Smart New Ways to Improve Your Motivation


Do you need a nudge to stay on track to meet your personal and professional goals? These six research-backed tips will provide the motivation boost you need right now.

By Yvonne Milosevic

We’re all fighting against inertia these days, trying to forge ahead while the pandemic creates new roadblocks left and right. Fortunately, we can tap into expert strategies from top b-school professors to improve motivation despite the challenges of this moment.

Chicago Booth’s Ayelet Fishbach and the Wharton School’s Katy Milkman recently sat down to discuss common barriers to behavior change during an episode of Chicago Booth’s The Big Question. Try any combination of these six suggested tactics to combat your motivation malaise.   

The “Fresh-Start” Effect

Milkman is a big fan of the “fresh-start” effect to create that initial push toward the desired change. “I’ve done a lot of research on the idea that there are some moments in our lives that stand out from others that feel like new beginnings,” she explains. “Those moments give us a sense that we have closed one chapter and can open another.”

Your fresh start can be as simple as a Monday or as meaningful as a milestone birthday. She says the idea is to use that moment in time to get the motivation to say, “OK, that was the old me that was overwhelmed and couldn’t achieve these goals, and the new me maybe could do it in this new era.”


Motivation Via Commitment Device

Procrastination is a common barrier to making progress with your goals. Duke University professor Dan Ariely introduced us to the commitment device in a previous post about establishing good habits. As he explained, a commitment device makes sure that our future self will behave the way our current self wants us to.

Milkman thinks this tactic can help with procrastination because failing to meet your goals comes with a penalty. “A commitment device is a tool where you basically treat yourself the way you would normally think of a government or a manager treating you,” she says.

“You give yourself deadlines, maybe with penalties associated with them for failing to achieve a goal. The firmer your commitment, the harder it is to back down and procrastinate.”

Balance Urgent vs. Important Goals

Do you often find yourself in a situation where it’s 4 o’clock and you still haven’t tackled any of the essential items on your To-Do List? As Fishbach notes, it’s easy to get sidetracked by the “urgent” things clamoring for your attention while the important goals get repeatedly postponed. (We’re looking at you, the hundred new emails in our inbox.) If that sounds familiar, the Big Rocks Theory, coined by Stephen Covey, can help.


With this approach, you begin each week by sorting out the essential items on your To-Do List—aka the Big Rocks—to prioritize your goals. Otherwise, our days can quickly fill up with small tasks or distractions that leave those big rocks by the side of the road.

Mary Poppins Knows Best

“Just a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down,” trilled everyone’s favorite British nanny, Mary Poppins. Milkman has rebranded that notion into something she calls temptation bundling. That’s when you link something you enjoy with something that might be a bit of a drag, as she explained in The Inquirer earlier this year.

In her case, it was watching her favorite TV shows only while working out at the gym. “Suddenly I found myself craving trips to the gym to get my entertainment fix in,” Milkman reveals. “And then I’d come home, motivated and ready to do my work because there were no distractions. I had already gotten to do the thing that would normally be the temptation pulling me away.”

Mentor Yourself

Both Fishbach and Milkman believe mentoring other people can help motivate you, something they call the “advising effect.” It turns out that when you offer advice, you become persuaded by your own guidance, Fishbach explains. In one study, Fishbach and her fellow researchers asked unemployed people to give advice on how to job search. Not surprising, she says the participants initially balked at the idea.  

“So, the first response is, ‘Well, I don’t have a job. How can I give you advice on how to get a job?’ But then you say, ‘Well, I think that you actually know something. You’ve been in the situation. What would you say?’ And people give good advice, and they find their own advice much more motivating for them than reading the experts’ advice,” Fishbach notes.

“Sometimes when someone is struggling, you can help them most by putting them in the position of a mentor,” says Milkman.

Form an Advice Club

Our last knowledge nugget to share from their conversation is truly a gem. Milkman recommends forming an advice club of similar-minded people with similar goals. “I initially thought, ‘Wow, this is so great. It’s friendship and free consulting from brilliant people to help me think through my problems’.”

“But what I recognized over the years is not only am I getting those huge benefits, but whenever I am pinged and have to think about a problem that a colleague is facing who has similar career goals, I’m preparing for facing that myself,” Milkman explains.

Plus, she adds, “the advice I give ends up influencing my own decisions in the long run and building my confidence that I can actually figure out great ways to handle these kinds of challenges.”

Need More Motivation? Here’s Your Reading List

Katy’s Milkman’s latest book, How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, is a bestseller that helps readers understand what’s standing between you and success and tailor your solution to that roadblock.

Ayelet Fishbach’s upcoming release, Get It Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation, presents a new theoretical framework for self-motivated action, explaining how to identify the right goals, attack the “middle problem,” battle temptations, use the help of others around you, and more. Look for it on January 4, 2022.