Summit Q&A: The Motivation Science Behind Weight Loss, Learning, and Leadership

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Art Markman is a renaissance man of psychological science: He holds a professorship at the University of Texas-Austin, where he’s also the director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. He co-hosts the podcast Two Guys On Your Head. He’s authored many books, including Smart Change: Five Tools to Create New and Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others. And he’s also a panelist on the Networking and Building Alliances session at this year’s NeuroLeadership Summit in October.

We recently spoke with Art to learn about how immersing himself in motivation and decision science has shaped his life, and came away with some practice advice on how to get more good stuff done in our own lives.

Art Markman headshotNeuroLeadership Institute: How has being in this field change the way you make decisions in your everyday life?

Art Markman: There’s a lot of things I’ve done as a result of knowing more. Some of them have been pretty straight-forward.

So for example, in my mid-30s I took up the saxophone because there’s all this data that suggests if you look at people’s regrets, the thing that old people regret more than anything else is not the dumb things they did but the important things they didn’t do. And so, I always recommend to people, periodically project yourself mentally to the end of your life and look back and ask yourself, is there anything I wish I would’ve done?

And at some point, I thought, “Gosh I always wanted to learn to play a saxophone and I didn’t.” So about  a week after that, I went out and found a teacher and bought a saxophone and learned to play.

I think I also am better at seeing different sides of situations that I’m involved in. For example, there are broad tendencies to look at other people’s behaviors and assume that it’s being driven by their characteristics, their traits, and individual goals rather than the situation that they’re in. Whereas with our own life, we pay a lot of attention to, “Oh I was forced to do this in this situation.”

So I think I’ve become more tolerant of things other people have done by routinely asking myself, “Well, what’s the situation? Did they do this just because they didn’t have a choice?

As a result, should I be trying to focus on how to help, how to make that situation better rather than chastising them for some kind of fundamental limitation that they themselves have?”

I spend a lot of time writing about behavior change. And so in my own life, like if I want to lose weight, I’m more effective at that because I understand how motivation works.

I run this program. I have a staff of 6 people. I have 35 faculty who I work with and I feel like I can work more effectively with people because I have a better understanding of what factors influence behavior change and so we can set up what we do in ways that get people to do things a little bit different, not a manipulative way, but sharing a vision people can get on board with and also structuring a plan where people not only think this is a vision they can be a part of but also something that they can accomplish.

NLI: I read somewhere that you lost 40 pounds — how did you do that, and how did your study on motivation help you achieve your goal?

When it comes to weight loss, people think to themselves, “I don’t feel right. I don’t look right.”

For me, I didn’t like the way I looked and felt anymore. I think that, for one thing, the formula for weight loss is not a carefully guarded secret. Everyone wants some special diet, but at the end of the day, if you’re going to engage in some kind of weight loss activity, you’ve got to burn more calories than you take in and you have to do that consistently.

Then the question is, how do you structure your world to facilitate getting more exercise and eating less? It turns out the eating less is probably more important than the exercise. Because you can work really hard, but if you eat too much, you will overwhelm any amount of calories that you burned.

There’s a great quote from Jack LaLanne that I love to use, and it’s “The best exercise is pushing yourself away from the table.” But I think what’s important is to structure that environment.
One of the things I did was that I became a vegetarian when I wanted to lose weight in part because I figured, rather than just trying to do less than what I was already doing, I thought, “If I completely change the diet that I’m eating, then I have a chance to institute a new set of behaviors.”

NLI: You broke the frame, so you’d have to keep paying attention.

AM: That was one piece of it. One piece of it was planning a little bit better. If I cooked too much food, then putting the rest away in advance.

Some of it was figuring out what to do when I’m faced with a buffet where you want to throw everything onto your plate. It’s really helpful sometime to find dessert plates that are lying around somewhere. They’re smaller plates so you put less stuff on your plate, and then you eat less.

So I think there are a lot of ways of messing around with your environment that can help. When I made the decision to lose weight, I let everybody know. People don’t like to do that, because if they fail, it’s embarrassing. But actually when you let everybody know, then they help you.

Maybe they choose not to have an ice cream right in front of you. Or they’re a little more sensitive to how they dole food out in front of you if you’re having lunch with them or something.
You can actually engage people’s help if they know what you’re trying to accomplish.

NLI: And how long did it take you to lose 40 pounds?

I lost about 8 pounds a month. That’s about five months. The hard part isn’t that. People lose weight all the time. It’s the not gaining it back that’s the hard part.

I often tell people to live your life as a process, not as an outcome so you should never set the goal to lose 40 pounds because then what? You lose the weight and then go back to what you were doing before. So the trick is to say, here is the way I live my life. I’m going to exercise Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. And I’m going to eat in this way. And that just becomes the way you live your life so you’re not constantly trying to mess around with your behavior, which makes it not sustainable.

NLI: What got you so interested in topics of higher-level thinking?

AM: Thirty years ago, if you studied human decision-making, there was a real emphasis on things like gambling. The reason you look at gambling is because it really took motivation out of the picture — we just generally assume that people think more money is better than less money.

But how does someone decide which car they’re going to buy? That requires understanding human motivation because there’s all these tradeoffs among people’s goals that have to be made.
There’s money trade-offs, but there’s also social status, environmental friendliness, the joy of driving, all of which come into that decision. And unless you understand something about the kinds of goals people pursue, how people learn to trade-off among those goals, the way that those goals can be framed by the social environment as well as framed by marketers — then you don’t actually understand what people are doing.

So as a natural outgrowth of being interested in people’s decisions, I became interested in motivations. Of course, motivations influence not only the way people make decisions but the way that they learn the kinds of information that they choose to engage with.

The story of how I got interested in this stuff is clearer when you look back on it, then look in the forward direction. In the forward direction, you just kind of gravitate to the next thing that seems interesting to do, and then you can see where the thread of the story is.

Vivian Giang contributed reporting for this article.
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