Why Keeping Your Options Open Is Really, Really Bad Idea

Given the choice, would you prefer to make an iron-clad, no-turning-back decision, or one you could back out of if you needed to?   Does that seem like a stupid question?  I understand why it might, but bear with me – because it isn’t.

People overwhelmingly prefer reversible decisions to irreversible ones.  They believe it’s better to “keep your options open,” whenever possible.  They wait years before declaring a major, date someone for years before getting married, favor stores with a guaranteed return policy (think Zappos), and hire employees on a temporary basis (or use probationary periods), all in order to avoid commitments that can be difficult, or nearly impossible, to un-do. 

People believe that this is the best way to ensure their own happiness and success.  But people, as it turns out, are wrong. 

Let’s start with the happiness part.  Research by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, shows that reversible, keep-your-options-open decisions reliably lead to lower levels of satisfaction than irreversible ones.  In other words, we are significantly less happy with our choices when we can back out of them.

(For example, in one of Gilbert’s studies, people were asked to choose an art poster that they could keep.  Those who were told that they could change their mind and return it for a different poster in the next 30 days reported being less happy with their poster than those who had to pick a poster and stick with it.)

Why does keeping our options open make us less happy?  Because once we make a final, no-turning-back decision, the psychological immune system kicks in.  This is how psychologists like Gilbert refer to the mind’s uncanny ability to make us feel good about our decisions.  Once we’ve committed to a course of action, we stop thinking about alternatives.  Or, if we do bother to think about them, we think about how lousy they are compared to our clearly superior and awesome choice. 

Most of us have had to make a choice between two colleges, or job offers, or apartments.  You may have had to choose which candidate to hire for a job, or which vendor your company would engage for a project.  When you were making your decision, it was probably a tough one – every option had significant pros and cons.  But after you made that decision, did you ever wonder how you could have even considered the now obviously inferior alternative?  “Wow, I can’t believe I even thought about going to Yale, when Harvard is better in every way.”  (That’s just an example – I am neutral when it comes to Harvard vs. Yale.  I went to Penn, which incidentally was way better than those schools, but I digress…)

Human beings are particularly good at rearranging and restructuring our thoughts to create the most positive experience possible in any situation.  The psychological immune system protects us, to some extent, from the negative consequences of our choices – because after all, almost every choice has a downside.  The key to happiness is to dwell as little as possible on that downside.

When you keep your options open, however, you can’t stop thinking about the downside – because you’re still trying to figure out if you made the right choice.   The psychological immune system doesn’t kick in, and you’re left feeling less happy about whatever choice you end up making.

This brings us to the other problem with reversible decisions – new research shows that they don’t just rob you of happiness, they also lead to poorer performance.

Once again, it’s because thoughts related to making the right decision stay active in your mind when your options are open.    This places a rather hefty burden on your working memory, and it’s distracting.  When you’re still deciding what you should do, you don’t have the cognitive resources to devote yourself fully to what you’re actually doing.  Your attention wanders.  And as a result, your performance suffers.  (For instance, in one study, people who made a reversible decision were able to recall fewer correct answers on a subsequent task then those who made a choice they had to stick with.)

So keeping your options open leads to less happiness and success, not more.  Ironically, people don’t actually change their minds and revise decisions very often.  We just prefer having the option to do so, and that preference is costing us.

I’m not, for the record, saying reversible decisions are never beneficial. Obviously if you have no real basis for making a good choice in the first place and you’re just guessing, or if the consequences of your choice might end up killing someone, the option of a do-over is probably a good thing.

But assuming that your choice is carefully considered and you’ve weighed your options, you will be both happier and more successful if you make a decision, and don’t look back.


Getting Others to Embrace Risk

Why aren’t companies hiring?  Why aren’t homes selling, despite bargain pricing? Why is growth and innovation in some industries so sluggish?
Americans have a well-earned reputation for risk-taking, but these days we are something of a timid lot.  Our reluctance to stick our collective neck out has everything to do with the psychology of motivation – specifically, how we think about the goals we pursue. The problem, in a nutshell, is simply this:  when making decisions, lately many of us have been focused much more on what we have to lose than on what we might gain

Whenever we see our goals – whether they are organizational or personal - in terms of what we have to lose, we have what’s called a prevention focus.  Prevention motivation is about obtaining security, avoiding mistakes, and fulfilling responsibilities.  It’s about trying to hang on to what you’ve already got and keep things running smoothly, and it isn’t at all conducive to taking chances

If, instead, we see our goals in terms of what we might gain, we have what’s called a promotion focus. Promotion motivation is about getting ahead, maximizing your potential, and reaping the rewards.  It’s about never missing an opportunity for a win, even when doing so means taking a leap of faith.

In the last decade, researchers in psychology and management departments across the country have conducted hundreds of studies showing that promotion and prevention motivations lead to different strengths and weaknesses, and very different strategic approaches.  The promotion focus on potential gain leads to speed, creativity, innovation, and embracing risk, while the prevention focus on avoiding loss leads to accuracy, careful deliberation, thoroughness, and a strong preference for the devil-you-know. 

The recent recession, coupled with financial and health care reform, have left American businesses (and individual Americans) focused far more on keeping what they’ve got than boldly going where they’ve never gone before.  People don’t want to rock the boat at a time when consumers (and jobs) are harder to find, and when risk feels like recklessness.  Unfortunately, they forget that without organizational innovation and growth, no business (and no job) will be safe for long.

If you’ve got great, forward-thinking ideas, and their reception has been lukewarm at best, you are probably wishing your boss, your coworkers, or your clients were a bit more comfortable with risk.  There are really only two solutions:  get them to adopt the promotion mindset (the harder option in the current climate), or use the right language to work with their prevention mindset instead.  You may be thinking of your great idea as an opportunity for gain, but you can always reframe it as an opportunity for avoiding loss

To persuade the prevention-minded person to take a risk, recent research by psychologists Abigail Scholer, Xi Zou, Ken Fujita, Steve Stroessner, and E. Tory Higgins suggests that you should emphasize how a course of action can keep your company (or your client) safe and secure - how it will help them to avoid making a terrible mistake.   A new venture isn’t a chance to get in front of the pack, but a way to not fall behind.  (“Everyone is moving in this direction.  It’s inevitable.  We could lose market share if aren’t prepared for the future.”)

Matching a pitch to the listener’s current motivation is the key to effective persuasion. Research shows that even the most timid, prevention-minded person among us will gladly take a risk, once you help him understand why it would be a greater risk not to.


The Key Trait Successful People Have, and How To Get It

Which character traits do you need to have if you want to work effectively and get ahead?  The answer depends, to some extent, on the kind of work you do – but there’s one trait that everyone needs to have if they want to succeed, and that’s trustworthiness.  Technically, it’s not so much being trustworthy, but being perceived as trustworthy, that matters.  You can be as honest, fair, and reliable as the day is long, but if nobody else sees you that way, it won’t help you.

When your boss doesn’t trust you, you don’t get key assignments, promotions, or the latitude to do things your own way and take risks.   When your employees don’t trust you, you don’t get their best effort, or all the information you need from them to make good decisions.

If you want other people to believe that you are trustworthy, you should be aware that you may be seriously undermining that belief if you appear to lack self-control.   New research shows that people just won’t trust you when you seem like you might have a willpower problem.  If you think about it, this makes a lot of intuitive sense.  We trust people because we know that when things get hard, or when it might be tempting for them to put their own interests first, they’ll resist temptation and do what’s right.

Studies show that when you engage in behaviors that are indicative of low self-control, your trustworthiness is diminished.  In other words, all those things you know you shouldn’t do - smoking, overeating, impulsive spending, being lazy, late, disorganized, excessively emotional, or having a quick temper - may be even worse for you than you ever realized, because of the collateral damage they are doing to your reputation.

So if you want to be trusted, you’re going to have to conquer these trust saboteurs.  To do that, you’ll need to understand how willpower really works, and how you can get your hands on some more of it.

The Secret to Earning Trust:  Willpower

Your capacity for self-control is like the muscles in your body.   Like biceps or triceps, willpower varies in its strength, not only from person to person, but from moment to moment.  Just as well-developed biceps sometimes get tired and jelly-like after a strenuous workout, so too does your willpower “muscle.”

Even everyday actions like decision-making or trying to make a good impression can sap this valuable resource.  So can coping with the stresses of your career and family.  When you tax it too much at once, or for too long, the well of self-control strength runs dry, no matter who you are.   It is in these moments that the doughnut (or the cigarette, or your hot temper) wins.

So if you are serious about resisting your unwanted impulses, start by making peace with the fact that your willpower is limited.  If you’ve spent all your self-control handling stresses at work, you will not have much left at the end of the day for sticking to your resolutions.  Think about when you are most likely to feel drained and vulnerable, and make a plan to keep yourself out of harm’s way.  Decide, in advance, what you will do instead when the impulse strikes.

The good news is, willpower depletion is only temporary.  Give your muscle time to bounce back, and you’ll be back in fighting form.  When rest is not an option, recent research shows that you can actually speed up your self-control recovery, or give it a boost when reserves are low, simply by thinking about people you know who have lot of self-control.   (Thinking about my impossibly self-possessed mother does wonders for me when I’m about to fall off the no-cheesecake wagon.)

Or, you can try giving yourself a pick-me-up.  I don’t mean a cocktail – I mean something that puts you in a good mood.  (Again, not a cocktail – it may be mood-enhancing, but alcohol is definitely not willpower-enhancing, nor trust-enhancing).    Anything that lifts your spirits should also help restore your self-control strength when you’re looking for a quick fix.

The other way in which willpower is like a muscle (and the really great news for those of us trying to rid ourselves of a trust saboteur) is that it can be made stronger over time, if you give it regular workouts.  Recent studies show that daily activities such as exercising, keeping track of your finances or what you are eating – or even just remembering to sit up straight every time you think of it – can strengthen your capacity for self-control.  For example, in one study, people who were given free gym memberships and stuck to a daily exercise program for two months not only got physically healthier, but also smoked fewer cigarettes, drank less alcohol, and ate less junk food.  They were better able to control their tempers, and less likely to spend money impulsively.  They didn’t leave their dishes in the sink, didn’t put things off until later, and missed fewer appointments. In fact, every aspect of their lives that required the use of willpower improved dramatically.

So if you want to build more willpower, start by picking an activity (or avoiding one) that fits with your life and your goals – anything that requires you to override an impulse or desire again and again, and add this activity to your daily routine.  It will be hard in the beginning, but it will get easier over time if you hang in there, because your capacity for self-control will grow.    Other people will notice the change, and trust you more.

Armed with more willpower and the trust of those around you, you’ll be more successful than ever before.


The Secret to Making Employees Energized (Not Exhausted) By Difficult Work

If there were something you could add to your car’s engine, so that after driving it a hundred miles, you’d end up with more gas in the tank than you started with, wouldn’t you use it?

Even if nothing like that exists for your car just yet, there is something you can give your employees that will have the same effect….. interesting work.

Now I know what you’re thinking.  “Finding your work interesting is nice, but the work has to get done, interesting or not.”  This is the attitude many managers take when they hear complaints from employees about work being too boring, tedious, or difficult.   As if interest is a luxury - something that is pleasant but unnecessary, like little chocolates on your hotel pillow. 

Interest in work is not a luxury – it is a powerful motivator.   In fact, research shows that finding what you do interesting and believing it has inherent value is probably the single best way to stay motivated despite difficulty, setbacks, and unexpected roadblocks.  

But as they say in the infomercials, that’s not all.  A new set of studies shows that interest doesn’t just keep you going despite fatigue, it actually replenishes your energy

In their studies, psychologists at CSU gave participants a task to work on that was particularly draining, and then varied whether the next task was difficult-but-interesting or relatively easy-but-dull.  They found that people who worked on the interesting task put in more effort and performed much better (despite being tired) than those who worked on the boring task – even though it was actually harder than the boring task.  In other words, experiencing interest restored their energy and gave them a tangible advantage.

In another study, the researchers found that experiencing interest resulted in better performance on a subsequent task as well.  In other words, you don’t just do a better job on Task A because you find Task A interesting – you do a better job on follow-up Task B because you found Task A interesting.  The replenished energy flows into whatever you do next.

(Incidentally, each of these studies compared the effects of interest and good mood, and found that while people do get some replenishment of energy from being happy, they get much more from being interested in and engaged by what they do.)

If it’s your job to make the most of your employees’ potential, you would be wise to make their work more interesting – or, at least find ways of sprinkling some more interesting work here and there throughout the day.  But how can you make work more interesting?

One of the surest ways to do so is to give your employees the experience of choice. Research show that self-chosen pursuits create a special kind of motivation called intrinsic motivationthe desire to do something for its own sake.   When people feel that they have a hand in directing what they do and how they do it, they enjoy it far more and find it more interesting. 

In order to experience a sense of autonomy, your employees need to understand why the goal or project they’ve been assigned has value.  Too often, managers tell their employees what they need to do, without taking the time to explain why it’s important, or how it fits into the bigger picture.  No one ever really commits to a goal if they don’t see why it’s desirable for them to do it in the first place. 
Allowing your employees the freedom to decide how they will complete an assignment is another way to create the feeling of choice necessary to be intrinsically motivated.  Allowing them to tailor their approach to their preferences and abilities will also give them heightened sense of control over the situation they find themselves in, which can only benefit performance. 

If that won’t work, it turns out that it isn’t so much actual freedom of choice that matters when it comes to creating intrinsic motivation and interest, but the feeling of choice, even  when that feeling is coming from a choice that’s trivial or illusory.   Try inviting your employees to make decisions about more peripheral aspects of the work they do.  For instance, if they have to go to weekly team meetings to improve coordination – meetings they usually find boring to attend - you can increase interest by having team members take turns deciding what the topic of the meeting will be each week, or even what kind of lunch will be ordered in.  Studies show that these more peripheral decisions create a feeling of choice, and heighten interest, even when the choices aren’t particularly meaningful.

Take time to reflect on how you might be able create a greater sense of choice in your own workplace using these methods. You’ll make the work more interesting, and wind up with employees that have a lot more gas in the tank.


Be An Optimist Without Ending Up A Fool

There are quite a number of motivational speakers and self-improvement books out there with a surprisingly simple message: believe that success will come easily to you, and it will. There is one small problem in this argument, however, which unfortunately doesn’t seem to stop anyone from making it: it is utterly false.

In fact, not only is visualizing “effortless success” unhelpful, it is disastrous. This is good advice to give only if you are trying to sabotage the recipient. It is a recipe for failure. And no, I’m not overstating it.

But how can this be? Isn’t optimism a good thing? Yes it is. Optimism and the confidence it creates are essential for creating and sustaining the motivation you need to reach your goals. Albert Bandura, one of the founding fathers of scientific psychology, discovered decades ago that perhaps the best predictor of an individual’s success is whether or not they believe they will succeed. Thousands and thousands of experiments later, he has yet to be proven wrong.

But there is an important caveat: to be successful, you need to understand the very vital difference between believing you will succeed, and believing you will succeed easily. Put another way, it’s the difference between being a realistic optimist, and an unrealistic optimist.

Realistic optimists (the kind Bandura was talking about) believe they will succeed, but also believe they have to make success happen – through things like effort, careful planning, persistence, and choosing the right strategies. They recognize the need for giving serious thought to how they will deal with obstacles. This preparation only increases their confidence in their own ability to get things done.

Unrealistic optimists, on the other hand, believe that success will happen to them – that the universe will reward them for all their positive thinking, or that somehow they will be transformed overnight into the kind of person for whom obstacles cease to exist. (Forgetting that even Superman had Kryptonite. And a secret identity that took a lot of trouble to maintain. And also relationship issues.)

One of the clearest illustrations of the dangers of unrealistic optimism comes from a study of weight loss. Psychologist Gabriele Oettingen asked a group of obese women who had enrolled in a weight-loss program how likely they felt they were to reach their goals. She found that those women who were confident that they would succeed lost 26 pounds more than self-doubters, as expected.

But Oettingen also asked the women to tell her what they imagined their road to success would be like – if they thought they would have a hard time resisting temptation, or if they’d have no problem turning down free doughnuts in the conference room and a second trip to the all-you-can-eat buffet. The results were astounding: women who believed they would succeed easily lost 24 pounds less than those who thought their weight-loss journey would be no walk in the park.

(She has found the same pattern of results in studies of students looking for high-paying jobs after college, singles looking to find lasting love, and seniors recovering from hip replacement surgery. Realistic optimists send out more job applications, find the courage to approach potential romantic partners, and work harder on their rehabilitation exercises – in each case, leading to much higher success rates.)

Believing that the road to success will be rocky leads to greater success, because it forces you to take action. People who are confident that they will succeed, and equally confident that success won’t come easily, put in more effort, plan how to deal with problems before they arise, and persist longer in the face of difficulty.

Unrealistic optimists are only too happy to tell you that you are “being negative” when you dare to express concerns, harbor reservations, or dwell too long on obstacles that stand in the way of your goal. In truth, this kind of thinking is a necessary step in any successful endeavor, and it is not at all antithetical to confident optimism. Focusing only on what we want, to the exclusion of everything else, is just the kind of na├»ve and reckless thinking that has landed industry leaders (and at times entire industries) in hot water.

Cultivate your realistic optimism by combining a positive attitude with an honest assessment of the challenges that await you. Don’t visualize success - visualize the steps you will take in order to make success happen.

G. Oettingen (2000). Expectancy effects on behavior depend on self-regulatory thought. Social Cognition, 18, 101-129.


The Difference Between Good and Bad Advice

Most advice is terrible.  Whether you get it from a best-selling author, your boss, or your neighbor, nine times out of ten it’s about as useful as a screen door on a submarine.   And yet most advice – at least the kind you take seriously – comes from people who are in their own way very accomplished.  So it presents something of a paradox – successful people who can’t seem to effectively articulate how they became so successful.

It doesn’t stop them from trying.  And you can’t blame them, because each of us feels like we understand the causes of our own past successes and failures.  We tell stories to ourselves, about ourselves, that seem to make sense.  Why not tell the story to others so that they, too, can benefit from it?

Well, for starters, many of the stories we tell about ourselves are wrong.  Decades of research paint a pretty poor picture of human beings’ ability to accurately identify the causes of our own behavior, and the reasons why we succeed or fail.  Very successful people may do the right things, but they aren’t necessarily any better at figuring out what exactly they did right.   

For the record, before I started studying motivation and achievement for a living, my intuitions were no better than anyone else’s.  I thought I got A’s in school and was a disaster in every sport because I was born that way.   Years later I learned that no one is born that way.  It forced me to rethink the story I had been telling myself all my life.

When I decided to get into the advice-giving business and write my book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, I thought a lot about what makes advice useful. Recently, I was struck once again by the clear difference between useful and useless advice while reading Guy Kawasaki’s excellent new book Enchantment.    It reminded me that good advice has two distinct qualities.  And since it would be pretty obnoxious of me to use my own book as an illustration of great advice-giving (though it is tempting), I’m going to use Kawassaki’s instead.

Enchantment is a handbook for total transformation.  It’s a step-by-step guide to becoming the kind of person who enchants, which in turn allows you to create the kind of business that enchants, too.    One of the things I love about this book is that Kawasaki isn’t afraid to set himself an incredibly ambitious goal –  he’s not content to show you how to be more effective or make more money.  He’s going to show you how to be extraordinary.   In terms of gutsiness, this is like teaching an art class at your local community college, and promising students that they won’t just learn to paint a cow that looks like a cow – they’ll learn to paint cows like Picasso.  (I’m not sure if Picasso ever painted cows, but you get my point.)

The thing is, Guy Kawasaki pulls it off.   He has written a book that gives useful advice on achieving a particularly big, hairy, and audacious goal: becoming the kind of person who changes the “heart, mind, and actions” of others.  And he succeeds because his advice embodies these two principles:

Good advice is true.  

This sounds obvious, and yet, a staggering amount of the advice you’ll read on how to do just about anything is simply not true.  There is, for instance, absolutely zero evidence that if you imagine yourself getting everything you want effortlessly, it will somehow magically happen – and plenty of evidence that this kind of thinking actually undermines your success.  This is good advice to give only if you are trying to sabotage the recipient.

Kawasaki’s advice is true because he is wise enough to not simply rely on his own experiences, despite having more than enough of those to draw on to fill many books.  He casts a much wider net and incorporates the experiences of countless other individuals and businesses, along with relevant scientific research, into his analysis of enchantment and its root causes.   By taking a more objective view, Enchantment becomes not just a story of why Guy Kawasaki is successful, but of how each of us can be as well.

Good advice is concrete – it has steps.

This is the principle that advice-givers nearly always violate.  “Be Positive!”  they tell you.  Gee, thanks.  “Take Action!”  Oh, I need to take action?  Silly me, I had no idea. 

We all know we need to do these things to be successful – the problem is that we don’t know how to do them.  We need steps.  We need specificity.  We need someone to tell us where to start.  Advice that tells you what to do without bothering to tell you how to do it is utterly pointless.

Which brings me to the second thing I love about Enchantment:  It takes a concept as elusive and difficult-to-define as “enchantment,” defines it, and then tells you exactly what you need to do to get your hands on it.  

It doesn’t just say “Be Likeable,” it actually spells out how to become more likeable in terms of concrete behaviors – what to do more of (e.g., find commonalities), what to do less of (e.g., using 25-cent words when a 10-cent word will do), and what to do only under the right circumstances (e.g. swear).  Kawasaki’s advice is just as specific when it comes to cultivating authenticity, overcoming resistance, and making enchantment last. 

So, what’s the lesson here?  The lesson is simply this:  be careful giving advice that’s based solely on your personal experience, and always be very specific about exactly what needs to be done differently – the specific behaviors the person should or shouldn’t engage in.     Bad advice can leave the recipient frustrated, confused, or headed down the wrong path.  When they just can’t seem to “Be Positive” and “Take Action,” they might feel that the fault lies with them. 

If you are an advice-giver  (and that category includes managers, parents, friends, and teachers), you have a responsibility to do right by those who come to you for help.  Keep these two principles in mind and you can make the most of the wisdom you have to offer.