GUY RAZ, HOST:
So for a lot of us, the first step to a better you begins on January 1.
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EMILY BALCETIS: I always set New Year's resolutions, and I always break them. And...
RAZ: What are your, like, recurring resolutions?
BALCETIS: Oh, it's usually to be more interesting. I mean (laughter)...
RAZ: That's a good one, yeah.
BALCETIS: Yeah, I mean, be more interesting - and that can be in anything. Maybe it's picking up a new hobby. Like, I want to - one year I wanted to learn a guitar, and that didn't even last a week.
RAZ: This is Emily Balcetis. She's a social psychologist who studies goal-setting and motivation.
BALCETIS: So every January 1, you know, we're reminded about the importance of goals and how so many people have, you know, a renewed enthusiasm for making them and then, after a few months, a feeling of dejection for again having let them go...
RAZ: In fact, Emily says that by Valentine's Day, most of us have already quit whatever we were determined to do. Back in January. And Emily wanted to understand why this happens - why it's so hard to stay motivated. And she specifically looked at exercise and why so many people have such a hard time meeting their fitness goals.
BALCETIS: Exactly, yeah. So we know several reasons why - we don't have the time; our lives are quite busy; we're pulled in many directions from friends and family and our careers. That's not the new thing that we have to offer. The unexpected explanation that we have been investigating is that maybe you and I are seeing a slightly different world. And maybe that can help us understand why you might be able to better meet your goals than I am. So we're really interested in this comparison between, how do healthy or fit people see the world? and how do unhealthy people see the world?
RAZ: Emily Balcetis spoke about her research on the TED stage.
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BALCETIS: Some people may literally see exercise as more difficult. And some people might literally see exercise as easier. So we gathered objective measurements of individuals' physical fitness. After gathering these measurements, we told our participants that they would walk to a finish line while carrying extra weight in a sort of race. But before they did that, we asked them to estimate the distance to the finish line. We thought that the physical states of their body might change how they perceived the distance, but so, too, can our mind. In fact, our bodies and our mind work in tandem to change how we see the world around us. That led us to think that maybe people with strong motivations and strong goals to exercise might actually see the finish line as closer.
So what did we find? Well, people who were out of shape and unfit actually saw the distance to the finish line as significantly greater than people who were in better shape. Importantly, though, this only happened for people who were not motivated to exercise. On the other hand, people who were highly motivated to exercise saw the distance as short. Even the most out of shape individuals saw the finish line as just as close, if not slightly closer, than people who are in better shape.
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RAZ: I mean, hearing this sort of intuitively makes me think, you know, well, motivation is a brain thing. You know, it's all about - some people are just naturally more motivated than other people. Like, some people - like, you know those people - they get up every day; they write a journal entry; they do yoga; they meditate, and they're still at work before everybody else. And I just - I come across those people, and I think - God, they're so lucky. They just - it's just in them. They just have it, and some of us just don't.
BALCETIS: That would be a really demoralizing way...
BALCETIS: ...To think about our possibilities for our life.
RAZ: Good. All right, great.
BALCETIS: So I disagree. And I assume you disagree as well that it's not, like, a fixed sum. It's not that some people are motivated and some aren't. But we might think that.
BALCETIS: And that can be a part of the problem. And some people might think - you know, I am who I am, and there's really little that can happen that I could do to change that. Those people are going to have a harder time meeting their goals. Once they experience a setback or a failure - well, if that's just who I am, then why should I try again? And that's the wrong mindset to bring to any challenge that we might be facing.
RAZ: So what's the secret? What is the secret to staying motivated?
BALCETIS: Well, there's no one easy answer of course. You know, really, what we want to do is try to think about a tool belt or a toolbox and offering a variety of different techniques to consider - that might work for you; it might not - so that you just have more strategies available that you can use at the right time and the right place.
RAZ: So when you were doing this experiment and asking people to guess the distance that they had to walk, did you come across any strategies that work, like, that helped people to stay motivated?
BALCETIS: Yeah. So what we noticed was that if these fit people are seeing the distances as shorter, we wondered if there was something that we could teach people that would help them see the world the way a fit person sees it. And could that improve the quality of their exercise? From that research that we did, we created what we called the keep your eyes on the prize strategy.
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BALCETIS: This is not the slogan from an inspirational poster. It's an actual directive for how to look around your environment. People that we trained in this strategy - we told them to focus their attention on the finish line, to avoid looking around, to imagine a spotlight was shining on that goal and that everything else around it was blurry and perhaps difficult to see. We compared this group to a baseline group. We said, just look around the environment as you naturally would. You will notice the finish line, but you might also notice the garbage can off to the right or the people and the lamppost off to the left.
People who kept their eyes on the prize saw the finish line as 30 percent closer than people who looked around as they naturally would. This strategy helped make the exercise look easier. But the big question was, could this help make exercise actually better? Could it improve the quality of exercise as well?
It did. People who kept their eyes on the prize told us afterwards that it required 17 percent less exertion for them to do this exercise than people who looked around naturally. It changed their subjective experience of the exercise. It also changed the objective nature of their exercise. People who kept their eyes on the prize actually moved 23 percent faster than people who looked around naturally.
We were so excited by this because this meant that a strategy that costs nothing, that is easy for people to use regardless of whether they're in shape or struggling to get there, made the exercise look and feel easier, even when people were working harder because they were moving faster. It's just how our eyes work. We all see the world through our mind's eye, but we can teach ourselves to see it differently.
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RAZ: OK. So if this is true - right? - if this strategy works, how would it actually help people who - you know, who have a hard time just getting started?
BALCETIS: Yeah. I think, you know, what we want to do is to create a success experience in the here and now because success breeds success. If you have accomplished your goal, like, just making it to the stop sign that's three blocks away, you're more likely to repeat that in the future because you've increased your sense of efficacy. You feel like you can master it. You feel like you can do it and that you have the resources to take on this challenge.
RAZ: So I mean, is it fair to say that whether or not we get into shape or we sort of, you know, improve our health or become a better version of ourselves, a lot of that is just in our head?
BALCETIS: Absolutely, absolutely. It's the mindset that we bring to the table, and it's the tools that we teach ourselves. So by learning a whole host of tools, we can have the right tool for the challenge. So the important message here really is that our mindset and the aspects of our psychological experience that we can control do play a big starring role in the motivation that we have and then our ability to meet those goals. There's so much power that's in our own eyes and in our own brain.
RAZ: Emily Balcetis - she's a social psychologist at NYU. You can see her entire talk at ted.com. On the show today, ideas about A Better You. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.