A smart excuse to not put in the effort

At some point in our lives we seem to find ourselves in a kind of ‘flow’ where we find our work effortlessly enjoyable. All the knobs in our heads have been tuned just to the right extent allowing us to feel this rare but satisfying feeling of being in the flow. Unfortunately, despite the amazing feeling that one experiences in this state, it doesn’t really help us get better at what we do, warns Cal Newport of Study Hacks.

Once we experience ‘flow’ we are tempted to seek it out. I have experienced this state of flow a number of times, and I admit to have fallen trap to the temptation. When in flow, it feels that I am on a cognitive high, able to make the connections needed to construct an argument, able to draw on the data that I need to plan my next step, or even to grasp exactly what I want to learn. When in flow, I feel extremely productive, and it is tempting to want to feel like that whenever I work.

When Newport first brought up this issue on his blog, he found there to be a lot of discussion among his readers mostly because of the lack of clarity in the understanding of what, exactly, flow means. To the rescue came Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University, who introduced the idea of ‘deliberate practice’ which is what really makes us better at what we do. He says:

It is clear that skilled individuals can sometimes experience highly enjoyable states (flow) during their performance. These states are, however, incompatible with deliberate practice, in which individuals engage in a (typically planned) training activity aimed at reaching a level just beyond the currently attainable level of performance by engaging in full concentration, analysis after feedback, and repetitions with refinement.

In short, as Cal Newport puts it, the feeling of flow is different than the feeling of getting better. There is no avoiding working on our weaknesses if we want to get better at doing something. When in flow, we tend to capitalise on what we are good at and make it work to our advantage. On the other hand, when we need to get better at something by overcoming our weaknesses, we need to put in deliberate effort to improve. This needs to be done in the face of feeling ‘you are not good enough’, which clearly cannot be enjoyable.

No more making smart excuses such as, “I need to hit that plane, and once I’m there I know I can get a lot of work done and get better at doing what I do.” Ericsson’s warning should be given due to attention:

The commonly held but empirically unsupported notion that some uniquely “talented” individuals can attain superior performance in a given domain without much practice appears to be a destructive myth that could discourage people from investing the necessary efforts to reach expert levels of performance.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers claimed that what made exceptionally successful people exceptional was that they had put in 10,000 hours of work into bettering themselves at what they do. But Ericsson warns that there is only a weak correlation between the mere number of years (or hours) of experience and the performance.

In other words, putting  in the raw number of hours isn’t enough. Those hours needed to be dedicated to doing the right type of work. Newport claims that understanding this “right type of work” is perhaps the most important (and most under-appreciated) step toward building a remarkable life.

Newport quotes Geoff Colvin, an editor at Fortune Magazine who wrote an entire book about this idea and surveyed the research literature to expand the definition of deliberate practice:

  1. It’s designed to improve performance. “The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities. That may sound obvious, but most of us don’t do it in the activities we think of as practice.”
  2. It’s repeated a lot. “High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts.”
  3. Feedback on results is continuously available. “You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn’t what counts.”
  4. It’s highly demanding mentally. “Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it ‘deliberate,’ as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.”
  5. It’s hard. “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”
  6. It requires (good) goals. “The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.”

A lot of the studies done on exploring this subject of deliberate practice have, not surprisingly, involved sportsmen and musicians. These professionals have objective measures of success which makes studying them easier. But what about the rest of us who don’t have such clear structures in place? How do we invoke deliberate practice to get better at writing, or marketing, or research?

Calvin argues that in most scenarios the fundamentals of fostering great performance are unrecognized or ignored. If indeed that is the case, the payback of putting in any amount of deliberate effort would be huge. Why? Because, as Newport suggests, unless you’re a professional athlete or musician, your peers are likely spending zero hours on deliberate practice.

Most professionals will get better at what they do with experience and will reach an acceptable level of performance. But to become remarkable, there is no other way but to put in the deliberate practice needed to get there. There are no obvious answers to what constitutes deliberate practice in a particular field, and that is probably what differentiates those who lead remarkable lives from those who don’t.

The trouble with self-deception

I recently argued that becoming a strategic self-deceiver is difficult but worth the effort. In the article that led me to this thought, David Brooks argued those who weren’t entirely honest when it came to self-narratives led impressive lives. My aim, as always, has been to understand how to use this knowledge to help us.

This idea of self-deception has in some form or the other been on my mind since I first wrote about it. To be frank, it has been a troubling thought. We can lead lives where we are able to successfully hide the truth from our own selves – isn’t that messed up?

As a scientist, my life is a pursuit to uncover truths about the world. It’s my day job and when one spends a large part of their life doing just that, it can be very troubling to realise that inside my own head I maybe tucking away truths that I am already aware of!

The self-deception paradox

Philosophers argue that one can not try to convince oneself of something being false when they know that it is true i.e. one cannot be successful at self-deception.

Here, of course, they are assuming that the person is trying to deceive themselves consciously. I argue that most self-deception occurs unconsciously and that’s why self-deceiving is not just possible but to a certain extent easy.

The helpers of self-deception

What aids self-deception is that we aren’t perfectly rational beings. Our thought process is flawed, of course, but beyond that even the machinery that runs it is far from perfect. We are the victims of our own biological shortcomings.

In the Seven Sins of Memory, Daniel Schacter shows that human beings have a remarkable ability to mess with their own memories. We don’t just forget things but are also able to create false memories and selectively block some memories. When so much of our lives are built on our past, I shudder to think that the memories that are the foundation of the building called me may not really be ‘true’ memories.

When both my rational self and the knowledge of the world that I hold are being questioned, it’s not hard to see why exploring self-deception has been a troubling experience.

Photo credit: Annek

The Blaming Fallacy

How many of these have you given yourself?

How many times have we looked back at a relatively short period of time (weeks or months) and realized all the things we did wrong and blamed ourselves for not doing better? I’ve done it many times and every time I’ve felt either miserable or angry.

What’s the point in this reflection then? We make mistakes and we should learn from them so as to not make them again. That’s fine if it stops at that. But more often than not it does not stop at that. After mulling over the lessons learnt, we start blaming ourselves for making those mistakes. That just ruins all the effort put in to contemplation.

It’s great to have the ability to rush through all that data from the past and cherry-pick the data which shows us that we were wrong. We have made great progress because of this ability but when we take the next step of blaming ourselves for those mistakes we miss the point of the exercise.

We make mistakes and sometimes the mistakes we make were unavoidable given the circumstances. Looking back, of course, it might not seem so because we have a lot more data to answer the same question. Nevertheless, it is true many more times than we convince ourselves.

The world is complex and me saying it a million times is not going to be enough to convince your heuristic-ridden brains. To be able to deal with all the complexity our brain depends on shortcuts that it has created based on our past experiences. These heuristics, as they are called, are usually very useful but they also lead to the creation of biases. These biases lead us sometimes to underestimate the complexity of the world and blame ourselves for things we might not really be responsible.

Of course, playing the ‘world is complex’ card too many times can not only be futile but also harmful. It’s a card to be played when the exercise of finding our faults isn’t being helpful, when the self-criticism is stopping us from growing.

Related: The importance of differentiating between mistakes and failures.