Work Towards the Immediate Checkpoints

Some time ago, a friend of mine (Dan – not his real name) took part in a triathlon for a charity that is dedicated to furthering medical research on leukaemia and lymphoma.

As part of the triathlon, Dan had to swim 750m, cycle 20km, and run 5km.

It was always going to be tough for him, but my friend spent many months in preparation to this momentous event.

The day had finally come.

In his swimsuit, Dan slowly dipped into the lake where the 750m swimming race where to be held.

It was freezing cold. Ice cold.

Just treading water in the cold sapped a lot of energy and Dan impatiently waited for the race to start.

The buzzer sounded.

Swimming front crawl proved too exhausting very early on.

Dan felt like he used up all of his energy.

With around 250m to go – he was totally spent.

Barely mustering the energy to tread water, he looked forward to the finish line in the distance calculating if he could make it.

Panic began to ensue.

He decided to quit.

But Dan was so exhausted that he feared if he were to wave to the safety boats nearby to fish him out of the water, that single wave would deplete him completely and he’d drown.

In that moment, finishing the race was too overwhelmingly a prospect to even think about.

“What if,” he thought to himself, “I switch to breaststroke and take it stroke by stroke, one by one. Focus on performing the best stroke that I can.”

Every fibre of his being was now devoted to performing the most fluid, most energy efficient, aesthetically pleasing stroke.

He didn’t even think about the next stroke. Thinking about the future inspired paralysing panic.

He had to surrender his mind to the present moment. He was in flow.

Before he knew it – Dan had finished the race.

“You don’t try to build a wall. You don’t set out to build a wall.

You don’t say ‘I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built.’

You don’t start there.

You say ‘I’m gonna lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid,’ and you do that every single day, and soon you have a wall.”

Will Smith

“Inch by inch, life’s a cinch; yard by yard, life is hard.”

Thinking about the bigger picture can be overwhelming.

There’s more room for self-doubt and uncertainty to creep in.

This is why the hurdle runner who thinks about the finish line is the one who won’t even make it past the first hurdle.

Thinking about the finish line is what made Dan psyche himself out and mentally self-sabotage something he was preparing for months in advance.

You have to look to the immediate checkpoints in life.

In his book The Procrastination Equation, Dr Piers Steel tells the story of Joe Simpson, a mountaineer who did just that when it mattered most – in an effort to save his life.

The story as told by Piers merits being quoted at some length:

“Inch by inch, life’s a cinch; yard by yard, life is hard.

How powerful is this mantra? Joe Simpson, in one of mountaineering’s greatest survival stories, used it to save his life.

Left for dead at the bottom of a crevasse in an isolated Peruvian mountain with a shattered shinbone, he had three days to pull himself to a base camp through five miles of truly treacherous glacier field or be really dead.

He was already utterly exhausted from an arduous marathon of an ascent, with no food and only a little water, so this journey should have been impossible, except for one critical survival tool: his wristwatch. With it, he set goals.

Setting the alarm for twenty minutes at a time, he made for a nearby rock or drift – he was elated when he reached it in time and he despaired when he didn’t.

Battling exhaustion, pain and eventually delirium, he repeated this process hundreds of times and reached the perimeter of the base camp just hours before his friends’ intended departure.”

Just like my friend Dan during his triathlon, Joe needed to narrow his focus and channel all his energy to taking things step by step.

Herein (in this story) lies the power of goal setting.

As Mark Twain wrote:

“The secret of getting ahead is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”

Break-up long-term projects into a series of smaller steps

Pepper your schedule with checkpoints that you can work towards.

As humans, you and I respond to short-term rewards and incentives.

This is why the best games and the best products and the best online services or the best social networks are so successful.

Short-term rewards are pleasurable but they also give a sense of progress.

You and I both love progress, sometimes even irrationally so.

That’s why it’s easier to take baby steps than to look at the big, scary picture.

Plus – by working towards immediate checkpoints, we focus on what’s really matters.

On the next immediate checkpoint.

And then the next.

And that’s how we gain Experience Points (XP) – by building towards the bigger, overarching goal.

We become more confident in our journey because we have a whole backlog of reference experiences to show for it.

You realise you can reach your goal because you’ve been slaying small steps one by one, each and every single time.

Whether it’s swimming in a lake, crawling along a mountain, writing a book, or building a business – the principle is the same.

Work towards the immediate checkpoints.

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more psychological insights into everyday life.

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The Psychology Behind Buying Vietnamese Soup

The Psychology Behind Buying Vietnamese Soup

You’ve been through this before.

You’re watching an episode of Gossip Girl on Netflix, it finishes, and you’re suddenly prompted with a countdown before the next episode automatically starts.

A lot of the time, you find it hard to resist.

And so you watch the next episode.

And the next.

And so on.

I’ll be writing a post about Netflix in the near future but for now, you should know that we are suckers for going with the flow.

If there’s a default pre-set option of watching the next episode on Netflix, why not just sit back and watch it.

It’s the path of least psychological resistance.

You see, making decisions is annoying.

They’re annoying because they are psychologically effortful.

It takes time to make a decision. And there are so many options involved with making a one.

In deciding to watch another Netflix episode, the thought process goes something like this:

Hm, should I watch another one, I actually had something to do but maybe that could wait how long is another episode oh that should be fine maybe I should eat is it really bad that I flaked on Charlotte but then again if I watch it will I have enough time to…

And then the episode plays and the choice has been made for you.

In a sense, through your indecision – you’ve made a decision.

But other times, we just don’t even put in the effort to go through that internal monologue.

It requires us to summon our cognitive resources.

But because it’s in our nature to be cognitively lazy, we’ll just go with the flow when we can.

Buying Vietnamese soup

I was enjoying a steak and brisket pho with my brother.

Having Vietnamese soup with my brother had become somewhat of a ritual.

When we were done, I asked for the bill.

The waitress brings the bill and I realise that there’s more to pay this time around.

And then she explains.

“We added 50p to your bill but this will go to charity. Here, have this.”

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 15.41.54.png
You can see how long it took me to write this post…

It was at that moment that it hit me.

They’re using the behavioural economic principle of the default!

More importantly – I had a decision to make.

To donate or not to donate?

Organ Donation

How does the power of default options show up in real life?

Aside from Netflix, that is.

We can see defaults in the realm of organ donation, for instance.

Have a look at the chart below:

environment-design-organ-donors-1

It’s fascinating that some European countries managed to supercharge their organ donation rates while other countries failed miserably in doing so.
The countries that saw organ donation rates skyrocket used the power of defaults.
In those countries, people are by default opted-in to donating their organs when the time comes.
Of course, they have the liberty to opt-out. They’ll always have that option.
But, you know – they don’t.
Whereas countries that make people fill out a form and check a box  if they want to be organ donors, end up like the UK or Germany.
With organ donor rates of under 20%.
Making that decision is too psychologically effortful.
We just want to go with the flow.
What a cheap, affordable game-changer.
In a nutshell:

Countries that have introduced a default option of being “opted-in” of being an organ donor have a substantially higher rate of organ donors than countries in which people have to opt-in to be organ donors (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008; Johnson & Goldstein, 2003).

Pension Schemes

Let’s face it – nobody thinks about retirement when they’re 20.

It’s fascinating that some European countries managed to supercharge their organ donation rates while other countries failed miserably in doing so.

The countries that saw organ donation rates skyrocket used the power of defaults.

In those countries, people are by default opted-in to donating their organs when the time comes.

Of course, they have the liberty to opt-out. They’ll always have that option.

But, you know – they don’t.

Whereas countries that make people fill out a form and check a box  if they want to be organ donors, end up like the UK or Germany.

With organ donor rates of under 20%.

Making that decision is too psychologically effortful.

We just want to go with the flow.

What a cheap, affordable game-changer.

In a nutshell:
Countries that have introduced a default option of being “opted-in” of being an organ donor have a substantially higher rate of organ donors than countries in which people have to opt-in to be organ donors (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008; Johnson & Goldstein, 2003).

Or 30, for that matter.

Or 40.

Putting money towards a pension scheme at 30 so that you can have that money decades down the line (if you’re lucky) seems pointless, especially when you know that you can spend that cash on a new gadget or on a drunken night out with your mates…

It’s human nature, after all.

We want things now and we hate delaying gratification.

But when the government automatically puts away, say, £100 of your income every month into your account (i.e. pension scheme), then you just go with the flow.
Sure, you can opt-out.
But, you know – you don’t.

In fact, researchers Madrian and Shea found that having enrolment in pension schemes be introduced as the default option (i.e. being automatically “opted-in”) increased enrolment rates up to nearly 100% than if people were to actively opt-in.

Gee whiz!

The Psychology Behind Buying Pho

So what happened on that fateful day when I had pho soup with my brother?

It was the default option to donate an additional 50p, all of which the waitress promised me would go to charity (she did have a new watch the next time I went though…).

With my psychology background, I knew what was happening.

Obviously I went with the flow.

I also started performing mental gymnastics like:

Oh it’s just 50p it’s a good deed it’s going to charity 50p here 50p there and the charity gets to do a lot of good in the world and I can be a part of that change by sparing some change get it got it good I would’ve given to charity anyway

In situations with pre-set options, you start to rationalise, trying to convince yourself that the pre-set choice is the right one, even though you can always opt-out.

But there was another psychological layer to this transaction.

pho
via tomatom.com

Opting out is fine, but telling a waitress that you’d like to opt-out of paying 50p to charity requires nerves of steel.

Donating that 50p to charity is a social norm in that restaurant, and by choosing to opt-out you are breaking that norm – you’re a deviant.

Millenia ago, if you went against a social norm, you were considered unpredictable and potentially dangerous and were most likely killed or met with social exclusion.

So – in the restaurant, I could have technically opted-out.

But they psychologically strong-armed you into paying that 50p anyway.

Surely enough – I paid.

But only because I wanted to.

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more psychological insights into everyday life.

Read This If You’re a Workaholic

So you’re a workaholic.

Or at least there’s some reason for you to think so.

You’ve been going through an intense phase of “all work and no play”.

Or maybe it’s just that the work has kept piling on and you’ve been in a state of perpetual catchup for so long that you can’t even call it a phase anymore.

Whatever the reason – you’re here for some reason.

Maybe for answers.

Maybe for suggestions.

There’s plenty to be had here – I’m sure they’ll pique your interest.

Who is a workaholic?

Life is all about balance.

Perfect balance is what you find in the exact middle of the spectrum, in between one extreme and another.

Between work and play.

Homeostasis.

Mr. Miyagi: You remember lesson about balance?
Daniel: Yeah.
Mr. Miyagi: Lesson not just karate only. Lesson for whole life. Whole life have a balance. Everything be better. Understand?

The Karate Kid (1984)

Workaholics have none of that.

And it’s not necessarily their fault.

They just have an inner drive that compels them to work excessively hard.

An insatiable urge that makes them work so hard that it borders on compulsion.

They work too much and, some of the time, don’t even enjoy their work.

It’s part of their unique psychological makeup.

They’re workaholics because, fundamentally – they are perfectionists.

They have incredibly high standards with regards to the fruit of their labour.

work

Holidays for workaholics aren’t quite holidays

Workaholics tend to experience extreme feelings of guilt and high levels of anxiety when away from work and not working.

This is why workaholics can’t relax when on holiday.

They are so involved in their work that they find it very difficult to detach from it.

So what’s the best thing a workaholic can do to recover properly from work during their leisure time and their holidays?

The best thing a workaholic can do to recover from work

Arnold Bakker and his colleagues tracked Dutch workers over a period of nine work days to investigate what workaholics could do in their leisure time to help them in their off-job recovery.

Over these nine days, the workers provided detailed information on work and leisure activities and well-being.

The main finding of the experiment is that physical exercise helped protect workaholics from damaged psychological health.

In other words, the workaholics obtained considerable protective benefits from sports and exercise during evening workouts.

This resulted in them having higher evening happiness and greater feelings of vigour and adequate recovery at bedtime.

What Bakker and colleagues also found was that social activities might not be the best thing for workaholics to do in their leisure time.

Here’s Arnold:
“As individuals can talk about work-related issues even when they meet friends during off-work time, it might be that workaholics used the time spent on social activities to ruminatand speak further about their work with their friends, thus undermining the favourable effect of social activities.”

It seem that workaholics might need the psychological detachment that physical activity provides them with.

Otherwise they would continue to worry and ruminate about work – either by sitting in front of the television or by complaining to friends.

“…for workaholics, it seems to matter more what they do in their leisure time than for non-workaholics.”

So if you’re a workaholic looking to recover from work during your leisure time – exercise.

To quote author of Gorilla Mindset Mike Cernovich:

“No matter how you feel before going to the gym, you will always feel better afterwards.” 

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more psychological insights into everyday life.

Thank you to Paul F. for introducing me to this study.

Why You’re Hotter at Closing Time

Can the availability of potential sexual partners influence sexual attraction?

Why people might find you hotter at closing time in pubs or bars?

Dr James Pennebaker of the University of Virginia psychology department was inspired by songwriter Baker Knight 1970s hit ‘Don’t All the Girls Get Prettier at Closing Time‘ and decided to test this theory.

Pennebaker’s research assistants were instructed to approach men and women in singles bars between 9:30pm and closing time, who were alone but slightly intoxicated. The assistants then asked these people to rate members of the opposite sex.

clo
via maventown.com

“Ain’t it funny, ain’t it strange, the way a man’s opinions change, when he starts to face that lonely night.”

-Baker Knight

In his book Impulse: why we do what we do without knowing why we do it, Dr David Lewis sums up the findings of the study as follows:

“The results provided strong support for Baker Knight’s lyrics.

As a closing time crept closer and closer, people without partners started to see remaining members of the opposite sex as increasingly attractive.

A man or woman rated four when the bar was full might be rated six as numbers dwindled and those who remained looked like facing a ‘lonely night’.”

You getting more attractive around closing time is known as the closing time effect.

But why does the attractiveness ratings of the opposite sex persons increase as the evening goes on?

There a few psychological reasons at play…

Sexually provocative cues

One of the reasons is that bars in general contain more sexually provocative cues than other places.

As a result, these cues focus your attention more on people of the opposite sex and prime you for attraction-related thoughts and behaviours.

This is why bars are actually favourable conditions are for increased attractiveness of others, even same-sex individuals.

Just by being in a bar, other people will appear more attractive than usual.

The threat against our behavioural freedom

Although alcohol plays a big role in accentuating these cues, there’s another psychological phenomenon at play that’s occurring in parallel.

This phenomenon has to do with behavioural freedom.

Think of it this way.

When you enter a bar, you can theoretically take any member of the opposite sex home (except for the ones that are taken).

Just take your pick, right?

Pennebaker suggests however, that by closing time as others start to leave, people start to realise that their ability to take someone home is getting slimmer by the minute.

Their behavioural freedom is threatened and so they react.

They suddenly take action and instead of looking for the “the one”, they just look for “any one”.

Scientists refer to the reaction to a loss of behavioural freedom as reactance theory.

Scarcity enhances value

At closing time, there’s naturally less and less people in the bar as some leave, some pair up and are suddenly of the ‘market’, and so whoever is left of the opposite-sex becomes instantly more attractive as they’ve de facto become a scarce commodity.

This is what Brock’s (1968) Commodity Theory stipulates – that scarcity basically enhances value.

When it’s closing time, instead of choosing – people start settling for what’s left.

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more psychological insights into everyday life.

Yes! Why You Love Progress

The feeling of progress is very important to our well-being.

It is a source of gratification and self esteem, and can be a huge motivational force that propels us to take further action in whatever it is that we are aiming to succeed at doing. 

Scott Belsky in Making Ideas Happen mentions the waiting line analogy to illustrate that we all need to see incremental progress in our lives, in whatever we do.

Here’s Scott:

“If you find yourself in a long line of people waiting to get into a concert, you will notice that everyone keeps inching forward every few minutes as the line makes its slow advance.

But if the person immediately in front of you fails to move with the rest of the line, you will get frustrated. Even if you know that the person ahead of you will move to catch up with the line later on, you still get frustrated as you see the gap of space ahead growing.

Standing still and feeling no progress is difficult. You want to keep moving with the line in order to feel productive. The incremental movements in the line don’t get you there any faster, but they feel great and keep you willing to wait.”

In this post you’ll see how our need for progress shows up in funny situations and how it is used by modern companies to keep employee satisfaction levels high and employee frustration at bay.

You’ll also see that sometimes real-life improvements (whatever they may be, technological or otherwise) aren’t really improvements if they don’t gives us a sense that we are making progress.

Lastly you’ll see that maybe there’s an evolutionary explanation to why we love progress.

Idiot buttons

We simply love progress and it’s funny how our desire for progress can manifest itself in the most unassuming of all life situations.

Ever wondered about the secret button at pedestrian crossings?

You have to wait for the green light but you press the button hoping to… exert a little bit of personal influence on the situation? Accelerate the process and possibly wait less?

What about elevator ‘Door Close’ buttons?

You go into a lift and press the Door Close button but the…the door doesn’t close.

Nothing happens.

Do these buttons even work?

Progress

The sad truth is that they don’t (although a friend of mine told me that buttons at crossings do in fact work in the Netherlands and that modern housing developments are increasingly equipping elevators with Door Close buttons that also work.)

But why would someone put a Door Close button in a lift if it doesn’t even work?

There’s a lot of psychology underlying the reason these buttons are disabled, ranging from assuming a sense of autonomy or behaving in line with social norms, to usurping personal control in the situation.

But perhaps the most fundamental reason pertains to experiencing feelings of progress.

Whether it is handing in a laboratory report, finishing our taxes, or pushing a Door Close button – it is satisfying to feel you are making progress.

Progress in the workplace

Although it’s humorous to talk about ‘idiot buttons’ and how they have been solely invented to give us the illusion of progress, the widespread awareness of our inherent need for progress has given companies an easy way out, if you will, to openly appreciate their employees.

Dan Ariely in his book Behavioural Economics Saved My Dog touches upon the illusion of progress in this respect:

“Widespread recognition of the need for progress explains why so many companies have invented titles and intermediate position for management types (officer, executive, chief, vice president, senior vice president, deputy CEO, etc.).

In a gamification-like approach companies want their employees to feel that they are making progress and moving ahead even when these stops are not very meaningful.”

Any progress, however incremental and however minuscule in the grander scheme of employment is enough to put employee frustration at bay and contribute to levels of overall employee satisfaction.

Progress at the airport

So it appears that any sort of progress has big effect on our mood and overall well-being.

But there are two sides to the same coin.

Although we might love progress, we don’t necessarily hate the exact opposite – that is, we don’t hate a lack of progress.

Rather, what we can’t stomach is idleness.

Social scientists and behavioural economists such as Dan Ariely call this phenomenon aversion to idleness and recounts an interesting story to illustrate this in practice.

Here’s Dan:

“A while ago there was an optimisation engineer working for an airline, and he realised that some carousels were close to some gates, and others were close to other gates.

He decided to optimise which carousel the luggage arrived on, such that the luggage from each flight would be delivered on the carousel closest to where the plane landed.

Before this algorithm was created, travellers would get off the plane and walk such a long way that sometimes their luggage would be waiting for them on the carousel.

After the new system was implemented, the carousel was much closer and people would walk just a short distance, find the carousel, and wait a bit for their luggage.

People hated this new system because they were spending some of their time standing in one place waiting for their luggage (and to make things worse, maybe also wondering if their luggage was lost or not).

This idleness was so unpleasant that people complained and the airline discarded this efficient algorithm.”

The new algorithm stripped the people of their way of taking control over the situation, making much-loved progress, and focusing on the task at hand by walking to the carousel.

By waiting around at the closer carousels, the lack of productivity was too much to bear. In the absence of any progress, they started to worry and ruminate, conjuring up thousands of potential scenarios of what may have happened to their luggage.

“By worrying, I am doing my bit” is what some people would say.

For some people, worrying and ruminating is perceived as an intriguing form of progress.

You could even argue that people worry, ruminate and use their imagination to conjure up potential scenarios and solutions to subconsciously feel a sense of progress in a situation when there isn’t any.

After all – when you ruminate, it’s like your mind is spinning.

Spinning is movement.

Movement is progress.

Evolutionary explanation

Why do we love progress and hate idleness?

From an evolutionary standpoint, it was imperative that our predecessors kept progressing, kept evolving, kept proliferating because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to survive in an ever-evolving environment full of other ever-evolving people.

In short, if you stopped progressing and adapting millennia ago – you’d be left behind, you’d fail to gain a reproductive advantage over other better-equipped members of the species, and your genes would be unceremoniously weeded out of existence.

This idea is referred to as the Red Queen Hypothesis.

Embedded in the deepest darkest corridors of the most ancient and primitive parts of brain is the inherent need for progress – a survival mechanism.

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more psychological insights into everyday life.