Give Yourself the Option of Doing Nothing
Should you write that blog post or tackle your budget mess? Go for a run or take that spin class? Make that sales call or work on your presentation?
The daily life of a business owner is filled with questions like these. But what if you could make it more likely that you would stick with whichever option you chose simply by reframing the question slightly?
A recent study from a pair of marketing professors out of Wharton and Georgia State University that will soon be published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that such a thing is actually possible. Rather than simply give yourself the option of A or B, the researchers suggest, you should give yourself the option of A, B, or do nothing.
"Though it may sound like a small change," Knowledge@Wharton reports, the research "proved that...having the choice of not doing something can actually transform people’s likelihood of accomplishing their goals."
Better Buy In
How is that possible? The key to the effect seems to be our sense of buy in and commitment. When we give ourselves only a few active options, we, in effect, bully our brains into a choice and then later feel less committed to the course of action we selected. Having the freedom to do nothing means we’re making a truly free choice. Down the road, when the going gets tough, there can be no doubt that you’re doing what you really wanted to do, so you’re more likely to keep at it.
"It sounds counterintuitive, because we assume that the option of doing nothing reduces persistence," researcher Rom Y. Schrift says, but "if I choose something, I learn about my preferences. Just knowing that fact helps us persist longer when there’s adversity or hardship."
"What people decide for themselves is, 'I didn’t have to do it and I decided to do it, so I’ll stick with it for a longer period of time,'" adds his co-author Jeffrey R. Parker.
A series of experiments offering volunteers choices framed with either several active alternatives or those options plus the ability to opt out entirely convinced the researchers that contemplating the possibility of doing nothing does indeed increase tenacity and our chances of sticking with our chosen course of action. So where can you put this insight to use?
Doctors, managers, and parents can all utilize this technique, the professors suggest. So whether you’re trying to get your teenager to spend more time on her homework, your employee to take on that difficult project, or yourself to keep going to the gym, consider simply adding a "none of the above" choice to the decision-making process. That way, when the inevitable difficulties come up, you can say with a straight face "Hey, you wanted to do this in the first place when you could have done nothing at all."
Does this research jive with your personal experience? Let us know in the comments.
JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.