Category Archives: Motivation

The Power of Goals and Progress Tracking

After the Boston Marathon on Monday, the New York Times has a thought provoking analysis of marathon finish times. Theoretically, marathon finish times should be relatively evenly distributed around a mean. In particular, there’s no real reason why, say, a 3:29 finish should be more common than a 3:31. But it is.

Distribution of marathon finishing times courtesy of the New York Times, 4/22/14,
Distribution of marathon finishing times courtesy of the New York Times, 4/22/14,

I don’t think this clustering is really that weird. I think it’s a natural function of our common need for competence, and the way we use benchmarks and progress tracking to achieve goals. Continue reading The Power of Goals and Progress Tracking

Indulging in Self-Pity–Then Moving On

I’ve tried to be positive, but I’m just down in the dumps right now. Since I finished the marathon last month, my body’s really crashed. First I had the intense soreness that I think any marathon runner gets, followed by a cold, followed by the onset of spring allergies, and now capped with another bad cold. Basically, it’s been about six weeks since I could reliably breathe through my nose.

In the meantime, I am itching to get back to running and starting to get nervous about being well-prepared for my two spring/summer half-marathons. I watched the Boston Marathon yesterday as always, and while it was fantastic to see my city back in full force, it also made me feel sorry for myself that I’m still sniffling instead of sprinting. I was definitely feeling jealous of the marathon runners. (This is, not coincidentally, the time of year where I always resolve to join a charity team for next year’s Boston Marathon. So far I haven’t done it, but maybe 2015 is the year?)

My goals for the rest of this week are to try not to beat myself up so much for slacking off on the running, to get moving as much as I can without wearing myself out, and to try to kick this cold for good (which will undoubtedly involve self-indulgent naps and mugs of hot tea). I also resolve to get back to yoga, which I have severely neglected since LA. Yoga is so against my nature as an impatient fast mover, which is probably exactly why it’s so good for me. I miss it and my muscles feel the difference having not done much of it lately.

What are your short-term resolutions?

New on Wired Innovation Insights – Using Technology to Foster Self-Efficacy

Hey peeps, I have a new post up on Wired Innovation Insights this week called Using Technology to Coach: How to Foster User Self-Efficacy. In the post, I talk about how to structure the requests we make of our users to maximize the chance that they will follow through. I also talk about how the work of BJ Fogg and his team at the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford can inform your approach. Check it out!

If you've learned to play the piano, you've got some self-efficacy.
If you’ve learned to play the piano, you’ve got some self-efficacy.

Saying No

I’m not a huge tv watcher, but lately I’ve started watching the show The Good Wife. I’m only five years late to the party. The Good Wife stars Julianna Marguiles as Alicia Florrick, a lawyer returning to the work force after her husband is jailed for political misdeeds. It took me a while to realize it, but one of the reasons I like the show so much is that Alicia, despite being “the good wife” who stood beside her husband as he admitted corruption, is actually a strong female character. One of her best traits? Continue reading Saying No

Spinning by the Numbers: Harnessing a Need for Competence in the Quest for Fitness

When I was training for my marathon, it was pretty clear that I had to add in some form of cross-training. The bitter cold of last winter coupled with my reluctance to pony up for a gym membership led me to spinning, where you can buy classes a la carte. I reasoned that although the individual classes were expensive, I was still saving money over a gym membership I’d rarely use (and feel guilty about). Moreover, I know I’m more likely to follow through on a resolution to exercise if I’ve registered and paid for a specific class.

This morning I went to a 6 am spin class at Flywheel Boston with the lovely Melinda Sarkis. For those of you who know me, I am NOT a morning person, but as I said, registering and paying for a specific class seems to get my butt out the door.

One of the reasons I like Flywheel in particular is that they use something called a “Torq board.” Every bike is linked to a computer. You have a personal screen displaying your current level of resistance, your rotations per minute (RPM), and your “Torq,” which essentially a measure of the work you’ve expended so far. If you opt in, you can compete with others in the class and see your relative rankings on the Torq board at the front of the studio. For me, someone with a very high need for competence, this competition is incredibly motivating. It is not the most admirable thing about me, but I like nothing more than to beat other people in a competition.

My summary stats at Flywheel, and proof that my ranking this morning was due to my performance and not the competition.
My summary stats at Flywheel, and proof that my ranking this morning was due to my performance and not the competition.

But even aside from the competition, the personal metrics are really helpful to me. I think I work harder when I have subjective proof of my efforts. In other spin classes, I can sometimes catch myself rationalizing less effort. But the numbers on my screen don’t lie, so I have a much harder time fooling myself at Flywheel.

This morning I noticed I was doing more poorly than usual on the Torq board. Typically I find myself in 3rd or 4th place for the women (there are always a handful of really gung-ho ladies who take the top spots). This morning, I was struggling to maintain 7th place (although I am proud to say I eventually finished in 4th). I was wondering what was going on. Was it me? I’m not a morning person. I hadn’t eaten breakfast. My legs still feel a little tired from the marathon. Or was it something about the class? Are the people who show up for a 6 am spin class more motivated and/or fit?

Well, this is why I love data. After each class you can view your performance online, and see additional metrics like your mileage. What I discovered when I viewed mine was that I had a slightly below average performance (for me) this morning. So, I have to conclude that my struggles in this morning’s spin class were due to me and not to morning warriors. The good news? It means I have a better likelihood at dominating next time I get up for an a.m. session.

On Feeling Happier by Making Small Changes

I just recently read The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin for a new book club I joined. On the surface, this is not the type of book I read. I am not a big one for self-help guides (probably because, as a psychologist, I’m fixated on all of the oversimplifications and omissions in these types of popular audience books). I also, sad to say, do not usually radiate positivity and optimism. Let’s just say people aren’t usually surprised I’m from Boston and I do pretty well in New York, too.

Another thing that makes me happy: Silly photos of my cats.

So I was surprised to find that the book quickly hooked me. Even more surprising, I actually took action and made some small changes in my life, before I had even finished the book. I made some hard choices about donating clothes I never wear, which both clogs my closet and fills me with unneeded regret about my appearance (and lack of cutting edge style). I took my kitchen knives for sharpening, an inexpensive task that for some reason daunted me but will restore the joy I find in cooking. I redoubled my efforts to find a wireless headset for when I work from home, so I’m no longer tethered to my desk during calls and longing for a chance to grab a glass of water or stretch my legs. Oh, and I got a manicure, which I always need because my nails look terrible–and never get, because my hands look terrible. Even aside from the effects of the changes, just doing these things made me feel good.

Not surprising, since taking action is a way of exercising one’s autonomy. I like the idea of willfully doing something just because I know it will bring me pleasure. I plan to do more of it.

I have lots more thoughts on The Happiness Project I’d like to share, but for now, I’ll leave you with the link to Gretchen Rubin’s site, where she provides toolkits to try a Happiness Project of your own.

Running motivation: Beating the Blerch

Internet comic The Oatmeal has a great series of comics on his motivation to run–and not just run, but run ridiculous, ultra-marathon distances. According to him, the inspiration to run comes from a desire to beat The Blerch.

You know The Blerch. Basically, it’s the self-indulgent saboteur inside us all who keeps urging us to do things the easy way, avoid pain, and partake in immediate pleasures. Running is a way to extend a big ol’ middle finger to that saboteur. That can feel incredibly motivating. And it’s a good thing, because as The Oatmeal points out, running doesn’t always have the other positive benefits you might hope for. Continue reading Running motivation: Beating the Blerch

Design Psychology at, 3/24/14

Tomorrow night I’ll be back at to talk about Design Psychology. If you’re in the Boston area and want to learn more about how to apply principles of motivation to your product design, please come!

I really love being at The people who attend the classes are awesome, smart and motivated folks from a wide variety of backgrounds. I feel like I always come away from these nights with new questions and perspectives on motivational design when I teach, and every one I’ve attended as a student has been excellent as well. I really recommend attending a class or two if you’re in the Boston area. It doesn’t even have to be mine!

(Although if you want to attend mine . . .

I ran a marathon!

I Ran A Marathon!I think a lot about motivational design in the context of my own health behaviors, and probably never more than when I just trained for and ran my very first marathon. Although it can be dangerous to take a case study too seriously (as I learned from one of my mentors at the University of Michigan, Chris Peterson), since any one person is unique, there’s definitely value in using case studies to think about how principles might work out in real life.

The self-determination theory of motivation says that people are motivated when their underlying needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are met. I saw all three of these play out in my training, but in a quirky way that fits my personality. Continue reading I ran a marathon!