Ask Ariely: On Preparing for Productivity, Manipulating Motivation, and Risking Romance

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

Do you have any tips to improve productivity?

—Shana 

Here’s one: Pick a food or drink that you love, turn consuming it into a ritual and make working on an important long-term project a condition of indulging in this exciting consumption.

I adore my morning coffee, so I’ve transformed it into a daily ceremony by using the same mug, savoring the grinding of the beans, watching the coffee pour from the machine and smelling the aroma as it spreads throughout the room. I then take the cup to my office, sit at my desk and move to the important part: I connect this marvelous mug of coffee to a continuing task that matters deeply to me.

This can be an academic article, grading my students’ term papers or anything else that I want to do in principle but tend not to feel like doing on any given day. I allow myself to start sipping my coffee only after I’ve been working on the project for a few minutes, and I don’t stop working until I’ve drained my cup. (This works better with a big mug of coffee than with an espresso.)

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Dear Dan,

I love using behavioral economics to produce better decision-making. But what happens when people discover that they’re being manipulated to do something? Do they lose motivation or try to play against the system?

—Sebastian 

Of course, if we found out that someone had deliberately deceived us into doing something against our best interests (such as signing up for an insurance policy we don’t need), we’d be upset. The more interesting question: How would we react if we found out that we had been manipulated into doing something that is in our long-term interest (like saving more or eating better)?

Recent research found that in such cases, it doesn’t matter if people find out that they were manipulated. This holds across many domains, whether it is influencing people to eat healthier food, getting them to fill out advance directives about what to do if they become too ill to express their wishes, or prompting them to donate more to a charity. So while it might seem morally dubious to manipulate people into following their best interests, they are generally OK with it.

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Dear Dan,

Is love overrated? I am deeply in love with someone, but to be with them, I’ll have to change jobs and cities. Should I make these changes and hope that this love will last, or should I assume that this love, like most loves, is doomed to fade and not worth the risk?

—Amy 

Wait a few months, and if you still feel as ardent about your partner, take the chance. In general, the odds are very much against us when we start almost anything: a business, a book, an exercise regimen. But we often encourage people to do these things anyway, so why not for love? The odds are low that your love will burn as brightly in 10 years, but some risks in life are worth taking.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.