“I’m recording one second of every day of my life for the rest of my life…
So if I live to see 80 years of age I’m going to have a 5-hour video that encapsulates 50 years of my life…
This has really invigorated me day to day when I wake up to try and do something interesting with my day.”
- Cesar Kuriyama
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There’s a very good article in the New York Times about “positive procrastination.” Yes, that’s right, procrastination that’s a good thing.
They talk to Dr. John Perry, author of The Art of Procrastination, who explains a good method for leveraging your laziness:
Dr. Perry was a typical self-hating procrastinator until it occurred to him in 1995 that he wasn’t entirely lazy. When he put off grading papers, he didn’t just sit around idly; he would sharpen pencils or work in the garden or play Ping-Pong with students. “Procrastinators,” he realized, “seldom do absolutely nothing.”
A modest insight, perhaps, but it eased his conscience and disabused him of the old idea that procrastinators should limit commitments. The key to productivity, he argues in “The Art of Procrastination,” is to make more commitments — but to be methodical about it.
At the top of your to-do list, put a couple of daunting, if not impossible, tasks that are vaguely important-sounding (but really aren’t) and seem to have deadlines (but really don’t). Then, farther down the list, include some doable tasks that really matter.
“Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list,” Dr. Perry writes. “With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.”
To quote Robert Benchley:
…anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.
A similar technique is described by Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation:
“My best trick is to play my projects off against each other, procrastinating on one by working on another.”
Dr. Steel says it’s based on sound principles of behavioral psychology: “We are willing to pursue any vile task as long as it allows us to avoid something worse.”
My two favorite methods for beating procrastination are here.
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Is a little bit of awe what you need to be a better person?
Is your calendar the secret to happiness?
What makes for a meaningful life?
These are some of the things I talked about with my friend Jennifer. She’s a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and has published fascinating papers on happiness, meaning, money and how we spend our time. Her book is The Dragonfly Effect.
The big big power of feeling very very small
You did some research on awe and how it affects us. Can you talk a little about that?
Absolutely. The awe and time work is done with Melanie Rudd and Kathleen Vohs, and is based off of Melanie’s dissertation. One reason we started to examine awe is that it is an understudied emotion – particularly relative to happiness. A second reason is that it has unique consequences. When you feel awe, you are experiencing a positive emotion that feels vast and big, and as a result is capable of altering one’s view of the world. Our studies focus on the effects of awe on how people may alter their sense of time – that is, the way they perceive and use time. We show that when people feel awe, they feel like they have more available time on their hands. And as a result, they are more willing to volunteer to help others, and spend time on others. They also tend to make very different product choices, preferring experiential products over material products. They even experience a boost in life satisfaction.
(Note: Want to try this yourself? Here’s the commercial and the slideshow they used to provoke awe in test subjects. How do you feel after you watch them?)
Want to be happier? Track time, track your happiness and plan ahead.
You did another study on how to spend time in order to increase happiness. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Sure. A lot of research has examined the relationship between money and happiness (see an excellent new book by Liz Dunn and Mike Norton called Happy Money), but there is less work on the relationship between happiness and time. Yet time is one of the most important resources we have, and there are many reasons to think that a deeper examination of how we spend time might move us closer to the elusive goal of improving happiness. One reason is because time, relative to money, tends to be laden with personal meaning. Another reason is that time fosters interpersonal connection (see Cassie Mogilner’s 2011 paper in Psychological Science). Since both personal meaning and social connection are critical to happiness, it makes sense that how individuals spend their time may shed light on the happiness puzzle. As a result, Cassie Mogilner, Melanie Rudd, and I ask the question – can we rethink how we’re using time? The main premise of that Journal of Consumer Psychology paper is to suggest that, if we rethink how we spend time, and be more intentional on how we spend time (with whom and on what activities) – that may impact the happiness we feel.
More recently, I am also exploring whether we can maximize time, expand time, and design time more proactively (rather than passively). For example, if people are asked to monitor how they are actually spending their time, and then later rate themselves on a variety of measures including how happy they feel, the results show that people who spend more time on projects that energize them and with people who energize them tend to be happier. However, what is interesting is that there is often a gap between where people say they want to spend their time and how they actually spend their time. For example, if you ask people to list the projects that energize (vs. deplete) them, and what people energize (vs. deplete them), and then monitor how they actually spend their time, you find a large percentage know what projects and people energize them, but do not in fact spend much time on those projects and with those people.
Taking an inventory about where you’re spending your time is revealing. And then once you identify the activities and people with whom you want to spend more time, calendaring your time thoughtfully becomes critical. When you put something on a calendar, you’re more likely to actually do that activity – partly because you’re less likely to have to make an active decision whether you should do it – because it’s already on your calendar. For example, if working out is important to you but you find yourself skipping your workout far too often, calendar time for the workout in the same way you might calendar business meetings. When you make these dates with yourself, you don’t have to actively ask yourself, should I go work out? If it is on your calendar, your behavior is more automatic and consequently you are more likely to spend time on activities that you know are good for you.
Stories and Social Media can change (and save) lives.
Can you talk about your book, Dragonfly Effect?
Absolutely. This was a personal project, inspired by a story that my student Robert Chatwani shared a few years ago. His best friend, Sameer Bhatia, was diagnosed with leukemia and there was no match in the bone marrow registry for him. Robert, friends, and family launched a campaign that harnessed social media to get 20,000 South Asians into the registry. And they surpassed their goal; getting 24,611 South Asians into the registry in 11 short weeks. It was this story – how they accomplished this goal– that inspired The Dragonfly Effect. The reality is that there are almost 10,000 people every year who are in need of a bone marrow match. So the book allowed us to grow Robert’s story, and also provide a roadmap for anyone in this position. The Dragonfly book was about this idea of the power of a story to move people. The use of social networks was just a mechanism by which you could see that any individual with a single focused goal and a story that’s powerful to them and that might resonate with others might be able to do something quite remarkable which is to move others and achieve that single focused goal.
Another reason why The Dragonfly Effect was important to me personally was because we were able to integrate in the new work on happiness and meaningfulness. As you summarized when writing about our On Happiness vs. Meaningfulness paper (with Roy, Kathleen and Emily), meaningfulness is associated with being more of a giver than a taker, and the desire to have a positive impact on the world. Those basic motivations are at the core of the Dragonfly Effect model. And in fact writing the book was deeply meaningful. I think all of us have had that urge to do something that matters and hopefully help others in impactful ways. Every now and then, we get lucky enough to be able to do that. So for Andy, Carlye and I – that motivation was a big reason why we wrote The Dragonfly Effect.
Stories are the secret to meaning in life.
What’s the most common thing people are doing wrong in terms of their lives being happier or more meaningful? What mistakes are most people making on a day-to-day basis?
I’m convinced the questions of (a) what is really meaningful and (b) how you spend your time are useful filters by which you can make better decisions. However, the question, ‘What is meaningful to me?’ is a difficult one to answer. How do you begin to get your head around that question? Some new studies suggest if we spend time thinking about stories in our lives, that might be a more effective way of figuring out what is meaningful versus not. For example, if you ask people simple questions like, ‘Tell me one story in your day’ or ‘Tell me the top 10 stories that define your life,’ you can get individuals thinking more about what is meaningful to them. One hypothesis is that when you do that, you’ll make choices and decisions in a way that might be not just wiser but also potentially also more interesting, distinctive and impactful.
Here’s what to do next.
What’s one thing people can do that’s simple and accessible that can make them happier or their lives more meaningful?
One useful exercise is doing an audit on how you are spending your time. To what degree is how your time being spent aligned with how you want to spend your time? Interestingly, often small shifts in how you spend your time have a bigger impact on your ultimate happiness than you might imagine.
In general, people have an overly positive vision of themselves and their abilities. What flaw are they most honest about? Self control.
Of the two dozen “character strengths” listed in the researchers’ questionnaire, self-control was the one that people were least likely to recognize in themselves. Conversely, when people were asked about their failings, a lack of self-control was at the top of the list.
So if this is something most people can agree on, what can you do to increase willpower?
1) Don’t resist, just postpone
Telling yourself “Not now, but later” is far more powerful than “No, you can’t have that.”
…people who had told themselves Not now, but later were less troubled with visions of chocolate cake than the other two groups… Those in the postponement condition actually ate significantly less than those in the self-denial condition…The result suggests that telling yourself I can have this later operates in the mind a bit like having it now. It satisfies the craving to some degree—and can be even more effective at suppressing the appetite than actually eating the treat.
2) Take it out of your hands
Daniel Akst, author of We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess, explains how we can use “precommitment devices” to rein in desire:
How can you use precommitment to keep yourself from giving in to unwanted desires? You’re probably already doing so—for example, by asking your significant other, on the way to a restaurant, not to let you order dessert when you get there. Dan Ariely, that tireless student of human irrationality, has collected several interesting precommitment anecdotes from regular people, including one who placed her credit card in a container of water in the freezer, thereby requiring a cooling off—er, that is, warming up—period before use, and another who, before a date with a guy she knew she shouldn’t sleep with, wore her “granniest” underwear—presumably to deter herself from disrobing…
3) Increase willpower by not relying on it
Manipulate your environment so you don’t have to exert self-control. Throw out the donuts. Hide the booze. This has been shown to be surprisingly powerful.
Manipulate your environment so as to make what you should do easy and what you shouldn’t do hard.
Lower the activation energy for habits you want to adopt, and raise it for habits you want to avoid. The more we can lower or even eliminate the activation energy for our desired actions, the more we enhance our ability to jump-start positive change.
4) “If-Then” Plans
That’s a fancy way of setting a standard response to a situation so you don’t have to think. When someone asks you to vote for that “other” political party, to inject heroin or consider murder you probably don’t actually consider it. You have a knee jerk script in your head that says “I don’t do that.”
If everything you did required a thoughtful decision, you’d never get out of bed in the morning. Too much of this and you’re a computer. But used deliberately it can be quite powerful.
It’s called if-then planning, and it is a really powerful way to help you achieve any goal. Well over a hundred studies, on everything from diet and exercise to negotiation and time management, have shown that deciding in advance when and where you will take specific actions to reach your goal (e.g., “If it is 4 p.m., then I will return any phone calls I should return today”) can double or triple your chances for success.
5) Make sure your goal has an emotional component
If you’re really going to be motivated to control yourself, you need to feel something. Having an abstract goal in mind isn’t enough.
Chip and Dan Heath say that the emotional mind is key in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard:
Focus on emotions. Knowing something isn’t enough to cause change. Make people (or yourself) feel something.
When we don’t feel meaning, when what we’re doing doesn’t have a purpose, motivation goes out the window. Noah Goldstein, author of Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, reviews a study:
Adam Grant, a scholar in the field of organizational behavior, realized that workers often fail to live up to their potential because they’ve lost track of the significance and meaningfulness of their own jobs. He figured that if he could remind employees of why their jobs are important, they might become more highly motivated, and therefore, more productive individuals.
The feelings associated with something are far more powerful than the ideas. Make sure they’re on your side.
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Goal setting is one of the four techniques the military used to increase Navy SEAL passing rates from 25% to 33%. Studies have also shown it makes you happier.
So what are five steps you need to be taking to achieve your goals?
1) Shut Up
Keep them secret. Talking about big goals rewards yourself ahead of time and makes you less likely to follow through.
Via Daniel Coyle’s excellent book The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills:
While it’s natural and oh so tempting to want to announce big goals, it’s smarter to keep them to yourself. In a 2009 experiment at New York University, 163 subjects were given a difficult work project and forty-five minutes to spend on it. Half the subjects were told to announce their goals, while half were told to keep quiet. The subjects who announced their goals quit after only an average of thirty-three minutes, and reported feeling satisfied with their work. Those who kept their mouths shut, however, worked the entire forty-five minutes, and remained strongly motivated. (In fact, when the experiment ended, they wanted to keep working.) Telling others about your big goals makes them less likely to happen, because it creates an unconscious payoff— tricking our brains into thinking we’ve already accomplished the goal. Keeping our big goals to ourselves is one of the smartest goals we can set.
Do NOT fantasize about achieving your goal. That’s eating dessert first and saps motivation. Thinking about what you have to do to prepare for a challenge was more likely to lead to success than imagining the victory.
2) Make working on your goals fun
People are happier when their goals are aligned, meaning their short term goals lead to the achievement of their long term goals.
So make it fun in the short term and you’ll likely achieve more (and be happier) in the long term.
Via Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom:
The psychologists Ken Sheldon and Tim Kasser have found that people who are mentally healthy and happy have a higher degree of “vertical coherence” among their goals—that is, higher-level (long term) goals and lower-level (immediate) goals all fit together well so that pursuing one’s short-term goals advances the pursuit of long-term goals.
3) Join AA
Okay, you don’t actually have to join Alcoholics Anonymous but you can definitely learn something from them: Alcoholics focus on staying sober one day at a time and celebrate these “small wins”.
Research has shown that paying attention to “small wins” can help you make progress in many areas of your life.
Small wins are like footholds or building blocks amid the inevitable uncertainty of moving forward, or as the case may be, laterally. They serve as what Saras Sarasvathy calls landmarks, and they can either confirm that we’re heading in the right direction or they can act as pivot points, telling us how to change course.
In the acclaimed paper in which Weick described small wins, published in the January 1984 issue of American Psychologist, he used the example of how helpful it is for alcoholics to focus on remaining sober one day at a time, or even one hour at a time. Stringing together successive days of sobriety helps them to see the rewards of abstinence and makes it more achievable in their minds. Elaborating on the benefits of small wins, Weick writes, “Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.”
Track your accomplishments on a chart. Do anything so that you can see progress because nothing motivates you more than seeing progress.
4) Don’t know what your goals are? Think about your funeral.
9 minutes in to his famous Stanford commencement speech Steve Jobs explains the importance he placed on thinking about death during life:
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”
Visualize your funeral and consider what you would want friends to describe as your legacy.
Via Richard Wiseman’s excellent book 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute:
Asking people to spend just a minute imagining a close friend standing up at their funeral and reflecting on their personal and professional legacy helps them to identify their long-term goals and assess the degree to which they are progressing toward making those goals a reality.
Candy Chang gives an inspirational TED talk about a project that asked people to finish the sentence: “Before I die I want to…”
5) Helping other achieve their goals can help you with yours
Undergrads who wrote letters of encouragement to “at-risk” middleschoolers advising them to persevere and that intelligence “is not a finite endowment but rather an expandabale capacity” became, themselves, happier and better in school for months afterward.
Truth is, there were no middleschoolers.
…the mere experience of writing them had a lasting impact on the college students themselves. Months later, the letter writers were still reporting greater enjoyment of school than were other Stanford undergrads. Their grade point averages were higher, too, by a full third of a point on a four-point scale.
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