The recipe for 4 ingredients to make things happen

By Katy Milkman, CNN

Most of us make to-do lists to keep track of all the things we need to get done around the house, to keep our families going, and to stay on top of tasks at work.

But these lists can get unwieldy. If you often struggle to check everything off your list despite the best of intentions, welcome to the club.

Ayelet Fishbach, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, has studied the science of motivation her entire career, and she knows exactly what it takes to achieve more.

Fishbach is the past president of the Society for the Science of Motivation, and in her first book, “Get It Done: Surprising Lessons From the Science of Motivation,” Fishbach provides a framework based on decades of research that can finally help you get through your weekly to-do lists.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Katy Milkman: Are to-do lists really useful?

Ayelet Fishbach: To-do lists are useful when they help you offload the mental effort of memorizing your list and negotiating priorities. Also, they are useful whenever completing one item motivates you to take care of the next one, thus increasing your motivation.

These lists are less useful when they cost you your flexibility. You might pursue certain activities just because they’re on the list, even if they’re not a priority and completing them won’t make you happy.

In his research, Leidy Klotz, a professor at the University of Virginia, discovered that it’s often more important to subtract, i.e. remove items from your list, than to add new ones. Your weekend might be more restful if you skip the zoo or the mall.

Milkman: If I have a handful of big goals to accomplish every week at home, what’s the best advice you can give me to achieve them?

Poissonbach: Consider my four-ingredient recipe:

1. Set the right goal. You want to set goals that are intrinsically motivating. An approach or “do” objective is better than an avoidance or “not to do” objective. “Attending a Pilates class in the morning” is better than “not sleeping too long”.

2. Monitor progress and switch focus midway through your to-do list. Think back to what you’ve accomplished up to the halfway point and look at what you have left to do beyond the halfway point.

3. Your goals should balance – rather than weaken – each other. Any specific goal should correspond to everything you have decided to do. If you’re considering eating healthier, cross off that trip to the ice cream shop.

4. Seek social support. You should have people around you who want you to succeed and who can lend a hand when you need extra help.

Milkman: Why do I often feel demoralized when I’m halfway through a long to-do list? And what can I do to stay motivated?

Poissonbach: It’s the environment problem. Most of us feel less motivated to work, and to do it well, in the midst of pursuing a goal. You experience rapid progress at the beginning and end. Your first and last actions are also special – you celebrate the beginning and the end of something. In the middle, you lose your breath and your motivation.

When Rima Touré-Tillery (associate professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University) and I asked people to cut out a series of pointed shapes drawn on a sheet of paper, we found that they literally cut through the corners in the middle of a job. . They didn’t pay enough attention to their work.

The solution — keep the middlemen short. Instead of a monthly exercise goal, set a weekly exercise goal, and instead of a yearly work goal, set a monthly goal for what you want to accomplish at work.

Milkman: When a to-do list gets overwhelming, do you have any tips on how to prioritize tasks so that something gets done?

Poissonbach: You want to make sure the high-priority items on your list aren’t overlooked.

I recommend using three categories:

1. Essential tasks to fulfill your functions and promote your aspirations. They are at the top of your list.

2. Tasks that further these goals but are not essential for a Duty or Aspiration. They come second.

3. Everything else.

So for me, helping my 10 year old son practice his violin comes before gardening. The purchase of new professional clothing comes last, so it is often postponed.

Milkman: What are some common misconceptions about getting things done that people should give up on?

Poissonbach: The first is the common belief that your success depends on who you are as a person. It’s not just about you. Success depends on your situation just as much and often more. In the right place, at the right time, and with the right people, you can achieve great things. Psychologists call this misconception the “fundamental attribution error.” We tend to look in the wrong direction when we consider what enables success.

The second misconception is your lack of empathy for your future self. You might think that in the future you will only do what is important to them, but this futuristic person, like yourself, will be drawn to what feels good in the moment.

Milkman: What’s a little-known strategy for getting things done that more people should employ?

Poissonbach: Consider the temptations and obstacles that will hinder your future success. We find that when you anticipate a problem in advance, you are mentally ready to fight it when you encounter it. When Ying Zhang (Professor of Marketing at Peking University Guanghua School of Management) and I asked students to think about social and fun activities that would keep them from completing their classes, they set aside more time to complete this work.

Knowing about a problem in advance allows you to mentally prepare yourself to deal with it. Remember to be prepared to lift heavy furniture. If you correctly anticipate its weight, you will be ready to tackle it with the right level of physical exertion. And when you know the situation is going to be tense, you recruit your calm energy and don’t get angry when people around you raise their voices.

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Behavioral scientist Katy Milkman is James G. Dinan Professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, author of “How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be”, co-founder of the Behavior Change for Good Initiative and the host of Charles Schwab’s “Choiceology” podcast.