Pep Talk for the Fall Season

While it has been many years since I looked to September as the start of a new school year, I still gear myself up for new activities and initiatives as summer winds down. This year’s “coach” is Ayelet Fishbach, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Her book – Get It Done: Surprising Lessons From The Science of Motivation – served up four guideposts.

4 steps to get it doneChoose Your Goal. The goal should point you in a specific direction and then pull you toward the end game. The most powerfully motivating goals share four characteristics: (i) They are ends in and of themselves, not a means to other ends – e.g., “I want to be financially independent,” and not “I want to make money.” (ii) They are specific and have some uncertainty regarding their success (ergo, you’ll work harder at attaining them!) (iii) They carry a powerful incentive for achievement. (iv) They satisfy meaningful wants or needs that may relate to self-acceptance, personal growth, relationships, contribution, and health. Such goals are inspiring; they don’t feel like chores.

Ideal goal statements emphasize meaning behind the associated actions. They focus on what folks WILL DO instead of what they will refrain from doing. (“Avoidance goals” are harder to implement!) They also provide challenging, measurable, actionable targets (how much, how soon) and suggest the path from point A to point B. A well-conceived path is enjoyable, if not exciting.

What litmus tests might be used to judge the quality of a goal? It serves a noble purpose that aligns with your values. It encourages personal excellence. It compels you to stay on task even when the going gets rough. It stimulates curiosity and creativity; you are eager to solve problems and make progress. It feels like play.

Keep Pulling. Once an initiative gets out of the gate, it takes effort and intention to sustain momentum. Progress monitoring looms large in motivation. As a rule, the more progress made, the greater the commitment to keep going. To that end, breaking large goals into smaller chunks creates an opportunity to attain milestones, take stock of all that has been accomplished, and celebrate. It minimizes “long middles” where motivation tends to sag and cutting corners becomes tempting. It also serves as a check point for actions yet to be taken and a sense for time frames to completion. That assessment may light a fire if things appear to be falling behind. Finally, breaking big goals into smaller units provides “fresh starts” and the boost in energy and enthusiasm they instill.

Failures and negative feedback may accompany the journey from point A to point B. Both can derail momentum when the ego gets bruised. Use the opportunity for learning and growing as the antidote for flagging motivation. Figure out what went wrong and do things differently going forward. As playwright Samuel Beckett said: “Try again. Fail better.”

Navigate Competing Goals. With multiple goals on the horizon, it pays to understand the “goal system” – i.e., the relationship between the focal goal, other goals, each goal’s means of attainment, and how each contributes to the realization of others. Maximum attainment calls for making as much positive progress on multiple fronts while minimizing negative impacts among them. Activities that serve multiple goals rock!

Prioritize goals (and back burner others) when actions express commitment, when they’re integral to who you are, or when you’re getting increasing marginal utility out of them. Consider compromise when you’ve made sufficient progress, you want variety, or you seek a balanced “middle road” for all of your efforts.

Secure Social Support: We are social animals. We pay attention to what our peers say/do/think and find ways to coexist harmoniously with them. We’re also wired for collaborative effort in service of shared goals. Moreover, we tend to work harder when others are watching. Therefore, the best social support consists of those whose values, goals, and actions are compatible with ours and who thrive in a context of mutual support. Step it up further by finding role models whose life choices and comportment help you set your sights high.