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Choiceology: Season 5 Episode 6

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Conventional wisdom is that you should just buckle down and do what’s in your long-term best interest, right? It’s a lot easier if you make it appealing in the short term, too.

“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and snap, the job’s a game!” So says Julie Andrews’ character in the Disney film Mary Poppins before she launches into the famous musical number “A Spoonful of Sugar.”

In this episode of Choiceology with Katy Milkman, we look at the science behind the intuitive strategy of making difficult or boring things easier by adding that “element of fun.” But while Mary Poppins was focused on making the tedious task of cleaning a room a bit more enjoyable, you’ll see that this approach isn’t limited to housework.

You’ll hear Nancy Stahl’s dramatic story of a life-threatening medical event. Her prognosis was grim, but thanks to grit, determination, and some pioneering work in gamifying rehabilitation by Professor Lynne Gauthier, Nancy made a remarkable recovery.

Lynne Gauthier is an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and director of the Neurorecovery and Brain Imaging Laboratory.

Next, Dan Ariely recounts an incredibly difficult long-term treatment that he was able to endure and complete, thanks to a strategy known as temptation bundling (a term coined by Katy Milkman through her research into the phenomenon).

Dan Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and the author of several bestselling books, including Predictably Irrational.

Finally, Ayelet Fishbach joins Katy to discuss research into myriad ways that adding enjoyable elements to difficult or tedious tasks can improve outcomes in everything from math education to exercise to job satisfaction.

Ayelet Fishbach is the Jeffrey Breakenridge Keller Professor of Behavioral Science and Marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Choiceology is an original podcast from Charles Schwab.

If you enjoy the show, please leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts.

Click to show the transcript

SPEAKER 1: I am at 72 with comparing numbers, and here’s the question: What sign makes the statement true? 34,679 and 34,678—the greater than, less than, or equal. Umm … greater than. Wonderful! You practiced for one hour. I got the coyote!

KATY MILKMAN: A typical scene, particularly with all the homeschooling going on right now. A grade school kid using a math homework app to reinforce what he’s learning in class.

SPEAKER 1: Yay! I got a horned lizard!

KATY MILKMAN: If you missed out on the digital revolution in education, you may have some unpleasant memories of grade school math homework—or calculus or algebra in high school. It’s challenging stuff that requires serious mental effort, but as you heard in that clip, there are fun ways to help kids stick with it. Gamification, or turning exercises into games, can make a real difference in students’ willingness to tackle challenging problems. Today on the podcast, we’re looking at ways to make difficult goals just a bit more achievable using some simple strategies. These strategies can help you finish the dishes, complete your homework …

SPEAKER 1: Equal, terrific.

KATY MILKMAN: Or even help you recuperate from a major health challenge. I’m Dr. Katy Milkman, and this is Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It’s a show about the psychology and economics behind our decisions. We bring you true stories involving high-stakes choices, and then we explore the latest research in behavioral science to help you make better judgments and avoid costly mistakes.

NANCY STRAHL: My name is Nancy Strahl, and I live in southern Oregon in a very rural town called Gold Hill.

KATY MILKMAN: Back in 2008, Nancy was enjoying her retirement. She was on her way to the airport to drop her son and husband off for a fishing trip.

NANCY STRAHL: And on the way home, I felt kind of ... sort of out of it, like, whoa, going around the corners, and I thought, well, I’m just tired. It’s 4:00 a.m. So I went home, and as the day progressed, I could tell that I was not feeling well, and I thought actually that I had food poisoning because I had the symptoms of nausea and disorientation.

KATY MILKMAN: But it was much worse than food poisoning.

NANCY STRAHL: What happened was a small clot had come loose and kind of stuck in the blood vessel in my brain and gradually cut off oxygen to the neurons.

KATY MILKMAN: Nancy was having a stroke.

NANCY STRAHL: Later that evening, by the time I got to the hospital, the doctor said that the stroke would continue through the night, and they did not know how I would be the next morning. So when I woke up the next morning, my left side had no movement, which was immediate panic. So it was quite a shock, and of course my family was in Alaska in some remote fishing area, and I couldn’t get ahold of my husband right away.

KATY MILKMAN: It was a terrifying experience.

NANCY STRAHL: The emotional impact immediately was really panic because all of a sudden you are not in control of your life. Your body does not move or respond to what you’re thinking, and I thought, “What is my life going to be like now? And how is this going to affect my children, my family, my husband?” The doctor mentioned to my husband that he did not think that I would ever walk again, but my husband said, “You do not know my wife. She will walk out of here.”

KATY MILKMAN: Around 800,000 people suffer strokes in the United States every year with around 150,000 fatalities. For many survivors, there are long-term effects on their mobility, speech, and mental health. Intense and long-term rehabilitation is key to improving health outcomes for these stroke victims.

NANCY STRAHL: Inpatient therapy is very intensive. I had about five hours a day, so I would start at 5:00 a.m. with at least an hour of occupational therapy. Then I’d maybe have a little bit of a break, and then I’d go into physical therapy, which was learning how to walk again, and then I’d have a very small break, and then I would go into speech therapy because my speech was extremely affected. Then after that I would go back into occupational therapy, and if I was really lucky, and somebody couldn’t make their physical therapy that afternoon, I would go back into the physical therapy gait training. So it was a rough day but necessary.

KATY MILKMAN: Nancy benefited immensely from the inpatient rehab program, but eventually her hospital stay came to an end. She hadn’t come close to a full recovery, and her outpatient therapy was much less intensive.

NANCY STRAHL: When I was discharged, I would only get one hour per week if I was lucky, and it took probably six weeks to get into outpatient rehabilitation. So you’re sitting at home thinking to yourself, “How is this going to get better for me?”

KATY MILKMAN: Nancy’s recovery slowed to a crawl. She fell into a deep depression.

NANCY STRAHL: The emotional toll was pretty rapid. Fortunately, my personal physician, she immediately knew that I needed to get some help for depression. I got some therapy for depression and came out of that much better.

KATY MILKMAN: While her mental health improved, she still faced an uphill battle in her physical recovery.

NANCY STRAHL: Rehabilitation can be extremely expensive after your insurance runs out. So I knew I had to find something long term that I could, first of all, afford and, second of all, be able to do in a home setting because of transportation issues. I couldn’t drive at that point. So I thought to myself, “Well, I could probably do a clinical trial,” but living in a rural area, you very, very rarely have a clinical trial in your area. So I got on the internet and started searching for a clinical trial that I could participate in. Along the way, I ran into a trial run by Dr. Lynne Gauthier, and I contacted Dr. Gauthier, and she told me that the pilot project had been completed, but they were going to go into the next phase of a clinical trial, and they were looking for a rural area to do it in, and would I be interested in possibly being the site investigator? And that’s kind of how it all came to be.

LYNNE GAUTHIER: My name is Lynne Gauthier, associate professor of physical therapy and kinesiology at UMass Lowell.

KATY MILKMAN: Lynne had been experimenting with a video game that she had helped develop.

LYNNE GAUTHIER: Recovery Rapids is a game that we designed for stroke survivors and people struggling with motor impairments. Recovery Rapids was designed to help people get physical therapy in their own homes, and it was designed because one of the major challenges that people are facing is that they’re not able to get enough physical therapy to really make their maximum level of improvement.

KATY MILKMAN: The idea was to provide a game experience that could give patients motivation and feedback as they worked through a rehabilitation regime.

LYNNE GAUTHIER: So the game looks very much like the Kinect river-rafting adventure game. It uses the Microsoft Kinect as a sensor, and it puts the person in an immersive environment. There’s a kayak, and the person is in a boat, and the game character on the screen mirrors the person’s movements. So if the person raises their arm to the side, the game character on the screen does the same thing, and so in the game, they’re having to navigate their boat using different movements, to try to steer around obstacles, and they’re having to capture things that come out of the sky like different supplies. So it’s sort of like an Oregon Trail type of theme, but it’s a 3D environment, and they’re rafting down a river.

KATY MILKMAN: Here’s Nancy Strahl again.

NANCY STRAHL: The great part about the game is not only is it engaging and fun, but the data collection is just astounding, and that provided incredible feedback, not just for the therapist but also for the patient themselves, which I thought was very motivating at that point.

KATY MILKMAN: The game and the challenges it created were crucial to helping patients stick to their rehab regimens. Patient compliance is usually a huge challenge in outpatient therapy.

NANCY STRAHL: When you go to typical outpatient rehab, you meet with a therapist, you go through exercises, and you’re given sheets of paper to go home and practice your … whatever you were supposed to do that day. Well, to be motivated to take that piece of paper and actually do those exercises can be really rough on a day when you’re not feeling great, when you feel very weak, and there’s other things going on in your life.

KATY MILKMAN: Think about that for a minute. Think just how hard it is to do anything that you know is good for you in the long run like eating healthy, saving money, or exercising if it’s at all unpleasant right now. And now imagine that the thing you have to do to get this very abstract future award—eventually, someday, hopefully recovering a bit more from your stroke—is unpleasant. Plus, you’re having a bad day. Motivation is going to be tough to muster.

NANCY STRAHL: And of course you’re at home, and so the game itself, you don’t get paper exercises. You’re actually engaged in going down a river in a kayak doing … picking up bottles or finding treasure chests or going through rapids or a cave, and it was very motivating each day to want to get up and do that.

KATY MILKMAN: And it was fun too. Nancy found it easy to stay on track with her exercise regimen and started to see real progress in her rehabilitation.

NANCY STRAHL: It absolutely improved, and I was highly motivated because I liked the game, and the challenge was I wanted to go to the next level, and one of the benefits of the game was what they called the transfer package. The transfer package transfers your mobility to your daily life. For instance, in the game, as you worked, all of a sudden the game would stop, and it would say, “Did you turn on the light switches today?” Now that’s an ordinary activity for most people, but for a stroke survivor turning on light switches can be very difficult because you have to raise your arm. You have to have the strength to move the light switch, and it made you think, “Did I turn on the light switches today? Well, maybe I could do that today.”

LYNNE GAUTHIER: So after someone has a stroke or a brain injury, sometimes weakness in one side of the body can result. So the person will have difficulty moving the weaker arm, for example, they may be able to get it up higher than their shoulder. They may have difficulty straightening their arm and reaching out to grasp an object, for example.

KATY MILKMAN: The game is based on something called constraint-induced movement therapy.

LYNNE GAUTHIER: So what constraint-induced movement therapy is designed to do is to almost force the person to use the weaker side. Because it’s challenging, after a stroke or a brain injury, many people don’t use their weaker side. They become essentially one handed and start doing everything with the stronger side of the body. But what that does is it takes away opportunities to practice with the weaker side. So when we designed this game, we designed it so that only the weaker side of the body could trigger the game actions. So if the person is trying to make their life easier by using the stronger side to accomplish an activity, the game’s not going to respond to them, and so it conditions the person and reinforces use of the weaker side of the body.

KATY MILKMAN: And while this constraint-induced movement therapy has been in use in clinical settings for many years, the challenge has always been maintaining momentum at home because home therapy is all about doing something unpleasant now for an abstract return in the future, and people really have trouble making that sort of tradeoff.

LYNNE GAUTHIER: So home practice is quite boring. When you go and actually get therapy with a therapist, it’s not so bad because you’re with a very pleasant person, and you’re having conversations as you’re doing something that’s difficult. So it’s combined with something that’s usually pleasurable for most people, but the home practice part is where people say, “It’s just really hard to motivate myself to do this.” No one’s sitting there cheerleading for them to do better, and the exercises themselves are not at all fun to do.

NANCY STRAHL: Rehabilitation and doing exercises off a piece of paper is really boring, and it’s not very motivating, and here you are, your life depends on you getting better and learning how to again move your muscles, and the gaming itself is motivating because you want to get to the next level. The game itself has rewards in it, and it was very engaging.

LYNNE GAUTHIER: So I think what has made Nancy so successful in her recovery is that she never gave up, and she never took no for an answer, and she figured out ways to overcome some of the barriers to getting recovery. So for example, if it was challenging for her to do a particular activity, she tried to pair it with something that was more manageable or something that would be more fun that would motivate her to get through it. So she joined a neuro support group, she used technology whenever possible like this video game, and I think these types of technologies just kept her engaged in the process. Her recovery has been quite amazing.

NANCY STRAHL: It was very transforming for me. I realized not only had my mobility and my upper arm and hand improved, but I could actually attempt to do things that I never thought I could before, and since the gaming, I think every day for me is thinking about how I’m going to get better, and part of that is figuring out things that I enjoy that will improve my mobility. For example, in Medford, many of the people that I met started an adaptive rowing group, and so we now call ourselves the Able Team, and every Sunday we row at Immigrant Lake, and the thought that I could ever do that was pretty incomprehensible several years ago.

NANCY STRAHL: One of my other goals when I first had the stroke was, I realized my children were in their twenties, two young men, and my goal … I always wanted to dance with my boys at their wedding, and of course they weren’t ready to get married at that point, but I thought, “Oh, maybe I could be able to dance at their wedding,” and so one of my goals was to be able to physically be able to stand up and dance with my kids, and I have to say my youngest son just recently got married, and now I’ve accomplished that goal.

KATY MILKMAN: Nancy Strahl is a retired media assistant from the Medford School District. She lives in Gold Hill in southern Oregon. Dr. Lynn Gauthier is an associate professor of physical therapy and kinesiology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. I have links to Dr. Gauthier’s work in the show notes and at schwab.com/podcast.

Recovery Rapids is an amazing example of taking something tedious and difficult like rehabilitation therapy and making it more engaging and even enjoyable. In this case, it’s a package that was developed by a doctor trying to help patients overcome a bias that we’ve talked about on a previous episode of Choiceology. That bias is present bias, and it describes our tendency to prefer smaller sooner rewards over larger later rewards. We overweight the value of anything that’s instantly gratifying. This helps explain why many people with sufficient income still find it difficult to save for the future. Why many of us struggle to exercise and eat right. And why we often procrastinate when it comes to our work. We’d rather do what’s gratifying right now, but present bias can be very costly, and Recovery Rapid is an example of a solution developed by a physical therapy expert who understood that to help people do what was in their long-term best interest, it was important to make that act a lot more instantly gratifying, or else rehabilitation would be harder to achieve.

I want to give you another related example, but this example involved someone solving a similar problem in a slightly different way, not by developing software for someone else to use but by developing a system to help himself fight present bias. The example comes from Dan Ariely, who’s a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and a bestselling author. Dan was badly burned many years ago and in the course of his hospital treatment contracted hepatitis C from a bad blood transfusion. After relapsing with the disease in graduate school, he was invited to participate in a treatment trial testing a combination of the medicines ribavirin and interferon. The problem was that interferon caused terrible side effects, but it was that or the possibility of eventually dying from cirrhosis of the liver.

DAN ARIELY: The problem with that medication is that every time I took it, I had a terrible night. Headache, vomiting, shaking, fever, all kinds of side effects. Basically a really, really miserable night. And imagine that you come back from the office or in my case from the university, you open your refrigerator, and you have all these needles, and you could take one, and if you take it you’ll certainly have a miserable night tonight, but if you don’t take it, you might get liver cirrhosis 30 years from now. That was the dilemma. I had to take these injections three times a week for a year and a half, and for me this was maybe the biggest exercise of self-control I have ever had to do because it was so miserable. But what happened was that I created a structure for myself, and my structure was based on the fact that I love movies. And if I had time, I would watch lots and lots of movies. I didn’t have much time, but my deal was that on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, first thing in the morning, I go to the video store—at the time there were video stores—to rent a few videos. I carry them in my backpack the whole day, looking forward to watching the movies, and I would come home, I would put the video in, I would inject myself, and I would start watching the video.

I had my bed moved in front of the TV. I had a blanket, and I was all set up for the side effects, and the thing was that I didn’t wait for the side effects to start. I connected the injection itself with something I wanted, which is the video. For me, that year-and-a-half experience was very important, because me and all the other patients should have really thought about our livers, right? Livers are really important, and while I love movies, I would give up all the movies in the world for my liver, but on a day-to-day level, it’s really hard to do, and what we know is that the long-term rewards are just not enough. So the question is, what else can we bring? What is the other element in our life that could get us to behave as if we care about our liver or to intensify our commitment to our livers or whatever long-term goal? When I ended this treatment, I beat the disease—good news—and by the way, now there’s much better medication. So people who have hepatitis C now are better off.

KATY MILKMAN: Dan Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University. He’s written several bestselling books, including Predictably Irrational and The Honest Truth About Dishonesty. I’ve got links in the show notes and at schwab.com/podcast.

The strategy that Dan described to help him stick with a very unpleasant treatment regimen is near and dear to me because it’s something I’ve studied myself, something that’s proven highly effective. I call it temptation bundling. I actually came up with the idea for temptation bundling when I was a graduate student struggling to overcome present bias in two areas of my life. First, I knew it was important to exercise for stress relief, but I really struggled to get myself to the gym after a long day of classes, and my other problem was that I had a thing for reading fun escapist novels at home when I should be studying—think Harry Potter, Twilight, and so on. I needed to find a way to solve both problems, and the solution I came up with was to only let myself enjoy page-turners when I was exercising. It was great because suddenly I’d find myself craving trips to the gym at the end of a long day to find out what happened next in my latest book, and I wouldn’t waste time at home. The two things were better together too because I stopped feeling guilty about my novels, and time would fly at the gym. I have lots of friends who do the same thing but with TV shows. I just prefer audiobooks. Anyway, I eventually ran some studies to see if this worked for other people too, and we found good evidence that it does.

In one study, my collaborators and I found that if people picked up an audiobook that sounded exciting to them, got to listen to the first 30 minutes of it while exercising, but then could only access the rest on a loaned iPod while they were at the gym, we could get them to exercise 56% more in the first week after we locked up their loaned iPod. We did that first study at my university and saw benefits that lasted for seven weeks until the university’s Thanksgiving break, when everyone was sent home and the gym closed. We have some more recent evidence suggesting that people even seem to be able to set and stick to personal temptation-bundling rules like Dan Ariely did.

If we just tell people to try temptation bundling and give them access to a free audiobook, but no one locks anything up at the gym for them, it still helps people make weekly gym visits at a higher rate for months and months. Of course, it’s worth noting that temptation bundling isn’t just a way to get yourself to the gym more or compel you to stick with a medical treatment. You can use it to help yourself achieve all sorts of goals. For instance, you might only let yourself enjoy a favorite podcast—wink, wink, nudge, nudge—while cooking or catching up on household chores. Or you might only let yourself visit a favorite restaurant with unhealthy food that you crave while spending time with a difficult relative you should see more often. Or consider only letting yourself get a pedicure—if, like me, that’s something you enjoy—while clearing out an overflowing inbox or doing important reading you’ve been procrastinating on for work.

You’ll find it’s easier to achieve your goals when you start looking forward to putting in the necessary effort. Of course, temptation bundling is distinct from gamification, but the two strategies are quite similar. They both relate to what I call the Mary Poppins approach to overcoming present bias. The idea that a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down or that adding some fun makes a challenging goal easier to accomplish. And it applies to all sorts of different goals. Losing weight, tidying up, getting in shape, saving money for the future, or even recovering from an injury. All of these goals and many more can be made a bit easier to achieve by adding some fun or a bit of self-indulgence. In the case of Nancy Strahl and other stroke survivors in Dr. Lynn Gauthier’s trial, a fun interactive video game went a long way to helping them keep up with their physiotherapy. For you, it might mean playing music while you tidy up in the kitchen.

It’s a strategy that can be employed for goals large and small. Ayelet Fishbach has done a lot of recent research with her former graduate student Kaitlin Woolley on the impact of making goal achievement fun when it comes to improving outcomes at school, at work, and at the gym. She joins me from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Hi, Ayelet, thank you so much for joining me.

AYELET FISHBACH: Hi, Katy, thanks for inviting me.

KATY MILKMAN: So Ayelet, what do you think is the most important thing for people to focus on while they’re pursuing a goal?

AYELET FISHBACH: Probably their immediate experience and how to make it gratifying. So how to make it fun or challenging or interesting or tasty—the immediate experience will get you a long way.

KATY MILKMAN: Why is that? Why wouldn’t we want to focus on sort of the big picture or the long-term returns to whatever it is we’re doing?

AYELET FISHBACH: Well, we certainly want to focus on big picture. We set goals with the idea that we want to get somewhere that might be very far from where we are now. So that is a first ingredient that’s important—you want to know where you’re going so you can get there—but then you need to go there, and along the way, we are very sensitive to how we feel at the moment. We actually often underestimate how important it is for us as people to feel good about what we do at the moment, how hard it is to get out of bed if you’re not going to do something that you find gratifying at the moment. So the momentary experience is extremely critical for sticking with anything that you are trying to do.

KATY MILKMAN: So you just said something super interesting that I want to dig into, which is you said that we maybe don’t appreciate adequately that these immediate returns, that instant gratification, often drives our decisions. Can you say a little bit more about the research you’ve done pointing to our failure to understand that?

AYELET FISHBACH: Yes. So there are two mispredictions when it gets to people’s understanding of how much intrinsic motivation, how much feeling engaged at the moment, matters. We mispredict how much we will care for intrinsic motivation—to be intrinsically motivated, to have fun at the moment—and we mispredict how important that is for others.

KATY MILKMAN: Right, people underestimate how important it is to actually want to do something right now. Could you tell me about some of the studies you’ve done that point to the importance of making things fun when we’re pursuing goals?

AYELET FISHBACH: Yes, so let’s take, for example, New Year’s resolutions, something that I know you, Katy, care about quite a bit. New Year’s resolutions—people usually set them on January 1st and then ditch them a couple of weeks later. What we did in one study is measuring how intrinsically motivated these resolutions are—how much they are something that is fun to do, that is interesting, that is immediately gratifying. Now, no one is setting a New Year’s resolution because it’s fun to do it. OK, if it was fun I did not have to set the resolution. So people are resolving to do something like exercise more or eat healthier food or get in touch with the people that I wasn’t in touch very much, but still some of these resolutions for some people are more immediately gratifying, are more fun, are more interesting than others. And when we followed up in March, we saw that the people who set resolutions that they enjoy pursuing were able to stick with them, whereas those who set resolutions that they do not enjoy pursuing ditched them a long time ago.

KATY MILKMAN: One of my favorite studies that you and Kaitlin Woolley did when you were looking at the importance of what … by the way, what I now call the Mary Poppins effect is that study you did in a school where kids were working on hard math problem sheets, and you essentially introduced a way to make that more fun. Could you talk a little bit about that experiment, how it turned out, what gave you the idea to do it?

AYELET FISHBACH: Yes. So that was a study in which we were thinking of how to make studying math fun for students and how to make it fun by introducing something that has very little to do with math. We basically brought colored pencils, some snacks, and we played music in the classroom. That wasn’t something that the teachers thought is going to make students study math. Teachers’ intuition was that this is going to distract them from studying math. What we found is when we introduced all of these positive rewards, students were attempting more math problems. They were working harder. We compared that to a group of students that were just working on the same problems without the colored pencils and music and food.

KATY MILKMAN: I love that study. I wanted to ask you, do you think of this work as related to my research on temptation bundling? And if so, how do you think the two things relate?

AYELET FISHBACH: Absolutely, temptation bundling is a great strategy to increase the immediate positive experience. My understanding of temptation bundling is that you basically take an activity that is mainly driven by the long-term benefits that it provides and introduce some short-term benefits. The textbook example for temptation bundling is watching TV or reading a book while exercising, which basically makes exercising more rewarding immediately—it’s more fun to do. I think that we temptation-bundle stuff all the time. If we constantly introduce some immediate gratification to add to what we do, we choose to work on projects that are interesting for us with people that we like or that we go and do it in our favorite coffee shop. All these are ways to introduce something that is immediately fun so that you can stick to your long-term goals. So temptation bundling is one of the strategies that I would highly recommend.

KATY MILKMAN: Ayelet, how aware are people that they should be focusing on the instant gratification element of a goal when they’re trying to get themselves out of bed or to stay at the gym or work on math problems?

AYELET FISHBACH: Well, definitely not enough. OK, and let me give you a couple of example from studies that we ran. We ran a study in which we asked people to choose whether they want to listen to a loud alarm clock or the song “Hey, Jude” by the Beatles. Now the catch was that you will get paid more for the alarm clock. The majority of the people chose to listen to the alarm clock, and the majority of the people regretted their choice. That is, most people chose something that as soon as they were done with it, they were saying, “Oh, that was the wrong choice.” And another study that illustrated that, we asked people—and this is everything with Kaitlin Woolley—we asked people to choose whether they would like to read and write funny jokes or paragraphs that we took from a computer manual from the nineties, like as boring as you can imagine. Again, the catch is that you get paid more for reading the computer manual. People choose that, and they end up making less money than people that we assigned to with jokes.

KATY MILKMAN: I see. So basically, people thought they would make more money for reading the computer manual, but it was so boring that they quit sooner, and since they were paid per minute spent reading, they actually earned less total than the people who were assigned to read the jokes.

AYELET FISHBACH: Yes. So these are just two studies that illustrate that people will think that they can really forego their immediate gratification and just do what they think is more beneficial, is maybe more important, and they end up either regretting it or not being able to stick with it. So what we suggest instead is to make sure that you choose a path to your long-term goal that also has the immediate gratification.

KATY MILKMAN: So Ayelet, why do you think people don’t understand this? We have a whole lifetime of experience, and presumably this is a pattern we go through over and over again, where we choose the thing that’s more instantly gratifying, we get more out of that, we persist more when we do things that way. So why don’t people get it?

AYELET FISHBACH: Why don’t people get that it’s important to think about immediate experience? Well, we have a family of biases that follow this general theme where people are very much driven by the here and now, but they don’t appreciate it as much as they should. So that’s human. At the present, I’m aware that I care about the present.

KATY MILKMAN: But in the future, I’ll care about the big picture more.

AYELET FISHBACH: Yeah.

KATY MILKMAN: So how has all of your research on this Mary Poppins approach changed your own behavior, Ayelet, if at all?

AYELET FISHBACH: Oh, well it definitely changed my exercise regimen. I’m now doing yoga. I used to run. I used to love running, but then I didn’t like running anymore, but I thought it was important for me, and then I realized that I’m going to stick much better to something that I really enjoy doing. So changed my exercise.

KATY MILKMAN: Some of the techniques you highlighted can turn the same task into something that’s more enjoyable, right? Like adding the music and the snacks and the markers. I think we see a lot of companies doing things like that to try to make work feel more instantly gratifying. Do you agree with that?

AYELET FISHBACH: Absolutely. I think what is sometimes confusing is that it sounds like our advice—and I include you, Katy, in this—is for people to just follow your dream, just drop your job and go do the things that’s most interesting for you, and it’s not what we are saying. OK, we’re not saying that you should eat only what’s tasty, or you should not exercise because it doesn’t feel good. We don’t advocate that you will do what feels good. We advocate that to you will think about what’s important for you and how you can make this feel good.

OK, so with that in mind, when I say that for many people going to work is not the highlight of the day—the highlight might be going home. It’s … you still need to find ways to make work fun, and to the extent that you cannot do that, you are probably looking for a different job. But you see the problem here is that, like, it’s too easy to say, well, so I should just eat ice cream because I love ice cream.

KATY MILKMAN: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. But you do have very helpful recommendations, which actually I’d love to get you to point to some of them, and by the way, I think temptation bundling is one of them, but right. I think the recommendation is pick the exercises you’ll enjoy, try to volunteer for the projects at work that you’ll get the most out of, be thoughtful about what is going to be fun in the moment, and find ways to make work fun by playing the music you like, working in the coffee shops you enjoy, using the programs and materials and decorating your office in ways that make it feel like a fun place to be. So I feel like you do have a lot of practical tips.

AYELET FISHBACH: Yes, and they might not be immediately apparent because you might underappreciate how much it’s important to have fun, and you might not realize that, for you, listening to music actually increases your productivity.

KATY MILKMAN: What advice do you have on how we can pursue our goals more effectively with this research in mind?

AYELET FISHBACH: When choosing a path to a goal, we want to think about the path that is most rewarding for us at the moment, that feels good. We want to use what you named temptation bundling, and I understand is also now called the Mary Poppins Effect—which is still add the spoon of sugar, right? Or the music or the book, the TV show, whatever makes it fun at the moment. We want to make the time for pursuing the goals such that we are all in it, we are able to focus on it, we are not distracted by other things—that makes it more pleasurable. We’re often faced with a choice: Do you want to choose this path or the other path? And so choosing the one that feels good instead of why it’s important for you.

KATY MILKMAN: Thank you so much for doing this, Ayelet. It has been really fun talking with you.

AYELET FISHBACH: Thank you, Katy. That was a lot of fun for me too.

KATY MILKMAN: Ayelet Fishbach is the Jeffrey Breakenridge Keller Professor of Behavioral Science and Marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. I have links to her work in the show notes and at schwab.com/podcast.

If you struggle with setting and keeping financial resolutions, check out the recent episode of our sister podcast, Financial Decoder, that’s entitled “Is It Time to Reboot Your New Year’s Resolutions?” Remember that you can always choose different temporal landmarks besides New Year’s to make a fresh start, and maybe you can even use some tips we’ve discussed here to inject a little fun into your financial to-do list. Check it out at schwab.com/financialdecoder or wherever you listen to podcasts.

You’ve heard lots of great tips from all of the guests in this episode on strategies to help you stick with your long-term goals. The key thing to remember is that in spite of the catchiness of Nike’s motto “Just do it,” it’s actually not great advice. If you try to just do it when it comes to your toughest goals, present bias will often hold you back, because doing what’s good for you in the long run like math homework, a rehab regimen, eating healthy, exercising, or even saving for retirement is not instantly gratifying.

So you’ll often put it off until tomorrow and then the day after that and then … well, you get the picture. You’re better off using the Mary Poppins approach and dosing the tough things you need to do with a spoonful of sugar so it won’t be painful to achieve your biggest goals. You can try temptation bundling or just choosing activities that will help you nail your goals in the most enjoyable way possible—like eating healthy but also delicious foods or picking forms of exercise like yoga that you naturally enjoy. Gamification can be another way to make things fun, though I should note that the research on gamification is mixed. If it feels forced or artificial, my colleagues Nancy Rothbard and Ethan Mollick have shown gamification can actually backfire. But the best games, like Rehabilitation Rapids, are immersive and work because the people playing them elect to play them to achieve their own goals. I hope this episode has given you some great ideas for ways you can add a spoonful of sugar to whatever you’re struggling with in your own life.

You’ve been listening to Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. If you’ve enjoyed listening, I’d be really grateful if you’d leave us a review on Apple Podcasts—it helps other people find the show. You can also subscribe for free in your favorite podcasting apps. If you’re new to the show, we’ve got an ever-growing back catalog of episodes on all sorts of different aspects of decision making, with topics like present bias, mental accounting, the planning fallacy, stereotypes, and many more. That’s it for this season of Choiceology. Season 6 arrives in late summer. I hope you’ll join me then. I’m Dr. Katy Milkman. Talk to you soon.

SPEAKER 7: For important disclosures, see the show notes or visit schwab.com/podcast.

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