Surprising lessons from the science of motivation

It’s harder today to keep motivation strong and sustained, due partly to the decrease in organized and structured work environments. Many people are encountering a negative impact on their ability to reach their own goals, given higher levels of distraction. For episode 044 of ‘The World Class Leaders Show’ podcast, I was thrilled to discuss the topic of Motivation with Dr. Ayelet Fishbach. Dr. Fishbach is the Jeffrey Breckinridge Keller Professor of Behavioural Science and Marketing at the Chicago Booth School of Business. Dr. Fishbach is the author of GET IT DONE: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation and a past president of the Society for the Study of Motivation and the International Social Cognition Network.  Dr. Fishbach’s ground-breaking research on human motivation has won the Society of Experimental Social Psychology’s Best Dissertation Award and Career Trajectory Award, and the Fulbright Educational Foundation Award.

The Four Key Elements of Motivation

  1. Setting a goal
  2. Monitoring progress
  3. Managing multiple goals
  4. Getting social support

1. Setting a Goal

Research has shown that “Do” goals work better than “Do Not” goals: it’s easier to work at something, than to try to avoid something. When setting a goal, the degree of challenge must be correct: too easily accomplished, and it will impact aspiration to move to the next level; too hard, and it tends ot make people give up once the realization of difficulty settles in. “The targets are arbitrary. The important thing is that you work hard.”

The Importance of Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation (i.e. feeling good while you’re doing the thing) is critical to the establishing and achievement of goals. If goals are set correctly, they will help to drive motivation and pull people towards them.  Intrinsic motivation tends to focus on what is most important for what you do right now, versus focusing on long term goals which might benefit a future self. That may include:
  • How much you are interested in the work and activities,
  • How much you enjoy what you are doing,
  • How much you like your colleagues and enjoy spending time with them.
increasing Intrinsic Motivation can be accomplished by directing your efforts towards increasing the benefits or rewards of your work while you are doing it. 
  • Asking yourself, “What do I need to do to make this more rewarding?”  may explore increasing fun, variety, or companionship aspects to help you enjoy the journey more.
  • Feel the goal — visualization of how you’re going to feel when you have reached the goal can help to keep motivation alive during the journey.

2. Monitoring Progress

A wise initiative for novices is to look back when you’ve reached the mid-point of the journey, so that you can see and celebrate what you’ve accomplished. Then, a look forward with a higher level of aspiration to the next goal fosters commitment.

The Value of Setting Sub Goals

In general, we are excited by beginnings, and by completions. The middle is where most people will stumble and falter, they may be working less hard. Setting sub goals shortens the middle portion, and therefore reduces the drop in motivation during that phase and allows the team to celebrate more. The more we have sub goals, the more we can celebrate the end, the easier it is for people to feel that they are making progress.

3. Managing Multiple Goals

With the fast pace of business, most senior leaders are continually encountering new challenges, and therefore faced with adding more and new goals, across multiple dimensions. Leaders need to understand when they are able to balance projects, and when the right step is to prioritize and narrow focus. There is significant value in finding ways to combine activities and goals to move multiple goals forward at the same time. Conversely, there are scenarios in which a specific goal can be moved forward by any of several different activities, offering flexibility and choice while still making satisfactory progress. The most important competency for managing multiple goals is being fully in alignment with your vision and your purpose; as a professional, and as an individual. Going back to “The Why” can help a team to get back on track and reset their goal as necessary.

4. Acceleration through Social Support

We all need social support — it’s a fundamental aspect of human nature. In our relationships with others, we are drawn closer to people who are supportive of our goals, and we move away from people who are no longer relevant for our goals, or who are not supportive. The people around us influence us, and their belief in and validation of us is crucial to our performance. So therefore, it’s essential that we have around us people who are supportive of what we’re trying to achieve. If they are not there, go and find them – change your inner circle if necessary. “Often, the way to change your motivation is changing your situation, changing your circumstances, changing the way you think about the problem, and the people around you.” I closed the session with Ayelet by asking her my ‘standard’ questions: Q: What is one lesson that you have learned across your career? A: I have to go with intrinsic motivation — I know I can do things because I love them, when I’m enthusiastic. Q: On the other hand, is there maybe one thing you might have done differently? A: I think I would probably take more risks, be less concerned about failure. It’s easy to say now with hindsight, but now that I know better how to cope with setbacks, I would be more willing to jump into the pool. Q: Have you discovered any single factor that counts more to drive you and people at the top of performance? A: That would be when you’re working on an important problem that excites you, with people that you enjoy being with. Also, when you are very engaged in what you do because it feels right, it feels interesting, because it’s challenging, and it matters. Q: Can you tell us one, or a few books that really impacted your life so far? A: I have several to share: I read Kurt Lewin, and his early work on motivation was beautiful. Other very meaningful books for me include “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, by Daniel Kahneman; Daniel Gilbert’s “Stumbling on Happiness”; “Grit” by Angela Duckworth; Carol Dweck’s “Mindset”; and, “Drive” by Daniel Pink. For more information about Dr. Ayelet Fishbach’s work, you can visit her website, at, or read her book, “GET IT DONE: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation.” For more information about my work with leaders and organizations, to subscribe to my weekly newsletter, or to take a free assessment of your leadership level, please drop me an email at [email protected], or go to my website at I would also very much appreciate hearing from you about your thoughts on this episode, or suggestions for future topics for this podcast. Listen to the podcast related to this article:
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