 2 and 4, and then subtract your responses from items 1 and 3. There is no calculate button, because mental math should be sufficient 🙂
The higher the better – the easier you’ll find it to put in effort, the more likely you’ll stick it through, and the better you’ll feel as you make progress and eventually complete the goal.56,57 It’s difficult to change your responses to the above questions just by wanting your motivation to be more intrinsic; it’s much easier to pick a different goal.
If you scored below 0, please take another look at your decision.
Identified (non-internalized intrinsic) – The goal is meaningful. The pursuit of the goal may not provide pleasure, but it is still easy to motivate oneself to do it because of its self-identified importance (e.g. a parent changing the smelly diaper of their baby – it may not be fun, but it gets done). This reason is not considered internalized, because if it was, it would provide pleasure.
Introjected (non-internalized extrinsic) – The goal is pursued out of anxiety, guilt, or insecurity. This reason is not considered internalized, because if it was, the underlying motivation would be explicitly pointed at social pressure.
Extrinsic – The goal is pursued for social reasons.Although this model can be useful for helping us gain perspective over the underlying motivations behind our goal selection, keep in mind that it is a simplification. A more comprehensive model of motivation would recognize that goals can be motivated for both intrinsic and extrinsic reasons, working together in an opposing or complementary fashion.
Make the task so small that you cannot fail. If your goal is to start a flossing habit, make the task to floss just one tooth. If your goal is to exercise 60 minutes a week, make the task to go for a 30 second jog.
Once you’ve got step one under control, move on to step two – floss two teeth or go for a 60 second jog.
Why: Small continuous improvement has four advantages: low risk, re-commitment, positive spirals, and strong foundations.
1) By making the task so small that you cannot fail, your likelihood of success will increase several-fold, in turn increasing your motivation. As long as the progression from task 1 to eventual completion is clear, motivation for each sub-goal (floss one tooth, floss two teach, etc…) will remain high.2) Small continuous improvement automatically implements the principle of re-commitment. After accomplishing task 1, you must consciously re-affirm your decision to continue onto task 2. Re-affirming a goal periodically will cause your brain to automatically value the goal higher, in turn increasing motivation.60
3) Through the use of this skill, you can trigger a positive spiral of achievement and optimism. The confidence and positive feelings that result in completing task 1 will propel you forward into task 2 (“flossing 1 tooth was so easy! Of course I can floss two teeth next time”).61,62,63,64
4) The start is often the hardest part – picking up the floss, putting on the running shoes, etc… Kaizen helps to establish the habit of starting, building a base for future improvement.60
Time Commitment: low
I used Kaizen to help build my meditation and running habits. For the first few months, I only ran for a few minutes. Although I knew that a few minutes was not enough to get my body in shape, I was building the foundations for a running habit. A few months later I was able to run an 8k.
Likewise with meditation. I currently only meditate for 5 minutes a day. It’s not much, but it’s much better than before when I would meditate for 30 minutes one day and then 0 minutes for the next week. Because 5 minutes is so easy, I do it. I’m building a foundation for later.
Kaizen has been extensively studied and validated in the context of organizational science – to my knowledge; however, kaizen has yet to be studied by motivational psychology. Despite the lack of scientific validation, I confidently include kaizen among the 30 core motivational skills for a combination of two reasons:
1) The individual theoretical components of kaizen have been extensively studied, even if kaizen as a whole has not been.
2) Life-coaches have validated kaizen out on the field – it’s gets people taking sustained action.
15. Outcome Visualization
Visualize completion of a desired goal – you’ve finally lost that weight, completed that project, developed a meditation habit. The more vivid, the better. Activate multiple senses if you can.
Why: By making a desired future appear so easily in our mind’s eye, our expectation of success increases – generating motivation. Our reward system thinks that because we were able to so easily imagine the desired future, it must be more likely to come true than we previously thought.73 When we think our effort is more likely to payout, we get more motivated.
Outcome visualization has been shown to increase goal commitment, increase music and sports performance, help with weight loss, and more.65,66,67,68 There’s a reason you’ve heard about visualization so many times already. But it’s not all smiles.
Time Commitment: low
Some studies have shown outcome visualization be harmful, causing participants to take longer to establish a romantic relationship, get a good job, and recover from surgery.69 Others have shown that in many circumstances, it is ineffective.70
So don’t actually use positive visualization!
Two reasons – fantasy indulgence and fear of failureFantasy indulgence. Visualization works by increasing expectations of success – “if I can imagine it, surely I can achieve it.” Sometimes; however, it works too well.
If expectations of success increase unbounded by reality, as positive visualization is oft to encourage, our reward center may think that the task is so easy that we don’t need to work hard to achieve the goal – that it need not mobilize the bodies energy. Rather than increasing arousal, which increases motivation, positive visualization sometimes decreases it.71
One of the key differentiating features between successful positive visualization and unsuccessful or harmful positive visualization wasn’t the specifics of the technique, but the personalities of the people doing it.
Pessimists and those afraid of failure showed the worst responses to positive visualization – they felt dejected rather than energized, “it would be nice to lose weight… but that’s probably not going to happen.” The more often they visualized, the more often they thought about how unlikely it was that they would actually be able to accomplish their goal.72 That’s not so motivating.
There are many other groups of people who can be harmed by positive visualization. The best way is to check for yourself – does visualization:
- Leave me feeling positive and energized?
- Actual result in my taking action?
If yes to both, give it a go. Although I still recommend using Implementation Intentions, Mental Contrasting, or Process Visualization.
16. Mental Contrasting
Visualize completion of the desired goal – you’ve finally lost that weight, completed that project, developed a meditation habit. Hone in on the most positive aspect of having made the change.
Now visualize three to five aspects of your present reality that stand in the way of making that change come true, like being distracted, having no time, or feeling unmotivated.
Why: Mental contrasting is outcome visualization on steroids – it takes away much of the risk while significantly increasing the potential upside, helping to increase grades, manage weight, and quit bad habits.
Students who used mental contrasting improved their grades by more than those who used positive visualization (e.g. 4th graders scored 35% higher in a foreign vocabulary quiz that they had 2 weeks to prepare for). 75,76Diabetes patients who used mental contrasting controlled their condition better than those who used positive visualization alone.74
Dieters who used mental contrasting ate less and exercised more over a 2-week period than those who used positive visualization alone.77
Smokers who used mental contrasting took more immediate action towards quitting.78
Time Commitment: low
Mental contrasting is more effective than positive visualization alone because it draws a clear connection between the desired future and the obstacles that stand in the way. In other words, it causes the brain to think – if I can mobilize the energy to conquer these specific, present challenges, I can make real my desired future.
Mental contrasting is effective in translating temporary motivation into a long-term commitment, but only when the brain is convinced. When expectations are low, mental contrasting has been shown to reduce goal commitment – it makes even more clear to the brain how out-of-reach the visualized future is (because of how large the visualized obstacles are).79
That’s a good thing – it’s good to give up on unrealistic goals from the get-go. Then attention can be focused on goals more likely to be achieved. This doesn’t mean giving up on large dreams – only on breaking them up into smaller, more digestible pieces.
Break up your goal into smaller pieces. Commit to achieving just the first piece. After completion, commit to achieving the second piece, and so on.
Why: One of the principal complaints against the kaizen technique is that it is too slow. Chunking is faster – rather than slowly working up to the final pace (jogging 30 seconds –> jog 3 minutes –> jogging 30 minutes), the same pace is maintained throughout the whole process, while the focus is on the actual outcome (lose 1 pound –> lose another pound –> eventually lose enough pounds to meet overall goal).
Breaking up a goal into smaller pieces and re-committing for each piece has the advantage of making it more digestible, creating shorter deadlines, and forcing re-commitment.
1) Smaller pieces are more digestible. The more digestible a goal, the more effort the brain will put forth.61,62,63,642) Smaller pieces have shorter deadlines. The closer one reaches to a deadline, the more effort the brain will put forth. 60
3) Re-committing for each smaller piece will help to re-ignite and maintain motivation.60
Time Commitment: low
Writing this article has taken me almost 100 hours. Finding the motivation to complete such a gargantuan task can often be difficult: ‘will anyone even read it?’, ‘why am I putting in so much effort?’, and ‘I can’t believe how much more I’ve got left to do!’.
To maintain my motivation, I used a combination of the skills introduced on this page, prominent of which was chunking.
This article was a continuous evolution – I didn’t start out with a clear idea of what would be included.
But on an approximate level, I chunked the 30 skills into 7 groups (e.g. energy, expertise, delay), and then gave myself the goal of completing the rough draft of one chunk each day.
Having a series of 1-day deadlines vs a 7 day deadline helped keep my focus. As the night approached, I knew I had to pick up the pace.
Having a series of chunks also helped keep me motivated because rather than having a small percentage of completion each day, I had a series of completed pieces I could look back on and feel proud of (‘I’m making progress! vs. ugh, so much left to do’).
Split your goal into subtasks which can be completed within a few minutes to a few hours. Select one subtask, estimate the amount of time required to complete it, and multiply by 1.3 (we tend to chronically underestimate how long things will take to finish). Now schedule this time into your calendar, or start immediately and use a timer.
Once time is up, never work on the subtask again (or less extreme, for another 7 to 30 days).
Why: The further away a reward, the less valuable it becomes.80 Quintessential procrastination – more than 80% of college students wait until right before the deadline to get serious. By creating artificial deadlines, we can focus our effort, days or weeks before the actual deadline.81
Time Commitment: low
The problem is that unless we actually believe our self-threat to never again work on the subtask, the artificial deadline won’t work. The artificial deadline must become real.
So pick a sub-task which is important but not critical – one where perfection isn’t necessary. Don’t use timeboxing half-heartedly, if you set deadlines and then repeatedly miss them, you’ll be lowering your self-credibility.
Difficult but powerful.
I’m a perfectionist (if that wasn’t already obvious ;)). For example, I have a tendency to turn my writing into a marathon – low energy spread out over a long period of time. Marathon runners look like gaunt twigs. Sprinters look well-defined, vibrant, and sexy.
High-intensity effort interspersed with periods of rest is more likely to trigger states of flow, create growth, and be innately enjoyable.
Contrary to expectations, rather than making goal achievement more stressful, timeboxing can make it more fun, in a way a little bit like playing a game (‘ah! I’ve only got 5 minutes left!’). When I’m able to conquer my perfectionist tendencies and successfully timebox, I find myself getting more done in less time, while better enjoying the process.
19. Create Artificial Rewards
After making difficult progress on your goal, reward yourself. For example, whenever I beat one of my running records, I drink a bear afterwards.
Why: The ultimate reward for your goal could be months or years away. By providing more immediate rewards, we can also provide more immediate motivation. Just as important, by rewarding only high-effort, you can develop your learned industriousness.82
First discovered in 1992, learned industriousness is the phenomenon that when high effort is rewarded in one task (e.g. praise for studying hard), people apply more effort towards other tasks (e.g. making the varsity soccer team).83 Recall Pavlov’s bell – a dog was repeatedly given food after hearing the ring of a bell. Later, the dog would immediately start to salivate after hearing the ring of a bell, anticipating the presentation of food. Likewise with humans, learned industriousness – a reward is repeatedly given after displays of high-effort. Later, that person will immediately start to feel the reward after applying high-effort.
For as long as high-effort occasionally results in an extrinsic reward, the initial application of high-effort will cause the brain to internally generate both desire and pleasure (dopamine and serotonin, respectively).
Time Commitment: medium
Using extrinsic motivators can be dangerous. It can:
1) Displace intrinsic motivators, causing pursuit of the goal to become less enjoyable over time (e.g. giving a bonus to the programmer who worked overtime for fun backfires and causes him to slowly find over time less and less enjoyable).84,85
2) Reinforce the wrong behavior (e.g. when you have a beer after exercising, regardless of how much time you put in, you will be more likely to exercise, but less likely to have high-effort sessions; when CEO’s are rewarded for short-term firm profitability, they are significantly more likely to take dangerous risks *cough cough* financial crisis).86
3) Completely backfire (e.g. if you’re trying to lose weight, and you reward yourself with ice-cream after exercising, you may end up gaining rather than losing weight).
For best results, use extrinsic motivators in moderation, and especially after applying high-effort. When possible, reward effort rather than results.
One of the most dangerous extrinsic motivators? Tests and report cards. They often turn the love of learning into hate of all things related to education.
Focus single-mindedly on the task at hand.
If your goal is to lose weight, stop working/reading/etc… while eating lunch. Focus exclusively on the food – how it tastes, how full you are, and so on.
If your goal is to write chapter 1 of your long-overdue novel, turn off your TV and internet connection – then get writing.
Why: Our desire for fatty, sugary food is vestigial – thousands of years ago when food was scare that desire kept us alive. Now it gives us heart attacks. Likewise, our desire for information is vestigial – thousands of years ago when information was scarce, the more we knew the better. Now, in an endless sea of information (e-mail, facebook, news, youtube, etc…), it keeps us from focusing on the things that really matter.
Time Commitment: medium
Sometimes multitasking is the price we pay for living in the modern world – some e-mails just can’t wait.87 Other times, the task at hand is so aversive that without something else to keep us distracted, it just isn’t getting done (e.g. listening to music while exercising). But in many other cases, multitasking is biology gone wrong.
With respect to control over attention, the mental state of a multi-tasker may be similar to that of a depressed person.90
Some scientists think that multi-tasking is just a myth – that it is humanly impossible for us to focus on more than one thing at the same time. Instead, they believe that we are actually rapidly task-switching – moving between tasks so quickly that it provides the illusion of simultaneous processing.I think multi-tasking is a continuum. For tasks that are rote and require little intelligence, multi-tasking is possible (e.g. talking to a friend while walking). For other tasks, multi-tasking is impossible (doing math homework while watching TV).91
The more difficult a task, the more ‘multi-tasking’ will become task-switching. Because our brains weren’t designed for efficient task-switching, the more difficult a task, the more ‘multi-tasking’ will hurt: temporarily lowering intelligence, impairing the ability to filter out useless information, reducing creativity, increasing time to completion, and making entering a state of flow more difficult.87,88,89
21. Destroy Distractions
Identify your largest distractions – cookies in the pantry if you’re trying to lose weight or internet access if you’re trying to write a book, and destroy it. Throw out the cookies; turn off your internet modem.
Why: It is usually easier to destroy a distraction than to resist it, as destruction is one-off and preemptive.
1) Destruction is a one-off process. Once the cookies are gone, it’ll take another trip to the store to replenish your supplies. On the other hand, if you keep your cookies around, every time you get hungry, you’ll be tempted to take a bite.2) By acting before being hit with desire, destruction can coincide with peak condition. Throwing away your cookies while you’re full (hours before you’re hungry), blocking your e-mail while you’re still fresh (hours before you’ve gotten tired of working), or flossing an hour before you go to sleep (before all you can think about it sleep) is much easier than trying to take similar actions during the throes of desire.92,93,94
Time Commitment: medium
One of the two reasons why talk of willpower is absent from this article is because I believe it’s more productive and enjoyable to be strategic (e.g. destroy distraction), than to perpetually fight against yourself (willpower).
I like reading news, checking my e-mail, intellectualizing on forums, and browsing twitter. In the absence of social pressure, it makes getting hard work done difficult.For example, research papers can be kind of dry sometimes. It makes staying on task difficult. I tried many of the other skills listed on this page. The most effective was to print them out and go to quiet, unconnected places (e.g. the library, Barnes & Nobles). With everyone else working, and with no distractions in sight, getting hard work done became much easier, and in many cases, pleasurable.
Primers can be a good thing. Keeping your jogging shoes next to the door will help remind you every time you pass by of your desire to get exercising, even if you don’t consciously see them.95Primers can also be a bad thing. Every time your e-mail notification gives a ding, your desire to consume information will be re-ignited. You don’t necessarily have to block access to your e-mail, just eliminate reminders, things which uncontrollably increase your desire to switch attention to other activities.
*I was considering adding priming as a skill, but because there is some controversy over the accuracy of priming research, I decided to leave it out.
22. Just Do It
The start is often the hardest part. So just do it. Stop all of your current activity. Pause. Then start. Commit to working on your goal for just 1 minute.
Why: Being in the moment of pursuing your goal can sometimes be pleasurable. Yet the act of starting pursuit almost always seems highly aversive.
For example, if you were to compare the pleasure of writing with the pleasure of procrastinating (e.g. reading the news), writing would almost always come out on top for me. Yet I find I need to motivate myself to stop reading and start writing. This is happening because of emotional baggage, hyperbolic discounting, and terrible affective forecasting.
1) Our goals often come with emotional baggage. Thinking about exercising can remind of one’s weight, causing anxiety. Thinking about studying can remind of test taking, disapproving parents, and low grades, again causing anxiety. This can happen at the subconscious level – e.g. many girls have a conditioned flinch response against math, which they pick up from their female teachers.962) Hyperbolic discounting. It may not be the act of pursuing the goal that is aversive, but the act of disengaging from procrastination. The momentary loss from pulling away from Facebook or the comfort of your chair may be small, but because the delay is so small (immediate, in fact) its impact on motivation can become outsized.60 This can be why we have trouble leaving our TV or computer at night, despite our strong urge to sleep.
3) Humans are terrible affective forecasters. That is, we aren’t good at predicting what will make us happy and by how much. Because many goals require high effort, we may subconsciously make the incorrect assumption that high-effort = unpleasurable. Once we begin, we learn this is not true, and so are able to continue. Because we are human (e.g. really strange biological creatures), we quickly forget and continue making similar errors in the future.97
Time Commitment: low
Logically knowing that pursuing your goal may not be as bad as it feels can help give you the push you need.
Stopping all of your current activity and pausing can help deal with hyperbolic discounting.
Just committing to work for 1 minute can help deal with the aversiveness of the task (“I’ll only be doing it for a minute, so it won’t be so bad”).
Hopefully, you’ll find that 1 minute becomes 15, 30, 60 or more minutes. It often does with me.
Imagine that it’s a few months from now and the worst has happened – your most important goal lies unfulfilled. Within this hypothetical reality, ask yourself what happened – “where did I go wrong?” Then develop and deploy specific counter-measures to avert that horrid future.
Why: “Projects fail at a spectacular rate.”100
Wise words, Harvard. They’re talking about corporate projects – for example, some 70%+ of IT projects fall behind schedule, under deliver, or outright fail. The same applies with personal projects – the majority of New Year’s resolutions go uncompleted.
Without taking a cold, hard look at reality, that’s unlikely to change.
“Why do most projects fail? Are we specifically doing things to address those reasons?” Asking those questions is a first step, and it’s effective.
Moving on to “Why did my project fail?” next increases the specificity, making the counter-measures more effective. Sadly, these questions usually go unasked.
Time Commitment: < 1 hour, but sometimes longer
I’ve already started work on a marriage premortem, even though I’m single at the moment (ladies, feel free to e-mail me your number). It’s no use ignoring the divorce statistics – there will be nothing special about my marriage until I specifically make it so.
For each of my major life goals, I have completed a premortem. If you’re already failed once, you’re in luck – you can complete a post-mortem. Given that events have already come to pass, no hypothesizing required.
This one is still a work in progress. Look forward to a much more complete public premortem in the months to come.“We fell out of love. Once the honeymoon period ended… all those small quirks I use to think were cute started getting on my nerves. With each passing day, we started complaining more and appreciating less.”
- I won’t get married until I have a stable income, and sure as heck won’t have a baby out of wedlock.
- I practice self-compassion and gratitude meditation at least twice every week, both of which reduce divorce risk by themselves but are also effective tools for increasing happiness, which in turn further reduces divorce risk.98,99
- I am actively working to make myself a more interesting person. Being interesting and jointly doing interesting things with a loved one helps build a meaningful relationship while keeping the sparks of passion alive, at least according to Todd Kashdan.
- I’m terrible at conflict resolution, speaking about my emotions, and other key areas of relationship communication. As of now, I’m working on improving my ability to verbalize my emotions.
This is an incomplete list, and so far, I’ve only come a small way. If I were to get married today, I think my divorce risk would be only slightly lower than the national average for my demographic profile (~20%). It’s a good thing I’ve got at least a few years to get ready :).
FYI – 20% is f*cking unacceptable. I’m not taking such crazy chances with my marriage – one of the most important things in life.
24. Ask For Help
Make an appointment with a professional or talk to a few winners.
Why: Can you imagine trying to become a piano virtuoso without taking lessons? I can’t. Then why do you try to lose weight without talking to a nutritionist or trainer?
Because it’s easier to lose weight than to learn piano, sure. But so much easier that you’ve been able to reach success on your own?
Professionals provide accountability. It’s also their job to know what works and what doesn’t, specifically for you.
Much of what you read in books or on the web will be generalized for the average person. Professionals will often have enough experience to know what works better for different types of people. With professionals, your chances of going wrong will be low, but it’s still good to learn as much as you can from other sources. From winners, your dangers are much higher.
Just because a diet worked on your friend, doesn’t mean it’ll work with you – she could have just gotten lucky, or your body types could be completely different.
Time Commitment: medium
The role of luck in our culture is too far downplayed. That’s dangerous because it means that many people who are giving advice shouldn’t be (perhaps me? :)). In the gym, we may try to emulate the routines of the most ripped out hunk. Sadly, their routine may be no better than one picked randomly. Because of their genetics, any routine may have gotten them ripped.
It’s common practice in business school to study successful businesses and draw generalized lessons from them.
It’s the height of hubris to look at something as complex as a business, with millions of moving parts, and to confidently declare a few dozen of those parts to have been integral to its success. By only studying the successes, the problem gets much worse. You look at a few successful companies (e.g. Fannie Mae a few years ago), pick out a few traits which could have reasonably lead to its success (e.g. implementing a culture of disciple), and pump out a best selling book. Which would be fine, if the advice was accurate. But often, it’s not.
If you’d also looked at the failures, many of them would’ve had a culture of discipline too, in which case, the advice was useless. To draw accurate lessons, you have to look at all of the data.
It gets more complicated than this, but there is a reason why science is often better than anecdotes. It’s not that science doesn’t have its own share of problems… but on average, it’s much more accurate than the advice of your successful friend.
When I was a senior in high-school, I decided to put together a team and enter into the Federal Reserve, Monetary Policy Challenge. I had no background in economics, our school had never entered into this competition before, and our team’s adviser was a janitor. This janitor got me and my team a date with Ben Bernanke.
This janitor had the humility and courage to ask for help – he knew that he knew squat about monetary policy, so he asked as many people as he could to give us a hand. We ended up getting feedback on our presentation and knowledge almost a dozen times from industry experts (he’s a really awesome janitor). Most teams got feedback from just one person – their advisor.
Despite it being the first year our school had entered into the competition, we ended up beating out ~300 teams to come in 2nd place in the nation. Hello $700/night hotel rooms (the finals were held in Washington D.C., and the Fed spared no expense in our hospitality :)).
One of the things our team learned from repeatedly talking to experts was that the knowledge stored in the standard AP economics textbook was garbage. According to them, The Wall Street Journal was just as bad. It was at their suggestion I started reading research papers.
It was then that my love of research was born.
25. Read Up
Go to amazon.com, your library, or your bookstore and pick out at least three books about the goal you are trying to achieve. Make sure the books provide different perspectives – you don’t want three books from the same author or 3 books pushing the same ideas.
Why: You’re not the first person to try to quit smoking, lose weight, or start a business. Millions have before you. Many offer to share their wisdom and experience – all you need do in order to gain access is borrow or purchase their books.
Time Commitment: high
More than a few times in my life I’ve managed to quickly change failure into success or even avert failure altogether, all by pickup up and digesting a few quality books. Sadly, books don’t hold all the answer. That’s why we’ve got to track & experiment.
26. Track & Experiment
Select one easily measurable marker of success. If you’re trying to lose weight, measure your weight at the end of every week; if you’re trying to quit smoking, measure the number of cigarettes you smoke each day. Now create an achievement strategy (e.g. I will exercise three times a week, and use mental contrasting and social accountability to help motivate me).
Measure your results. Make some new changes (e.g. consume a vitamin supplement). Measure your results. Repeat until you’re satisfied with your trajectory.
Why: If we humans were all the same, there would be no need to experiment. We could do whatever the blog or book recommended and be guaranteed of success. Because we’re so different; however, we have to work incrementally to increase our understanding of our brain and body – of what works and what doesn’t.
Time Commitment: medium
Tracking progress can also help maintain and focus motivation – we see progress and know it’s working, and because we’re tracking something quantifiable, we also have a more specific goal to work towards (e.g. rather than trying to ‘improve your smoking habit’, you are trying to ‘decrease consumption by 5%’).
27. Ulysses Contract
Go to stickk.com, select an anti-charity, goal, referee, and dollar amount.
For example, two months ago I funded an escrow account with $200. If I bailed on running the Philadelphia 8k, the money would go to the NRA. I ran the 8k, so a friend, my referee, gave me the money back.
Why: Stickk.com combines two powerful motivators – social pressure and loss aversion.101,102
Social pressure is motivating because we don’t want to look lazy and inconsistent in-front of our friends. Loss aversion is motivating because we fight harder to keep what we have than to get more of it.
Said differently – the amount of sadness and anger you would feel if you were robbed of $5,000 would be much greater than the happiness and joy from randomly winning $5,000.
Read Thinking Fast And Slow for a review of this and other fun quirks of human decision making.
Time Commitment: medium
Last week I funded an escrow account with $500. If I don’t finish my first book within the next four months, the money will go to the NRA. I really don’t want to lose $500. I really, really don’t want the NRA to have an extra $500 to spend. Considering my lack of funds and stance on gun control, I expect to be highly motivated as I get closer to the deadline.
Support the NRA? No problem – stickk offers a range of anti-charities.
Expect your success rate to double once you put money on the line.
1. Visualize completion of the desired goal – you’ve finally lost that weight, completed that project, developed a meditation habit. Hone in on the most positive aspect of having made the change.
Now visualize two to four aspects of your present reality that stand in the way of making that change come true, like being distracted, feeling tempted, or binge-like behavior.
2. Write down or verbalize an implementation intention for each of the obstacles you identified, in the form ‘when [trigger], I will [action]‘. For example,:
1. ‘When I feel distracted, I will move to a quiet space.’
2. ‘When I feel tempted, I will internally repeat to myself the value of what I’m trying to accomplish.’
3. ‘After I start to binge, I will remind myself that the whole day has not yet been wasted. I will create an easily achievable chunk.’
3. Visualize yourself encountering each of those obstacles and then taking the responsibility that you indicated in the previous step. The more sensory detail, the better.
Why: Mental contrasting, implementation intentions and process visualization are each individually effective. According to a promising new line of study, they become even more effective when used together.
Over 7 days, implementation intentions alone increased fruit consumption by 75%. Combined with process visualization, it increases fruit consumption by 115%.42
Used separately, both implementation intentions and mental contrasting reduced calorie consumption. Combined, they caused participants to consume 160 fewer calories per day for a week.103
In another study, participants who used mental contrasting combined with implementation intentions just once completed 60% more PSAT practice questions during their summer break.41
Time Commitment: low
Because this cocktail is so easy to use, takes little time, and is yet still so powerful, I use it frequently.
Decide on and commit to immediately completing a chunk. Now go for a quick sprint or jog. Come back and complete the chunk. Repeat as many times as desired.
Why: Chunking lowers the amount of energy required to make progress on a goal, as it makes the work more digestible and the deadline more immediate. Going for a quick jog or sprint provides the necessary energy.
Time Commitment: medium
I often wish my body could handle more frequent exercise so that I could utilize this cocktail more often.
30. The Skill of Accomplishment
Accomplishment is a skill. Lacking motivation? Do you know why?
Do you know which part of the motivation equation needs tweaking?
Is it low value? Do you not care enough?
Is it low likelihood? Do you think you don’t have a chance of making it?
Is it high delay? Is the reward too far out into the future?
Is it high distraction? Too much competing for your attention?
Is it low expertise? Motivated but still stumbling?
To be able to identify the problem as well as a possible solution is the final but most important skill – the skill of accomplishment.
The gamble of accomplishment is to hope that during those few critical moments of success or failure, the necessary willpower will auto-magically appear.
The skill of accomplishment is to prepare in advance.
The gamble of accomplishment is to put self-esteem first, pushing responsibility for failure onto others or lack of effort.
The skill of accomplishment is to make incremental progress, making sure that from each failure comes a lesson learned and skill further trained.
The skill of accomplishment is to get your goal done.
Ready, set, start!
Did I miss an important skill? Have a useful story to share? Know which skills you’re going to use to make this year a success? Please, share below!
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13. No citation necessary.
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35. Michael Como (2011). Do Happier People Make More Money? http://www.iwu.edu/economics/PPE19/1Como.pdf
36. Andrew Oswald, Eugenio Proto, and Daniel Sgroi (2009). A New Happiness Equation: Worker + Happiness = Improved Productivity
37. Gaultney, J. F., & Collins-McNeil, J. (2009). Lack of Sleep in the Workplace: What the Psychologist-Manager Should Know About Sleep. Psychologist-Manager Journal, 12(2), 132-148. doi:10.1080/10887150902905454
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42. Knaupper, B., McCollam, A., Rosen-Brown, A., Lacaille, J., Kelso, E., & Roseman, M. (2011). Fruitful plans: Adding targeted mental imagery to implementation intentions increases fruit consumption. Psychology & Health, 26(5), 601-617. doi:10.1080/08870441003703218
43. Hagger, M., Lonsdale, A., Koka, A., Hein, V., Pasi, H., Lintunen, T., & Chatzisarantis, N. (2012). An Intervention to Reduce Alcohol Consumption in Undergraduate Students Using Implementation Intentions and Mental Simulations: A Cross-National Study. International Journal Of Behavioral Medicine, 19(1), 82-96. doi:10.1007/s12529-011-9163-8
44. de Vet, E., Oenema, A., & Brug, J. (2011). More or better: Do the number and specificity of implementation intentions matter in increasing physical activity?. Psychology Of Sport & Exercise, 12(4), 471-477. doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2011.02.008
45. Eder, A. B. (2011). Control of impulsive emotional behaviour through implementation intentions. Cognition & Emotion, 25(3), 478-489. doi:10.1080/02699931.2010.527493
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47. DALTON, A. N., & SPILLER, S. A. (2012). Too Much of a Good Thing: The Benefits of Implementation Intentions Depend on the Number of Goals. Journal Of Consumer Research, 39(3), 600-614. doi:10.1086/664500
48. Koole, S., & van’t Spijker, M. (2000). Overcoming the planning fallacy through willpower: effects of implementation intentions on actual and predicted task‐completion times. European Journal of Social Psychology, 30(6), 873-888.
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50. Aarts, H., Gollwitzer, P. M., & Hassin, R. R. (2004). Goal Contagion: Perceiving Is for Pursuing. Journal Of Personality & Social Psychology, 87(1), 23-37. doi:10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.168
51. Fritsche, I., Kessler, T., Mummendey, A., & Neumann, J. (2009). Minimal and maximal goal orientation and reactions to norm violations. European Journal Of Social Psychology, 39(1), 3-21. doi:10.1002/ejsp.481
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84. choose your own damn goals 5 (rewards, intrinsic motivation, and creativity)
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98. Neff, K. D. & McGeehee, P. (2010). Self-compassion and psychological resilience among adolescents and young adults. Self and Identity, 9, 225-240.
99. Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1992). Marital Processes Predictive of Later Dissolution: Behavior, Physiology, and Health. Journal Of Personality & Social Psychology, 63(2), 221-233.
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103. Adriaanse, M. A., Oettingen, G., Gollwitzer, P. M., Hennes, E. P., de Ridder, D. D., & de Wit, J. F. (2010). When planning is not enough: Fighting unhealthy snacking habits by mental contrasting with implementation intentions (MCII). European Journal Of Social Psychology, 40(7), 1277-1293. doi:10.1002/ejsp.730