At one time or another, most of us have struggled to do the things we know we should. Whether it’s in our personal lives or at work, we fall short of a goal, not because it’s unattainable but because we fail to exert the effort required.
Katherine Milkman is determined to help us do better next time. In one of her most recent studies, the James G. Campbell Jr. Assistant Professor of Operations and Information Management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania looks at what she and her coauthors call the “fresh-start effect”: the energy and determination we feel when we’re able to wipe the slate clean. According to Milkman’s research, the same momentum that drives us to join the gym in January can be harnessed to help us focus on the pursuit of goals at other times throughout the year. In these moments when we can begin anew, we have a natural motivation to work harder. And, Milkman finds, fresh-start moments are all around us. An ordinary Monday takes on a new identity when it’s framed as an opportunity to shed the weight of the previous week.
This isn’t Milkman’s first foray into encouraging self-discipline. She’s also done research on how bundling your challenging tasks with your temptations—combining the things you know you should do, but might be inclined to skip, with the things that give you more instant gratification—can help you tackle those tougher tasks. (Watch her presentation on holding The Hunger Games hostage and you may make an extra trip to the gym this week.)
Her research has powerful management implications. Understanding what drags people down, and what can lift them back up with renewed vigor, has the potential to create a more committed and satisfied workforce. Milkman (@katy_milkman), one of Poets & Quants’ 2011 “Top 40 under 40” b-school professors and 2013 Wharton “Iron Prof,” recently spoke with strategy+business about how her findings can put success within reach.
S+B: Your research is largely focused on what you call “want/should” conflicts.
MILKMAN: We often feel conflicted when choosing between “wants,” things that are instantly gratifying but not so great for us in the long run, and “shoulds,” which are good for us in the long run but may not be so pleasant in the moment. These “want/should” conflicts are all around us. We face them at work: browsing the Internet versus doubling down our efforts to meet our deadlines. We face them in a lot of health contexts. We face them when deciding whether to spend versus saving for retirement.
When we think about why people aren’t accomplishing their goals, or about why people aren’t succeeding and achieving more, one answer is that they lack ability—that they don’t have the education and the skills that they need. But another answer is that they struggle with self-control. It’s hard to focus and pay attention, and to put all of our effort behind our goals, when there are lots of other tempting things to spend our time on.
My research looks at failures of self-control as an obstacle to success, and seeks to develop strategies for overcoming this pattern—to determine how we can help people to do what they should more often.
S+B: One of these strategies involves what you call the fresh-start effect. Can you talk about that?
MILKMAN: We’re all familiar with the New Year’s effect—the idea that people tend to make resolutions and pursue their goals with enhanced vigor at the start of every new year. But my research with Hengchen Dai and Jason Riis has shown that it’s not just about New Year’s; it’s about the start of many cycles. For example, at the beginning of a new week, the start of a new month, following a birthday, or after a holiday from work, people redouble their efforts to achieve their goals.