How Motivational Science Can Help You Get It Done

IRI Podcast Episode on The Science of Motivation

As leaders, we strive to motivate our teams to accomplish goals, and carry on in the face of roadblocks and distractions – but what if the person we should be striving to motivate first is ourselves? Today’s guest is Ayelet Fishbach, a psychologist and behavioral scientist. She is a professor at the University of Chicago, and she is the author of a new book that addresses this very concept, titled: Get it Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation. Here, she explains:

  • The difference between "Do" and "Do Not" goals;
  • How to manage competing goals;
  • "The Middle Problem", and how it can be minimized; and
  • The critical element of social support!

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Pulling Yourself Up

  • Ms. Fishbach speaks about turning her background in the science of motivation into a book, and references The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and the concept of “pulling oneself out” of a stressful situation.
  • Her book provides a framework for the science of motivation and what we need to do to take advice from the story and motivate ourselves.


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The Science of Motivation

  • The science of motivation has been growing exponentially in recent years. 
  • One misconception about the science of motivation is that people think they will be a different person than they are now. However, when practicing this science, it is a mistake to think you will be an entirely new person with different intrinsic motivations.
  • It all comes back to motivating yourself (and, by extension, the people around you).

Theoretical Action Framework

  • When organizing the book, Ms. Fishbach found strategies and science that emerged a framework for goal setting interventions, monitoring progress, juggling multiple goals, and leveraging strong social support.
  • There is a better chance of achieving your goals if they are optimistic ones.
  • When the framework is there, leaders can implement it to their teams and encourage their teams to set optimistic goals that can challenge them.
  • This framework can also be applied to group goals, and coordination is key to being able to achieve these group goals. This includes leaning on people’s strengths, and being able to collaborate intuitively, which makes goals easier to achieve. 


  • Goal-setting is important to decide where you want to go, and what is important for you. 
    • Many goals we set will not get us very far. We can set goals that may not be attainable for us, but the science of motivation shows that even if we set goals that are not right for us, they are still motivational.
    • To create a successful goal, it should have a clear target, it is not the means to a different goal, and it must have intrinsic motivation.
    • Always think about if this is the right goal for you, and are things that you actually want to achieve. 
    • You can also set avoidance goals, however, they are much harder to pursue. The act of trying to avoid something brings it to mind, which makes the goal more challenging. They also create psychological reactives, which make you want to do something more because you are trying not to do it.

Monitoring Progress

  • It is important to monitor your progress, and looking at what you have done and what you still need to do.
    • Another element of monitoring progress is taking in positive and negative feedback.
    • How you monitor your progress matters. At the beginning, it is helpful to look back at what you have done because it acts as a reference point, and makes your overall goal look more feasible. After a while, you can look ahead to see what is still left to do. 
      • Looking back on what you have already done creates a greater sense of accomplishment and greater aspiration for the future.
    • Keeping goals short is good, because it has a shorter “middle” time which can be frustrating. By achieving weekly goals rather than monthly goals, it is easier to maintain motivation to keep moving forward and to keep doing a good job.
      • The science of motivation also shows that longer goals may make people cut corners, so by keeping goals shorter and more attainable, people are less likely to cut corners.

Pursuing Multiple Goals

  • We are always pursuing multiple goals at the same time, and it is important to navigate how to juggle multiple goals at the same time, and how to prioritize.
    • We always have competing goals, and it is normal to have multiple goals at the same time. 
    • It is important to decide to prioritize between two competing goals or  create a balance between competing goals.
    • Prioritizing is a self control strategy to stick with a goal that is higher priority over one that is lower priority, which makes the lower priority goal more tempting.
      • Self control is critical when prioritizing, and requires identifying a self control problem and knowing how to battle the temptation. 
    • Compromising between two competing goals creates balance, and works on the two goals simultaneously.
      • An example of this would be bringing your lunch to work on the goals of saving money and eating healthier. 

Motivation in Groups

  • Having strong social support is important because we as humans are social beings and need to work with others, so it is necessary to develop strategies for success and being able to build a connective network for success.
    • We work with other people, and in the presence of other people. This means that for most of our important goals, we are not doing them by ourselves both professionally and personally.
    • We need to think about how we coordinate our efforts with others to divide the work and not disengage because we think someone else might pick up the slack.
    • We also work on personal goals in the presence of others, so it is important to find the right group of people to surround yourself with and find other people who are also working on goals. 
    • In a professional setting, the main risk is that some people might not do their best because other people are there to also work on the project. A solution to this is that we identify everyone’s contributions so the impact of each person individually is noted for the goal or project overall.
    • Making your goals public subjects the risk that you might not complete your goal, and creates the option for mistakes.
  • We are more motivated when we are with other people, however, it is important to make sure you are working with the right group. When we are working with the right group that we collaborate well with, you are in a more motivated space. 

Ayelet Fishbach Background


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