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Maintaining motivation beyond the start of the new year

 January 17, 2024 at 12:22 PM PST

S1: Welcome in San Diego , it's Jade Hindman. New year , new resolutions. We'll talk about the research to help us break down old habits and stick with new ones. This is Midday Edition , connecting our communities through conversation. We're a little more than halfway through January , and I don't know about you , but a lot of my friends have already given up on their New Year resolution. It's such a common thing to do. There's even a day dedicated to giving up resolutions. It's called Quitters Day and it was last Friday. But for those still hanging in there or looking to start anew , Paul Stillman is here. He's an assistant professor of marketing at San Diego State University , where he's been researching what motivates people and what it takes to get into your flow. Paul , welcome to midday.

S2: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.

S1: So glad to have you here. So when looking to improve ourselves , we often tend to focus on long term results like , you know , how much weight one might want to lose during the course of the year , but the short term , you say might be the best route to go. Yeah.

S2: Yeah. So to sort of take a big step back , a lot of times in motivation when we talk about like long term goal pursuit or self-control , a lot of people think , you know , hey , I need to like , martial my will , like , exert willpower to force myself to make these longer term choices or these healthier choices and whatnot. And a lot of my research , which is part of sort of a broader movement in the self-control and motivation literature , is trying to say like , let's try to maybe sidestep self-control entirely and instead try to cultivate enjoyment for the things that are going to produce long term gains and long term goals. So for the case of self-control , specifically my colleague Kaitlin Woolley at Cornell and I , we you know , oftentimes when you're faced with , like , do you want to eat a cookie or do you want to to not eat a cookie ? You sort of think to yourself , like , maybe you hear your mom's voice of like , hey , these cookies aren't healthy. So you think of like , oh , this could cause , you know , tooth decay or obesity or all these negative long term things , but those long term things tend to actually not be that persuasive to us when we're thinking about eating the cookie in , in the moment. And so what what we found is that oftentimes people kind of overlook the fact that a lot of the temptations that we grapple with on a daily basis have these kind of underappreciated short term consequences. So , for instance , a cookie , in addition to all the negative long term stuff it causes , also will do things like cause a sugar spike in crash , which will make you feel kind of like tired and irritable and less focused later on in the day. And similarly , it's not just just cookies. So like if you watch a lot of Netflix , you'll have a headache. If you drink a lot of alcohol , you'll have a hangover. And if you eat fast food , you'll feel like bloated and gross. And what our research has found is that highlighting these kind of much more mild , but immediate and more directly connected short term costs is more effective for getting people to decide , hey , I don't actually want to eat eat this cookie. And what it basically does is by highlighting these short term consequences , it makes people sort of realize , hey , this cookie , even though I think it's going to give me lots of enjoyment in the moment , I kind of am like , actually , this doesn't sound that that great because it's it's not just all positive right now. It's some positive but some negative as well , which just makes it less sort of like exciting or attractive in the first place.

S1: That in mind this that , that the short term is better than the long term.

S2: I think on the one hand it's a really I really am big on the idea of like , let's , let's take a fresh start. Let's try to , you know , develop some good habits. I think that the way that I often think about these , these habits is sort of like if it can teach you some skills , let me let me give you an example. So my wife and I , a couple of years ago did one of these whole 30s , which is a a pretty restrictive diet. And there's no way we could have kept it up. But we were just trying to do it for the month and what it allowed us to do is just get some new , healthier recipes into our repertoire. And so we're better equipped going forward of , you know , we're not doing this intense diet the entire time. But now we do have these , like , sort of healthy meals that we can throw into our , our mix. And I think that , you know , similar with like , like working out like the more people get experience in the gym. And one of the things that's a real deterrent of people actually exercising , in addition to finding the time and everything , is like intimidation when it comes to the act of exercising. So my my mind is like the more people that are doing these positive activities during the new year , that's going to give them at least some basis that they'll be better equipped. Even if they do end up falling off the the wagon , they'll be better equipped to be able to make some long term things.

S3: Yeah , yeah.

S1: I mean , because , you know , it seems like , you know , every year people have goals of they have self-improvement. Right.

S2: And like one of the ways I feel bad for people who make these resolutions and then they quote unquote , fail , is that now they have this failure experience. And one of the things that that can do is undermine your efficacy for your ability to make positive changes. So like in that sense , I think that these making these resolutions and having just very , I guess , sort of rigid and almost antiquated ideas of what is what success looks like can set people up for subsequent failure , because if you undermine their efficacy , they're going to really not be able to , in the future , make positive changes. So I think what I would say is take the long view on all of this stuff. Don't just say like , hey , did I , you know , lose the weight that I wanted to versus not , but rather did I learn some better ? Maybe I learned an exercise that I really enjoy. So actually to to sort of bring this back a little bit to this idea of like focusing on the immediate. This is some research not from myself , but from my colleague Kaitlin Woolley. She she went to a gym and she got people who are about to work out. And there were two conditions. She said , I want you to do the exercise you think is best for your like long term health goals to. So half of the people she said that to and the other half she said , I want you to do the exercise that you think is most enjoyable to do. And what she found is that people who were doing the one that's sort of more the people were focused more short term and more on the thing that's going to be enjoyable for them. They were more likely to persist at that exercise longer than the people that were doing. The one that was , you know , quote unquote , better for their long term goals. So very much in the same vein of like , I want people to find the exercise that really works for them , that clicks for them , that that's going to get them , you know , back to the gym. That's going to be more engaging for them long term. And I think the more opportunities people have to go out and potentially find that the better , though very much with the qualification of like , we don't want people thinking that they are unable to make these positive changes. Right.

S1: Right. And I guess that and that would extend beyond the gym to and to , you know , anything. It could be connecting with one spirituality or um , just becoming a better person and going to therapy. Totally.

S2: Mindfulness practice is one that I am currently trying to do. And you know , I haven't been that successful at it , but it is sort of like , hey , I found this new app that I'm liking , or I found this one person on this that has a bunch of nice guided meditations , right , or whatnot.

S1: You know , one approach you looked at was the effectiveness of using rewards.

S2: But the core research has been done by by Caitlin Woolley and Marissa Sharif. What they basically found is that giving people little rewards is a really good way of doing it , especially like slow , like small constant rewards as opposed to like one big lump sum reward at the end. So for instance , like say you're trying to , you know , reward yourself for flossing , like maybe , maybe you want to start a flossing habit. They found that what is more effective than , say , like , okay , I'm gonna if I floss every day this week , at the end of the week , I get to have a real big decadent cake or something. Like maybe cake is not the best example , but you know , I'll get to watch my Netflix show the whole season of it. What they suggest is instead , give yourself little rewards for every time that you've done it. So , you know , I floss. Once I get to watch one episode , I floss. The next day , I get to watch the second episode , things like that. So basically the idea being that these kind of like , you know , smaller but more regular rewards is better than these , like big lump sum rewards further on in the future. And again , this kind of goes back to the like having that constant , rewarding experience can really help cultivate us to be to be engaged with that. A sort of a slight wrinkle is that they found that actually the most effective was where you have to work , you have to sort of do an initial investment , and then the rewards start coming constantly after that. So like for the flossing example , it's like you have to floss four times and then starting on the fifth time , that's when you start getting the rewards. To sort of working to unlock these rewards is what really gets people going , because it's sort of like , all right , I've invested a bunch of effort and now I'm on , I'm on a roll , I'm on a streak , and every single time I'm getting this reward and that's great. And that that really helps build up the momentum that people can use to keep at it.

S1: You touched on this , but I don't want to overlook the nuance in rewarding oneself. Right ? I can recall a friend and I , we we said we're going to go work out at the gym and we're going to do yoga class this morning. And we went and did that. And then we rewarded ourselves with. The pancake House , and I just felt like it was totally counterproductive. Yes. So tell me more about it.

S2: I thought it was such a classic , like , especially with exercises like. All right , I've just done something good , now do I ? What's called shift my goals and say like , hey , I'm good on that goal. Now I'm gonna change , change up and like , follow my hedonic goal , or am I going to stay with the goal that I've just reached ? And one of the things that this is by Professor Fishback and my postdoc advisor , Ravi Dhar at Yale , they basically showed that how you're thinking about that sort of successful , healthy act really makes a difference. If you're thinking about that as like , oh , I've just made progress towards my health goals , then people are much more likely to switch off of them and say , okay , well , that goal is good. I've done some work on that goal. Now let me switch and enjoy myself with with a hamburger or something like that. But if you sort of view the the workout that you just did , the yoga class that you did is like , hey , I'm really committed towards this health goal , then you're more likely to say , hey , I'm going to have the salad , or I'm going to go get a smoothie as my reward. Like something that is , you know , still pleasurable , but but consistent with my reward. So the idea is , is basically like , how are we balancing these multiple goals ? And if you think about your successes like , hey , this is I made progress , I'm good , I'm good on this now I can do other things. Then you're more likely to engage in actions that might be counter to the , the , the healthy behavior you just did. Yeah.

S1: I think what you explain highlights the importance of putting purpose behind your goals.

S2: Yes , yes , 100% really understanding why you're doing this. Like , you know , like the the I'm doing this because it's going to enable me to really live the life that I want to live and feel good and have a longevity life with , with my kids , but also finding ways to follow those goals that are really enjoyable in the moment , because that's what's going to really keep you coming back for more.

S1: Keep everything sustainable. Exactly what is the flow state ? That's the big question , right ? And why were you and your co-authors interested in focusing on that in your research ? Yes.

S2: So just to give some background , what we've been talking about thus far has been lots of when people have a choice between , you know , a healthier and unhealthy option , that's that's what we call self-control. But we also want to cultivate motivation and engagement in these , these activities that are going to to help our long term goals. Right. And the flow state is something that people are probably have , have , are familiar with , at least somewhat colloquially , which is just this idea of being in the zone , you know , really engaged and immersed and engrossed in an activity such that like everything else fades away and you are just locked in , and the flow state is one of these things that can be really , really powerful. If we can cultivate flow for these activities that are going to , you know , help further our long term goals. So it's often talked about in the context of things like athletes or musicians or something , who really just get into the zone while they're , they're performing or while they're playing. But we can also cultivate flow towards things like like studying or things like just really being locked in on whatever your , your , your work tasks are. So some of the original research , this is done by a guy named checksum. He he looked at assembly line workers and found some of them that could just get so engrossed in these , you know , this is an assembly line. So it's you're doing like the same action the whole day basically. And just people could get so engrossed and just be an amazing version of that. So there's a bunch of research done by him in the 80s , 90s and early 2000 of this concept called flow. And why we wanted to look at this is that there's sort of now a decent understanding of like , okay , flow is this idea of being immersed in an activity , but it's still not totally clear. How can we cultivate flow , how can we produce that , that feeling in ourselves for the things that we that we want ? So like , I think , you know , people often know that flow can be very easily achieved in things like , you know , video games or things that you , you know , might not be helpful for your long term goals.

S1: Right.

S2: Right. So and this is actually it relates back to a lot of the self-control research to that so important to all of these goal pursuit things that we're talking about is setting up your situation so that it's going to facilitate what you want to do as opposed to what you don't want to do. So with the self-control stuff that's. Things like don't keep unhealthy foods in your house if you don't want to eat them , don't have them available with things like Flo , it's have your phone on silent. Try to block out these other distractions because it can take a little bit to sort of get into that state. And once you're in there , you want to be as sort of protected as possible.

S1: And you say this flow state , you know that in the zone feeling , it's really dependent on a couple of factors. And one of those is uncertainty.

S2: So that's a little bit jargony. So let me give an example of , you know , so I'm a professor at San Diego State. My students will study for their tests by taking the action of studying. Does that reduce their uncertainty about the grade that they're going to get. So there's two pieces here. There's first off the uncertainty piece. And then the fact that your actions can reduce that uncertainty. Another example would be sort of like taking free throws. So if I'm able to hit 50% , if I'm taking free throws and I hit them every other time on average , that's a case where there's sort of maximal uncertainty. When I go to shoot the ball of whether or not the will go in or not , you know , it's a 50/50 shot. And that uncertainty we found is really , really important for getting people in the flow state if people have low uncertainty on either side. So , for instance , you know , if I'm a terrible basketball shooter , which I am , you know , I know I probably am not going to make the shot. And that's really undermining for flow. That'll make it. So I'm really not likely to get very engaged in that in that activity. And similarly , if you are , you know , someone like Steph Curry who can shoot 90% , there's also not that much uncertainty there because , you know , you're probably going to hit it. So what we've found is that you want the uncertainty of what's going to happen to be really high. Could go one way , it could go the other.


S2: That's what's going to make it so like I don't know what's going to happen , but my actions are going to dictate whether or not this goes the way I want it to or the way I don't want it to. And so having high uncertainty really allows it sort of tells your brain , like , hey , we need to allocate our sort of limited psychological resources are limited attentional resources just to this. Because if we do that and we we execute in the way that we know we can , then it's going to go the way we want it to. But if we fail to do that , we're going to , you know , fail in this in this basketball shot.

S1: Like knowing though , that if I put my resources to this specific goal , I'm going to get this outcome that doesn't leave much room for uncertainty.

S2: The presence of uncertainty kind of tells you that allocating more attentional resources here is going to make a big difference , but still isn't a guarantee. Yeah , I guess.


S2: So whether that's finding healthy foods that you think tastes really good , whether that's finding a workout routine that is really fun for you and that could be , you know , one way to do that is to , you know , maybe try a group sport , which is , you know , allows you to also be around your friends and in , in community with other people. Doing that is probably the best way to sort of cultivate this intrinsic motivation. That's going to be much better at producing these sort of long term benefits. So relying , trying to rely a little bit less on sort of this classic effortful inhibition of of impulses and instead more trying to cultivate things that are really enjoyable.

S1: All right. Paul Stillman is an assistant professor of marketing at San Diego State University. Paul , thank you so much for being here today.

S2: It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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A veteran kayaks in Mission Bay during the National Summer Sports Clinic. San Diego, Calif. Aug. 8, 2022.
Mike Damron
A veteran kayaks in Mission Bay during the National Summer Sports Clinic. San Diego, Calif. Aug. 8, 2022.

New Year's resolutions are a great way to start over, but they usually fall off by spring. When trying to better ourselves, we frequently concentrate on the long term, which might cause our ambition to decline over time and prevent us from ever reaching our goals.

Paul Stillman, an associate professor of marketing at San Diego State University, helps us comprehend this natural phenomenon by studying people's motivations and peak performance, or the "flow state."