The Ikea Effect: Why The Mediocre Furniture Is More Valuable Than You Think

Back in 2005, I had put up my 2000 Honda Civic Si up for sale.

But my Si, wasn’t a normal Honda Civic.

I had slapped on a t3/t4 turbo kit. My buddy helped me upgraded the stereo system. We also installed yellow fog lights on the front bumper and replaced the two front seats (because the originals were torn). I changed the Honda emblems on the front and back with a blood red H symbol. For quicker shifting, I put in a short-shifter. I hunted down some JDM stock wheels to install. I washed and waxed the car every weekend.

Aside from the major engine work, I had put a lot of work into this car. Therefore, I valued it higher than what most people were willing to pay for it. How do I know this?

Everyone, I mean everyone, who responded to my auto-trader ad, replied in a way that went something like this: “It’s a great car, and I’m interested, but there’s no way I’m paying that price.”

I ended up selling it for much less than I thought it was worth (but in the end, it sold at a fair price based on the market).

Looking back, I was suffering from is known as The Ikea Effect – a psychological phenomenon that explains how we come to love and value the things we put effort into.

In my own personal case, I was experiencing the negative side of The Ikea Effect. However, in this post we look at how The Ikea Effect can benefit you – especially when it comes to starting something difficult and forging new behaviors.


The Ikea Effect: How Labor Turns Into Love

Have you ever worked on something – restored a car, wrote a 4,000 word blog post, a power-point presentation for work – and afterwards fell head over heals with what you’ve accomplished? Did you take a step back and bathe in your greatness?

If so, it’s alright. You’re not alone. You’re are one of many who have experienced the Ikea Effect.

The Ikea Effect states that you place a higher value on things you build yourself.

Think about it: When you come home from Ikea and spend time to build that desk, even though it might be a little crooked with a few screws missing, in your eyes it’s a great functioning desk. It’s the fruit of your labor. You did it. You created it. Therefore, you value it more than someone who didn’t put the time or effort into building it.

Behavioral economist Dan Airely and Marketing professor Daniel Mochon, dove into this deeper and posed the question: Maybe love doesn’t lead to labor, but instead, does labor leads to love? To find out they put on an experiment.

The objective was to test whether creating something yourself – even if the product or outcome was amateurish – will influence you to value your own work higher.

They gathered up a handful of college students and gave each of them a box of cheap, unassembled Scandinavian titled furniture. Then, they gave them free reign on building the piece themselves.

At the end of the test, all students were given the chance to purchase the piece of furniture they had just built and put significant effort into. The students that had built their own furniture were willing to pay top dollar for their workmanship.

But Daniel Mochon and Dan Airely wanted to know what top dollar actually was, so they brought in other students who were not part of the test and showed them the Ikea creations of the other students and asked them, “How much would you pay for this?”

“Not very much,” they replied. They simply saw it as mediocre furniture from Ikea.

This demonstrated that students who put the work into their creation value it higher than the students bidding on an identical pre-assembled  piece.

And this birthed The Ikea Effect.

When the parts and pieces are in the box, it’s simply that – parts and pieces in a box. However, once you put the work, sweat and toil into building the parts and pieces into a piece of furniture, it now represents more than a piece of furniture – it’s a monument to your time, effort and attention. Thus, you value it higher.

This paints a nice picture on how effort can influence your appreciation for something. However, I’m assuming that building furniture is hardly penetrating when it comes to motivating yourself to do hard things.

So lets look at the story of Diana Nyad.


The Ikea Effect and Diana Nyad

Diana Nyad had an “elevated dream,” as she put it.  She wanted to swim from Cuba to Key West Florida without a shark cage.

At sixty-four years old, she became the first person in history to do it.

But it took thirty five years and five total attempts to achieve it.

Her first four attempts were loaded with devastating set-backs; hours-long asthma attacks, hypothermia, dehydration, paralyzing jellyfish stings to the face and the unrelenting behavior of the Gulf sea.

Her resilience to bounce back from each failed attempt and her grit to show up everyday to train to prepare for her next attempt was her building phase. The time between the actual attempts was the time she spent working on her skills – building a better version of herself to increase the chances of success on her next attempt.

And since it took years and several attempts to finally achieve her goal, and after swimming for fifty three hours straight, she valued the outcome higher than if she would have taken the same trip by ferry.

Imagine this:

Diana could have taken the same journey, Cuba to Key West, by ferry.

The distance would have been the same.

But the experience, and the outcome would have been very different.

By taking a ferry to travel the trip, it would have required a signifcatnly less amount of effort on her part and she could have enjoyed the scenic trip with a pina colada in her hand.

But she choose to swim from Cuba to Key West. This took five years of blood, sweat, failure and toil to accomplish. And because the journey she chose was far more difficult than simply making the trip by ferry, she placed a higher value on the outcome because she did it herself – and didn’t rely on the ferry to get her to Key West.

Just as the  Dan Airely and Daniel Mochon presumed, you value and enjoy the things you build yourself.

It’s the same reason why people who launch successful start-ups are so fired up about their business and openly share about how they did it.

It’s the same reason why someone who has just finished writing a novel, tells everyone they know about their book and hands out copies voluntarily.

It’s the same reason why someone who has lost 80 pounds, posts selfies to Instagram and updates their FB every time they go to the gym.

These outcomes demanded effort, time and emotional investment. And when you follow through and do hard things, you value and enjoy the outcome a lot more.


How To Make The Ikea Effect Work In Your Life

At the end of every year, the whisper of New Years Resolutions starts to creep into the ears of thousands of people. By mid to late December, many people have set out to accomplish herculean size goals to achieve for the next year.

Losing 40 pounds.

Starting a business.

Write the book.

Learn a new language.

Regardless of what the goal is, the painful statistic is that of the 50% of Americans who set resolutions, 88% of them fail. That’s about 156 million failed attempts at behavior change.

For this reason it causes people to lose hope in doing hard things. We see so many people fail at things they really want to succeed at and then, we turn around and look at ourselves and think “Why should I try do do something so hard?”

And then, we journey along always angling our decisions based on how easy something is to accomplish. If it requires any serious effort, “fuhgeta bout it” is the disposition.

However, if you re-frame it and make the association that labor leads to love (or appreciation) you’ll realize that the effort itself is what holds the power – not the outcome.

Taking on a challenging goal is healthy. As we revealed earlier, anytime  you build something that requires effort, time and attention, you value it higher.

New Year Resolution goals are no different.

Even though things like losing 40 pounds, starting a business, writing that book or learning a new language can be very demanding and require a lot of work, you’ll end up appreciating the outcome a lot more if you can get yourself to do the hard work – instead opting for the easier, and often times less fruitful option.

However, there are some strategies that you need to build in into your approach that will increase your chances of success.

Think of it this way:

The box of parts and pieces of Ikea furniture won’t build itself, you need a manual to walk you through the directions so you can do the work to build the piece.

Similarly, your goal won’t transpire on it’s own. You need a set of strategies you can adopt as habits so you can consistently make progress over time – because unlike furniture, behavior change typically doesn’t happen in a few hours.

It’s my belief that people quit on their goals for two reasons:

  • They don’t have the manual, or strategy guide, on how to properly tackle behavior change
  • They don’t realize the potential value on the other side of completion (The Ikea Effect). If you never achieve your goal, it’s impossible to value the outcome.

We’ve unpacked The Ikea Effect and proven that you will value something higher if YOU do the work yourself. Now, lets dive into the strategies on how you can create lasting behavior change and therefore, experience the joy of accomplish difficult goals.


Don’t Tackle More Than One Big Hairy Goal

Imagine a young couple who is moving into their very first home. They bought all new furniture to outfit their space. It would be far wiser to build each piece of furniture one piece at time instead tackling them all at once.

By doing so, this would lower the “cognitive load” and help assist in building each piece faster and more efficiently according to Professor Shiv from Stanford.

Whenever you decide to change a behavior it places a cognitive load on your brain – specifically your pre-frontal cortex (which is associated with short-term memory, solving problems, and staying focused).

So when you decide you want to lose 40 pounds, quit smoking, write a book, and learn French all at once, it’s akin to a novice walking into the gym and trying to snatch 100 kilos.

It’s simply isn’t going to happen.

Instead, choose one thing you can devote your time, effort and attention to.


Ditch Perfectionism and Be An Optimalist

A perfectionist will wait for all the green lights to turn green before they pull out from the driveway. An optimalist understands that he will hit some red lights along the way, but doesn’t allow that to stop him from starting his trip.

When you take on your big goal, remember, you’re going to run into some red lights.

Setbacks, challenges, and mistakes are probable.

By accepting this reality, it will allow you absorb the lessons you encounter rather than obsessing over the outcome and overlooking any wisdom you might have gained from the experience.


Build Renewal Into Your Day

Author Tony Shwartz says this in his book, Be Excellent At Anything:

Think about the Indianapolis 500. The driver who wins that race isn’t the one who drives the fastest, the longest, and most continuously. The winner is the one who drives at the highest speeds on the track but also makes the most efficient pit stops along the way to refuel, change the tires, and make mechanical adjustments and repairs. Maintenance and refueling are as critical to victory as racing itself. That’s because the higher the demand, the greater and more frequent the need for renewal.

When bridge this story to our lives today, it makes sense why an additive goal like losing 40 pounds, writing a book, starting a side hustle business or learning a language can feel like breaking iron with your bare hands.

Sitting at our desks too long. Not sleeping enough. Working too much without internment renewal. Eating too much junk food. The irony is that when life speeds up and demands more of us, we tend to push harder – and consequentially run on fumes.

We refuse to make the appropriate pit stops, renew ourselves and perform proper maintenance. When we neglect renewal in our lives, it strains our willpower, which lowers our ability to make good decisions.

So when we’ve arrive at the opportunity to make a decision that will push us forward in achieving our goal, we simply don’t have the capacity to do so. We choose to drive through the burger joint instead of driving to the gym.

For passive renewal, pick up a daily meditation practice (headspace is a great resource), listen to music outside, or try reading a book during lunch. If possible, napping for 30 minutes or less between the hours of 1 an 3 P.M. yields in incredible boost in alertness and rejuvenation of willpower.

For active renewal, some type of exercise or movement that raises the heart rate will do. Weightlifting, rigorous forms of yoga, or some type of aerobic activity are the usual choices.

The point is that by building renewal into your daily routine, it allows you to refuel. This way, your focus and decision making ability are never fully depleted leaving you unable to take the necessary action to do the things you know you should do.


Embrace Positive Distractions

Negative distractions come in many forms. Twitter, Facebook, A.M radio, email, co-workers who want to chat about gibberish, and Amazon.

It’s instinctive to remove negative distractions, but the real danger is the back-end of that decision. If you remove a negative distraction, you better replace with a positive one. It’s been my experience, that if the replacement doesn’t come, the unrelenting negative distraction finds a way to choke you into submission.

Here are two positive distractions I find helpful:

Pomodoro technique

If you’re in a job where you’re expected to produce or if you’re working on goal but can’t seem to shake the negative distractions, the Pomodoro technique can be your secret weapon.

The Pomodoro technique is cyclical and simple. You set a timer for 25 minutes and blast through the task at hand. Once the timer is up, you take a break (5 minutes is good).


1o minute delay method

You know that if you give into one potato chip, you’re going to plow through the whole bag. Or, if you turn on Netflix, instead of opening up your laptop to write, that one episode will turn into a whole season.

In her book, The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal touches on the 10 minute delay method to battle temptation.

Whenever it feels impossible to resist temptation, employ the 10 minute delay method. Do whatever you have to do to fulfill the 10 minute delay – read a book, go for a run, listen to a podcast, call a friend – whatever.

After that, you’re free to decide. Amazingly, the intensity of the temptation will subside in most cases.


Use The Shock Method

If you’ve got a goal you know you should start, but have been putting it off for no good reason, try using the shock method.

In the weightlifting world, the shock method is a season of intense overload to the muscles to cause more damage.  Essentially, this spurs new growth of the muscle.

In terms of behavior change, nose diving into a goal with massive intensity can be an effective way to jumpstart a goal you’ve been putting off. Similar to weightlifting, this spurs new growth, but in the form of momentum.

Workout everyday for 40 minutes for the next thirty days.

Write at least 3,000 words every day for next thirty days.

Make 100 sales calls every day for the next thirty days.

Read a book a day for next thirty days.

Practice speaking in only in French for the next thirty days.

This kind of method isn’t sustainable, but instead, it’s a way to create momentum. Whatever subject, task, or goal you apply this method to, be sure to have a plan of action once the shock season is over.This way, you can transition right into the same habit or behavior without experiencing halt in momentum.


Wrapping Up

Any worthwhile goal is going to require time, effort and attention.  Instead of shying away from attempting a difficult goal, re-frame it and make the association that labor leads to love (or appreciation) and you’ll realize that the effort itself is what holds the power – not the outcome.

And now that you understand the potential value in that elevated dream you have, it’s time to put the strategies you just learned into play.

You’ve got what it takes. Do the work. You’ll appreciate it more.