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#77 How to Become Persistent by Tapping Into the Power of Perception

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Motivation comes and goes in waves. But how can you make waves so you can persist when pursuing your goals? In this episode, Terry sits down with NYU Motivation scientist Emily Balcetis to discuss her work on how perception can change our ability to persist in the pursuit of any goal.

What you'll learn:


Hey Terry, and I’ve got a surprise guest for you at the start of this series on Hacking Money Habits. I reached out to this expert, but yet to hear back, so I didn’t mention to her in the series preview, but a couple of episodes in. She agreed to come on the show and share her wisdom, 

emily Cheez is a motivation scientist at New York State University and also the author of the book, clearer, closer, better, Emily Studies how perception influences our motivation and our effort when pursuing goals and her work has distilled the key strategies high performers use to change the aperture of their focus at different stages of goal pursuit.

And for me, it just makes total sense. What we see impacts what we feel and how we feel impacts what we’ll do. And then what we’ll do influences our end results. So by learning to deliberately change the aperture of our focus, we can boost commitment, build confidence, and stay the course even when things don’t go away. And all of that dramatically shifts the odds in favor of our success. So in this episode, expect to learn how vision, as a sense, is strikingly different from our other senses and why that matters in the context of Goldberg shoot.

How to find motivation for goals even when you’re not confident or competent at first, and the different frames we need to adopt at the start and the middle and the end of our endeavors. And also a simple strategy for reclaiming your confidence when it feels like you’re getting nowhere. Now, as with all of these experts, Emily’s work has directly or indirectly influenced much of how we go about what we do. And I’m excited to share some of these tools and tactics with you. Enjoy, 

Terry: Emily, thank you so much for joining me on the show. 

Emily: Thanks for having. 

Terry: Tell me a little bit about your book. Why would you write a book? I know a lot of people say that it’s a very painful process. What was it that made you kind of go, well, I’m gonna do that.

Emily: I think stupidity, or at least naivety because I didn’t know that it was hard to write a book. I’m a social psychologist. That means I study judgment decision making, and I know all of the ways that people do that wrong, and I did all of it in my. Thinking about whether I could do this, the planning of how long that it would take, I totally overestimated my skills at the beginning and I, so I 

learned a lot along the way.

Uh, so I did it cuz I didn’t

realize how hard that it actually would be, 

but it ended up being a lot of 


Terry: It’s sort of interesting, isn’t it? Like you could almost write 

another book about writing the book using the same 

principles from the book. 

Emily: Yeah, actually my editor in the process of writing this book, you know, is like you’re writing a book that’s about goal setting and like concrete strategies to help people to meet their goals better. You need to try them all out on yourself, like Gonzo journalism style report on your experience, but you need to choose a goal, right?

And you need to have some skin in this game. And I was like, what goal do I wanna take on that’s, Going to be like a year’s long pursuit that I could try all these different tactics on. So I was like talking this through with her and she was like, well, how about writing a book like that? You have a year to write this book.

Why don’t you have that be your goal? And it’s like, that sounds like the worst idea for a a book, honestly. Because especially when it’s about like, here’s tactics to help. First of all. More people probably know that it’s really hard to write a book and they don’t wanna write a book. So like this is a very narrow audience if I choose that as the goal, plus it’ll sound so egotistical.

Like if you follow all of these strategies, you too can write a book just like me, which is not at all the tone that I wanted to take and wanted to acknowledge the practicalities and the realities of how challenging it is and that it’s not. Like a straight line to success. So yeah, I did entertain that possibility of writing a book, about writing a book and quickly mixed that idea.

In my mind, 

that’s not the kind of author I am. 

Terry: Well, I think you chose a pretty interesting, example with wanting to start and to learn drumming because I feel like it’s not super common in terms of drumming, but it is in terms of music. I think like little things like that, hobbies like that where people say, I just would love to just. And new 

language and it felt to me like one of 

those type of students.

Is that what you were going for? 

Emily: Yeah, totally. I 

mean, music Is like a big part of who I am, my identity, our family identity. So, you know, I did go to college to study music performance. So it, it wasn’t like a total stretch. Like I’m not tone deaf. I can keep a beat, I can clap on two and four, not one and three when that’s what needs to happen.

Um, and I know the difference, but I am not coordinated, right? Like I played saxophone and flute, a little bit of piano. But I couldn’t make four limbs do different stuff at the same time. I had been on a basketball team at one point, and I was kicked off the team before the end of the first season because there was this squirrel on my team.

She had the ball. I tripped over my own feet, knocked into her while she had possession, pushed her out of bounds. We lost the game her. Father was the coach. And so like, I was never, like, I never played again from that. And I feel like that is emblematic of my ability to coordinate my own body in that way.

So I thought like, yeah, this will be a personal conquest if I can make this happen. This is just cool. And I was choosing this like goal at a time in my life where I felt like if I had ever been cool, whatever level of coolness I had, I had lost it at that stage in my life. I had just had a, my first baby 

and, and I was talking about poop 

a lot. 

Terry: crisis there. 

Emily: Yeah, it was it. It totally was It. I don’t know if it was, I think midlife baby, all of that crisis came together and I needed something. I needed something more fun to focus my 

brain on.

Terry: It’s totally hard to let go of the old identity when the little ones come along and your life is lived for them. 

Um, I can access to that. 

Emily: Yeah. 

Terry: Let’s take this back. I would love to know how you came to be studying motivation, 

perception, focus. What kind 

of led you to this place?

Emily: Yeah, I mean, I just think like vision is one of our superpowers that most of us have, like most people have. The sense of sight. Of course, that’s not everybody, but it’s really interesting to study those people too, who actually have some sort of blindness. That’s a whole other. Story that we can talk about, but vision is the most important and prioritized sense that we have.

Like more of our neurological real estate is taken up by processing our visual input, like what our eyes are, are telling our brain than any other sense. And we trust what we see, like all the time. We can think of examples of where we’ve heard someone wrong because like our husband tells us, that’s not what I said, or I mean, just as an example, right.

When you like taste something delicious and you can’t quite figure out like, what are all the spices that went into it? Or you know, you feel some beautiful texture on a new piece of clothing and you have to look at the label to, to see what the blend is like. All of those are examples to tell us that that sense doesn’t quite know what reality is and we need someone to tell us, but that doesn’t happen with the power of vision.

We look at the world around us and we are pretty confident that what we think we see. Is what’s really out there. That’s why you have these examples that on occasion defy those principles. Like that dress example, is it blue and black or white and gold, right? And like families were so divided. Families almost split up because of that, because they’re like, It is black and blue.

No, it’s white and gold. Are you an idiot? Like, what is wrong with you? Right? And that’s why those were such fun examples is because it really took that basic assumption and turned it on its head and said like, no, I don’t think you see the world the way that someone else sees it. And that’s why those things are fun because it’s so foreign for us.

And so it’s like that kind of stuff that I noticed that was like an impetus, the motivation to try to dig deeper and see what we can do with that. The special superpower that 

most of us have.

Terry: Was that something you came to over time as you studied and gathered knowledge and information? Was there a moment of. Of Epiphany where you were like, hang on, hang on. 

We’re missing something here. When it 

comes to perception.

Emily: There was a moment, actually, I wouldn’t call it an epiphany for sure, but my advisor and I finally coming onto the same page for like, you know, one of the first times of like, we both had this idea and we’re both like, yes, let’s do this thing. Like, I guess that could be an epiphany. But you know, we were sitting in and on a lecture of a vision scientist who was talking about.

How we don’t all see the world, the, our environment, like the slope of a hill in the same way and was talking about the different elements of our physiology of our body. Like people who are heavier, who experience chronic pain, who are, you know, physically burdened with extra weight, like a heavy backpack.

His name’s Dennis Prophet. He was doing these studies and many of his students and that other labs were replicating that work to demonstrate the, the robustness of this kind of effect. But we thought because we’re social psychologists and. Experts in motivation. We thought, okay, you know, there’s states of the body, but there’s states of the mind too.

And I bet you some of what we’re thinking and hoping for and fearing can work in the same way as states of our body and change what it is that we’re seeing out there. And then who cares? Is it like the blue black dress situation again? Like where it’s just kind of funny to talk about it. Or does it really matter?

Are there real consequences of that for the things that people are doing in their everyday life that they care about? And so it was sort of a moment where we were both listening into the same scientist and we thought like, I think there’s more to this story, and I think it’s particularly important for everyday people’s, everyday lives.

And so let’s dig.

Terry: You know, I wish I had this knowledge 10, maybe 12 years ago. My first career was in sport working as a, as a coach, and I noticed something that when I read your book, it absolutely confirmed my suspicion, but I didn’t, I don’t. Think I had the language or the frameworks to be able to. Like accurately. Part of what I was used to be responsible for was rehabilitating elite athletes.

So when they got injured, bringing them back, getting them back to their highest level of performance at their peak performance so they could perform when they got back to the top. Um, I was a little bit sadistic, but one of the little activities that I used to dream up to help people maintain their lung capacity when they were injured, when, and they couldn’t be on their feet, was.

Jumping into a pool and picking up heavy kettle bells and walking along the bottom of a pool and just trying to hold their breath because we couldn’t exercise ’em in normal kind of conventional ways. But I was like, well, if we do this, we can increase their lung capacity, but they’re still off their legs in an impact sense.

And so I started doing this with groups of athletes and I started to notice a very interesting pattern. I think it dovetails really nicely with your sort of perception thesis. And what I noticed was a very particular subset of athletes would improve their performance. They would actually get better at this task, but the majority wouldn’t.

The majority would actually just do the exact same every single week. And when I started to get curious about it, what I noticed was the guys that were. Improving their performance had developed strategies for manipulating their focus. And they told me that what they had done was they had marked places in the pool where they had got to before they would mark that place and then they started to count their steps and then they broke their their steps down in every single effort to be able to say, cool.

My goal for this next little section of this effort is to walk five more steps. And if I get to that stage, I’ll walk another five more steps. And then they would actually start to. I found that really interesting, but it sort of, it bled out into other areas. When I was observing these athletes in different contexts, I could see that the way that they were manipulating their focus helped them in so many more areas athletically.

So when I came across your book and that thesis, I was like, this is exactly what I was watching. So some of the strategies in it would’ve been really useful for me to be, to be able to help the other guys, um, at the time. So if I can confirm, it’s absolutely, 

to me it makes a lot of


Emily: Awesome. Well, my first reaction to that is I’d hate to think of what activities you dream up for people that actually aren’t experiencing like a disability or recovery, if that’s what you do to them when they’re broken, when their bodies are broken. God, you are tough.

Terry: Yeah. 

Emily: But yeah, that’s a really awesome example that you’ve given and there’s just so many different motivational principles that come into play there.

You know, they take him what? Something they probably haven’t ever done before. I mean, maybe they had gone through lifeguard training or something, but that doesn’t usually require that you walk across the bottom of the pool carrying a, a heavy. Person or kettle bell, right? Come right back up. So, you know, odds are they’ve never done that before.

So you’re putting them in a totally new situation that might seem really overwhelming and they’ve created sub goals. The people who are doing it effectively and improving. They’ve created a sub goal that is manageable, that mentally they’re construing as within the realm of feasible, not impossible, but not too easy either that they’re not motivated to try.

Right? Because when, when our brains and our bodies. This is not challenging then we don’t really like energize, we don’t get jazzed up to do it. We actually don’t take advantage of our full potential when we know that this doesn’t require anything. But the activity itself that you put them into would require something.

And probably what their mind does is go to the extreme of like, there’s no way I can do this. And that feeling of impossibility might have been going through the heads often of the people that weren’t improving, you know, um, there’s probably a lot of mental baggage getting in their way, but the people who found this strategy of the sub goals could push this into the realm of feasible and start to pull that physiological mobilization we talk about to get the job done, and then to have that little extra bit to try a little bit harder 

for the next sub goal that they’ve created. 

Terry: What you just said there is exactly what happened. People either sort of work their way through it or they panicked and they wouldn’t stop panicking. They were just panicking the same every time. Cuz there’s something. Visceral about hot, something’s pulling you down, you’re underwater, and then you kind of just hit this best state where you’re like, I’ve gotta get outta this sort of situation.

So they just drop the kid off 

us. Chip the bottom of the 

pool. Jump out. 

Emily: I, I mean, that’s probably like my weekly nightmare is being held underwater like that, you know, that’s like Monday nights nightmare that I usually have. So yeah, I resonate with those people that 

panicked and couldn’t figure it out. 

Terry: Tell me where has this work taken you? So obviously you’ve put this body of work together, you’ve published a bunch of your own academic studies. What kind of places and spaces has 

this brought you to and how have you helped other organizations 

and individuals with this?

Emily: Totally. I mean, 

yeah, that’s 

my day job. My main job. really is as a scientist, to use the principles of science to write the scientific publications, get them out to the scientific community. Even now, my team and I have written over 75 different articles and, and books for a scientific audience, but pushing this into, A realm for public consumption where you can find the practical utility of this science and make that be super clear.

That’s what this book is, is all about. You know, one of the things that we did with the work, you know, sort of dovetailing off of what you and I were just talking about, Terry, you know, we looked at what happens for Olympic athletes. I had the chance to work with some people who, you know, were some of the world’s fastest runners, like fastest guy outta Trinidad.

You know, people who’ve trained next to Hussein Lightning bolt, the fastest human, alive, and you know, like amazing guys that happen to be a part of a running club over in Brooklyn. The, the borough just next to where I live, they train at this really not fancy facility. You know, mom, new moms are there working out and you know, kids are there getting out some of their winter energy.

And then there are these superstars that are sitting on the side of the track stretching, and they’re so humble. Uh, you know, you wouldn’t even know what their, anybody pointed them out and told me what they were and so I worked with their coach and the, and, and them and, and interviewed them about what is, how are you using the superpower of perception?

I am nowhere near, I, I can hardly run at all. So my intuitions about what they would say, like of course I had some, cuz I’m a scientist and my job is to like make up ideas, but they were wrong about what these world, world class athletes are doing. I thought they would be able to. As if they had eyes on the back of their head or that they had these like incredible peripheral vision to track where they are relative to their competition at any point in time, and that they find this motivation when you know somebody’s closing in behind them, and it was completely wrong.

They said that they choose a target like your guys underwater. Who were successful, they focus on that target till they hit the target, and then they reset the next target and focus just on that. It could be the person who’s up ahead of them. It could be the bend in the track, you know, whatever. They just found something in their environment to focus their eye gaze on, and they didn’t pay attention to the periphery.

And for those guys that said that like, oh, I don’t always do that. They said, but I should. That’s what I should be doing, even if it’s not what I am doing. All the. You know, that was easy for me to understand, even though it totally went against my intuition. And I thought, well, you know, I’m just a normal person who can hardly run it all.

But I understood what they had to tell me. I wonder if I can teach other people this strategy. Can they understand the concept and can they do it? And the answer is yes, of course. What I just described, you’re probably imagining it as you’re listening to this conversation now. Yeah, you can totally do that.

Choose a stop sign outside. You choose a a parked car that’s really caught your interest and you focus your attention until you. Walk there or run there, and then you reset the next visually interesting thing that catches your eye and focus on that. And what we found was that when we did this in the lab where we had a set distance with like a, you know, a finish line where it was equally far away for everybody, those that had focused their attention on that target, they were able to walk to that target wearing weights on their ankles, living to lift their knees up high, like a challenging physical activity, but not impossible.

They walked their 23% faster. And they said that it hurt 17% less than the people who looked around in sort of a wider frame of reference the way that people normally do. So we found like this strategy, even though the distance didn’t change, their performance did, they did it better and it didn’t hurt as much to them physically.

They’re mentally, it didn’t feel like as much of a challenge. The question was, What is happening? What we found is that that narrowed focus of attention induces a visual illusion of proximity, visual illusion, kind of like the blue black dress thing, white gold dress thing. We created a visual experience that was different for them than other people.

Narrowing your focus of attention sort of brings that targeting closer to you than if you are sort of taking in all the distractions, all the obstacles along the way that you would have to pass by. And it was that visual illusion of proximity. That’s what produced the better performance, produced the easier feel of it, because it changed people’s psychology.

If it looks closer. Then I think I can do it. It’s probably not as hard. I, I have a greater sense of my own capability. We measured all kinds of things about like that psychological, motivational state. The visual illusion of proximity changed their motivation, which changed their performance, which then changed how physically effortful it felt to them.

This is a strategy that people can use even when we’re not standing there with our stopwatch, watching what they’re doing when we teach it to them, and then let them go off in the, and see what they do in the real world on their own. But they let us have access to their fitness tracking apps. We see they go out for more walks and runs.

They go further on each one. They take more steps in that time, so they’re performing at a higher level of intensity more frequently. Because this experience has defied their expectations wasn’t so bad, actually, it was a little bit more fun than I thought it would be. Let’s do this again. So, you know, that’s what we have done in this space of exercise and playing with, can we change how people are looking to affect what it is that they’re seeing?

And will that have a direct impact on their motivation? And in this case, you know, 

fitness performance. 

Terry: It reminds me of the way that memory champions their strategies for memorizing things. So I read this book a long time ago, walking with Einstein. I think it was, I can’t remember these. Name, but anyway, it actually took you into the world of these memory athletes and it showed you the strategies they use to remember like entire phone books of information.

And I started to teach myself using these strategies and I realized it’s the exact same thing. It’s just a trick of the mind they use that’s very specific. That works. A hundred percent every single time. And if you know the trick, you can actually do the exact same thing. So it’s not specific to elite athletes, it’s not specific to high performers.

It’s just a a little bit of knowledge and a little bit of testing and learning. That would only happen by like 10,000 hours of practice and coming up with different strategies and trying things. 

Where you go, that tends to work because that’s what I notice.

Emily: Yeah, totally. I 

need to pick up that book, right? I got get 

that book. Both my six year old and my husband are like, what are you, what is wrong with you? I just told you this yesterday and I’m. No, I have like no memory whatsoever of you having talked to me about this topic, and I swear to God, both of them are just like, I just told you that, okay, whatever.

I need a little bit more of Einstein’s brain, I think. Yeah, but you’re, you’re totally right that it’s a different way of like, of looking at or thinking about space, bigger chunks, right? You’re not remembering 3.14, whatever pie is, I don’t know. I probably already got it. But you’re thinking about like 412 and 655, right?

You’re thinking in these bigger chunks, you’re taking sort of a wider frame, and that’s one of the strategies that can help people remember long strings of 

numbers better.

Terry: Interestingly, it’s actually part of it is the way you use vision in your mind. So like you create these striking visual images and then you tie them to locations that you know really, really well. Um, they call it like a memory palace. And then from there you just like walk through that space in your mind and those visuals pop up.

And so your mind is so visually attuned. That’s probably what made 

me think about it, like how powerful the mind is when it 

comes to.

Emily: Yeah. Riffing off of that, there 

is, uh, Berkshire Hathaway for anybody who’s interested in investment, right? It’s a holding company that’s one of the most successful. It’s outperformed the s and p 500 by like whatever, 400% every year for decades, you know, very healthy. Holding company and run by two very old men, right?

Warren Buffet, number one, chairman, c e o. But the number two guy also really interesting story, who, whose story doesn’t get told as much. He’s not out there in the, in the public space as much as Warren Buffett. His name’s Charlie Munger. He’s really interesting. If you dive into his backstory again, you know, he’s like in his late eighties, so we’re going back a away when we talk about what his college experience is.

But essentially he, he was a college dropout now running one of the most successful holding companies, right? He went into World War II doing something with, like, with radar. I think maybe that part, I’m getting a little bit wrong, but a, after having not graduated college, coming out of the war, out of World War ii, he talked his way into Harvard Law School and ended up graduating, you know, with top honors there.

As a lawyer, right? But that’s not what he is known for, right? He’s known for his business acumen. So when people really wanna understand, like where does all of this insight come from? Like clearly you’re smart and can figure out life hacks, how to be super successful, but where does all this understanding of.

Running a business come from. It’s really fascinating to see what that backstory is. So he said, you know, when he was young in his career, how much does he get paid per hour? And did he feel like he could sacrifice that income, like charging a client that much to invest in himself? So he gave himself like an hour every day to just read, to learn, to understand, like, How Alcoholics Anonymous.

What was the program there and why were these different components of the program effective or airline pilots, how are they trained? What were the founding fathers philosophical perspectives and how did those come together to make our our country America’s? Early documents, like just read the most amazing things.

And what he was looking for were the common errors that people make in human judgment decision making. Before that was a whole area of study, right? Like that is a field now, but it wasn’t back when he was studying this. Okay, so now everyone wants to know like, well, what did you discover? What are these 25 different principles of these common mistakes that people make when they’re making really big decisions?

So he generated this list and he is ended up putting it into what’s called Charlie’s Almanac, poor Charlie’s Almanac, I think. And it’s so, it’s these, you know, from his self. Hot knowledge. He writes it all out. He writes it in a really funny way. So it’s an engaging book. But oh, back to the point of what we’re here to talk about today is that it’s a picture book.

So this like amazing man has generated like a graphic novel style like cartoon book with. With all of like these funny cartoons throughout all of this amazing wisdom that is totally relevant to any kind of business or any kind of like human decision making experience that, that there is. And when somebody asked him like, why do you have a picture book?

You know, I’m like, why you, why didn’t you make a picture book? And he said, because people remember stuff better when there’s picture. Right. So he wanted to help people remember it better, and he made a picture book to reflect his accumulated life’s 

compendium of knowledge.

Terry: It’s a very famous book in the investing circles. Poor Charlie’s Almanac, Veryo famous, um, and we refer to him often. He’s an absolute oracle. They call Warren Buffet the Oracle, but I feel like Charlie Mugger is definitely underrated in that sense. For sure. Let’s talk about how do we think about using perception and manipulating perception when we are 

actually setting goals and what do people get right?

What do

we get?

Emily: Well, we can take that idea of what those world class runners that I got to interview, what were they doing, and apply it to more than just sports and more than just running around a track because the more general idea holds true and has applications for all different kinds of goals. So one thing that can be challenging for people is when we set a goal that is hard, it’s often going to be achieved if it is at a pretty far off point in time.

Oftentimes it requires that we make sacrifices today, choices today that we’re not gonna see the benefits of for quite a long time. And that can be really difficult to do, right? To continue to make those sacrifices for a far off future, for a future self that you might not even know. Like I don’t even know who that person in 10 years is gonna be.

Or in the case of like saving for retire. If you’re 22 years old, you’re getting your first job out of college, and maybe retirement’s gonna be 65 if you’re lucky, and it holds that long, so 40 years later, but you’re supposed to start putting away money now for that. No one does it, right. But of course, we would all be better off if we did because of compound interest and whatever.

But we don’t. Right. So I was thinking, you know, probably part of the reason is that that just seems so far away. Just like for some people who are trying to get into better shape or who wanna push themselves further with their exercise, it can be challenging to do. Cuz when they look outside, you know, the end of that street just looks so far away.

I can’t do it. And the idea of retirement just seems so far away. I can’t pay attention to it right now cuz there’s so many more pressing, urgent, current things that I have to deal with. So, you know, I was working with a group of people that were all on the brink of graduating. Almost all of them had jobs, um, to pay their way through the rest of their college studies and was asking them, are you saving for retirement?

Any portion at all of what you’re bringing. Uh, 55 of 60 of them said, no, not at all. Not anything. And I wasn’t surprised by that. I mean, I certainly wasn’t at that age either, but when I was asking them, well, why? And the most commonly offered reason was, it just seemed so far away. Just like some people that are struggling with exercise were telling me.

So I thought, can we do something with that? We were like doing with those athletes. Or that I learned from those athletes that could help in this situation too. And I thought, can we find a way to like mentalize, visualize that far off future and bring it more into the here and now? Can we create that illusion of proximity when we’re thinking about temporal space?

So I took a picture of them, took a picture of each one, morphed it with a famous, older, successful person like Maya Angelou, Betty White, Dan Rather, you know, famous. Newscaster and made that into a movie so they could see the photo of them going from current self to like old self and then back to something that might look like retired self.

They were all horrified when I unveiled this to them, except for one guy. He was like, I think I look pretty good. But most of them were like, like literally caught their breath. They couldn’t breathe. I was like, yeah, they saw themselves with white hair and wrinkles and were horrified. But I had them visualize like, okay, what would this person now this you, this future you, what are you gonna be doing?

Like, what is this person do? What are you doing when you’re in your retirement time? And so I tried to take what was an. Far off concept and make it more concrete, visual, tangible, and relevant to the here and now. And then ask them to tell me about their thoughts about retirement. And they’re like, yeah, I get it.

I had no motive in this. Like right. I’m not trying to get them to invest in my 401k that I manage. I don’t manage it. I don’t even know what it is really. But I asked them about their beliefs about retirement, and they’re telling me, I get it. I’m gonna start figuring out how I can say for retirement now, you know, I didn’t make up.

Game for them. It was based off of Hal Hirschfield, a UCLA professor off of research that he’s done with investment firms showing that like, that’s one of the reasons that people aren’t saving for retirement, just seems too far away. And can we play with that idea of visuals to get people to understand and, and feel more of a connection with that future self to contract the space so that it’s easier to make tough decisions today because you see, you can feel the impact 

on the future. 

Terry: You know what’s really interesting, and these are really cool moments for me because just realized this now. Your research has actually played a pretty powerful role in parts of what we do with our program. It’s actually your research, and I just realize it now. so I read your research in somebody else’s book.

I think it was Amy Cuddy’s book, which is about willpower, and she quoted your research and I read it. And then, so what we’ve done is as a part of our program, what we do is something called future authoring where we kind of do set these far off goals. But then what we say is, now we want you to write a.

From your future self to your current self, actually defining what kind of life looks like now for you, but put it in the present tense. So you’re explaining it now from that future place. And the reason we did it that way is because of what your research showed, which is how can we bring that feeling, that experience into the now.

So that’s a actually 

quite an integral part of

our program, so thank you for that.

Emily: that kind of tactic is one that 

has showed up in lots of different ways across a lot of different kinds of social psychology or behavioral science researchers. So thank you for the credit. I’m sure many people deserve that credit. You know, I. Of that principle, like more generally materializing, making concrete, making visuals, something that we might otherwise just leave in the abstract and in our heads, we were just talking about memory and ways to help our memory be better.

Because the default is that like it’s not that great and it’s not that great intentionally because like think about what would happen if we actually did remember everything that came our way. Our brains would be overloaded. We wouldn’t be able to separate what actually matters and warrants. Cognitive resources right now and what doesn’t.

We need that filtering to happen. And then when we talk about like self-esteem and energy and motivation, we actually do need to forget about some of our missteps. We need to put them behind and not have a complete understanding of like all of the great things we’ve done and all the bad things we’ve done, because we would probably all become mis andros and really depressed if we didn’t let go of our mistakes, right?

So our brains by. Our misers are kind of the right word, or filters is probably more on point, more concretely like, you know, think about how we use our calendar. You mostly get done the things that are in your calendar. You have a doctor’s appointment, you got a meeting with your boss or with your team.

If it’s in your calendar, you tend to show up for it or at least cancel it. But think about all those things that we don’t put in our calendar. Like I need to make that phone call. I got to like carve out time to sign my kids up for summer camp, and you inevitably don’t get to those. Why is that? Are they less important?

No, totally. I gotta get my kid into summer camp, otherwise he is gonna be home with me all summer. Like it’s super important that I do that and I don’t because it’s not on my calendar. And why is that? All different kinds of reasons. Personal things don’t seem as important as meetings with our bosses, but they are.

Right. We could free up that brain space if we treated them just as importantly. But the whole point is that like our memories are. Good, and we give extra weight to the things that we see. So let’s take advantage of that and use our calendar in a more effective way rather than just trying to keep this like mental to-do list of the things that don’t seem like they are as important.

Let’s put them in there like carve out time, make an appointment with yourself to. Schedule all the doctor’s appointments, and that’s 15 minutes of my tomorrow, and that’s gonna come before I meet with my boss, for example. So that’s like the general idea of materializing is that we prioritize what we see and when we realize that and we see all the weight, when we remember all the ways that.

That that actually shows up in our life. We can use that as a superpower. We can write letters to our future self and read them, and that’s gonna have greater weight than if we just tried to think about that. And that’s the whole point probably of having them write the letters and not just, nah. Think about what you might say to yourself in the future.

Well, that’s not as powerful. 

Terry: Yeah, and that concept of materializing things that gave me language that I didn’t quite have it, but that’s what I understood that we need to do, and it’s, it’s. Do with the folks we work with is essentially take these vague ambitions that are kind of just out there and then just like slowly bring it into more reality.

So it’s translate that vague ambition into a very concrete vision. Take that concrete vision into clear criteria for success. Translate those criteria into structures and systems that make those things. And then create routines and rituals over time that allow people to encode what success looks like and break things down in a really important way.

So when you kind of put it that way, I was like, that’s exactly what we’re doing. It’s like that whole fluffy vision thing, taking it into the reality and then being able to act on that because now it’s in

my vision.

Emily: I write about this formula for goal setting. It shares many of the elements that, that you’ve put on the table, but we can sort of flesh that out. Let’s merge what I’ve talked about, what you put into practice, and if we wanna set goals more effectively, like there are multiple steps, multiple things that we can put into that goal setting process to up the odds that we actually get the job done.

So thinking big picture, it sounds like might not be hard for some of the people that you’re working with. Like, what is it that I really, really want? And it might be abstract, so let’s make it clear and concrete. That’s step one. A lot of people do that too if they use vision boards. You know, the idea of like scrap booking, kind of pulling together visual icons that reflect what it is that you want in the future.

That’s really popular in people’s personal lives. But also a lot of people use this professionally as well. And they say it helps them get a clearer sense of where it is that they’re moving. It helps communicate to teams, to their teams what it is that they’re collectively working on. And that’s not a small thing, right?

To know like, what is my passion? What am I working towards? That stops a lot of people who feel like they lack meaning or purpose in their life. That’s part of the process of goal setting. And you might use like that kind of vision board technique to visualize what the goal is. The problem is that some people stop.

Because there is a philosophy out there that if you go through that exercise and put that positive energy out into your life, you’re gonna win it back, right? Staying focused on the positive is gonna be motivating, but the science says that that’s just not the case. That it actually doesn’t increase the odds that you win, that you get what it is that you’re wanting.

Colleagues of mine have figured out, well, why? Because. Having done that actually gives you a sense of accomplishment. Now I know what it is that I’m working for now I know what my purpose in life is and doesn’t that feel good? Right? And so you sort of sit back, you relax, re relax, and what they measured was blood pressure.

What they found was that systolic blood pressure goes down when people just go through that exercise of thinking about visualizing, fantasizing about what it is that they want to achieve in life because it feels good mentally. Position yourself within that space. But we need ourselves to get energized and geared up to like, well then start doing it, start planning.

How are you gonna get this done? What are the sub goals that you’re gonna form? And people who go through that process, their blood pressure goes up because they’re mobilizing, they’re pulling their body, they’re awakening their body right to start doing this job. So you gotta think big picture and feel free to use vision boards if that helps you.

But then you gotta start in the goals. Setting meetings concretely, what are our objectives and when can we hit them? And what does it mean to have made progress within a month? What is my one month goal? What’s an actionable concrete kpi? And you need to go through that process too. Helps keep you accountable, right?

And it makes it clear what success is and when you’re coming up short. So think big picture plan concretely for shadow obstacles. That needs to be part of the goal setting process as well. And that is actually motivating and that can be surprising to people that, okay, I just thought about how amazing this is gonna be if I can accomplish X, Y, and Z, and here are my monthly markers of success and what I’m gonna accomplish in the next couple weeks, in the next couple weeks after that.

And now I gotta think about the 20 ways that this is all gonna come crashing. Right, you’re shaking your head because you, you’re nodding your head because you know that it works, because it’s coming up with plan B, coming up with plan C. If I experience this obstacle, how am I gonna work through it before you’re in it?

Because once you’re in it, you’re short of time thin on resources, you’re trying to put the fire out. You don’t have the capability of. Creatively problem solving, right? So we need to have done that in advance and, and we can talk about some cool stories of other Olympic athletes that do that and how it was critical to their success.

But to add on a couple other points to that sort of trifecta of like core elements of effective goal setting. Katie Milkman, you probably know her work as well, that you know, she’s an amazing behavioral scientist and she says like, when should we go through that process? We need the idea of fresh starts.

You know, fresh start can be like New Year’s Day, January 1st, or our 40th birthday, but it could also be Monday. You know, whatever you decide is a moment that has meaning. You don’t need to wait. You need just to decide that this is where I sort of can wipe the slate clean. I don’t need to hold onto the baggage or the guilt of whatever has happened in the.

Let’s start now with this well laid plan, and when people construe the timing as a fresh start, then it’s all these things are more likely to stick, including the like creation of good habits that you added into the 

mix, which are also really important. Terry. 

Terry: Everything you said, there’s so important, like the sort of stepping back the. Picture thinking, but then the sort of started to narrowing that focus as we go down. And the foreshadowing failure part is something that I think we could probably do a little bit better, but I kind of do see how that’s actually pretty motivating to be like, these are things we come up against.

 one of the things that I noticed, and I love your take on this, is, um, the very best, the very best, highest performers I ever worked with understood what was underneath. What the pursuit was, and they used that in very precise moments to be able to push through that kind of messy middle part of change to do what needed to be done for long enough to get that wind state to keep going.

So one of the things we do is talk about like what’s underneath this and understand the drivers underneath it. So we do motivational interviewing and then go a few levels underneath it to really understand, okay, what, why is this like, That you do this, what’s so important about this to you now? And then come up with a statement, a real kind of Michael Jordan type statement.

The Michael Jordan statement for me was, I’m never gonna be not picked again. And that was what was driving him. And all these athletes that I worked with had had very clear visions of what they wanted to accomplish. They also had this way to motivate themselves when they didn’t want to do what they had, knew they had to do for long enough to get the result they really were driving for.

So what’s your view on that, Emily? Is that something that, 

you feel I can help with 

the foreshadowing failure. 

Emily: Yeah, totally. I mean, and it also resonates with the idea of being 

stuck in the middle. That’s, it’s the equivalent of being at the wall with, uh, if you’re running a marathon, doesn’t really happen in the middle for people who actually can run marathons. You know about the 18 mile mark is when your body is.

Physiologically depleted of the resources that it can hold, but you still got eight more miles to go in order to finish up that marathon. And, and so people have studied that. Like how do you push yourself through that? Because it’s not about managing your body anymore, it’s about managing your mind.

You’re, uh, Michael Jordan example is one way that you’re managing the mind when you’re. The wall when you’re stuck in the middle, A critical place in goal setting. So I think you’ve laid out like one great tactic there. We could foreshadow that that is gonna be the obstacle when I have a long-term goal, when progress is gonna be incremental, when it doesn’t seem fun anymore, but the future still seems pretty far off.

What am I gonna do? That’s gonna be my sticking point. So Michael Jordan, what are other things that we can do? We can think about where are we gonna find motivation? That requires that we also take a moment to introspective about what is this goal? Am I personally intrinsically motivated by it? Do I have expertise in it?

Have I been committed to this goal and engaged in this space for a long time? If yes, then you are an expert. This is an expert domain. And science says, you’ll find more motivation by looking at what’s left to go, because closing that gap is motivating between what, where do I wanna be at the end? What does the finish line look like?

And where am I now? And closing that gap is gonna be motivating for people who are in that space. But say that this is a domain where you’re not really intrinsically motivated. Maybe it’s a goal that somebody has given you, this is a team project that you’re playing, a supporting role, but it’s not really your baby.

You haven’t really done this very much before. You haven’t engaged in this space before, so you don’t really have a track record in your own mind of whether you can or you want to do this, or what does it look like for you. If that describes you, then we actually find motivation by looking back on the past.

How much have I accomplished? Where did I start and where am I now? And then you’re like, oh my God, I actually have come pretty far. I don’t, I don’t even know that I could do this. I didn’t even know I cared about this, or I didn’t know that I would invest this kind of resource into this space, but I have, so I’m gonna keep going.

So, you know, that’s another technique that we can add to this is taking a minute to like introspective about what is this thing that I’m working on and where would I put myself on the spectrum of high expertise and confidence and interest and engage. Or not. And just because you’re in that space of the, like, the not really intrinsically motivated doesn’t mean that the goal is weaker for you or that you’re doomed to fail.

Because sometimes we have to accomplish things that we aren’t that invested in because that’s our job. Right? It could be a job as a parent, you know, I’m not really invested in wiping butts all the time, and yet I do it all the time. Right. And then, I mean, that’s maybe a bad example. 

I guess. I don’t wanna look 

Terry: you’ve wiped a lot of butts. 

Emily: Yeah, like

how many? How many have I wiped 

a lot? And I don’t know. I don’t find 

Terry: So have I. So have I. 

Emily: Yeah,

right. You know, sometimes you’re called 

into a project where it doesn’t feel like you own it, but you still have to bring your A game to it. That’s another source of motivation is looking 

back on past successes. 

Terry: That’s really interesting for me as well because like we study bright spots in our program and so what’s, that’s helping people stick to this for long enough to get these really big results. And um, one of the things we did was we realized that it, it’s that. Difference between gap and gain thinking because finance is an area that a lot of people we’re not sort of taught this at a young age.

So I feel like a lot of people are, are not feeling like this is something they own. And our most successful people are the ones who do kind of allow themselves to keep looking back, saying, look what I’ve done now. Look what I’ve done now. Look what I’ve done now. So what we did was we actually built.

Like a ranking system, a grading system that allows people to break it down and then map that progress against what they’ve done. So now you’ve achieved this rank. Now you’ve achieved this rank. But it works both ways, right? Because as their confidence increases, as their confidence increases, now they’re shooting for, I wanna get that one next.

So we encourage people, look at what you’ve done at the start, and then as they go through, what we find is they actually just start naturally looking forward and going, now 

I want to do that. It definitely reinforces what you’re.

Emily: It aligns with the science of what would be successful. Right. And it also brings in the idea of streaks. You know, you as an athlete and having worked with athletes know all about. The psychology of streaks. People who are into tracking their streaks or wordle the word game Also, you know, tracks your streaks.

And what does that do? How does you keep coming back every day to play the game? What does it do for athletes who aren’t tracking streaks or people in AA who are counting days, or people who are on a weight loss program and you know, who’ve given up dessert for the last 12 days? Is today the day that you wanna throw that?

Start over at zero, right? No. Is today’s like cookie worth throwing in the towel, or today’s drink worth throwing away 15 years of sobriety or skipping today’s run? Is that worth throwing away the fact that you’ve just done 852 of the last day’s runs and today you’re gonna throw that away? No. Right. Sunk costs.

I have invested so much that today is not the day that I’m gonna give that all up. So the idea of streaks is really a powerful 

motivator as.

Terry: Totally. And um, when it comes to sort of sticking to it, there’s this really good section in your book too, where you talk about like controlling the frame, like what’s in your vision, because what’s in your vision is what you act on, and obviously what you act on is what you get. So how do you think this 


within the realm of,

say, personal finance?

Emily: Yeah, I mean, I think a great example is like a common misstep that people make if they’re early into investing, which is they take a really narrow look at what their portfolio is and they react to micro fluctuations rather than taking a step back and looking at trends over the last. Six months or the last year.

So you make quick actions that you might regret pulling out of a stock too early because it looks like it’s on its way down when it might just be part of the natural fluctuation of what is actually, you know, a linear trajectory upwards, but a temporary dip down. And so it’s overreacting to the market, to the local small level features of the market.

I am no expert in finance, but I can read what people talk to me and listen to what people talk to me about. And that seems like one of the. Sources of error, and I’m sure your listeners resonate with that too, but I think that hones in on the idea that what we see predicts what we do. If you have any of those kinds of regrets about like, oh, I should have held onto that, because now that I realize that it actually was, or I should have let go of that because it wasn’t reflective of what the overall trend is, it might be because we are too myopically focused on 

a too small point in time. 

Terry: It’s actually called myopic loss aversion when you get sucked into a short term kind of timeframe, and then you. Long-term decisions on a short-term, particularly, it’s a news cycle. Basically, you end up making these decisions where you kind of shoot yourself in the foot all the time. So for us, what we say to people is, Hey, just turn the news off so you don’t see it, you don’t hear it, any of those things because that’s what sucks you into that myopic loss aversion.

And then you start making reactive decisions with your money. What do you see are the big things that derail people? So let’s say I’m going along really well with the goal and I’ve built momentum, I’m achieving consistency, and then I get kind of blown off path. What are the kind of things 



that you see, the mistakes people make? 

Emily: People have a fear of failure. So, and it’s how we think about failure, what counts as a failure that makes us not even wanna engage in that concept. So, you know, we can come up against an obstacle. We could continue to beat down the same door and not be able to move forward. The door doesn’t open for us, but we just keep going back there when probably we need to change course.

Why? Why do we keep doing that? Why don’t we change our strategy? Because people have a psychology that tells them that that would be a failure. If you give up on this pursuit, that means you failed. No one wants to be a failure. It’s such a stigmatizing word, but it’s because. Put that word on that experience.

We call that a failure. Why can’t we just call it a learning opportunity? Right? Or an investment in an education. You know, we spend some time, money, resources on trying this path. Let’s take a moment, reflect on what we learned from it, what did we gain, and let’s pivot. Rather than saying like, oh, that was a failure, or being worried that we will think, or that others will think that that’s a failure experience.

Instead, if we can take a step back and use sort of a wider. Like you advise, like investors advise for how do you think about your, how do you look at your portfolio, your investment portfolio, take a step back, don’t get stuck in the myopia or that narrowed focus. Look at the bigger picture. And what you’re gonna realize is you can still accomplish that same goal.

You just need to find a different way. And it’s not called failure, it’s called creative pivoting, right? So that’s a problem that people have is that they just keep doubling down, keep doubling down. Because they’re fearing that label of failure or the idea of like, oh, I’ve already spent so much time in here, I gotta like pull this out.

You may not need to keep doing this to pull out of it. You might need to go a different way. And you need to not be in that negative state of fear, because when we’re in that emotional state, we actually can’t do our best creative problem solving. You know, creativity comes from positive affective state, more so than that, negative, affective.

That’s one way that people go wrong for themselves. We can think about that too in terms of teams and what happens in organizations and if we’re the leader, if we’re in charge and we create a culture where that’s what’s going on in people’s minds. There’s a lot of bad stuff that happens when people fear being labeled a failure, that their project was a failure or that they are coming up last.

If there’s gonna be a rank ordering system, then what do they do? They take, they make the Sure be. They take small incremental steps. They don’t innovate because they’re afraid. They’re afraid that if they do something that’s so radical that they’re not certain will succeed, that they’re going to fail, that they’ll be fired, that they won’t get put up for promotion, so they become less innovative and more risk averse.

When they’re in that culture of where there’s a fear of failure, they also are more likely to, to engage in unethical behaviors like cheating, lying, stealing, withholding information from colleagues when they worry that there is a culture here where some people have what it takes, some people don’t. This process is gonna vet those two apart from each other, and I just don’t wanna be the one coming out last.

So I’m gonna make sure that somebody’s worse off than me, and I will ensure that by doing all kinds of unethical. That’s my thought is like, we need to change the way we think about what obstacles mean, what they’re diagnostic of. Is it diagnostic of failure? Let’s not, Let’s 

not think that way. 

Terry: Yeah, I think that’s really important. And we see this a bit with finances where like the narrow focus is great, but at a point where you are coming up against maybe some friction, being able to zoom in, zoom out again is really important to be able to widen the lens because what we see is, um, Like functional fixedness with money where it’s like the first way I look at the problem is the way I get stuck at looking the problem.

And then I need to be able to see it from a whole bunch of different angles. And sometimes it’s just about helping somebody else look at the problem with you and sort of say, but what about this? And we see that all the time where it’s like we just get locked, particularly with that number, like a lot of people just track net worth and they don’t actually define wealth more.

So what they tend to do is just sort of like, look at this one number and just get stuck doing the same things and, um, don’t achieve their goals, or they find it a lot harder because it’s just so narrow in the way they’re approaching them. Last question for you. How are you using this information in your own life, in your own sort of professional realm?

Being able to pursue and achieve your own 


Emily: Well, I’m a work in progress, you know, personally, just like medical doctor. Like, yeah, they’re medical doctors. They still get a 

Terry: Yeah, to totally. 

Emily: I understand how people make good and bad decisions, and I still make bad decisions, but I try these tactics out on my own of like, You know, when I start to feel underwater, what can I do?

I can use my calendar in a different way. You know, when we start to feel underwater, we start thinking and reacting, like, I just gotta get through this day. If I can just get through this day, then everything’s gonna be fine, and tomorrow will be a new day. No, that’s actually totally. A bad idea. When we’re underwater, we need to start thinking about bigger swaths of time.

We need to plan our calendar out two weeks into the future, and we need to think about time and using our calendar with that wider frame. And that’s how we get out from being underwater. But that’s not my intuition about what I should do and how am I gonna. You know, try to stay alive here. Just get through the end of the day is the wrong approach.

So I try to be mindful of that. How can I motivate myself all the different ways that I have to like keep track of my to-do list and my priorities? They’re all sort of set up with a default, which is once it’s done, it disappears. You know, you can click it away. You can use the electronic eraser, you can erase it.

But that’s actually not good for getting rid of anxiety. So again, we start to feel underwater and every day just is like, God, I can’t get ahead here. You know, it just keeps piling up. I can’t get anything done. That to-do list is never clear. First of all, that’s the wrong goal. We’re never gonna have a to-do list.

That’s totally clear. 

Terry: Thank you for saying that. 

Emily: If you figured it out, then you should write a book. Yeah. In those moments, it’s that I need to not use the eraser function. I need to not have it click and disappear. I need it to not show me a unicorn fly across my screen, and then have it go away. I actually need to keep the crossed off list, which usually means writing it by hand so that I can reflect back and say like, okay, yeah, this week has sucked.

It has felt really overwhelming and I have a lot to. But look what I got done because once it’s done, you move on to the next thing and your brain doesn’t allow you to like celebrate that real success of actually getting something accomplished and, and it doesn’t help when we can’t even see it anymore because it’s just gone, right?

It’s not on our mental to-do list anymore, and it’s not on our physical one either as something that’s been crossed off. And it can be easy to forget what we have accomplished when we’re just focusing on what’s left to do. So those are things that I try to keep in mind, especially as I start to feel overwhelmed.

Terry: Amazing. Fantastic. Emily, thank you so much for joining me on this episode. I’ve found it to be really helpful. I just got actually a fantastic idea just then by what you said. So. I appreciate that. Just little ways and means that we can keep sort of improving things and keep helping people in different ways to sort of stay on the path basically.

Cuz that’s, to me the biggest problem. It’s not actually starting out, it’s just sticking to the thing. 

Emily: Yeah. Yep. I agree. 

Terry: Where can people find out a little bit more about you and your work

and kind of follow you?

Emily: You can read more about these ideas in, in my book, find me on LinkedIn, or just Google my name and you’ll find our, our webpage. I also write for Psychology today so you can find my articles there open to the public. So hopefully those are some outlets 

if you wanna learn more.

Terry: Fantastic. I can highly recommend the book. it does bring all that science together in a pretty compelling way and, and the story with, um, you know, learning how to play the drums does kind of bring it all together. So well done on that. Thanks, Emily. 

Emily: Thanks so.