There's a lot of advice out there for the lazy and unmotivated: Take baby steps! Set a timer! Enlist an accountability partner! But what if the best way to tackle lack of motivation isn't to give any sort of advice at all, but to ask for it instead?

That's the intriguing conclusion of a new article by a pair of psychologists from Wharton and the University of Chicago highlighted recently by Quartz's Leak Fessler (hat tip to the always fascinating Marginal Revolution blog).

The unmotivated need more confidence, not more information.

The series of experiments from psychologists Lauren Eskreis-Winkler and Ayelet Fishbach was based on a simple but powerful insight. Most times, when people don't do what they should do, it's not from lack of information. People don't keep smoking, after all, because they don't know cigarettes will kill them. Nor do you fail to begin that big project because you forgot the looming deadline.

Instead, the problem usually boils down to confidence. For one reason or another, people don't believe they'll succeed, so they never get started. Giving them advice, which means giving them information, doesn't do anything to boost confidence. But what if you asked them for advice instead?

No matter what type of struggling and unmotivated people Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach worked with, whether it was adults who couldn't get themselves to save or lose weight, or kids struggling to succeed at school, the same pattern held. Dishing out advice to those in a similar situation boosted people's motivation. Here's the money paragraph from Fessler:

Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach similarly found that 72 percent of people struggling to save money said that giving advice motivated them to save money more than receiving tips from experts at America Saves; 77 percent of adults struggling with anger management said they were more motivated to control their temper after giving anger management advice than they were after receiving advice from professional psychologists at the American Psychological Association; and 72 percent of adults struggling to lose weight said that giving weight loss advice made them feel more confident about shedding pounds than did receiving advice from a seasoned nutritionist at the Mayo Clinic.

These findings aren't just startling consistent; they're also startling useful. No matter what area of life has you flummoxed, this study suggests simply imagining yourself in the shoes of someone else with similar problems and looking for solutions through that lens will do more for your motivation than even the best pep talk or informational material.

Better decisions are just a little imagination away

And while Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach's work looks pretty definitive, they aren't the first psychologists to suggest that looking at your problems as if they belonged to someone else is a powerful way to push past mental roadblocks. An earlier study showed that people also make wiser decisions when they pretend another person has their issues and offer advice.

So next time you find yourself struggling to do something you know you really should do (or the next time your employee is similarly unmotivated) don't seek out advice, instead ask yourself (or your employee) what someone else who found themselves in the same situation should do. Psychology suggests that your confidence in handling the problem will increase, and with it your motivation.

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Published on: Sep 11, 2018