Change is good—we know it, but we hate it

On my last trip home, for the first time since I left the country six years ago, I spent a whole month in India. It gave me the opportunity to think about some things more deeply than I have been able to on previous trips. One realisation was that most people don’t change very much at all. Their habits, thoughts, views, opinions, arguments, dressing style, preferences…. remain surprisingly unchanged.

For certain aspects of a person that is a good thing. But overall such an attitude has more negative consequences. I think it stops people from living happier lives that they are perfectly capable of living.

I don’t know why this is the case. Of course change is hard, but surely people would have figured out that it is also disproportionately rewarding and totally worth the occasional failures. If humanity hasn’t figured out that yet, then it is the failure of the collective that desperately needs fixing. And I am not the first one to recognise that.

One solution to the problem of enabling change is to use technology. Take the Coach.me app (previously, Lift). It lets you set goals and then helps you to reach them. It does that through social engineering and simple digital nudges.

The social engineering aspect involves the offer of live coaches or encouragement by strangers. Your goals are public and, if you’re friends use the app then they can look at how you’re doing and perhaps give you that much needed push. The digital nudges are reminders and simple tutorials to help you in your goal to, say, meditate daily.

Coach.me is not the only app. But what any of those apps do is provide a solution to the people who are already convinced that changing is important. That is a tiny slice of smartphone-using humanity.

What if we want to spread the message “change is good” and convince a much larger part of humanity? Education? Celebrities? Social media? How do you convince yourself to change? What do you do to make it happen?

Image: arthurjohnpicton CC-NC.

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The best hack to be productive

Summary: To do more in less time, spend more time doing less. 

The summary is not a paradoxical statement. Given how busy everyone’s life has become and how being busy brings social prestige, to do more in less time people have to multi-task. But multi-tasking is the enemy of getting stuff done and the thief that steals our happiness.

Elizabeth Dunn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, told The Economist, “Multi-tasking is what makes us feel pressed for time. No matter what people are doing, people feel better when they are focused on that activity.”

When you feel better doing what you do, you get more stuff done and walk away happier. So if Dunn is right, it is better to do one thing at a time, which may inevitably mean spending more time doing less but still getting more done.

Some of the best friends I made at Oxford are those that are part of the Oxford Ideas Group. Our similar interests brought us close and they keep us close despite going down very different career paths.

One of those common interests was to find hacks to become more productive: to do more in less time. The “more” was not just for greater quantity but also for better quality. So after a few years of real-life experience, when two members of the group arrive at the same idea about productivity, there must be some “truth” to the revelation. For instance, Christo recently wrote that his “new secret for having more time” was to do less. My new year resolution is to gain more time by doing fewer things with greater focus.

This is a post in the best hack series, where the aim is to find small ideas that have a big impact in improving everyday life.

Image credit: ryantron under CC-BY-ND.

The best hack for a to-do list

Summary: Every morning, put down on a to-do list only the three most important tasks. 

For the office-goer of the 21st century, a to-do list is both a boon and a curse. While it can help get stuff done, it also creates a lot of anxiety. That is because, on most occasions, the list keeps growing without an end in sight.

What is needed is a way to ensure that you get enough stuff done and end the work day on a happy note. The best hack I know to achieve that is to make a simple tweak to building a to-do list. It is not an original idea, but its implementation has completely changed how I work.

Choose the three most important tasks (MITs) that need to be done that day, and put them down on a to-do list. Come what may, decide to do those three things before leaving work. If possible, do those them first in the morning.

Of course I do more than three things every day, but the idea is that I ensure doing the things that matter the most first. I leave work without lingering anxieties of incomplete tasks at hand.

The exercise is not as simple as than you’d think. The prime difficulty is the prioritisation of tasks. But once you start doing it, you realise through trial and error how to find those three MITs. And it is that which really changed how I work.

Bonus: There are two more tweaks that I’m trying to implement to this routine. First is to ensure that I leave work at a certain time. This is to respect Parkinson’s law that states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

Second is to choose one of those three MITs to be a task towards a long-term goal. On days when I have been able to do that, I feel I’ve accomplished more than what is needed of me at work, and I sleep a little better that night.

This is the first post in “the best hack series”, where the aim is to find small ideas that have a big impact in improving everyday life.

Image credit: naomi_pincher, CC-BY-NC-ND

My worst days as a kid gave me the most valuable productivity hack

Radiolab, one of my favourite things on the internet, ran an episode on morality a few years ago. The main question they asked was whether our sense of morality is something we are born with or something we learn. If it is the latter, then how? The one-hour story is worth your time, but there is one aspect of the three-part story that I want to discuss.

In the first part, they observed chimps to find that even among our primate cousins there exists a rudimentary system of morality. Their example comes from how these chimps share the food that is given to a group. Some neuroscientists and philosophers argue that each one of us has this rudimentary level of morality that we have inherited through millions of years of evolution—this is the “inner chimp” hypothesis as one scientist puts it.

In humans this inner chimp starts acting when we are two or three years old. And then we refine it as we go through the experience of life. Most of this refinement, not surprisingly, happens when we are kids, as we see in the second part in the episode, which involved an example from the school life of Amy O’Leary, now a New York Times reporter.

In grade four, one of Amy’s teacher got the kids to play a game that would help them learn some history. The game was called Homestead and it was something like Monopoly where each student received certain resources and had to play by simple rules to win. The main rule of the game was: “Do what you think is right.”

Amy cheated. She looted some of her classmates who wanted to be part of an in-group and even flooded the market with fake money. The teacher who ran the game realised what was happening and called a meeting of those who were involved. He asked Amy, who had become a leader by now, “What are you going to do?”

When she said “nothing”, the teacher used it as one of those “teachable” moments and showed his disappointment in her without directly intervening in the game. That look on her teacher’s face has stuck with Amy for all her life.

Just as she finished telling the story, I was flooded with memories of the many guilty moments that have left such moral lessons in my life.

These moments are painful. Most of them involve a scene at the end where my mum is tired of reprimanding me, or my dad is about to get angry, which happened on rare occasions and terrified the hell out of me. Some are absolutely clear, as if the expressions on people’s faces were recorded on a photographic plate in my head. Others are vague, with the characteristic fog that blurs the details leaving only a strong sense of shame.

This I’m sure has happened to many of us. I asked a few of my friends and all seemed to share anecdotes of times they remember when they did something wrong, but only realised that it in hindsight. A painful lesson was learnt and they carried it for all their life.

One such lesson that I have etched into me has helped me tremendously. It involves mischief and feedback.

Beat me to it

As a naughty child I may have done wrong things, but mostly I did annoying things. Of course, in my head, I was only having fun and that was no crime. But people around me seemed to have low tolerance, and I was told off too many times. I hated it. Mostly because I wasn’t given a proper reason for why my actions were annoying. Of course, if I didn’t know why what I did was wrong, I wasn’t going to learn to do the right thing.

That is why the annual school open day was the worst day of the year. It gave the teachers an opportunity to complain to my parents and get the guilt off their chest. They did this in a polite manner, which I always thought was wrong. Wouldn’t it have been better to talk to me in a polite manner in the first place?

All that admonishment left scars. It might have taught me something about morality, but more importantly it gave me a really useful hack.

In hindsight, I realise that I didn’t understand the reason for stopping me because my natural empathy levels were low. I had that realisation partly because even as an adult I sometimes struggle with it. And to counter my lack of empathy, I developed a system of wanting a constant stream of feedback. I want to know as often and as early as possible if I’m going wrong somewhere.

But I also needed to develop a thick skin. When you are open to feedback, some would be constructive and much hurtful. This is the reason, as the thinker Seth Godin puts it, adults don’t seek feedback as often as they should.

When you can get this system to work, however, it’s absolutely fantastic. It is the best productivity hack I know for becoming better at something quickly: ride the cycle of practice and feedback. It has been a painful but useful lesson.

Image credit: Zen

This is the best new year resolution you can make

New year resolutions should be about multiplying your strengths, while making a note of your weaknesses

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Soon many of us will be tempted to make new year resolutions. Perhaps you’ve been egged on by someone who successfully managed to keep theirs. Or perhaps that reflection time you got over the Christmas break has made you renew old resolutions with more, well, resolve. Or maybe it’s just that you need those resolutions because you don’t want to appear lazy.

Rationally speaking, any given time of the year should be a good time to make resolutions. But the new year tempts us to believe that it is instead the best time for resolution-making. It’s marked by celebrations with friends and family, who often have advice on which resolutions work and which don’t. Some even have tips on how to make sure you stick to them.

We should all strive to make good resolutions. But most new year resolutions we make are just terrible. Here are the most positive results I could find in the scientific literature on new year resolutions: a 1989 study in the journal Addictive Behaviours showed that

77% participants kept their primary resolutions for one week. 55% for one month. 40% for six months. These success rates were probably elevated because of volunteer composition, self-reporting and study’s demand characteristics.

Even without the caveat, the research says that nearly half of all participants were not even able to stick to their primary (ie the most important) resolution after a month.

Psychologists find that the most common reason we cannot stick to our new year resolutions is because we choose resolutions that are radically different from our current lifestyle. For instance, the most common resolutions are to exercise every day or, in case of smokers, to stop smoking altogether.

At the heart of keeping resolutions is the art of self-control that decades of study have shown is a limited resource. The sort of new year resolutions we choose tend to require a lot of self-control, which means they are also the easiest to give up.

And, even if we leave science aside, I contend that nothing more than your own personal history of sticking to new year resolutions is needed to convince you why this year’s resolutions should be different. So what’s the alternative?

The better thing to do is to resolve to multiply what you are already good at. In any given year, however good or bad it has been, there will always be things that you did that worked quite well and vice versa. The good bits may have come to you naturally, or maybe you had to work really hard to get to them. Either way, to better what you’re already good at is easier and requires less self-control to achieve. It may also bring in more positive results than you think.

When we make resolutions, we solely focus on our weak points. That is of course what we think will bring us the most gain. If we were able to stick to our resolutions, working on the weaknesses would indeed bring huge gains. But because our resolutions fail so easily, it is better to choose the low-hanging fruit for now.

This is not to say that you should not aim to make fundamental positive changes to your lifestyle. You should but you would be more successful if you choose to do that later on in the year. All the articles coming your way about new year resolutions would be better used then!

Creativity in a box

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Not so bad. Dan Machold

As a writer, I suffer from a disability that I suspect isn’t unique. I am never pleased with anything I write. There must be, my critical self nags, a better idea to write about or a better way to write what I just wrote.

Perhaps it is this disability that has forced me to work as a journalist, rather than, say, a novelist. For example, both the aforementioned problems go away when I’m on an assignment.

The first disappears because once my idea has been accepted by an editor, I know that’s what I have to write about. The second vanishes because the acceptance comes with a deadline, which I’m forced to honour so it keeps my easy-to-distract mind on a leash.

This it turns out isn’t a bad way of learning to be a writer. As it happens, Neil Gaiman, a best-selling English author of fiction and comics, found that the restrictions placed on him as a journalist were great for learning to be a creative writer.

In an interview for the Financial Times, he said:

(After school I went) straight into work, as a journalist – a wonderful thing for a writer. You learn you can ask questions, you learn compression and you learn probably the single most important thing for any writer: delivering more or less on time.

Of course, the idea of tethering your mind to a task at hand isn’t a new productivity tool. What is counter-intuitive, though, is that putting yourself in a box that is governed by self-set rules does not kill creativity. If anything, it is enhanced in a way that may produce more results.

How to stop fooling yourself

When I first wrote about self-deception, a little more than a year ago, I found the experience traumatising.

It can be very troubling to realise that inside my own head I maybe tucking away truths that I am already aware of!

Now Eli Dourado has an essay in The Umlaut that discusses a paper by Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson that grapples with the issue of self-deception.  Here’s the relevant bit:

Self-favoring priors, they note, can help to serve other functions besides arriving at the truth. People who “irrationally” believe in themselves are often more successful than those who do not. Because pursuit of the truth is often irrelevant in evolutionary competition, humans have an evolved tendency to hold self-favoring priors and self-deceive about the existence of these priors in ourselves, even though we frequently observe them in others.

Self-deception is in some ways a more serious problem than mere lack of intelligence. It is embarrassing to be caught in a logical contradiction, as a stupid person might be, because it is often impossible to deny. But when accused of disagreeing due to a self-favoring prior, such as having an inflated opinion of one’s own judgment, people can and do simply deny the accusation.

So how can we cope with self-deception?

Cowen and Hanson argue that we should be on the lookout for people who are “meta-rational,” honest truth-seekers who choose opinions as if they understand the problem of disagreement and self-deception. According to the theory of disagreement, meta-rational people will not have disagreements among themselves caused by faith in their own superior knowledge or reasoning ability. The fact that disagreement remains widespread suggests that most people are not meta-rational, or—what seems less likely—that meta-rational people cannot distinguish one another.

We can try to identify meta-rational people through their cognitive and conversational styles. Someone who is really seeking the truth should be eager to collect new information through listening rather than speaking, construe opposing perspectives in their most favorable light, and offer information of which the other parties are not aware, instead of simply repeating arguments the other side has already heard.

What sells in the name of journalism today is written to appease one side or the other. Opinions are important, but what is more important is facts that help you arrive at it and the process you use to form them. A good journalist should be a meta-rational person. He should also be able to find other meta-rational people, so that the world is made aware of facts and arguments that help take things a step forward.

The problem, of course, is that meta-rational people care less about success but more about seeking the truth/understanding the world. Their voices are present but harder to find. They get far less attention than they deserve.

You can stop reading now, if you like. For, because we are on the subject of good journalism and meta-rational people, I’d like to discuss an example of exactly the opposite. Aleks Eror writes in VICE that the Chinese are engineering genius babies. This is a great story, if it were true. Sadly, he bases this claim on the word of Geoffrey Miller, an American academic, who wrote a heavily biased article about it in January. What’s worse is that it Miller’s argument had been criticised and debunked (sort-of) immediately after. But Eror chose to ignore that and rehash the fear-mongering story.

The central point of the argument is that the Chinese have an institute where they are doing genome sequencing of the world’s smartest people to find the genes that makes us smart. This is not a new story. Eugenics in some shape or form has existed for a long time. The problem with Eror’s piece is that he doesn’t run by an expert the claims made by Miller.

A good science journalist should always do that because the complex nature of the subjects we usually deal with. Experts may not be the perfect meta-rational candidate that we’d like, but they are close enough. They bring an external perspective, and I’ve found that invaluable in my own work.