Do you use a Fitbit exercise tracker or some other device to manage your health? These are marvelous tools that use the principles of motivational science to help people achieve their goals. Most of these watches or apps are based upon the 10,000-step goal. In her book Get It Done, Ayelet Fishbach recounts how the idea began with a pedometer invented in 1965 by Yamasa Tokei, a Japanese health scientist. He named his invention Manpokei.
There is nothing magical about 10,000 steps, just as there is nothing magical about the concept that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to learn a language or master a musical instrument. There is science behind it though. According to Fishbach, goals need to be a little out of reach, or “optimistic.” When our goals are difficult, but not impossible, we will work harder as the goal becomes within reach. Take the example of marathon runners who try to finish in under four hours. According to professor Fishbach, “many more people finish the race just under their set target time than just over their target time.” The fact that they missed by a second or so is much less important than the satisfaction of achieving more than they initially thought that they could.*
The goal must be a preset number and be measurable. Progress can be checked along the way and corrections made accordingly. In a marathon, we usually have people handing out water and cheering us along the way. Being optimistic allows us to turn a common behavioral problem into a positive one. The “planning fallacy” leads us to underestimate what we need in order to achieve a goal. It causes us to go over budget on our home construction, file our taxes late, or pay too much for bullet trains and power plants. Yet, if we set clear and realistic goals that are a little out of reach, we create the motivational stimulus that helps us achieve.
We also need to avoid “malicious goals.” Fishback reminds us of a national bank that forced the “Gr-eight initiative” on its employees. The goal was for every customer to use eight different financial tools offered by the bank, a task that “cannot be realistically achieved unless through unethical behavior.” We can set goals for ourselves that, while not being grossly unethical, undermine our motivation and likelihood of success. These are fuzzy goals or short-term goals. This is why crash diets fail.
In financial planning, we are trying to help people achieve happiness. To achieve happiness, a goal should be one that you set for yourself, not one that is set for you. For many people, the financial-planning process is the first time that they did not work towards a goal set by a parent, teacher, or employer. It can be liberating. Our goal is to help.
*FISHBACH, AYELET. Get It Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation. S.l.: MACMILLAN, 2022.