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


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

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.