Get It Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation Ayelet Fishbach 2022
“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.”
― Maya Angelou
“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Many, many books have been written about goal setting and productivity- more than I can count. It's a popular topic because in our hyper-productive world we all are trying to get more done in less time. It's the sacred cow of productivity that people from housewives to CEO's aspire to, and I have no problem with it as long as there's still room for family, fun, and balance. We waste a lot of our lives pursuing things half-heartedly or giving up before reaching our goals, so books like Get It Done can be very helpful in cutting through the BS and helping us focus on what matters.
Why do we have so much trouble reaching some of our goals? Why do we make New Year's Resolutions about losing weight, making more money, finding new people, and all sorts of other things that we think will make our lives better? These resolutions come from an inner voice that we need to listen to and act upon. But by February, many of us give up on them. Attaining substantial goals is hard, and the bigger they are, the more they intimidate us.
Ayelet Fishbach is a professor at the University of Chicago. She has devoted much of her research into the psychology of motivation and has published many papers on the subject in scientific and business journals. Many of the writers of productivity books come from the world of business, but this author tackles things more from the perspective of science, which is refreshing. Get It Done is her take on the topic using her extensive background.
Setting a goal and getting it done involves a very basic process:
- Come up with a goal
- Put it into action
- Get feedback and revise the first two steps until you get there
- Reap the rewards.
The first step is key and trickier than it looks. Come up with a specific, measurable goal that motivates you without setting you up for likely failure. A goal should challenge you to the edge of your abilities, but not beyond, which can be hard to do if you're not living in reality. Most of us cannot set a goal to be a rock star, but we certainly could set a goal to learn an instrument and play in a band for money. Goals must be positive and not avoidance goals. Losing weight is a common problem because we don't like to lose or avoid things. A better goal is healthier bodies and lifestyles, which can be pictured in the mind's eye more vividly.
Coming up with the goal is the easy part. The hard part comes with putting the goal into action and sustaining motivation during the slow or hard parts. To get over the agonizing middle when most goals fall flat, the author recommends these strategies:
- Break the goal down into smaller chunks and find milestones that are rewarding and motivating. The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. And after the first 100 miles, maybe reward yourself with a ice cream cone or something to celebrate your progress.
- Find ways to make the activity fun. If something is more enjoyable, it becomes intrinsically rewarding and much easier to accomplish. For instance, finding exercise and foods that you enjoy that help you towards fitness goals. If you don't enjoy something intrinsically, you will eventually avoid it and give up on it. Even the most dreary tasks can be livened up somehow.
- The small area principle helps people know what to focus on when motivation lags in the middle. Emphasizing what you've already accomplished works best when you're in the early part of your journey. Looking ahead to the unfinished business ahead can be demotivating. But once you get closer to the goal, looking ahead can switch over to become very motivating. Think of the long distance runner who knows the finish line is just minute away- they get energized by the proximity of it! But earlier in the race is not the time to focus on that finish line.
- Negative feedback is inevitable during any substantial journey, and many of us sabotage ourselves by either tuning out the critics or by performing mental gymnastics to discount their feedback. Processing negative feedback correctly is essential to getting back on track. Most of our goals are not set in reality, which is complex and constantly changing. When reality forces a course correction, we need to accept it and move on. Growth mindsets keep us humble and motivated.
- Juggling multiple goals can dilute and slow down motivation. But in a complex life, multiple goals are often a necessity, so a hierarchy of goals is essential. When dealing with multiple goals, we need to either find a compromise that gets them both done, or prioritize the main goal over all the others, at least temporarily.
- Use other people to help with motivation and to keep you honest. Sharing your goals with others, (or just saying them out loud), can feel like more of a commitment. Talking to others about your progress or asking their opinions about setbacks can use the wisdom of the crowd to add valuable inputs into your process. Just be careful about who you rely on for support in your goals, as some may not have your best interests at heart or could even sabotage you.
In an age of constant distractions, getting things done seems to get harder and harder. It forces us to make difficult choices and exercise super-human levels of self-control. To make real progress on our most cherished goals, we need to eliminate as many roadblocks and distractions as possible. In the famous story of Ulysses, he blindfolded himself and chained himself to his ship in order to resist the deadly songs of the beautiful sirens that he had to sail past. The Ulysses Pact is named after this feat, and it involves a radical pre-commitment to avoid the temptations that you know will be waiting for you. That could involve drastic measure like removing food from the house, putting a timer on the internet box, locking up cell phones, or avoiding people entirely.
This book was a good review of the science behind motivation, as well as an honest look at the difficulties that come when life intrudes on our goals. Dr. Fishbach cover a lot of ground here and I recommend this book for those who want to accomplish more with their lives. Here is an interview that she did regarding failure and why we fail to put it into perspective.