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Are You Killing Your Motivation?

If a single motivation technique is all you need to become successful, then you must have a very easy job. Of course, most likely your job isn’t that simple and that single technique isn’t enough. So when you hear about big hairy audacious goals, Everest goals or just plain stretch goals, let me reassure you that your job is going to require a lot more than a single motivation technique.

Goals are indeed the core of motivation. If you don’t have a goal, then your actions are essentially random. Goals give purpose and direction. If used in moderation, they point you towards the finish line and propel you on the way. And as in medicine, the dosage makes the poison, so too much goal setting can kill you, at least metaphorically.

If you are like most of us, you have heard about S.M.A.R.T. goals way too many times. It wasn’t a bad way of organizing goals based on what we knew at the time – up to 1981 when George Doran summarized the work of Locke and Drucker in an issue of Management Review. I will skip over the S.M.A.R.T. acronym, which was again great for the time before home computers, and give us something a little more today.

Here’s how goals work. Ask yourself – when do you have the most motivation? If it is just before the deadline, welcome to the human race. Even more than that, this reservoir of motivation seems to be tapped into just before something is due, and is a characteristic shared by almost everything alive, from pigeons to chimpanzees. So we know we have motivation when under the gun or in the eleventh hour. Goal setting techniques mostly reverse-engineer that moment and create artificial conditions that mimic the deadline. Goals work best when they are something we have to do, otherwise you don’t get the benefit of the short-term pressure..

Problems happen when your goal setting hammer makes everything become a nail. Your job is complex, meaning there are a whole lot of things you need to do and a bunch of unexpected tasks on top of that. When you overemphasize your goals, you’ve directed your attention to just those goals, often to the exclusion of everything else.  If your company is communicating an all important goal, maybe it is also communicating that it is alright to ignore everything else and that you should take horrendous risks to accomplish it.

In the Academy of Management Perspectives paper, “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting,” Wharton professor Maurice Schweitzer, Lisa D. Ordóñez from the Eller College of Management, Adam D. Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and Max H. Bazerman from the Harvard Business School, review the problem and provide a selection of goal setting induced disasters. These include GM’s stretch goal of capturing 29 per cent of market, which they pursued even after cutting margins to the point they were losing money on a per-unit basis. Or the late Roberto Goizueta, former CEO of Coca Cola made a commitment to the board and shareholders to increase earnings by 18 per cent and volume by 7 per cent annually. Eventually, he had to resort to balance sheet maneuvers to hit these targets.

So, when our goal is to maximize sales, salespeople sell for the short term and damage long-term client relationships. When our goal is to maximize the amount of work completed, quality is sacrificed for quantity. And in your complex jobs, where it is almost impossible to specify everything in terms of goals, you can probably think of a few examples right top of your head almost immediately.

While goals are handy to create motivation specific tasks, it is not a panacea. It does not replace a broad understanding and truly caring for the organization.

So I recommend that you make that your goal, if anything,  care for your organization! How do I get people to really care about this place and to want it to do well? If you can accomplish that big hairy audacious goal, you might not ever need to set another one.

(Repost from

The Original Myth: Procrastination as a Source of Creativity

Procrastination is, by definition, “Putting off despite expecting to be worse off.” When people talk about the creative benefits of procrastination, I usually rant about oxymorons, but let’s examine this a tad closer. Certainly, this is an old idea, having been put forth a few times, such as Van Eerde’s (2003) “Perhaps procrastination is functional to creativity because it may serve to incubate ideas” or Cohen and Ferrari (2010) “Prior research supported that procrastination may prolong the incubation period for creativity.” Most recently, in his book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World and, for good measure, accompanied Ted Talk and mass media campaign, Adam Grant revives the notion that procrastinators are more creative than non-procrastinators because they are given a chance to incubate their ideas. Incubation requires a delay between when you start and finish, like leaving cookies to bake in the oven. Unfortunately, the research on this isn’t exactly supportive, with lots of “maybes” and “perhaps” at it’s usually strongest. At its weakest, well here’s what I came up with when I myself wrote on the topic:

The most common excuse I hear from people who procrastinate at work is that they are more creative under pressure. I can see how it might appear this way. If all your work occurs just before a deadline, that is when all your insights will happen. Unfortunately, these insights will be relatively feeble and few compared to the insights of those who got an earlier start, since under tight timelines and high pressure people’s creativity universally crumbles. The bleary-eyed 3:00 a.m. crowd scrambling to finish a project will usually come up with routine, unremarkable solutions. Innovative ideas are typically built on the bedrock of preparation, which includes a laborious mastery of your topic area followed by a lengthy incubation period.

And the research I relied on seemed to be rock solid, coming from these two sources, the pinnacle of academic journals that publish this sort of stuff (at least when I get anything in there, I am pretty happy about it):

  • Baer, M., & Oldham, G. R. (2006). The curvilinear relation between experienced creative time pressure and creativity: Moderating effects of support, support for creativity and openness to experience. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 963–970.
  • Amabile, T. M., Hadley, C. N., & Kramer, S. J. (2002). Creativity under the gun. Harvard Business Review, 80(8), 52–61.

But things change. Maybe I got it wrong. Grant is an excellent researcher (he really is), so this was very possible. Thumbing to the reference section at the back of The Originals, there it was: “The Research Base.” An unpublished manuscript by Jihae Shin. Must be some study I thought. Unfortunately, I don’t know and neither do you. No one does as no one is allowed to look it. Asking Jihae for copy, especially given that they are trotting it around in the media like a prized pony, I got this polite but surprising response:

Hi Professor Steel,

Thank you for your email. The research with Professor Grant is in preparation, so we are not able to share it at this stage, but we will gladly circle back when it’s ready.

Best wishes,


Piecing together pieces from newspaper articles, magazine spots and other flotsam, this was I could glean. Jihae did a survey showing those who procrastinate are reported as more creative by their supervisors. Though I would really like to know the exact measures she used, especially as there are dozens of good and bad ones for both creativity and procrastination, let’s assume good. And add her results to the pile. When I said this was an old idea, I was being factual. There have been a few scores of systematic reviews and meta-analyses such as Feist’s (1998) on the topic of individual differences and creativity, with a more recent one by Ma (2009) comprised of 111 other studies.

Things get a little complicated here as there are different types of creativity, especially the artistic versus problem solving split, and that procrastination is usually studied under terms like low conscientiousness, lack of persistence or impulsiveness. But altogether, they paint a coherent picture. Summarizing this jumble is Feist’s (2010) chapter in The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity, “The Function of Personality in Creativity.”

If those who have a desire to produce works that leave a mark on the world are to succeed, they also need to be driven, focused and ambitious. They are not the kind of person who gives up easily in the face of hindrances and roadblocks. And that is generally what the research on drive and creativity continues to show: Creative artists, businesspeople, and scientists are driven, ambitious and persistent.

Not quite the description of a procrastinator. But still, we haven’t seen Jihae’s manuscript. Let’s further give this mystery paper the benefit of the doubt and assume this one unpublished study undid or updates that which was done before. This can happen and maybe this is one of those times. Jihae and Grant offer another follow-up study to help cement their case.

As Adam describes it in the NYT magazine article, Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate, Jihae asked people to come up with new business ideas. Some had to start right away while others had to delay five minutes by playing Minesweeper or Solitaire. The punchline: “The procrastinators’ ideas were 28 percent more creative.”  Timothy Pychyl does an excellent job dismantling the piece in his post “Procrastination As A Virtue For Creativity, Why It’s False: All procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination.” Aside from “What is this creativity scale that allows anyone to determine something is 28% more creative?”, essentially Jihae found that those who were forced to delay had more good ideas. This is a classic incubation study, among hundreds previously, but as Timothy Pychyl stresses, it isn’t a procrastination study. Procrastination requires delay, but this delay has to be voluntary and knowingly dysfunctional to be procrastination, and that five minute Solitaire break is neither. Again, for incubation to work, you start early, get really familiar with the project and then take a break. That isn’t procrastination, which starts with the break and then does the work only towards the end. Furthermore, if you want to generalize waiting five minutes playing a game to people putting off projects for months, it is much like concluding that taking a five-minute rest improves subsequent physical performance so it follows we shouldn’t exercise much at all.

Even if we let all of this go, we run in one further problem. Let’s assume, against the bulk of the body of science, that procrastination is causally related to creativity; remember, procrastination is still putting off despite expecting to be worse off. Expectations are usually borne out so procrastinators are often less happy, less healthy, less wealthy and usually just plain less.  So if you are recommending procrastination, you are also recommending all that pain and productivity loss associated with it. It is a bit like suggesting another way of increasing creativity: cultivating certain types of mental illness. Consider this nugget by Ma (2010), “The results showed that a person with a higher score on psychopathological traits had higher scores on divergent creativity than a person with a lower score on psychopathological traits.” In many ways, counseling someone to procrastinate to be more creative is like counseling someone to be have more psychopathologies so they can be more creative too.

What can we make of this? A co-author of Adam Grant is Barry Schwartz, who while recently justifying why the findings of his own famous book “The Paradox of Choice” failed to replicate, gave this reply:

It is no doubt true that scientists sometimes seek popular audiences prematurely — before their claims have been adequately tested by peers. I, myself, may have been guilty of this when I wrote “The Paradox of Choice” a decade ago. I believe that in most cases, the reason for this is that the scientist believes she has found something out that, while hardly certain, will improve the lives of at least some people.

I expect this is the case, that this is simply benevolent oversight. Adam Grant is a remarkably productive researcher, with the same organization that I am a Fellow, the Society of Industrial Organizational Psychology, giving him a well deserved early career award. Furthermore, he seems like a fantastic guy, almost obsessively good, as best as I can judge from NYT Sunday Magazine article featuring him. Presently, he has far exceeded the popularity of anyone else in my profession and achieved this by popularizing the science from my field. He writes with style and a great sense of narrative, with collaborators like Sheryl Sandberg (i.e., CEO of Facebook). With his way with words, his scholarly reputation, and the media connections he now commands, he has a vast and trusting audience that will listen to him. All this doesn’t precludes he occasionally gets it wrong though, as I argue he did here, but it does mean when he messes up that it will still be widely accepted as the final word of science.



Deadline gorillas. They chase us to get that assignment done or to fill in tax returns. Unfortunately for them, we soon learn how to avoid them. In our heads, we somehow make the less urgent ones seem smaller and less significant. This mental trick is called hyperbolic discounting but the result is all too familiar; procrastination.

Hyperbolic discounting is the fancy scientific name given to the way we prefer something sooner than later even if, objectively, waiting is better. It’s because we don’t tend to value future rewards properly and instead we are in love with the “now”.


I know that hyperbolic discounting sounds like it reduces things but that’s not always the case. Think of it as dividing. In general, dividing makes things smaller. However, if the number you divide by is small enough, it actually makes things bigger. Let’s say this number you divide by represents the time you have left until the deadline. If there’s an uncomfortably short amount of time to finish the task, then that number we’re dividing by is also uncomfortably small. Wait long enough and hyperbolic discounting sees to it that deadlines get big and scary.

Procrastination expert Piers Steel in his book the Procrastination Equation tells us that impulsiveness is the main reason people procrastinate. His equation states that our motivation to perform a task is equal to thevalue we place on it adjusted by its likelihood or expectancy divided by the time that we have to wait or itsdelay and by how impulsive we are. Impulsive people are addicted to their hyperbolic discounters and use them every chance they get. For them, life can be a rollercoaster; at times they are dodging important tasks to pursue short term distractions and at other times they rush to meet deadlines when things become urgent.


Oh, and did I mention, not only do we have our deadline gorillas but we also have our distraction monkeys who pull us away from what we know we should be doing? They play video games with us, they check out social media sites, and they persuade us to hang out with our friends. They steal our time and prevent us from working on our long term goals.


Ask one person why he or she procrastinates and you get one answer, ask someone else and you get another. There are so many differing theories about procrastination that it reminds me of an ancient parable originally from India but has since passed into the lore of many cultures. It goes like this. Once upon a time, some blind men are introduced to an elephant for the very first time. The first grasping the elephant’s tail declares it to be like a brush. The second putting his arms around one of its legs, claims it to be a tree. Yet another feeling the trunk, confidently announces an elephant is like a snake. The fourth holding the ears, describes the elephant as a sheet of leather. None of their opinions are entirely wrong, the men have just approached the animal from different angles. As each blind man feels his way around the whole of the elephant, they discover that there is truth in what each other had said.blind-elephants-1

Gorillas and monkeys may not be as elegant as an equation but they are a different and colourful way of understanding the how and why of procrastination. These characters form part of the My Many Me’s theory. A theory that proposes different parts of our brains have different agendas and they compete to control our behaviour. How hard they push or pull are based on thought processes optimised for an environment very different to our current one and hence our behaviour often appears irrational. Applying a more primitive mentality to a situation often gives us an insight into why we behave the way we do. Well, that’s the grey matter of the idea; this then evolved into a series of comics in glorious 24 bit colour.

The characters from My Many Me’s are used to explain our motivation to do a particular thing over everything else. At any given time we are subconsciously applying the Procrastination Equation to all the different things we could do. Each monkey or gorilla represents a motivation or de-motivation and each is working out his or her own answer to the equation. Whoever comes up with the biggest number wins and gets to decide what we do. It’s a tug of war between all our monkeys and gorillas as they pull or push us in all directions like invisible forces.


My Many Me’s and the Procrastination Equation help us identify specific causes and the most effective solutions are the ones that target the underlying causes. No one has come up with a single foolproof method to cure procrastination. No one has yet devised a diet that works for everyone either. The real world offers too much temptation so it’s not really possible in a single post to add much to what has not already been covered by many other posts giving advice and tips. The key takeaway here is that we need review the reasons for our delays. Once this is done, practical steps can be found in Piers Steel’s book or at the My Many Me’s website.

Piers Steel tells us his advice is pharmaceutical grade. And like some of the most potent medicine, you take it because you know you need it. It’s the injection, the bitter pill, the enema. However, procrastination affects almost all of us and prevention is better than a cure. In the same way, we live healthier lives by cutting down on smoking, alcohol and high fat/sugar diets. My Many Me’s is what you find at the end of the aisle or next to the checkout. It’s mind candy. It’s the patch, the sugar coated pill, the strawberry flavoured suppository. You take it, not because you have to, you take it because you like the taste.

You can find out more about My Many Me’s at

PS. In this case, that PS stands for both Piers Steel and Post script. This is a guest post by Adrian that puts my posts to shame. Strongly recommend you back up a few sentences and click on that link. You won’t be disappointed. 

Living in the Candy Store… And Moving Out

Despite wealth and progress, life seems to constantly test us. Want to know why? I can do it in one paragraph, specifically from an upcoming book chapter, The Building Blocks of Motivation, written by myself and Justin Weinhardt:

As civilization advances and prosperity becomes widespread, we remove most of the external maladies that were once major contributors to our misery (e.g., predation, starvation, lack of shelter). By default, the source of our failures increasingly becomes ourselves. Ainslie (2005) argues, “We smoke, eat and drink to excess, and become addicted to drugs, gambling, credit card abuse, destructive emotional relationships, and simple procrastination, usually while attempting not to do so” (p. 635). Stanovich (1999) believes it is even worse; we exist in an increasingly artificial or built environment that has sporadic overlap with the environment of evolutionary adaption. Since, our motivational impulses are fine-tuned to the latter, rather than the former, we increasingly find ourselves motivationally adrift, knowing what to do but not being motivated to do it. Steel (2010) stresses that this built environment is not necessarily motivationally neutral; free market capitalism ensures it is constructed with considerable design, including features that can coax maladaptive behaviors, particularly overconsumption. Putting candy and lottery tickets by the checkout counter is an example of an insidious but common motivational praxis. Building on this line of reasoning, Heath (2014) makes an extended case that this will likely get worse, that “absent conscious guidance, cultural evolution will produce an environment that is more hostile to human rationality.” We need conscious, rational guidance, which must be based on a firm understanding of our motivational foundation.

The world we live in is motivationally toxic and this explains why procrastination and other self-control problems have been reaching stratospheric and pandemic proportions. Almost everyone, everywhere, puts off almost everything every day and, for good measure, ever more every year. And often we are blamed for these failings or blame ourselves. We didn’t exercise, eat right, get that home project or our taxes finished. Though taking responsibility starts with ourselves, it also extends to taking responsibility for the way we are building our world. The built world, the one we live in the way that fishes live in water, has a praxis or purpose to it. In the same way as hackers tame a computer’s operating system to do what they want, we are being trained, guided, shaped for consumption, regardless of whether it gibes with our own long-term best interests. All of us are trying to diet inside a candy store and being blamed for giving in and getting fat. On the other hand, consider the possibility there is really nothing wrong with us, including being the product of a 100 million years of evolution that favored those who knew a good energy source when it came around. What’s wrong is the candy store.

young girl looking in awe at rows of sweets

Think of the candy store as itself an evolving, living machine constructed to elicit buying behavior from us. It constantly refines itself until it develops into the perfect combination of product, promotion, placement and price to get us to chow down. For the rational consumer, it is a great system, ensuring we get what we want. Spock, and other creatures of pure reason, would experience a perfect symbiosis between desires and choices. However, for those with an emotionally driven limbic system (e.g., you), with at best quasi-rational components, the system starts to design itself to exploit seemingly minor flaws and hiccups in our decision making. As it learns more about us, as per Heath noted above, it hacks and the world gets worse, not better. It coaxes addiction, distraction and overconsumption, all to our detriment.

This dystopic observation has progressed through three stages. First came the warnings, such as Aldous Huxley (1958) in Brave New World Revisited. Second came the social commentaries that this is happening, such as Neil Postman (1985) in Amusing Ourselves to Death. Third came the critiques that this has happened and with a vengeance, such as Daniel Askt (2011) in We Have Met the Enemy. Grim but now we are starting to enter a fourth and possibly better stage. It isn’t quite the Age of Aquarius but we do respond effectively and systematically.

I’m not talking about self-help books, though that can be part of the solution too. There are lots of good techniques and, if you are lucky, you will find the sources that will convey effective principles, absorb them and practice them. Still, for all your efforts at self-improvement, you remain in the candy store. A momentary lapse of willpower and there you are stuffing your mouth with truffles and triple berry fudge. What really would be effective is if we could change the candy store itself.

In the same way that your software is frequently patched and you have a good antivirus programming running in the background, we need the same for our world. And as per a recent New York Times Sunday Review article, these patches are finally becoming available for your smart phone. Like an antivirus program, they filter out the temptation ahead of time, allowing you to be here now and focus on the present. For example, “Ringly does this by connecting its rings to a smartphone filter so that users can silence Gmail or Facebook notifications while preserving crucial alerts, like text messages from a babysitter, which cause the ring to light up or vibrate.” Priced at $195, it shows how eager people are to acquire breathing room from the bombardment of notifications.

Nir Eyal, author of Hooked, makes a similar observation, writing, “Having written a book on what makes technology habit-forming, I believe technology is becoming harder to resist.”   Hooked is basically a how-to-guide for product developers to make their services addictive (the byline to Hooked is “How to Build Habit-forming Products”), and it is becoming a bible in Silicon Valley. Having helped create the problem, he recommends a solution, Saent, (pronounced “saint”), as per “Saent is a step forward — helping us regain control so we can be more productive.” Saent combines software and hardware to attack the problem of a motivationally toxic world. Consider what it does:

  1. Stop distractions: The Saent app locks users into apps and websites that are productive for their work (based on a predefined list), while blocking out distractions (like social networking sites or app notifications). Over time, Saent will learn users’ work patterns automatically and associate productive apps with specific tasks.
  2. Optimize work rhythm: Studies show that frequent breaks keep the brain agile and creative, so Saent enables users to work in 30, 50 or 90 minute blocks with breaks in between.
  3. Rewards for good work: Just as activity trackers reward users for taking steps to stay healthy, Saent awards you points for each ten-minute block of focused work you’ve completed. The Saent score provides a window into productivity over time and enables competition with colleagues and friends.
  4. Create a physical connection to productivity: The Saent button is a physical reminder to stay focused. Because human memory works by forming associations between stimuli and objects and places, a physical device will be more effective at “locking in” a new behavior than an app alone. As psychology and behavioral neuroscience professor Daniel J. Levitin notes in his book, The Organized Mind, many people find physical objects effective for behavior change. “Place memory evolved to keep track of things that didn’t move,” he writes. “Use the environment itself to remind you of what needs to be done.”

Having looked into it, I am agreeing with Nyal and particularly enamored with these technological assists. With students from my University, we will be testing how well Saent works over the next year and, being science based, the question isn’t whether it is effective but how much. Really, what we want is for good decisions to feel like natural decisions. As this and other platforms expand and refine, rationality is going to be an optional feature you can install into your life. We can all finally move out of the candy store and visit it just when we want to, as a treat.

Self-Efficacy and Success: Is There Any Relationship?

Self-Efficacy aiStock_000010304538Smallnd Personal Success

Most of us tend to question ourselves and our capabilities frequently. We often put too much emphasis on our weaknesses without having a good understanding of our strengths. I was watching a short video which asked 50 people one question: “If you could change one thing about your body, what would it be?” The question was simple, but the responses were interesting. The most astonishing thing was that the responses from children and adults differed from each other significantly. Here are some of the responses from adults: “Only one?”, “I would change my forehead, I have a really big forehead”, “I would like to have smaller ears.”, “Definitely, my skin, because I have lots of acne on my skin.”

Now, here are some of the children’s responses: “mmm”, “I could have wings to fly”, “I like my body, actually. I don’t want anything else.” Lots of questions came to my mind after watching the video: why do we as adults have become so picky of ourselves? , do we lose self-confidence as we grow older?, when was the last time that we felt really satisfied with our body, our mind, and enjoyed all the good things we have got in our life?

But, the most important question was that how this lack of self-confidence and self-efficacy can influence our lives. Self-efficacy is related to our judgment about ourselves and our ability to perform well in a particular area. It is a perception that we have about ourselves and what we can or cannot do. In a series of theoretical and empirical studies, Bandura and colleagues found a positive relationship between self-efficacy and performance accomplishment. In addition, they found that self-efficacy can play a significant role in long-term goal commitment and goal achievement: Self percepts of efficacy predict individual’s behavior, their thought patterns, and their emotional reactions in the long run and under taxing situations. People with high levels of self-efficacy exert more effort and persist longer in the face of difficulties. Therefore, they are more likely to surpass insurmountable barriers that occur in the way of their desired goals.

Considering the importance of self-efficacy in successful performance accomplishment, it is highly critical to find ways to boost one’s self-efficacy. However, too much self-efficacy can also backfire, especially if it is not based on actual personal capabilities. It can make us too confident about ourselves, so we stop expending effort towards building capabilities that are required for achieving our desired goals. In fact, high levels of self-efficacy during the goal planning phase will result in overconfidence bias. In this case,the individuals will allocate fewer resources towards the goal because they believe it can be achieved easily (e.g., requires few resources). In addition, overconfident people may expose themselves more to tempting situations that override their long-term goals (Nordgren et al., 2009). For example, they might choose to work with a television or take “a quick break” to have a drink with friends instead of focusing on their long-term goals. Thus, may be the first step for us is to find where on the self-efficacy continuum we are, before deciding whether we should increase or decrease our self-efficacy in order to realize our longed-for dreams!

If you are interested in this post and would like to check your level of self-efficacy, you can take our Self-efficacy Test and get immediate feedback about yourself.

Losing Weight Effortlessly With Visual Illusions

(Trick yourself into eating less by changing the color of your plates.)


We often procrastinate because outside distractions interfere with our long-term goals. We make plans to exercise or to diet but find our attention irresistibly drawn toward attractions like the television or the candy bowl. When temptation strikes, our willpower works overtime to try and drive the unhealthy / distracting cravings out of our head, or at least to stop us from acting on them. It doesn’t have to be this hard, though. In fact, it doesn’t have to be hard at all.


Outside distractions—what science calls environmental cues—activate our emotional limbic system, or System One. Since the time I started to write The Procrastination Equation, about a dozen other books have come out highlighting exactly this process, like Willpower by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney or Thinking Fast or Slow by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. As all these books confirm, environmental cues initiate mindless habits or distracting thoughts. The smell of popcorn as you enter a movie theatre, for example, is an olfactory cue that gets you to think about eating or initiates a well-rehearsed script that ends with you munching on a super-sized and superbly high-calorie bag of “buttery” kernels. Hopefully, however, your brain’s System Two, the seat of willpower, comes into play before you cede to temptation. Like a brake competing with an accelerator, we try to override our urges and stop obsessing, stop buying, or, failing that, stop consuming what we bought. Wouldn’t it be easier to stop the cues that started this all in the first place? You may not be able to control the cues in the movie theatre, but at home it is a different story.

I am a big fan of Dr. Brian Wansink, who runs the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. He tracks the connection between environmental cues and the amount we eat. He has conducted a wide range of studies on this theme, and shown that what we put into our mouths is often completely mindless, ruled by external cues rather than internal desires. It is a great lesson in the power of stimulus control; if we can influence what we smell, touch, or hear (stimuli), we can control our deepest urges.

In my book, I described Dr. Wansink’s research on how plate size cues portion size. Whatever size of plate we choose, we tend to fill it. Consequently, if we shrink the diameters of our plates from 12 inches to 10 inches, we reduce the amount of food we eat by 22 percent. For most of us, this is all the reduction in eating we need to maintain or obtain a slender figure. And it can all be done effortlessly.

Recently, Dr. Wansink allied with Koert Van Ittersum to add another twist to his dishware detectivery. The two researchers explored the contrast effect. Dividing a group of eaters into two, they gave one section a white plate and the other a red plate. People from each section got to serve themselves a meal with red sauce or a white sauce, specifically pasta with either tomato or Alfredo sauce on top. When the plate contrasted with the food, a white plate with tomato sauce or a red plate with Alfredo sauce, the pasta was more visible—an environmental cue that made the hungry people aware of just how much they were piling on. As with smaller plates, the eaters served themselves and consumed 22 percent less food.

The optical illusion Wansink and Van Ittersum are exploiting is called the Delboeuf Illusion, after the Belgian scientist who discovered it 150 years ago, and their paper, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, is entitled “Plate Size and Color Suggestibility: The Delboeuf Illusion’s Bias on Serving and Eating Behavior.” It’s an appropriate name; Delboeuf is French for “Of the beef,” precisely the food we are looking to avoid if we want to reduce our meat intake to the recommended serving size of 3.3 ounces, about the size of a pack of cards.

And how can you make use of the Delboeuf illusion? Start by getting a few sets of dishes in the same color as the vegetables you tend to buy. Use the smaller plate for yourself and the smallest one for your kids. Taking a quick look online, you can get a four-piece dishware set in an array of vegetable colors for as little as $17 a set. For a family of four, you are looking at an investment of $68—get four sets in lettuce green and another four in carrot orange for a total of $136. You will naturally and effortlessly serve yourself more vegetables and eat less of food in other colors.

Amazingly simple and effective. Even better, the basic principles go far beyond just food. In my book, I’ve talked about how similar stimulus control techniques can do more than just help you lose weight but affect everything else, from getting to you to save money to buckle down to work. Given how powerful cues are, why aren’t they used more? Well they are actually, an incredible amount—just not by you. Every time you find yourself eating when you are already full, spending when you are already deeply in debt, and indulging in every vice the Internet can offer while your own life goals lay languishing, there is probably a manufactured cue involved. You are acting to an agenda, one designed by others. However, if you read this far, you know the secret. Just believe it yourself and tell others about it.

Now if I just had a cue to get you started.

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Da Vinci, Copernicus and the Astronomical Procrastination

From the beginning, science and procrastination have been intertwined. Consider Leonardo Da Vinci. Five hundred years ago, he designed or sketched the submarine, the helicopter, and the armored tank as well as more everyday inventions such as the alarm clock, the snorkel, and the robot. In science, he made significant contributions to dozens of fields, from astronomy to anatomy, and developed a rudimentary version of today’s basic scientific method. His artistic endeavors are equally as notable. His paintings are renowned for their intrigue and beauty, with The Last Supper and The Mona Lisa as two of the most recognizable works of art in the world.


Unfortunately, Da Vinci’s genius was tempered by procrastination. He never took the time to publish his findings. From the evidence of the notebooks that survive, if even a fraction of Da Vinci’s discoveries or insights had made it into the public domain when he was alive, science could have been advanced by an era (i.e., imagine if we had next century’s technology today). It was he who first surmised that “The earth is not in the centre of the Sun’s orbit nor at the centre of the universe.” As for his art, he only fully finished between five to ten paintings, often requiring a sharp threat by his patrons that they were about to withhold payment. The Mona Lisa took over 15 years for him to finish. Worse was The Virgin of the Rocks, commissioned by the Church of San Francesco Grande with a seven-month deadline. Da Vinci finished it 25 years later. Describing Da Vinci as a distractible, doodling scatterbrain, even Pope Leo X exclaimed “This man will never accomplish anything! He thinks of the end before the beginning.” However, the most damning condemnation comes from Da Vinci himself, who apologized on his deathbed “to God and Man for leaving so much undone.”

Now consider Leonardo Da Vinci’s contemporary, Nicolaus Copernicus, who together are attributed with laying the foundation for modern science and art. Like Da Vinci, Copernicus suffered from the same vice of procrastination. For a decade, Copernicus left unpublished his revolutionary book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, which formally placed the sun at the center of the solar system. If it wasn’t for an admiring mathematics professor, Georg Joachim Rheticus, who coaxed him to publish this masterpiece, his book on the sun may never have seen light.

Has anything changed over the better half of a millennia? I received this email from Marco Castellano, an Italian astronomer of the present day.

One of the main duties in our field is submitting “proposals for observations”, technical documents through which we ask for observing time at telescopes. Indeed, since telescopes and instruments are very expensive, they are not owned by one institution only but are shared among various universities, institutes etc.: to obtain observations (i.e. images of the sky at a given wavelength in most cases) we must submit proposals and wait for a panel to select the (few) best ones that will be carried out. Of course we have deadlines within which these proposals have to be submitted, e.g., the end of February for the Hubble Space Telescope, the end of March for the observatories of the European ESO consortium etc.

We all know that these deadlines are fixed and, in principle, we could start preparing proposals months ahead of time and submit them as soon as the “call for proposals” are issued by observatories (30 days before the usual deadline). However, it happens that most, if not all, the proposals are submitted in the last few hours or minutes before the deadline, and a lot of my colleagues spend the last nights at work to finish them! Sometimes proposals are even lost because the web traffic is so huge that we can’t submit them, thus losing days (and nights) of work. As an example, this paragraph is written in the last “call for proposals” document of the European Southern Observatory: “Plan ahead! Over past periods, congestion of the proposal submission system has repeatedly occurred in the last few hours before the proposal deadline, leading to delays in response time that occasionally exceeded 1 hour. Try to submit proposals at least one day before the deadline and avoid last-minute stress.”

I would venture that it is no different than in any other scientific field. This month, I submitted to the Academy of Management conference a few papers on national culture and national happiness (exciting stuff I hope to share with you soon). Knowing human nature, I stayed up late the night before to get one final paper submitted. Others who waited the day of submission were not so lucky. The crush of last minute applications melted down the conference servers and we will never know what they intended to share. Apparently, studying human nature doesn’t necessarily mean rising above it, just as heart surgeons can still have heart attacks.

Finally, if you start assessing the level of procrastination by scholarly profession, which I did, you find that while Economists procrastinate less than Clinical Psychologists, who are in turn better than Sociologists, none of us are that good at being on time. Indeed, the majority of academic colleagues are beyond late in writing their own research papers, included a few of them who are, now more in theory than practice, my co-authors. We have even done research directly upon selves, asking how we can get stuff done, such as Boice’s “Procrastination, busyness and bingeing,” which was attempt to help new faculty members actually write.

In all, it means that science is progressing somewhat slower than you would expect. For example, the 1982 classic Blade Runner, voted favorite SciFi film by scientists, has genetically engineered organic robots filling the streets by 2019. I don’t think it’s going to happen on schedule and procrastination is probably to blame. However, there may be a happy ending to all this. Despite centuries of delay, we now do have a solid scientific of why we procrastinate and what to do about it. As these ideas and self-control techniques eventually spread (all handily available in book form), we might get our army of replicants after all. Or, at the very least, perhaps Off-World colonies, attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, and C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate.

Want to learn more about yourself? Take one of our online surveys on different aspects of your pesronality and get immediate feedback about yourself.

  • Adler, R. (2002). Science firsts: From the creation of science to the science of creation. New York: Wiley.
  • Boice, R. (1989). Procrastination, busyness and bingeing. Behaviour Research & Therapy, 27(6), 605-611.
  • Pannapacker, W. A. (2009). How to procrastinate like Leonardo Da Vinci. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 55(24), B4.

If you met all your goals today, this article is not for you


When I started to study procrastination, my family thought it was too appropriate and yet not appropriate at all. I was famous for leaving every task under the sun until the seconds before they were due, so doing research on productivity was seen as akin to having serial killers work on crime prevention. In the end, it was transformational. Science gave me a venue and the tools to change my procrastination habit and release a more productive side that I previously thought was beyond me. It changed my life but to explain in all the ways would require me to recount my successes, which I won’t because when anyone does this it becomes indistinguishable from bragging and self-promotion. However, you can figure it out by just thinking how much your life would change if you consistently started doing what you intended to do, finished tasks ahead of time, and starting showing the world your best.

To share what I’ve learned, I have published a swath of scientific articles on procrastination but not many have access to them or inclination to read academia. I then translated that into a popular non-fiction book, The Procrastination Equation, which expanded who I could reach, but not everyone is a book reader. I then moved into more into blog forms, writing my own and providing the material for others, but it still didn’t quite have the impact I wanted. There are lot of articles, a lot of books, and a lot of blogs to compete with and whatever I message I wanted to get out, gets drowned out.

Many years later, but only recently from today, I took on a new graduate student, Chris Morin, who shared an insight with me. Try one more form of communication, something a little more modern. We worked together to create an online app, a goal trainer, that teaches people in real-time and at their convenience, how to make goals that maximizes their motivational value. We bake into this attempt dozens of scientific principles that you won’t see combined anywhere else. This is his story of our attempt and product and perhaps the something you have been looking for.

A Study in Procrastination (By Chris Morin)

Two years ago, I began studying motivation as a grad student. To let you in on the joke that my friends and family enjoy, I was an uninspired undergraduate who muddled through to a directionless career. My school days were spent procrastinating, punctuated by frantic all-nighters. If I had plans after graduation, they fell through. I held a series of jobs motivated by convenience rather than any long-term career plan. Those experiences were ironically instructive and when I was finally exposed to the science of motivation I had an intuitive understanding of the principles of the science. Really, no one is better at benefitting from these than those who already intimate with procrastination in the first place.

The Procrastination Intervention

My thesis project was to develop a cure for procrastination. To get my degree, I reviewed motivation research and created an online program to help people set better goals. For those of you who like to see the actual science up front and personal, with all the citations exposed and in proper APA style, you can find if you dig around at this very research webpage ( If you just want the finished product, you can try the goal trainer at this link:

What I learned is that there are some universal principles everyone can apply, based on some of the most consistently supported theories of motivation science. Despite this commonality, there is a fundamental level where goal-setting and goal-striving are intensely personal activities. People need to think about what they want to strive for, and what works best to get them there.

Below are explanations of some of the theories and principles that informed the goal trainer. They begin with some of the universal principles, and end with principles that require some self-reflection and exploration for what strategies work best for you.

Approach versus Avoidance – “Don’t think of a white bear.”

A goal worded as an approach toward a positive outcome is more effective than one worded as avoidance of a negative outcome. As a thought exercise, try not to think about polar bears for 30 seconds. For most, it cannot be done. Even tremendous self-control creates the impression of a “polar bear-shaped hole.” Smokers and dieters who try to change their behavior with thought-suppression encounter similar difficulties. By not thinking about smoking or snacking, a person is effectively thinking about it. For students, this principle is the difference between “I want to ace all my courses,” and “I don’t want to fail my course.” Thinking about failure is flirting with failure. An avoidance focus evokes fear, anxiety, and self-doubt. Success becomes defined as “anything but this.” A positive focus creates a definite direction to work toward. The difference between approach and avoidance goals are “potentially thriving, or merely surviving.”

Challenging and Specific Goals

One of the most consistent findings of motivation science is the high performance associated with challenging and specific goals versus vague or “do your best” goals. Similar to the way a positive goal provides a specific outcome to strive towards; challenging goals demand more from us. If you set the bar too low, effort stops too early, just as they way every runner stops running once they cross the finish line. If you aim higher, you go farther.

In fact, it is not just specific goals that lead to performance. Specific plans-of-action lead to higher performance. Setting a challenging goal to be done “later” isn’t good enough. “Get a good job after graduation” clearly wasn’t specific enough for me. A specific, challenging goal may have been “manage a small department within five years.” I can do better. What, exactly, do I mean by small? Five employees? Twenty employees? More importantly, what department? What industry? What company? These are important questions because qualifications matter. What qualifications do I need? How do I get them? What kind of grades will I need to get started?

This last point is worth reflecting a little further on. While challenging goals inspire higher performance, there is clearly a “sweet spot.” Goals that seem impossible are more likely to be abandoned. A goal should be challenging, but “do-able.” A five-year goal is a long time frame, and you can accomplish a lot, but be careful of doing more than you need to. Education for education’s sake is just spinning your wheels. Accepting a promotion that takes you further away from your goals should be considered carefully. Maybe it is an opportunity you had not considered before, but you may also find yourself pigeon-holed into a role you don’t want to keep. Know where you are going so you know when to start, but equally important is to know when to stop!

On Commitment

The previous points are all considered universal. The question remains: what are your goals? The answers are intensely personal. People do things for all sorts of reasons. Your pay-check is an obvious reason to keep going to work. Sometimes, the pay-offs are intangible and distant, like in the cases of getting an education or visiting the gym. Sometimes we do things to make others happy. Sometimes, we do things to make ourselves happy. Goal-setting theory takes the view that no one does anything “for no reason,” or “just because.” Even when we seem to be “doing nothing,” watching TV, playing games, staring out a window, we are drawing some sort of personal benefit from that activity. As John Lennon said, “time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”

As you may have noticed, motivation fluctuates from day-to-day. New Year resolutions rarely last through February. Even when we want to achieve a goal more than any other, no one can maintain that drive all day, every day. The research in this area, self-regulation and energy levels, touches on the age-old philosophies of choice and free-will. Modern models of motivation describe it as a single, psychic, but limited energy source. The longer you maintain effort on one task (be it physical, like sprinting, mental, like solving puzzles or even suppressing thoughts and feelings), the sooner you will quit the next task. Motivation is consumable but rechargeable. When asked, “how do you maintain your energy?” people responded with every conceivable pastime from prayer, solitude, and music to shopping, drinking and parties. At least one current study showed that energy sources are whatever you believe them to be. Wherever you draw your “inner-strength” from is true for you. Conversely, if you believe it is OK to quit, or your source of strength is gone for whatever reason, you will be quicker to quit.

Pre-Commitment: Bondage, Satiation, and Poison

As I said, there are universal rules of effective goal setting, but commitment to a goal is intensely personal. Without commitment there is no performance. If you are worried that your commitment will wane, you can “pre-commit.” This is more than a “pep-talk” or daily affirmation. I mean lock-away distractions and throw away the key. I have one colleague who found he spent too much time playing a particular video game and his responsibilities suffered. He asked a friend to hide the disk, to be returned at the end of the school year. It motivates him to promptly return the final grades to his students. This is an example of bondage pre-commitment. It puts your distractions out of reach.

I have heard stories of people who wish to drop bad habits or addictions and give money to a friend in trust. The friend is instructed to donate the money to a despised political cause the first time the addict slips into old habits. This is poisoned pre-commitment: building punishments into actions we wish to avoid.

I happen to respond well to satiation. When I have work to do, I will take a leisurely morning, meet friends for coffee, and enjoy the weather (a benefit of academia). I don’t get started until after noon, but I’ve already had a good day. The late start motivates me to (finally) get to work, and my relaxing morning means that those working hours are generally more productive. If you find that distractions pull you away from your work, you may benefit from satisfying those distractions first so you can focus on work.

I want to highlight that while many of these principles are personal, they work best when they are also social. Share your goals with friends. Ask them to check-in on your progress. Get them involved with commitments and rewards. It is similar to having a gym partner. It keeps you honest. It gives you the push you need to follow through, and it makes everything more fun.

Practice Makes Perfect

The procrastination intervention I developed during my Master’s thesis is available on line at Work through the exercises and get some practice setting effective goals. Work through the exercise a few times and you will find that the principles of effective goal-setting become second nature. Before long, you won’t need the exercise. You will be setting better goals and accomplishing more in less time.

If you like, or hate it, or want it changed, come back here and let us know. If anything’s confusing or ineffective or just especially wonderful, let us know. Odds are, we will be able to make it better with your help.

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