I’m doing them, but I’m saving myself a little time but not cross-posting. Do stick around, take a look at the exhaustive collection of procrastination quote, take a survey and see how you rank in the realm of procrastination. But if you want to read a few more recent posts, they are at Psychology Today:
So how is your diet going? Chances are you are on one or that there is a diet in your future. The majority of Americans think about dieting all year round, with as many as 41 percent on a diet at any given time, in an attempt to lose an average of thirty-seven pounds. Britons aren’t far behind: about a third are constantly on a diet. The statistics for the rest of Europe, even France, are similar. We all seem to have a few pounds or kilograms to lose and have trouble doing it.
Let me see if I can peak your interest in a helpful idea. Right now, we all know what we need to do to shed the weight: eat less and exercise more. No mystery here. The problem, then, isn’t with our knowledge but our ability to put this knowledge into action. We try to eat less, to get to the gym, but we can’t find the motivation to follow through. Resigning ourselves to our predicament, we end up looking for the easy but probably ineffective, like the fad diets from dubious Internet advertisements. This makes it a mental issue, not a physical one, and since the source of our problems are in our minds, so will be the solution.
Everything is created twice, first mentally and then physically. First comes belief and then comes action. However, if the belief isn’t nurtured, and more importantly, shaped in a very particular fashion, the actions won’t follow. There are two mental tricks that you need to master. These techniques require precision. Get the details wrong, and they will backfire and actually work against you.
The mind’s imagination can play two roles. One is a call to action, to change belief into reality. The other is fantasy, to allow us to gain satisfaction and enjoyment from afar by simply imagining what it would be like. The first helps with getting stuff done. The second replaces getting stuff done. We will need to use both in our efforts to lose weight.
The first method, the call to action, I’ve written about before in “The Motivational Wisdom of Lady Gaga versus The Secret.” To acquire the motivation to act, you mentally contrast where you are right now after first imagining where you want to be. Note the order of that, first you fantasize about being the ideal weight and then you reflect on the weight you are now. Here’s a walkthrough from my book The Procrastination Equation:
Mentally capture that feeling of vigor that will infuse your body and all the activities you’ll engage in with friends and family, once you’re in shape. As a parent, for example, it might be playing with your kids again. Now contrast that with where you are now. You are tired and rubbery, spending far too much time in front of the TV. Doesn’t feel good, does it? But it does make you want to do something about it.
So first you think about the positives and how virtuous you are going to feel from working out, how slender and enviable you are going to look by eating smaller portions and exercising more. Then you will contrast that feeling with the guilt and frustration you feel by doing nothing. Do just the positive fantasizing and often that’s all what you end up doing.
The second method is from a recent Science article by Morewedge, Huh, and Vosgerau, titled “Thought for food: Imagine consumption reduces actual consumption.” In a productive way, they exploit the fact that fantasy can take the place of action. Instead of having people fantasize about having lost weight, which would ultimately hurt their dieting efforts, they had them vividly imagine themselves eating a bowl of chocolate M&M’s, thirty of them to be precise. As per their title, imagining consuming a treat can take the place of the treat itself. Those who took the time to fantasize about a chocolate indulgence actually ate fewer M&M’s when a real bowl was presented to them. The trick here is to pay attention to the degree of fantasy. You didn’t get the effect when people imagined eating only three M&Ms; it wasn’t enough to satiate. You had to imagine all thirty of them.
So the next time you have a main course to order, imagine how great you will feel by choosing the healthy option. Then follow that up with reflecting on how lousy you will feel if you went with the high-fat status quo. And for dessert, imagine eating it, mouthful by mouthful, taking the time to visualize each bite. For a cheesecake or an ice cream parfait, that’s 15 to 20 loving spoonfuls. With the right degree of fantasy, you are on your way to be at the weight you always wanted for yourself.
Morewedge, C. K., Huh, Y. E., & Vosgerau, J. (2011). Thought for food: Imagine consumption reduces actual consumption. Science, 330, `530-1533.
What’s the number one reason for procrastinating? Survey says: low energy. Tackling tasks or chores when we are already tired is a surefire recipe for putting stuff off. Don’t we deserve to rest our feet, to have moments to recuperate after a long day? No argument here; that’s what I want too. The only problem is that we are probably going to be equally tired the next day and yet the task still remains, perhaps made even worse by the wait. Since chores rarely do themselves, we often have to find a new way to eke a little more energy from ourselves each day.
Promising to help us out with this is the recent research by Charlotte Fritz, Chak Fu Lam, and Gretchen Spreitzer, titled “It’s the little things that matter: An examination of knowledge worker’s energy management.” Science to the rescue once again.
Surveying 200 plus working professionals, the research team assessed the workers’ levels of both vitality and fatigue along with strategies that people use to up their energy. What they found wasn’t exactly what you would expect. These techniques were the ones that those with high vitality used:
These techniques are value seeking and value creating activities, looking for what is enjoyable in your job or trying to frame the work in a way that creates value. On the other hand, the list below details the activities that are connected to workers with lower vitality and higher levels of fatigue.
Which of these lists do you belong to? If you are doing more of the latter, it likely means that you are chronically tired or fatigued. You need to tend to your energy levels. You have options, including getting more sleep, eating better, exercising, all the stuff you already know. But in addition to that, there is all the tactics from the vitality list. Value and energy are closely related as we always seem to have the energy to do what we like. How often did you not have the energy to write for work but were capable of novella long email messages to friends? Is shopping really less energy intensive than what you are avoiding? No, it is just more enjoyable. Here’s a supporting excerpt from Chapter Eight of my book, The Procrastination Equation:
Whoever we are, we are likely to put off doing whatever we find excruciatingly dull. Boredom signals that what we are doing is irrelevant, and so the mind slides off the task. It makes sense, then, that procrastinators are much more likely than non-procrastinators to perceive life’s daily tasks as drudgery. Of all the boring tasks that fill the world, the one that tops most people’s hate list is routine paperwork. The busywork— filling in timesheets, submitting expense reports, and supplying the data that companies and governments endlessly require—seems pointless, even when it isn’t. Fortunately, however, boredom isn’t inherently part of any job—anything can be made more interesting simply by the way we treat it.
It seems pretty simple, “reflect on the meaning of my work” or “do something that will make a colleague happy,” but simple doesn’t mean ineffective. You might get an energetic boost by reflecting on how others depend on you, by being a hero to your boss, or honing a new skill that advances your career. Of course, there are other techniques for increasing the value of your work and I cover a few more in Chapter Eight of my book, like “Games and Goals” and “Double or Nothing,” but that’s enough for now. Take another look at that vitality list and decide to do one thing. And in the spirit of seeking feedback myself, tell me how it worked for you. I’ll bet you it does better than that second cup of coffee you were thinking of getting.
To have your level of procrastination scientifically assessed, go to http://procrastinus.com/
Fritz, C., Lam, C. F., & Spreitzer, G. M. (2011). It’s the little things that matter: An examination of knowledge workers’ energy management. Academy of Management Perspective, 25(3), 28-39.
People know that something isn’t quite right with Wall Street, that some sort of sickness has infected the financial markets and captured public policy. We are suffering for it and many people’s tomorrows are ever bleaker. Out of frustration, Wall Street itself has been occupied by makeshift camps trying to focus attention on a solution. There is energy and desire to do something about the problem, but what? Fingers are pointed and scapegoats branded. Who is responsible? Is it the government, the banks, the CEOs? Somebody must pay!
And with that question, we have already been misdirected. Titans of power did act in their own self-interest and greed did run rampant, but this is nothing new. Greed is always going to cut a broad swath through human nature. The problem isn’t with people; they are a manifestation, a symptom, of an underlying condition. Rather it is the public policy that shoulders the blame and, even more so, the fundamental ideas that justified that public policy.
If we really want to change the financial system, we are going to have to confront the forces that determine its shape: the way the markets are run, what governments seek to allow or to prohibit, all flow from a system of ideas. Change the ideas and everything else falls into place. You don’t have to go far; I see it from my office. You see, I’m partly to blame, because I work at a business school. The font from which all this greed pours is mainstream economics, which every business school teaches.
Economics really is the gatekeeper of the social sciences. It is easily the most influential academic department when it comes to determining the rules of money. What economists say goes, and every top financial post is filled with a PhD in economics. It would be incredibly dangerous if such influential people were all operating with some basic ideas that were misguided or patently absurd. Imagine being operated on by a surgeon whose beliefs about your anatomy didn’t correspond to what’s inside your body. You’d be scared, and quite rightly.
Unfortunately, from what I’ve encountered over my career, there is a lot to be worried about. Economics is founded upon three core beliefs which concern me greatly when I think about our future.
This is a central tenet of mainstream economics, with origins stretching all the way back to Socrates (“No one goes willingly toward the bad”). Essentially, it means that we always make decisions in our best interests. This belief strongly justifies a completely unfettered free market, as it assumes that we would never make financial choices we would regret later or that would actually harm us. But, alas, this is an absurd assumption. Procrastination, for example, is an irrational delay in which we put things off despite expecting to be worse off for it. According to economists, it shouldn’t exist; in reality, we all do it, to some degree at least. Really, at best, we are quasi-rational — the brain is like one of Microsoft’s or Apple’s operating system; both have coding errors and computer vulnerabilities (yes, even Apple’s). As the world gets better at identifying these operating errors and hacking into them, the less rational and more “buggy” our behavior becomes. And, as I review in my book The Procrastination Equation, things are only getting worse. People are procrastinating more, finding ever-more elaborate ways to avoid doing the thing they know they really should be doing.
There is a second line of defense to the “people are rational” argument. It comes from a classic 1953 essay by famed economist Milton Friedman. He notes that when dealing with macroeconomic activity, simple unrealistic assumptions may be better than complex realistic ones. He acknowledges that economic assumptions may not hold true for the individual, but so long as they predict aggregate behavior, it does not matter. Most economists agree with Friedman, believing that individual rationality is not necessary for market rationality. This is an interesting hypothesis and I wouldn’t call it absurd, just misguided.
Until it is tested, a hypothesis is just a guess. Here’s what another researcher, Deniz Ones, and I found out about this hypothesis in our article “Personality and happiness: A national-level analysis.” Two scientists closely studied Friedman’s position: Ostroff in 1993, using an organizational perspective, and Van Raaij in 1984, using an economic perspective. Both explored how macrophenomena can have radically different effects from their component microphenomena, a point also made in the 1950s by the sociologist W. S. Robinson. What this means is that it is possible for what happens at the individual level to be replicated at larger group levels, or disappear, or even reverse itself. You simply don’t know, and to find out, you actually have to look. And when you do — well, I think the title of Justin Fox’s book says it all: “The Myth of The Rational Market.” And Fox is editorial director of the Harvard Business Review Group. Alternative, take a look at Matt Ridley, former editor of The Economist: “markets in assets are so automatically prone to bubbles and crashes that it is hard to design them so they work at all.”
Here’s a reply one economist gave me: “If markets are irrational and you know something about it, you should be running a hedge fund instead of teaching.” Let the teacher teach you two things. First, irrational doesn’t mean predictable. Second, the markets can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.
Belief #3: Economics is the Best Available Option
This belief states that you have to assume rationality as nothing else works. Again, this is a question that we can actually test. Economists’ first position is to reject psychology, which they believe has nothing to offer. This comes from Stigler and Becker’s work of 1977. These two economists believe that tastes or preferences — that is, psychological personality traits — provide little or no prediction or explanation of human behavior. In other words, you don’t have to take human variation into account. I tackle this one in “Integrating Theories of Motivation.” This position was once only misguided but has now moved firmly into the absurd category (for example, see “Stigler-Becker versus Myers-Brigg” or “In Support of Personality Assessment”). If economists were right, we should select our employees and romantic partners pretty much randomly. Is that how you would suggest doing it?
Economists’ second offense is primarily against marketing. Marketers often ask people what they like and what would make them happy, such as “Would you like vanilla or chocolate ice cream?” Sounds pleasant enough, but economists disagree. They believe the only way we can know what people really want is by observing that they actually do. This is called “revealed preference” and fits in nicely with the rationality hypotheses. How do you know what is in your best interest? Well, that’s revealed by how you act. From this perspective, no matter what you do, from covering yourself in scalding hot tapioca to donating all your money to Bill Gates, it is all good. This logical loop is unassailable, but it is just wordplay — only good for finishing the Sunday crossword or getting the triple word score in Scrabble. I would rate this belief as misguided. So would my colleagues Vas Taras and Brad Kirkman, who address it with me in “Negative practice–value correlations,” where we show “revealed preference” has significant problems. Any single instance of observed behavior often tells you very little about what people typically like or would like in the future.
Economists’ last beef is with political science. This comes from Milton Friedman again. An advocate of public choice theory, he acknowledged that markets may not always be perfect; they may fail in a variety of ways, but this does not necessarily mean that intervention is required. Fiddling with regulatory remedies is dangerous as these are usually costly, so the cure can be worse than the disease. Asking the government to do more is inviting disaster, and Immanuel Kant’s quote is often bandied about: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” Whatever the government is entrusted with, they will screw it up. I am inclined to agree with Friedman’s faith in markets, but only as a guideline. That is, go with markets first and when in doubt. To always go with free markets, however, makes it a rule, and absolute rules are very vulnerable. You only need a single exception to break them. How about the 2008 financial meltdown? You might have heard of it, especially since we are still experiencing the aftereffects. It was largely the result of a lack of regulation, partly from deregulation and more so from resisting new regulation appropriate for 21st century financial markets.
This belief was once misguided and now has moved firmly into the absurd. Regulation is neither inherently good nor bad. What it can be is excessive or poorly designed. In short, a sweeping dismissal of regulation isn’t possible; you are actually going to have think and then act on a case-by-case basis.
Don’t Mistake the Map for the Land
Economists are excellent mathematical modellers working with a pretty good model of human nature. It is amazing what they can predict so much with just two factors, Value and Expectancy. Consistently, we do respond to incentives (i.e., value) to the extent we believe (i.e., expect) that these are obtainable. In his book The Logic of Life, for instance, Tim Harford documents how incentives effect behaviour in everything from banking to sexual practices, with the latter being his opening example (“Regular sex is more costly than it used to be because of the spread of HIV/AIDS. HIV is much more likely to be spread by regular sex than oral sex”).
Now, those of you who have read The Procrastination Equation know that the economists’ model is abbreviated, representing just part of human nature. Reality and people are more complicated, rife with other important factors (e.g., impulsiveness). Economists get into problems when they treat their model as something more than just a mock-up and start believing it is the world itself. Relying on a model as reality, as an accurate description of what happens around you, is much like sailing a submarine undersea without radar or sonar but with GPS and a very good map. As long as the map is accurate and you know where you are, you don’t need to double-check. But if there is an uncharted underwater mountain, something that doesn’t feature in your model of the world, then disaster strikes at full speed ahead. On January 8, 2005, this is exactly what happened to the submarine USS San Francisco, which collided with a seamount, killing Petty Officer Joseph Ashley as well as injuring ninety-seven of the crew. Their map and the world were not exactly the same.
To get economics to reform — or even to acknowledge that their model has any limitations at all — seems to be an impossible task. No amount of evidence gathered or arguments made, even by winners of the Nobel Prize for economics themselves, has had much success so far (e.g., George Akerlof’s “Procrastination and Obedience”). Economics, ironically enough, just doesn’t seem to respond to reason. So I’m throwing my support behind the Occupy Wall Street crowd. Perhaps an emotional appeal from them will have more luck.
In a world where we are ridiculously overcommitted to making sure everyone is equal in every way, a new study just published in Psychological Science contains some sobering news you might not like. In their paper “Limits on the Predictive Power of Domain-Specific Experience and Knowledge in Skilled Performance ,” David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz kill the myth that talent doesn’t matter. We would love to believe, of course, that all we need to do to be the best is to try hard enough. You can be anything you want as long as we really want it: rocket scientist, pop icon, sport hero. There is no shortage of popular pundits promoting this myth. As Hambrick and Meinz point out:
Malcolm Gladwell (2008) commented that “The relationship between success and IQ works only up to a point. Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn’t seem to translate into any measurable real world advantage” (pp. 78–79). In his own bestselling book, The Social Animal, David Brooks (2011) expressed the same idea: “A person with a 150 IQ is in theory much smarter than a person with a 120 1Q, but those additional 30 points produce little measurable benefit when it comes to lifetime success” (p. 165). Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks are simply wrong. At least in science, a high level of intellectual ability puts a person at a measurable advantage—and the higher the better.
The people peddling this notion that talent is irrelevant often cite a 1993 paper by Ericsson, Krampe, and Tech-Romer regarding deliberate practice in which the researchers argue that success is usually built upon purposeful, thoughtful and intense efforts to improve performance over about 10,000 hours. This is true; hard work does pay off. The Beatles got to be so good because they had to perform their music four hours a day (eight days a week) during their two year stint in Hamburg. Bobby Fischer became a grandmaster at chess after years of honing his skills at the Brooklyn Chess Club. But that wasn’t the question. What we want to know is whether hard work makes talent irrelevant. Will every group that jams together for 10,000 hours become the Fab Four and every chess obsessed child become a world champion?
Hambrick and Meinz showed the basic relationship between hard work and talent in this chart. The vertical axis measures your level of performance. Higher up means spectacular. The horizontal axis charts your innate talent, in this case cognitive ability, what the rest of the world refers to as “intelligence.” Further to the right means super smart. The two lines refer to different levels of deliberate practice. The red line refers to those who have put in the hours while the blue refers to those who haven’t made the effort.
There are two things to take away from this. The first is that being smart is a useful thing to inherit, right up there with a large trust fund. The more smarts you have, the higher your performance. And despite what Gladwell and Brooks say, intelligence’s benefits don’t disappear; the more innate talent of any sort you have, the better off you are going be.
If you take a careful look, however, you will notice that those of us with more modest abilities do have a chance. Even if you weren’t born with genius in your genes, you can outperform the smartest of individuals as long as you work hard and the latter doesn’t. Also, the differences between the smart and the not-so-smart shrink quite a bit if they both work hard. That means that talent still counts, but hard work puts you right up there.
Unless you are in a profession where there can only be one winner, like going for Olympic gold, this is pretty good news. With hard work, at the bare minimum you can be good at what you do. And though you might never be the best, you can give the best performers a run for their money. On the other hand, if you have chosen a career where only the very, very best succeed, you better be born with a lot of talent.
Necessarily, people who are exceptionally talented are also exceptionally rare. But from what we know about the prevalence of procrastination, people who work hard are also pretty rare too. Most of the time, you are going to be end up competing against rivals with one of these attributes, talent or hard work, not both. Those with natural aptitude and the willingness to put in the effort are as rare as diamonds, and twice as valuable. If you see one, take a picture, get an autograph, and wish them good luck. This world has problems and we especially need people like them.
As for us mortals, let’s take one more look at the chart. Is it better to be hard working with modest talents (the low end of the red line) or smart but lazy (the high end of the blue line)? The answer is cut and dried: hard work wins out. I told you might not like the news. But if you are ready to work hard, to change procrastination into motivation, you now know where to get started. Just look at the title of this blog.
With September 6th (though often delayed until the 7th) being Fight Procrastination Day, we continue the ongoing story of one person’s struggle to stop procrastination. Today, Erin P. tries out the strongest of all anti-procrastination techniques: precommitment. Written up in the post Bondage and Procrastination, precommitment is acting now to prevent yourself from acting otherwise later. For example, we throw sweets and treats into the trash when dieting to prevent later bingeing and we put our alarm clocks on the other side of the room to prevent hitting the snooze button in the morning and sleeping-in. Having acted earlier (e.g., thrown away that chocolate), we can’t easily eat it or hit it.
Writers typically hate writing and have used almost all forms of precommitment to help them at their craft, including Victor Hugo and James Riley. These two wrote naked so as to prevent themselves from sneaking off to drink with friends at the local pub. While a fun example, nudism isn’t practical for most of us, especially when we are at the office. Really, don’t try it. Besides, the major temptation most of succumb to isn’t at the pub but at our finger tips.
Consider that you are reading this post at an Internet enabled computer. Aside from letting you read this post, the computer is also a portal to a virtual strip club, casino and games room. It is hard to work when it is so easy to do otherwise. To precommit against these temptations, here’s a modern application from the Sci-Fi author Robert Sawyer. Sawyer technologically precommits using software: Internet Access Controller. He also had his wife change his password to the program, preventing him from changing his mind.
To evaluate its effectiveness, I’ve had our extreme procrastinator Erin P. give it a test drive. So far, she says this is a keeper. Here’s her perspective:
Overview of Internet Access Controller
Internet Access Controller is a filter program that you download and install on your computer. When you enable the software, it will block the Internet according to the rules that you set up. If you try to access a blocked site, it will simply tell you that the site is not available. It costs $15 USD for a single permanent license, with different pricing options for families and businesses with multiple computers.
A few of the features:
What I like about it…
It’s always on, automatically.
In my battle against procrastination, one of the hardest things to do each day is just to get started. If I had to turn on my Internet filter each day before I could start work, I think I would just keep delaying that action. But when it turns itself on (according to my schedule), it triggers me to open up a work file and get something done. This doesn’t take up any of my energy, which leaves me to focus my energy on my work.
Very easy to use.
Learning to use the software is fast and simple, the screens have short explanations when needed without needing to use the help files. I was able to set up the filters that I wanted in less than 20 minutes.
What I dislike about it…
Sometimes it’s finicky for blocking subdomains.
Occasionally a site can sneak through the filters. I don’t know why, maybe the site has a different type of structure? Anyways, you just need to try different ways of listing the site’s address in the filters until you find one (or two) ways that work. This isn’t a big flaw, just something that can take a bit of trial and error. Also, it didn’t happen very often, and I was always successful in blocking the sites that I wanted to block.
You can’t include different filters in a single schedule.
This is my biggest disappointment. I would love to block my email access, but to allow myself email “breaks” when email is accessible but all my distracting sites are not. However, this isn’t possible with the schedule function. You can create a work-around solution where email is allowed on one user profile, but not allowed on another – so you have to sign into a different user account to then access your email. I didn’t think it was worth the effort for me, but it is a possible way to solve the problem.
A note on social networks
I’ve read that social networks are addictive because they are unpredictable in terms of when they will give you a “reward.” The fact that you never know when there will be new content means that you’re likely to check the network often.
For me, this is entirely true: I have a couple of social networks that I check constantly! And I was surprised how much it had become a reflex. Once Internet access controller was enabled, I knew that the link would only lead me to a “this webpage is not available” screen, and yet I would still click the links to my networks. It took a number of days before my body seemed to realize that clicking the link wasn’t fun anymore. This experience was both interesting and embarrassing all at the same time.
This is an excellent piece of software.
I highly recommend it for anyone looking to prevent themselves from wasting hours on useless sites.
I’m giving this my professional stamp of approval. From a psychological point of view, Internet Access Controller has several features that make it effective. First, the program runs automatically. It isn’t a precommitment device if you have to enable it when you already being tempted. And it isn’t a very good precommitment device if you can get around it too easily. That is, it runs in all your log-ons and is password protected, means no easy work-arounds. To make that password thing work for you, either make it obscenely long or have a friend change the password for you. The first gives you some flexibility but the second is harder to subvert.
In addition, a lot of our behaviors are cued by the environment. There are cues for checking your email or your social network status but fewer cues for getting back to work. Erin found that when Internet Access Controller turned on, aside from stopping her from surfing, also cued her to work, effortlessly. Now that’s exactly what we want, for motivation just to come upon us without all the drama or struggle. As I say, “Let the environment do all your motivational heavy lifting.”
As you can see from Erin’s review, the software isn’t yet perfect. We are in the early days of developing this form of self-control assistance. But don’t worry. I’m working on it.
As a guest judge on the television show So You Think You Can Dance, Lady Gaga had this to say: “That’s good that you won a lot of trophies, it’s nice, but you know what? After I sell a bunch of records, I take all the platinum ones off the walls and pretend I haven’t sold a damn one and I’ve got to go do it all again.”
Just like Lady Gaga herself, her motivational advice is controversial. Essentially, she suggests that images of success (e.g., trophies) can take the place of actual successes (i.e., more victories). So instead of going out and making it happen, we reflect on past or imagined glory and do nothing. The symbol replaces the reality. On the other hand we have Rhonda Byrne, the Australian TV ad executive who wrote The Secret. A perpetual bestseller, The Secret advocates creative visualization, which involves creating vivid and compelling pictures of your heart’s desire, with the aim of drawing this vision toward you. If you believe and even act as if your accomplishments have already happened, Byrne argues, then happen they will.
Who’s right? Lady Gaga has multiple Grammy awards, several world records (e.g., most consecutive weeks in the top 75 music chart), and her sales are approaching 100 million. She is also a master of fantasy, able to imagine herself to sexual culmination at will (a very neat trick indeed). Then again, The Secret has been on the New York Times bestseller list for about 190 weeks and it is endorsed by the undisputed queen of self-help, Oprah Winfrey herself. And though Rhonda Byrne might not have Lady Gaga’s facility at fantasy, her advertising background gives her top marks in understanding the power of images. Let’s let psychological science decide the winner.
The first clear voice on this issue of fantasy was that of Sigmund Freud, who wrote about the “irrational libido,” the part of our psyche that lives for immediate pleasure. To accomplish this, the libido uses what Freud termed a “primary process,” where it “produces a memory image of an object needed for gratification in order to reduce the frustration of not having been gratified yet.” So we imagine everything from revenge to accomplishment and then, without doing anything more, receive pleasure from the image alone. When we mature, we put primary processes in check and graduate to “secondary processes,” which deal with reason and reality. So as adults, we are able to delay gratification and endure the pain necessary to bring our plans to fruition. In short, Freud is definitely a Lady Gaga fan. Images and symbols, such as trophies, may be pleasurable to gaze upon but they can prevent us pursuing the real thing.
Alright, psychoanalysis is more than a century old and not exactly cutting edge science. But we can do better. Over the last decade, Gabrielle Oettingen of New York University has done a string of studies that test the power of fantasy on everything from romantic success to getting your dream job. Her basic design is to have three groups of subjects: a fantasy group, a control group, and a mental contrasting group. Fantasy groups are just that: essentially, proponents of The Secret who imagine they already have their desired outcome. The control group is the baseline, people left alone to their own devices. Then there is the mental contrasting group, basically following a form of Lady Gaga’s recommendation. They mentally contrast by fantasizing about what they want but then immediately afterwards compare where they are now with where they want to be. So if they want a better relationship, they fantasize about being with that gorgeous guy or gal but then deeply reflect afterwards on how they don’t have him or her. The mental contrasting group always ends by contrasting fantasy with reality.
Who wins? Lady Gaga or The Secret? It wasn’t even close. Oettingen’s results show that Lady Gaga-styled mental contrasting always does better than pure fantasy à la The Secret . In fact, they suggest that The Secret is motivationally misguided. The pure fantasy group did worse than the control group, people who were left completely alone. In other words, dreaming actually gets in the way of realizing your dreams.
Does this mean that those who follow The Secret will never get what they want? Of course not, but they won’t realize their dreams as often as the rest of us. That is unless they break the rules; I’ve heard some people gush about how The Secret has worked for them, but what I see is people who have positive expectations about success and then actively go out to pursue their goals. This isn’t The Secret, which advocates that you believe you have already achieved your dreams. As Gabrielle Oettingen puts it, “positive expectations (judging a desired future as likely) predicted high effort and successful performance.” On the other hand, she saw just the opposite with positive fantasies, which led to less effort and worse performance. In short, believing you can do it works; fantasizing you already did it doesn’t.
So here’s the scoop. Fantasy feels good, but when practiced in isolation it gets in the way of accomplishment. It is the motivational equivalent of pornography, where we allow fantasy to take the place of reality. However, if you are good at fantasy, like Lady Gaga, here’s how to make it work the way she does. After fantasizing, focus on your present world and how it lack the things you crave. There will be pain and discomfort because what you long for is no longer in your grasp, but don’t turn away from these emotions; they are a source of power that you can harness to get stuff done.
For more, there is always chapter 7 from my own book The Procrastination Equation. It is dedicated to exactly this subject. And to help you get going, here’s a little more mental contrasting. Think about how helpful it would be to have all these motivational tricks at your fingertips, how much easier your life would be. Now reflect on that it’s going to be same old slog as yesterday because you haven’t read the book yet.
Do you have other celebrity motivational advice? Perhaps some words of advice from LeAnn Rimes or Reese Witherspoon? Let me know and we will give it the same treatment, determining its scientific standing and origins.