Everything Takes Longer Than Anticipated: Hofstadter’s Law [Mental Models]

Think of your weekend days. You typically wake up and think of all the free time at hand. You plan a day of leisure. You intend to run some errands and get a few things done around the house. Yet, at the end of the day, you’ve done barely half of what you originally set out to do.

People Habitually Underestimate the Time Tasks Take

Almost everything that humankind has ever wished for—from renewing a driver’s license to achieving peace between countries at war—seems to have not completed within the time originally planned.

As the following case studies will illustrate, interruptions, deferrals, and delays characteristically result in cost overruns, benefit shortfalls, and disputes.

  • Sydney’s Opera House was originally forecast in 1957 to be completed in 1963. The magnificent performing arts complex formally opened only in 1973 and cost 15 times the original budget.
  • Hofstadter's Law: Boeing 787 Dreamliner Delays and LossesWhen Boeing first launched its 787 Dreamliner aircraft in 2004, it ambitiously planned for first flight in September 2007. After six delays in the design and prototype phases, the 787 first flew only in December 2009. First aircraft delivery was scheduled for 2008, but didn’t happen until September 2011, more than three years behind schedule. Then, after a series of early in-service technical and operational problems, Boeing embarked on serious drawn-out repairs on 787s. Following yet more production delays, the 787 started flying full-fledged only in 2013. The innumerable delays and cost overruns associated with the 787 program became a financial nightmare for Boeing’s investors. Boeing took nine years to get the Dreamliner off the drawing board and into mature service at a total development cost of $32 billion—twice as long as the company’s original estimation and more than five times more expensive.
  • Less than 50 days before the start of last year’s Summer Olympic Games in Brazil, the state of Rio de Janeiro declared a “state of public calamity” citing severe delays and acute cost overruns. The New York Times reported, “The city is a huge construction site. Bricks and pipes are piled everywhere; a few workers lazily push wheelbarrows as if the Games were scheduled for 2017.”

Hofstadter’s Law: We Chronically Underestimate the Time Things Take

Hofstadter's Law: We Chronically Underestimate the Time Things TakeThe American cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter conceived an ironic and recursive rule to characterize the observation that everything takes longer than planned.

Hofstadter’s Law states, “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s law”

Hofstadter first discussed this law in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a book popular among American computer programmers.

Underestimating Task-Time Means Constantly Rushing to Finish Things

According to planning fallacy, when people predict the time it takes to complete a task, they make their estimations by considering the various steps they have to take, but fail to imagine the pessimistic conditions where things could go wrong.

Project Delays: Hofstadter's Law, Planning Fallacy and Optimism BiasIn other words, thanks to optimism bias, people are generally too optimistic about the time it takes for them to complete a task, even when they are explicitly asked to think about potential obstacles.

Hofstadter’s Law also alludes to,

  • Superiority Bias where people overrate their own positive qualities and abilities—and underrate their negative qualities—when compared with others. “This takes three hours for the average Joe, but I am smarter, and I can do it in two hours.”
  • Beneffectance Bias where people perceive themselves as selectively accountable for the desired—but not the undesired—outcomes. “Last week, this took me 45 minutes, but the delay was because of conditions beyond my control. Today, I have full control; so I should take just 20 minutes.”

Idea for Impact: The problem with unforeseen delays is that you can’t foresee them, no matter how comprehensively you plan

Though somewhat silly in its recursive character, Hofstadter’s Law observes that, irrespective of how carefully you plan, every project will be prone to something unanticipated that will hinder its timely completion. The law’s recursiveness affirms that, even if you know a project may overrun and build that expectation into your planning, the project will overrun even your new estimated finish time.

Zeigarnik Effect: How Incomplete Tasks Trigger Stress [Mental Models]

Zeigarnik Effect: How Incomplete Tasks Trigger Stress {Mental Models}

People Remember Incomplete Tasks Better than Completed Tasks

When you listen to a song that’s unexpectedly cut off in the middle, your mind will repeatedly inject your thought stream with bits of the song in an attempt to remind you that you’re not yet “done” listening. But, once you listen to that song completely, your mind moves on.

Psychologists identify this tendency for interrupted tasks—and thoughts—to be evoked better than completed tasks the Zeigarnik Effect.

Ruminating about Unfinished Tasks Causes Anxiety

Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik who reported Zeigarnik Effect when working with research advisor Kurt Lewin at the University of BerlinThis phenomenon was first reported in the 1920s by the Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. Working with her research advisor Kurt Lewin at the University of Berlin, Zeigarnik observed that restaurant waiters seemed to remember a complex order just so long as the order was in the process of being prepared and served, but not after it was finished.

Zeigarnik Effect and Cliffhangers

Zeigarnik effect is in force when an episode of a TV series ends with a cliffhanger leaving the audience in suspense until the next episode. Teachers who conclude their lectures by posing a perplexing question stimulate the class to think about the answer until the next class.

In another prominent use of the cliffhanger and the Zeigarnik Effect as a literary device, the English novelist Charles Dickens released most of his novels in the form of serial publications, i.e. in monthly or weekly installments. Dickens’s cliffhangers initiated such anticipation in reader’s minds that his American fans would gather at New York City’s docks for the latest installment to arrive by ship from England. The installment format also allowed Dickens to rework his character development and his plots depending on audiences’ reactions.

Zeigarnik Effect and Cliffhangers

Zeigarnik Effect and the Need for Closure: Task Management

Psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik’s research showed that the human mind hates unfinished tasks. Zeigarnik theorized that incomplete tasks incite “psychic tension” in you, which can be a persuasive impetus to complete the task. As long as you leave the task unfinished, your brain is in an uncomfortable position. Thoughts of the task serve to remind your brain of what it needs to do to get “comfortable” once again. As soon as you complete the task, this tension is alleviated, and in so doing, your brain lets the mind to release thoughts of the task from consciousness.

In other words, much mental effort is required when your tasks are interrupted or are still in the process of being completed.

From a time-management perspective, uncompleted tasks and unmet goals have a propensity for popping into your mind and worrying you persistently until the task is completed and the goal reached.

Emptying Your Mind of Nagging Tasks to Get Things Done

'Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength' by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney (ISBN 0143122231) According to John Tierney and Roy Baumeister’s Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, further research in cognitive psychology has suggested that the Zeigarnik effect exists not just until you actually finish a task but also until you make concrete plans related to the task.

… turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan. The unconscious mind apparently can’t do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place, and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders.

According to Willpower, one research study asked students to think about an important exam. Half of the students were asked to put in writing specific plans of what/where/when they would study. Later, all students were asked to do a word association test. The group of students that did not write any study plans produced more word associations related to studying because studying was still on their mind; the group who did write down their study plans did not exhibit a comparable bias during the word association test.

Emptying Your Mind of Nagging Tasks to Get Things Done

The Zeigarnik Effect is the central theorem in David Allen’s legendary “Getting Things Done” method for task-management works.

Allen reasons that the dominant cause of everyday anxiety is that you are never truly sure of all the ‘things’ you’re supposed to do. You know you’ve got things to take care of and haven’t. Therefore, your mind keeps incoherently revisiting all that’s important but not yet completed. These “open loops” occupy much of your cognitive effort and debilitate your attention, causing anxiety, sapping your energy, and draining your willpower.

The primary benefit of using Allen’s Getting Things Done system is to reduce anxiety by emptying your mind of nagging tasks, filing away (or writing down) everything that must be done, placing them into a processing system, and scheduling chunks of time to single-mindedly do important things.

Human Mind Hates Unfinished Tasks

'Getting Things Done' by David Allen (ISBN 0670899240) According to the Zeigarnik Effect, unresolved and interrupted tasks thieve the attention of your brain until you have a clear—if subconscious—proposal of what you’re going to deal with them.

Just the simple act of capturing a task that reaches your head can achieve that sense of completion. Even if you haven’t completed the task, you’ll know that you’ve accomplished what could be done up to the moment.

Here’s three clever ways to use the Zeigarnik Effect to your advantage:

  • Use the Two-minute ‘Do-It-Now’ Rule. See my previous article on this task management discipline—in a nutshell: act immediately upon a contemplated task if it can be completed in less than two minutes. Don’t add it to your to-do list.
  • Make a Concrete Plan. Whenever you have a task in mind, stop doing whatever you’re doing, take a blank sheet of paper, and invest one minute to plan and record how you intend to tackle the task. If you intend to write an essay, write an outline; if it’s a report, start the list of contents.
  • Judiciously Use To-Do Lists. Establish and peruse a trusted system to capture your projects and tasks, and the commitments you have to yourself and others. According to David Allen’s Getting Things Done, your human brain is an ineffective and unreliable repository of all the things you try to cram into it. All this “stuff” collectively clutters your headspace. Getting all your stuff out of your head and into a trusted system can bring about a profound sense of relief.

Bertrand Russell’s Ten Commandments of Honest Thought and Discourse

The celebrated British mathematician, logician, and political activist Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) is one of the most widely read philosophers of the 20th century.

As a lifelong patron of lost causes, Russell published an essay titled “The best answer to fanaticism: Liberalism” in the 16-December-1951 issue of The New York Times. In this essay, he supported liberalism—the political philosophy founded on the importance of human individuality and equality, and a restraint of the stern grip of law and authority.

A tireless champion of morality and reason that he was, Russell wrote in this essay, “the essence of the liberal outlook is a belief that men should be free to question anything if they can support their questioning by solid arguments.”

Bertrand Russell's Ten Commandments of Honest Thought and Discourse

Bertrand Russell’s Decalogue of Critical Thinking

Beyond political philosophy and classical liberalism, this essay is famous for Russell’s vision for honest thought and discourse. Here is that thought-provoking list in full form—worth reading and practicing.

Perhaps the essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

Doing Is Everything

Many people know what they should do: lose weight, start exercising, stop smoking, get serious about managing careers, find a romantic partner, start saving money, and so on. Yet they can’t seem to make themselves do.

Doing is everything / Knowing is nothing

You know what to do, but you don’t do it!

It is told that long ago in China, a reclusive monk climbed up a tree in a forest. He settled comfortably and sat there in deep meditation, undisturbed by the outside world.

That became his everyday routine.

People from hamlets in the vicinity adopted him. They approached him with offerings and discussed their affairs. And he imparted his wisdom.

His fame soon spread everywhere. Visitors from far-flung towns trekked to the forest for his counsel.

Folks started calling him Birdsnest for the reason that he perched high up his tree.

On one occasion, the local king learned of Birdsnest and set forth to see him. After an arduous journey, the king located Birdsnest’s tree.

The king hollered at the monk trying to seek his attention. “O wise one, I have an important question to ask of you.”

The king waited for Birdsnest. No response came.

The king tried repeatedly to evoke Birdsnest, but didn’t succeed.

The king grew impatient waiting for Birdsnest.

Eventually, the king became irritated and shouted out, “I can wait no longer! Here is my question. Say, what is it that all the wise ones taught? What is at the heart of all the teachings of the great masters? What is the most profound thing the Buddha ever said?”

The king lingered around Birdsnest’s tree for a long time.

Finally, Birdsnest summoned the king. Holding a meditative poise, Birdsnest declared, “At all times, do good things. Don’t do bad things. This is all the Buddha said. This is what the wise men instructed.”

The king became infuriated.

Birdsnest continued to meditate with a gentle half smile behind his eyes. He was obviously toning down the power of the Buddha’s wisdoms.

The king screamed, “I can’t believe this impertinence! Is that all you’ve got for me? Do good things and don’t do bad things. I knew that when I was three years old, you blithering fool!”

The afternoon sun filtered in through the trees as Birdsnest looked down from his perch. His compassion and matter-of-factness radiated out from your heart. He sympathetically acknowledged, “Indeed, the three-year-old knows it. Yet the eighty year-old finds it very difficult to do!”

The Knowledge-Action Gap

'The Now Habit' by Neil Fiore (ISBN 1585425524) One of the most insidious obstacles to your success in life is the chasm between knowing and doing—between thinking about something and acting on it, between ideating and implementing.

Your ideas may be impressively simple, but accomplishing them with discipline and steadiness can be very, very difficult indeed. This is the knowing-doing gap.

Ruminate about what stops you from accomplishing the things you need to do, want to do, and know how to do, but can’t get to do. Usually, your alleged obstacles—your boss, parents, spouse, children, colleagues, situations—are but excuses. When you sincerely unearth the reasons for your putting things off, you’ll realize that, by and large, it’s you who are sabotaging yourself.

Yes, occasionally, you may face a few genuine external obstacles. Nevertheless, in the grand scheme of things, you usually have the power to overcome them or work around them.

Transform your thoughts into action

Procrastination is a Breakdown of Self-Discipline

As I have stated in my previous articles, procrastination is weakness of will. Chronic procrastination is a recurrent breakdown of self-discipline.

The overpowering emotion associated with chronic procrastination is guilt. These feelings of guilt are not just specific to the task you’re dodging, even though, at the time of procrastination, your mind may be full of qualms and repentance under the direct influence of your putting off the dreadful task. More accurately, the guilt you feel about your chronic procrastination is the outcome of not living up to your full potential and not authentically engaging in the many possibilities life presents you.

'When Things Fall Apart' by Pema Chodron (ISBN 1611803438) It takes courage to face your anxieties, to forge ahead despite your feelings, and to act. Self-improvement begins with self-reflection. And self-reflection derives from self-compassion. The renowned Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön wrote about self-compassion in her wonderfully reassuring classic When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, “The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”

Don’t hunt for motivation. As I’ve asserted in previous articles, motivation is glorified as a personal trait. While it is beneficial to be motivated, folks who actually manage to get things done are those who find a way to work at whatever they are interested in even when they do not really feel like doing it.

Idea for Impact: Make 2017 the Year of Getting Things Done

Transform your thoughts into action.

Put your ideas into practice.

Don’t let excuses, apologies, indolence, or a lack of motivation get in the way.

Knowing is nothing.

Doing is everything.

The More You Believe in Yourself, the Less You Need Others to Do It for You

If you’re like most people including me, you struggle with criticism. You find criticism harsh and unhelpful because criticism strikes at the very conflict between two deep-seated human desires—the desire to be accepted just the way you are and the desire to learn and grow. Consequently, even a nonthreatening comment can leave you feeling uneasy, irritated, angry, and vulnerable.

The More You Believe in Yourself, the Less You Need Others to Do It for You Your sensitivity for disapproval is often justified. Your detractors aren’t perhaps thinking straight. When they pass judgments about you, their critical pronouncements often reveal a great deal about themselves and little about you. Psychologists contend that critics, in offering their disapprovals, are subconsciously projecting their own insecurities, pessimism, and fears onto you.

Most people are driven by emotions and not hard evidence. They tend to impulsively estimate your merits, instead of evaluating you thoughtfully. Therefore, when you confront those inevitable disapprovals, disappointments, and setbacks, don’t pity yourself and feel sorry for the conditions you face in life. Don’t get hung up on waiting for others to give you positive strokes. Give yourself gratitude for your efforts, and choose to get back up, dust yourself off, and move on.

'The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus' by A.S.L. Farquharson (ISBN 0192827901) Life isn’t easy for anyone. But it could be made easier by valuing yourself when you confront adversity, hardships, and disapprovals. As the Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote about the art of forbearance in Meditations (trans. A.S.L. Farquharson,)

Remind yourself of the kinds of things you have passed through and the kinds you have had strength to endure; that the story of life is written and your service accomplished. How many beautiful things have been revealed, how many pleasures and pains you have looked down upon, how many ambitions ignored, to how many unkind persons you have been kind!

Coaching, feedback, advice, criticisms, and comments are great tools that can help you learn and grow, but only when they come from the right people—benevolent people who are knowledgeable, understanding, supportive, and, most importantly, have your best interests at heart. When they come from others, the best response is to listen, mull them over objectivity (Was the criticism offered in good faith? Was the criticism true?), and disregard them if they don’t seem justified.

Idea for Impact: When people try to tell you who you are, consider them with a grain of salt. You are the sole curator, guardian, and defender of your integrity and your sense of self-worth. So, don’t sweat when others think less than you actually are. Care less for what other people think. Believe in yourself.

8 Effective Ways to De-Stress This Holiday Season

‘Tis the season to feel harried.

The “most wonderful time of the year” can present plenty of reasons to be anxious and stressed—even depressed—during an occasion meant for cheerfulness and celebration.

According to this American Psychological Association survey, 44 percent of women and 31 percent of men reported an increase in stress during the holidays. 59 percent of respondents testified to feeling nervous or sad, and 51 percent reported symptoms of fatigue.

De-Stress This Holiday Season

Here are some practical tips to help you minimize the stress that may accompany your holidays.

  • Plan ahead and take control of the holidays. Don’t let the holidays become something you dread. Look back at prior years and identify your holiday triggers (cranky relatives, gifts, financial pressures, and end-of-the-year demands at work, etc.) so that you can combat them before they lead to a meltdown. A little planning and positive thinking can go a long way in helping you find peace and joy during the holidays.
  • Get organized. Put first things first. Don’t get engulfed with demands and expectations. Establish relaxing surroundings. Commence each day by writing down whatever is most important for you to accomplish that day. Make decisions quickly and act upon them.
  • Be realistic and don’t pursue perfection. You are only one person—you can only do so much! Let go of your vision of a picture-perfect holiday. Be pragmatic about what you expect of yourself and others. Establish priorities, avoid procrastination, and let go of impossible goals. Relax and enjoy the companionship of family and friends.
  • Holiday Stress Relief Tips Take frequent breaks. When frazzled, take a nap, go for a short walk, read a book, or watch a funny movie.
  • Try adult coloring books. Studies have shown that coloring within lines inspires mindfulness—being in the present moment instead of in the past (associated with depression) or in the future (associated with anxiety.) Coloring books can set you in a relaxed, absorbed, meditative state and help you reduce anxiety, depression, and fatigue.
  • Say ‘no’ generously. You don’t have to attend every holiday party you’re invited to—it’s OK to say ‘no’ to a few or all of them. Don’t skip the office holiday party, however—it’s a great opportunity to “get noticed.” Don’t overcommit yourself.
  • Meditate, if even for a few minutes. Sitting for just a few minutes of meditation can be an incredible sanctuary of calm and relaxation that you’ll seldom find during the holiday season. Meditation is known to reduce the stress hormone cortisol, strengthen the immune system, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Take time out of the day to lower your stress levels and focus on your well-being.
  • Maintain healthy eating and exercise habits. The holiday season is notorious for ruining healthy habits and adding a few extra pounds to waistlines. Fend off holiday weight gain by being mindful of what you eat and regulating portion sizes. Avoid starving yourself in anticipation of eating at holiday parties. Instead, consume some nourishing snacks to fill you up before dinner parties. Try simple, small workouts each day. Maintain a food and workout journal to help you stay committed to your health goals.

Tips to Relax During the Holidays

Idea for Impact: This holiday season, your needs belong to the top

When demands for your time intensify during the holiday season, you need to do more for yourself—not less.

In spite of everything, the holidays are less about gatherings, grub, and gifts—and more about finding peace and serenity for yourself and sharing it with your loved ones.

Happy holidays everyone!

How to Boost Your Willpower / Book Summary of “Willpower” by Baumeister & Tierney

'Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength' by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney (ISBN 0143122231) In previous articles, I have discussed a key differentiating trait I’ve observed in successful people: they get things done not by pursuing motivation but through discipline, self-control, determination, and willpower. They actively seek a way to work at whatever must be done even when they do not really feel like doing it.

In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (2011,) New York Times science writer John Tierney and Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister discuss the virtues of self-control, and the concepts of ego depletion and decision fatigue. This informative tome is grounded in thirty years of academic research into willfulness and self-discipline.

Willpower starts with the assertion that intelligence and willpower are your two best predictors of achieving success in life. You may not be able to meaningfully increase your intelligence, but you can surely enhance your capacity for self-control. Parenthetically, when people were inquired about their failings in life, a lack of self-control was consistently at the top of the list.

The book’s central theorem is the much-debated “strength model of self-control.” This “muscle metaphor” states that willpower is like a muscle that tires out—or runs out of energy—as you use it, but can be fortified through practice.

How to Boost Your Willpower

Here are some prominent insights and tips from Willpower:

  • You have a limited amount of willpower, which, in the short term, depletes as you use it and must be replenished. Each instance of applying willpower (e.g. repressing your thoughts and actions, working intensely, stressing at work, making decisions, and dealing with difficult people) drains the same psychological reservoir of self-control. Expending willpower in one sphere of life leaves you less able to exercise self-control in another.
  • Just as muscles can get overworked and become tired and feeble until they can recuperate, the exercise of self-control causes fatigue.
  • Willpower is fuelled by blood glucose. Therefore, acts of self-control drain the glucose. When glucose is low, self-control failures are more likely. Restoring glucose to a sufficient level usually improves self-control. Willpower can be restored by boosting blood sugar. Foods like white bread, potatoes, white rice, and sugared snacks cause boom-and-bust cycles of willpower since these foods are quickly converted into glucose. Vegetables, nuts, raw fruits, and cheese are converted more slowly, and therefore provide ‘fuel’ more progressively.
  • Being in a tidy room seems to increase self-control and being in a messy room seems to curb self-control.
  • Your daily supply of willpower is limited. If you exhaust most of your willpower during the day at work, you will have less self-control, tolerance, and imperturbability when you come home to family. Many marriages go bad when stress at work is at its worst: people use up all their willpower on the job; their home lives suffer because they gave much to their work.
  • When your willpower is low, you’ll find it more arduous to make tougher decisions. Moreover, during decision-making, you’ll be more reluctant to eliminate some of the options you could choose from.
  • In the long term, practicing willpower strengthens it, just as a muscle develops stamina and power when consistently exercised. Even small, inconsequential acts of self-control—avoiding slouching, for example—can strengthen your capacity for self-discipline in the long term.
  • Ego Depletion and Decision Fatigue When you resist one temptation but cannot resist another, your egos have been fatigued by the exercise of willpower. Conversely, you can resist temptations across the board when your ego has been strengthened by exercise.
  • Stress instigates many negative emotions because stress depletes willpower, which consequently diminishes your ability to control and overcome those negative emotions.
  • The best use of willpower is in setting priorities and getting things done. Given you have a limited amount of willpower on a given day, you’re best served by budgeting your willpower and spending it where and when you need it the most.
  • Clear, attainable goals combined with rewards strengthen willpower. Monitoring goals and committing yourself publicly to your goals can help you counteract weakness of will.
  • Live as much of your life as possible on an autopilot. Eliminate distractions, temptations, and unnecessary choices. Simplify. Develop routines and cultivate habits that you can eventually do robotically.
  • Organize your life to decrease the need for willpower. Conserve willpower for demanding circumstances.

Recommendation: Read Willpower. This New York Times best seller is filled with guidance about how best to deploy willpower to overcome temptation and how to build up your willpower ‘strength’ with small—but regular and methodical—exercises. Even if somewhat academic for a self-help book, this worthwhile volume is filled with resourceful research, practical advice, and enthralling stories of people who’ve achieved personal transformation owing to the strength of their will.

You Can’t Know Everything

“Have intellectual humility. Acknowledging what you don’t know is the dawning of wisdom.”
Charlie Munger

You Can't Know Everything, So Embrace Uncertainty In the course of life, some of the most dangerous circumstances to be in are when you think you’re the smartest person in the room. Smarts without humility can get you into trouble because hubris leads to intellectual arrogance and a blatant disregard for opinions and judgments that are contrary to the ones you already hold.

Recognizing that you can’t know everything and that you will never know everything must not prevent you from acting. Rather, you must embrace uncertainty and take into account the possibility that you could be wrong.

Embrace Uncertainty

Risk is what is left behind after you think you’ve thought of everything you currently can. Risk embraces all those matters that are unaccounted for—everything that you need to protect yourself from.

Intelligence transforms into wisdom only when you recognize that, despite your confidence in the present circumstances, you cannot predict how things will play out in the future. You will not be able to make an optimal decision every time.

The conduct of life is not a perfect science. Rather, it is an art that necessitates acknowledging and dealing with imperfect information. Be willing to act on imperfect information and uncertainty. Set a clear course today and tackle problems that arise tomorrow. Learn to adapt more flexibly to developing situations.

Idea for Impact: The wisest people I know are the ones who acknowledge that they don’t know everything and put strategies in place to shield themselves from their own ignorance. Make risk analysis and risk reduction one of the primary goals of your intellectual processes.

Care Less for What Other People Think

Care Less for What Other People Think - Quote by Theodore Roosevelt

The American sociologist Charles H. Cooley once described the irrational and unproductive obsession with what others think; he said, “I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.”

Some people care excessively about what others think. They place undue importance on external validation, so much so that they sometimes place more emphasis on the commendation or disapproval they receive than on their actual actions.

The great Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations (trans. Gregory Hays,)

It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own. If a god appeared to us—or a wise human being, even—and prohibited us from concealing our thoughts or imagining anything without immediately shouting it out, we wouldn’t make it through a single day. That’s how much we value other people’s opinions—instead of our own.

'Self-Reliance' by Ralph Waldo Emerson (ISBN 1604500093) In Self-Reliance, American philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson encouraged people to shun conformity and false consistency, and instead follow their own instincts and ideas:

Live no longer to the expectation of these deceived and deceiving people with whom we converse. Say to them, O father, O mother, O wife, O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearances hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth’s. Be it known unto you that henceforward I obey no law less than the eternal law. I will have no covenants but proximities. I shall endeavor to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be chaste husband of one wife,—but these relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way. I appeal from your customs. I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever only rejoices me, and the heart appoints. If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own. I do this not selfishly, but humbly and truly. It is alike your interest, and mine, and all men’s, however long we have dwelt in lies, to live in truth. Does this sound harsh to-day? You will soon love what is dictated by your nature as well as mine, and, if we follow the truth, it will bring us out safe at last.

Don’t become dependent on what others think of you

'What Do You Care What Other People Think' by Richard P. Feynman (ISBN 0393320928) Feedback, advice, criticisms, and comments are great tools that can help you learn and grow, but only when they come from the right people—people who are knowledgeable, understanding, supportive, and have your best interests at heart. When they come from others, the best response is to listen, mull them over objectivity, and disregard them if they don’t seem right.

Idea for Impact: Don’t do things differently just because somebody asked you to or just because you want to be different for somebody. Do things differently because it makes sense to you. (Read my articles on discipline and motivation.)

The Power of Sharing Your Goals

Seek the Positive Effect of Goal-Accountability

This research from the Dominican University of California suggests that writing down your goals, sharing them with friends, and sending your friends regular updates about your progress can improve your chances of accomplishing your goals. The research implies that

  • People who merely thought about their goals and how to reach them accomplished their goals less than 50% of the time.
  • In contrast, people who wrote down their goals, enlisted friends for them, and sent them regular progress reports succeeded in attaining their goals 75% of the time.

Let Your Goals Guide You

  • Put your goals in writing. Writing down goals can be a strong motivator. Use the SMART technique to avoid being vague about your goals. Connect each goal to a larger purpose, be specific, use action verbs, include measurable outcomes, and stipulate target dates for completion.
  • Enlist the help of others. If you can identify a friend or coworker who may share a goal, team up with them. Convince the other person to go to the gym, quit smoking, or share healthy meals with you regularly. A partner can help you stay motivated and committed.
  • Seek a mentor. Look for role models who may have struggled with goals similar to yours or already achieved the goals. Ask them for advice and suggestions.

Idea for Impact: Seek the Positive Effect of Goal-Accountability

Committing to friends, family, or coworkers on goal-directed actions and making yourself accountable can impel you to stay on course and reach your goals.

Write your goals down, share them with others, provide them regular updates, and ask them to keep you on your toes.