Goals III: Planning

Everyone has dreams about what they want to do in the future. Write a novel, learn a new language or make a trip around the world. Yet it can be hard to motivate yourself to work on realizing these dreams on a consistent basis. How can we align our daily activities with our long term goals? I address this question with a three part series on goals. In the third part we look at the actual process of planning.

Introduction

Thinking and Acting

Say you get in your car in the morning to drive to work. You get behind the wheel and think about the first point you need to get to. This first point, let us call it A, is halfway between where you are now and your work. Then you think of the second point which is halfway in between where you are now and point A. Let us call this point B. If you follow this line of reasoning, the distance between you and your work can be divided in half an infinite number of times. You will be forever reasoning in your car about what the first point to drive to should be: A, B, C, D, etc …, without actually even starting the engine. This is the first problematic way many people treat their dreams: thinking, but not acting.

The next day in your car, you take a different approach. You get behind the wheel and just randomly start driving in some direction without even thinking about where your work’s office actually is. You just drive. After driving around for a long time, the office is nowhere in sight. You keep driving infinitely without actually getting anywhere. This is the second problematic way in which many people treat their dreams: acting, but not thinking.

The Planning Spectrum

These different ways of approaching a goal are not as mutually exclusive as they seem. Each approach, in a less extreme form, can lead to success. They are on a spectrum. Overplanning is on one side of this spectrum and underplanning on the other. Depending on the situation, people lean more towards either of these extremes based on how they dealt with similar situations in the past: the familiarity of the goal, which changes over time. Consider that if you are driving to a new place for the first time, you probably plan it to some extent. Contrast this with your daily trip to work, which you likely do without any planning.

This goes to three core insights:

  1. Going too far in either direction, underplanning or overplanning, will get you nowhere.
  2. Planning for goals that are concrete, or that you know how to approach already, is far easier than planning for vague or novel goals.
  3. Planning challenges differ a lot from one person to the other, and even for the same person at different times for different tasks.

Contrary to what is sometimes suggested: there is no one right way to plan that works for everyone, every time for every situation. However, what you should learn to do is continuously adapt and improve your own planning process. Not only should a plan itself adapt to changing circumstances, your approach to planning should adapt to your changing self.

Rather than present a rigid planning method, I am going to provide you with building blocks that you can use to enhance your own planning process. You likely need to apply different parts of this toolbox to different challenges at different times. I can show you helpful blocks, but you will need to put them together. Ready?

Macro Planning

The Anti-Climax

When you work towards a goal for a very long time, and finally reach it, it can feel like an anti-climax. The reason for this feeling is that, from a cognitive perspective, you spend most of your time not reaching your goal. This is followed by a very short time in which you will have actually reached it, before you quickly move on to the next goal. Going through several cycles like this can easily deplete your energy to start any large endeavor. This is why large projects can often feel so overwhelming. The reason that most people never get to writing a book or learning a language is that these cognitively feel like ‘big’ things: large commitments followed by a short-lived reward. Unfortunately, this thinking prevents us from ever actually starting.

To get through this impasse, the divide and conquer approach is often advocated. The idea is to break down a goal into smaller subgoals in a top-down fashion. However, though useful, it is not the right first step. The problem with this approach is that it forces you to consider the scope of the entire goal as a single large project. This perspective sucks you into spending a lot of time just planning your project. You never actually get to work on the project itself: the meat, the content, the challenge. This way goal setting counter-intuitively leads to inertia.

Regular Commitment

A good first step is to commit a regular amount of time to a goal and then to start working on it. Initially this commitment could be just half an hour a day, or a handful of hours in a weekend. It is important that you write this commitment down, stick to it, and check it off as you go. This system forces you to keep track of your time, restricts the goal from taking over your life, yet allows you to reap an immediate reward from putting in time and effort.

Simply taking some first small steps in your regular time allotment for the goal will help you get a better gauge on what challenges lie ahead, how much time they will take to overcome and what other resources you may need. Once you get a feeling for this, take a moment to write down accurately what criteria need to be met for you to consider your goal reached. This has the important dual function to provide both a relative sense of progress and absolute closure.

It is only after this that the divide and conquer approach comes in. However, instead of breaking up big goals into smaller ones top-down, I recommend doing this bottom-up. Just plan out the next two or three things you need to do, place it in the bigger picture of your goal, and resist the urge to make a complete plan.

For example: if you want to write a book, commit to writing a smaller part. This could be as little as a half page outline, or as much as a draft chapter. It is important to define this chunk in a way that you feel you can complete within a reasonable amount of time. After completing this you will have a clearer idea about follow-up steps.

Baby Steps to Giant Leaps

If you are just starting out with something, a new project, it is often best to start small: an initial milestone that you can complete in one or two weeks. This first milestone has the important purpose to get you started: to break through any inertia, and move you one step closer to your goal.

As you put in more time, it also becomes more important to review the completion criteria for your goal and plan the next tasks in alignment with it, or even to alter your definition of done. Having a larger overall plan becomes more important only as your project steadily progresses: as you move closer towards your goal. If you are not yet comfortable with large goals that span months to complete: start with smaller, less ambitious goals. Completing smaller goals will move you forward and provides the foundation for tackling larger goals later on.

Thinking about your goals in terms of days, weeks or months, is macro planning. This is what we have just discussed. It is mostly concerned with filling in the bigger picture in manageable steps as you go. Managing your time during the day is micro planning, and we will get to that next, but not before we define deep and shallow work.

Deep versus Shallow

The Distracted Mind

I had a co-worker once who was continuously distracted by anything that required attention ‘now’. He could not prioritize his tasks and ended up constantly ‘putting out fires’. This person was convinced he could multi-task effectively. In meetings he would often work on his laptop, be in an unrelated phone call simultaneously, while also half participating in the discussion. Had he taken the effort to just add some structure and prioritize his tasks, his productivity would have soared. Instead he was now taking a day to produce less than half a day of effective output.

People who multi-task exclusively perform shallow tasks. These tasks are not cognitively demanding and commonly logistic in nature, for example: responding to e-mails, setting up meetings, and making phone calls. However, when we regard larger goals, such shallow tasks constitute only a very small portion of what needs to be done. Instead these goals require large amounts of deep work: tasks performed in a distraction-free state of concentration that requires significant cognitive effort. For example: writing an article, practicing an instrument, or solving a complex puzzle.

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship.Cal Newport
Single-Tasking

Performing shallow tasks does not actually move you much towards your goal. Doing them exclusively is a form of structured procrastination. They tempt us, because they easily combine with other shallow tasks and offer us a quick and easy reward: a ‘sweet marshmallow’. These temptations surround us daily. The consumption of social media, entertainment and news combines easily with performing other shallow tasks, while still providing a false sense of progress. The pull towards a multi-tasking lifestyle is understandable.

If you are used to such a lifestyle, the only way to really advance towards your goals is to part ways with it. I know, this is not easy to do, it will take some time, and you will experience withdrawal symptoms. I would not ask you to do this unless the benefits were significant.

Your goal is to become a serial single-tasker: someone who picks up one task at a time, gives it their full attention, and only then switches to the next task. To lose the multi-tasking habit, a good first step is to stop filling every moment of boredom with a shallow task, like habitually checking your phone for e-mails or messages. Instead learn to schedule activities like internet, e-mail and messaging. You need to start training your mind to prefer working on deep tasks over shallow ones.

A large part of this journey is unlearning habits that you have adopted that do not serve you well in terms of reaching your goals. We have to replace those habits with ones that will help you on a day-to-day basis: micro planning.

Micro Planning

Big Brother

If you are not yet actively planning your day, someone else most certainly is, and that someone may not have your best interest at heart. Many of us consume news, social media and entertainment on a daily basis. None of these things is bad in its own right, indeed they can be very useful. However, most people turn to these as ingrained habit, instead of as a conscious choice. These technologies are not neutral and engineered to foster such habit forming, playing into our desires and insecurities, usually with the end goal of monetization. This learned habitual behaviour interferes with our capacity to work on our own meaningful long-term goals, trading it for goals that are not our own, not in alignment with our interests, and even psychologically harmful. Fortunately, we can change our habits.

The List

Realize that the only real moment under your control is in fact the next moment in your life. It is there that you want to limit your choices beforehand, so you effectively steer yourself to work on tasks beneficial to your long-term goals. To this end, a useful habit to adopt is simply making a list of tasks to do for tomorrow at the end of the present day. Commit to actually writing this list down at the end of a day, and looking at it regularly throughout the next day, especially when you are at a loss as to what to do. View this as a small contract between your past and present self. Stick to the contract and you will learn to trust yourself.

Check off things you have completed on the list as you go through your day. Feel free to swap things around in your list if the day unfolds differently. Planning is in fact all about seeking flexibility within boundaries you set for yourself beforehand. There should be room for spontaneity.

The list approach provides three important things. Firstly, a flexible order in which you can do things, which avoids an imposed feeling. Secondly, a limitation on the number of choices you can make, which prevents choice paralysis. Thirdly, a tracking and reward system, which enables you to reflect on your day positively.

Expanding the List

A single daily list may not do as you pick up a more diverse range of tasks. Indeed, you may need an inbox with tasks to be sorted and a backlog with sorted tasks prioritized. Essentially though, these are all also lists. They hook into your overall planning process at a different point. These tasks too will eventually end up on a daily checklist, which continuously forms your central point of control.

As your planning process evolves, you may need to expand into creating a list for each day of the week. Whatever tools and setup you choose, make sure it meets these requirements: you should be able to,

  1. easily set and see what you should do next;
  2. see all the things you have already done;
  3. prioritize tasks that still need to be done;
  4. set deadlines on tasks (if applicable).
Organize, Track and Reflect

While a task list gives you an order in which to do things, it is not the best place to capture all the information regarding a task. For that you need to use something different. Ideally for each thing you are working on you maintain a separate ‘drawer’ of information. This can simply be a page in a notebook, a set of sticky notes, or an on-line alternative like Trello. Whatever you choose: it should be easy to access that information if you need to continue working on the task.

Estimating and tracking is important, as it the only way in which you can learn to estimate better and plan more realistically. For each task that takes more than a couple of hours, I suggest roughly estimating the total time you think you will need for it and tracking the time you put into it. Prevent getting caught up in details: do not plan or track more precisely than a quarter of an hour. The first couple of times you will be way off. This is fine, and also the point of doing it: to get better at planning.

Tracking time only is not enough. At the end of the week, gather all your daily lists, review them, and write some paragraphs about what went well this week and what can be improved for the next week in a journal. There is no need for deep analysis, keep things short and to the point, so reading it back later will be easier. This too will help you improve your planning process, which in turn helps you complete your goals more quickly and efficiently. Besides points of improvements, remember to actually write about and celebrate your successes.

A Word on Calendars

I have steered clear so far of calendars. While calendars are a good choice for scheduling meetings and appointments with others,  they are a rather poor substitute for planning your day. The reasons for this are simple. Firstly, if you plan your day ahead in your calendar in great detail, your plan is likely already outdated when you start. Priorities change, and tasks shuffle. A plan is dynamic and a calendar is generally too static to capture this well without it turning into micro-management. Secondly, planning in a calendar evokes more anxiety than necessary. If you blocked from ten to twelve to work on that hard math chapter, it may feel like you already failed when you start ten minutes late. A list allows you to plan the order of your day without imposing a strict time schedule.

Moment-to-moment

Now that we structured your day, set-up a filing system and a way to continuously improve your planning process by tracking and reflecting, it is time to bite the bullet: allocating actual time to tasks.

Firstly, I would like to encourage you to schedule an end time for each day: after this time you should stop working on the tasks on your list. The end time can vary each day, but it is important to decide on it beforehand. Secondly, realize your objective is not to cram as many hours in a day as possible. Instead, the objective is to be as productive as possible during a limited number of hours. Realistically, you may be able to work in a deep state for about six hours on an average day. Inevitably, unavoidable shallow tasks and required breaks will consume the rest of the time.

Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the dayMark Twain

Starting with a deep task takes willpower. We usually start the day fresh, hence it is one of the best points in the day to utilize willpower. A good habit is to start on your toughest task as the first thing in your day, also called “eating the frog”. Follow this by easier tasks. Doing this beats doing it the other way around as that leads to postponing the hard stuff: procrastination.

Starting on any task can be challenging. However, having started, you may find it is not so bad after all. The trick then is to get started, to get over the initial speed bump, the initial reluctance. The more often you manage to actually do this, the easier it will get.

Tick-Tock

Get yourself over the bump by committing a limited fixed amount of time to the task: set a countdown timer and start working. This may seem strange, as an alarm guarantees a future interruption. While this is true, setting a timer also creates a choice-point for you in that near future: do I want to continue with this task, or move on to something else? The bounded time investment and the guarantee of an upcoming choice-point makes this approach powerful.

A commonly used starting point is to set a timer for twenty-five minutes, work in a focused state, and after that take a five minute break. During this break it is best to do something physical, such as getting a cup of tea, doing some stretches or taking a brisk walk. This countdown based approach is called the Pomodori Technique, named after the tomato-shaped timers that are often found in kitchens.

As you apply this method more often, experiment with different intervals instead of sticking to the fixed duration of twenty-five minutes. For example: sixty or even ninety minutes, followed by a longer break. The best interval depends on the task at hand. If you get into a state of flow, consider even disabling the timer. The most important function of the timer is to help you get started, and only to a lesser extent to stop you at some point in the future.

Getting Unstuck

What do you do when you get stuck? Do you try harder or give up entirely? Realize that neither approach is right, instead: stop temporarily. This can be a short as a five minute break, or as long as several days. During a short break do something physical which does not tax your brain, for longer stretches of time: simply work on other things. You should get back to the problem at a later time. This approach works remarkably well because it allows your subconscious to work on the problem in the background, while you do other things: diffuse-mode thinking.

Diffuse-mode thinking is what happens when you relax your attention and just let your mind wander. This relaxation can allow different areas of the brain to hook up and return valuable insights.Barbera Oakley
Habitual Tasks

Not all goals require equal attention all the time, some of them require daily dedication, others weekly and some only short stretches of very intensive work. I will refer to tasks that require some form of continuous attention as habitual and those that require short stretches as focused.

If you are learning an instrument you will have to attend to this daily. Pick a fixed moment in your daily schedule for this. For example: playing the instrument after you have breakfast. The goal is to develop a habit, to get into a routine: a system that takes away the cognitive load of having to make a choice. The time you spend need not be long. Half an hour a day translates into almost two whole working days a month. Picking an approach, and sticking to it consistently for at least thirty days, not breaking the chain, will automate the decision process.

This habitual approach works well for learning and producing things. Regularity is the key for progressing towards such goals. Consider that if you wake up every morning and write for thirty minutes before doing anything else, that may not amount to much in several days, but keep it up for a year and you will have put in a good hundred-eighty hours: more than four full-time workweeks.

Immersive Tasks

For projects that require a spurt of activity to complete: dedicate most of your time to them for a set period. Immerse yourself in them from several days up to one or two weeks. This can help put some pressure on finishing the task, instead of letting it endlessly drag on. That said: work on projects in an early phase is often best interleaved with work on other projects. This interleaving allows the early phase projects to incubate, giving you the time to learn the best way to progress on them. You can use this knowledge later on for that period of exclusive immersion.

Over time some goals may become more important. Other goals recede to the background, only to return to the forefront of your attention after a while. This is normal, and progress on projects that require longer immersive time often proceeds in waves. This in fine, as long as you do not stall completely. Try to always keep working on things a bit with some regularity. This way you leverage your unconscious processes to eventually produce better quality output.

Conclusion

Planning is personal. The approach you take should avoid overplanning and underplanning and work for you. Gradually enhance your planning process by integrating the ideas, principles and approaches presented in this article and other resources you find. This will take time and effort, but it is worth it. Moving towards your own goals, and learning to enjoy that journey more so than actually reaching the goal itself, is what planning should enable.

You know about the importance of committing regular time to your goals, taking small steps initially and constructing a larger plan with clear completion criteria as you go. You learned about the difference between shallow non-cognitively demanding tasks and deep distraction-free work. Becoming a serial single-tasker is your next challenge. You became aware that when you are not planning your day, someone else with different goals is, and that the anti-dote to this is a list-based planning approach, not a calendar. You realize a list is not enough, and that you need to track and reflect on the time you spent. Upon getting stuck you know you need to walk away temporarily. You also know how to properly allocate time by using countdown clocks, foster habit forming for long-term goals and immersive yourself in tasks nearing completion.

Let me end with a challenge to get you started: dedicate the next half hour to one of your dreams. Something that you have been thinking about picking up for a long time, but never actually seem to get to. Visualize it, hear it, feel it. After the half hour is over, either keep going if you are in flow, or plan the next moment you are going to get back to it. Now: just set a timer, think of the first step, and go!

Sources:

  1. Allen, D. (2002) Getting Things Done.
  2. Harris, T. (2014) Why Design Needs Ethics.
  3. Newport, C. (2016) Deep Work.
  4. Oakley, B. (2017) Mind Shift.
  5. Oakley, B. (2014) A Mind for Numbers.
  6. Schwartz, B. (2005) The Paradox of Choice.
  7. Tracy, B. (2007) Eat That Frog.

Goals II: Motivation

Everyone has dreams about what they want to do in the future. Write a novel, learn a new language or make a trip around the world. Yet it can be hard to motivate yourself to work on realizing these dreams on a consistent basis. How can we align our daily activities with our long term goals? I address this question with a three part series on goals. In this second part we look at one of the key challenges for mid- to long term projects: motivation.

During my teenage years I worked in a bakery during weekends. This required getting up early and performing physically intensive work. After a while I did many of the tasks on autopilot. However, there was little to look forward to, other than doing the same things again next week. After a day’s work I always went home exhausted: physically and mentally. While the people I worked with were friendly, I had some income and I felt I was doing something useful, the job did not intrinsically motivate me. It had low value for me. Hence, it did not take long for me to quit and move on to other things.

Making dinner, going to the toilet or taking a nap. All of these things come naturally as your body generally tells you when to do so with hard to ignore signals. However, for higher level goals these signals do not exists, except perhaps a gnawing sense of unease. Hence the need to learn to motivate yourself to actively move towards those goals. In order for this to work you need to adopt a motivation system that applies specifically to you. The key is finding out what drives you and aligning that with your goals. Consider that while my work in the bakery aligned with the goal of getting income, it did not align well with my preference for learning.

Drive

What drives us? Throughout history simple reward and punishment systems have been used to ‘motivate’ people. In many societies, wealth and status form the main scales on which these extrinsic rewards and punishments are applied. If you perform well at work you get a raise: a reward. However, if you do not, your salary remains the same: punishment. This ‘carrot and stick’ approach may work to a degree for some specific tasks, but it seems rather primitive. At best it can get people to comply, at worst it produces bitterness and resentment. It may win their minds, but definitely not their hearts. Can we do better?

An alternative is thinking of motivation as something intrinsic. The three main ingredients of intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Firstly, autonomy: self-directed people perform better. Think back to when you were told to do something versus when you were given a goal combined with the freedom to find your own way to achieve it. That second approach likely felt better. Secondly, the path to mastery: sharpening your skills, learning new things and eventually mastering something. The most recent skill you mastered may have taken a lot of effort, but when you finally did, you likely felt a lot of satisfaction too. Finally: a higher level purpose. This should be something that extends beyond yourself and your own interests. Remember the last time you did something for someone else, or for a higher cause, and how that made you feel? Doing something you believe in is very powerful.

As an example: say that you want to learn an instrument. You need autonomy. So, first you dabble in it, then you take regular lessons with a teacher that clicks with your learning style and gives you the opportunity to bring your own selected music. You improve as you put in regular time, the constant feedback loop with your teacher helps you progress towards mastery.  Finally, you may want to play that special song for your family or friends, or even play in public to brighten other people’s day: a higher-level purpose.

Procrastination

Even with the right drive, it can be hard to stay focused on our goals. We want to do other things as well, and rightly so. Leisure time, which can involve all kinds of different activities, is no less important than working towards goals. However, many people do not consciously make a choice for leisure time, instead their attention drifts away from something they really did want to work on. This guilt-ridden dark zone is the worst place to spend any time. It is not really leisure time at all, it is putting other things off: it is procrastination. This is more or less the opposite of motivation, but the cause and solution is more complex than one might think at first. Let us dive deeper into the causes of procrastination.

Delay

Think back to your childhood. You sit in a room in front of a large white table on a small yellow chair. On that chair is the only thing in the room with you: a sweet pink marshmallow. If you manage not to touch that marshmallow for the next fifteen minutes you will be greatly rewarded with: two marshmallows. What do you do?

This experiment was done with children in the late sixties and has been repeated many times since. The objective: to find out a person’s capacity for delayed gratification. Some children found very creative ways to tackle this problem. For example: taking the marshmallow, scooping out the inside with one finger, and putting it back as if nothing had happened. Nevertheless, a key finding was that the children that managed to delay their gratification were more successful later in life. They had better test scores, better jobs and better health.

You can train your ability to delay gratification. However, at the heart of beating procrastination is aligning rewards with your current ability to cope with delayed gratification. If you require frequent rewards: divide tasks into chunks small enough to get those frequent rewards. If you can deal with less frequent rewards you will likely be able to handle larger chunks.

Expectations

If you ever applied for a job, you know how hard it can be. Applying to dozens of jobs, only to be rejected. The first time they found someone better suited, the second time you were just too late, the third time they did not even bother to give a reason for the rejection. The more applications you sent in, the lower you believed your chances were. You might have ended up being downright pessimistic. Expecting nothing in return for the effort you put in. This downwards spiral is one of the reasons people procrastinate: low expectations.

Low expectations means believing that you no longer expect any effort on your part will lead to success. The trick here is to change what success is: the reward. Our natural tendency would be to say the reward is getting that job you want. However, this reward is very unpredictable and for a large part also beyond our own control. It does not make much sense to criticize yourself for something that you do not control, does it? In this example the reward should shift to the investment of effort and time. Each letter you send is a success, or even better: each minute put into the job hunt is a success. Instead of your rewarded feeling depending on something beyond your control, now the reward is tied to something that is within your control.

When your expectations are low: divide the task into small chunks of time and actually reward yourself for completing each chunk. Rewards are personal and should be tailored to you, something you enjoy: playing a video game, going outside for a walk or calling a friend for a chat. Rewarding yourself consistently for any effort you put in gets you into a positive feedback spiral, which lifts you out of your low expectations.

Value

You really needed to work on that project proposal. However, since you did not like working on it, you instead ended up surfing the web until it was late at night. You felt bad about it, but had no choice but to go to sleep. The next day you repeated the same routine, until the day came when the deadline was tomorrow and you had to clear your schedule and work on it all day long, to deliver only a mediocre end result. This is a second reason people procrastinate: low value.

When a task is of low value, you do not like the activity itself. We all put off what we dislike. For this case rewards can also help. However, as a first action you should increase the task’s value. One way would be to make it more meaningful for yourself: perhaps the project proposal can be aligned with a personal goal that you feel passionate about. If writing the proposal is too easy: make it harder, and if it is too hard: make it easier. For accountability: tell a friend that you are working on it, and by when you will have completed it to create some peer pressure.

When the value of a task is low, align it with something you feel passionate about, adjust the difficulty so it is challenging but doable and use external accountability. This will make the task more intrinsically rewarding, increasing its value.

Impulsiveness

You decided to book a tour through a foreign country. Since you like to be on top of things you booked your flight six months in advance. Plenty of things still needed to be arranged, like a plan for the tour itself, places to stay and tickets to major attractions. However, you would get to that later, or so you thought. As your holiday approached, work, social media and other responsibilities distracted you. You kept putting off finalizing your holiday plans. Weeks later, as you packed your bags you realized there was no plan. Arriving at the airport you had to pay an extra fee for your checked luggage, finding a half decent hotel room took hours, and all the major sights you wanted to see were fully booked for the duration of your stay. This is the final main way in which people procrastinate: impulsiveness.

Impulsiveness is the process of being continually distracted by ‘other’ things. The problem is that these other things are either things that you do not initiate: the doorbell rings, your phone beeps or someone steps into your office; or they are unconscious consumption-based habits: checking your e-mail, reading social media or watching news. The more you are interrupted or fall back to unproductive habits, the less likely you are to get into a flow state that helps you move towards your goals.

To curtail impulsiveness one obvious way is to eliminate the distraction. You can disable your door alarm, turn of your telephone or go out of office to a place where you can not be disturbed. Disabling notifications for e-mail, social media and news can help a great deal. If you are still tempted: indulge, but set a timer for five to fifteen minutes tops, then get back to your task.

Conclusion

To help you reach your goals it is essential to stay motivated. Motivated, that is, to work consistently towards your goal. For this you will need to set up a motivation system that is tailored to you. It should provide a high degree of freedom on how to approach the next step towards your goal, a sense of increasing accomplishment as you take each step and ideally a higher-level purpose. As goals differ widely, so do systems: each goal may require its own specific system.

Even with systems in place, there will be the tendency to procrastinate for various reasons: you do not think you can do it (low expectations), you do not have the patience to wait for the reward (low delay tolerance), you do not like the task (low value) or you get distracted (impulsiveness). Keep your expectations positive by rewarding yourself for putting in effort that is under your control. Divide your tasks into chunks of time that are small enough to align well with the reward frequency that best fits your current ability to delay gratification. Increase the value of the task by making it challenging enough for your current capability, making it about something you care about and letting others know you are committed to it. Finally, decrease your impulsiveness by eliminating distractions and indulging into temptations only for a short time.

Everyone struggles with motivation. Setting up a reward system helps you move towards the next step. Noticing that you are procrastinating and consistently dealing with it helps you stay on course to reach your goals. Consciously choosing when to engage in leisure activities will make you actually enjoy them. With some forethought, everyone, including you, can stay motivated.

Sources:

  1. Pink, D. H. (2009) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.
  2. Steel, P. (2010) The Procrastination Equation
  3. Vermeer, A. (2012) Get Motivated
  4. Muehlhauser, L. (2011) How to Beat Procrastination
  5. Clear, J. (2014) Delayed Gratification

Goals I: Beliefs

Everyone has dreams about what they want to do in the future. Write a novel, learn a new language or make a trip around the world. Yet somehow the things we do day-to-day are strangely at odds with these dreams. We seem to do many other things, but we never really get to those things we say we really care about. We run faster and faster, but stay more and more in the same place. How can we turn this around? How can we align our daily activities with our long term goals? I address this question with a three part series on goals. In this first part we look at the foundation for achieving goals: beliefs.

Everything starts with the beliefs that you hold about what you can and cannot do. I once met a highly skilled telecommunications engineer. We both attended a presentation seminar and were very impressed by the speakers there. He was especially in awe of the way they told their stories. He told me that he did not have any stories to tell, and even if he had, he would not know how to deliver them to an audience in a captivating way. The more he talked about not being able to do this, the more concerned I grew. Despite having mastered complex signal processing mathematics, he seemed to be unable to grasp the fact that presentation skills too can be split into manageable chunks that can be learned. After convincing him that he could indeed learn these skills, he went on to give some great presentations. Indeed, they were as good as those we saw that very day. Simply changing his belief also changed his behavior and the resulting real world outcome.

Changing a belief is not easy to do, as these run deeply into insecurities about ourselves and our own identity. We often adopt the beliefs we are exposed to during our upbringing, which tends to be a mixed bag for most. Nevertheless, several beliefs are helpful to adopt right now.

We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.Randy Pausch

1. Start from and with what you have

If you marvel at people with beneficial traits: those good at sports because of their physical features, those proficient at learning because of their intelligence, those skilled at arts because of their creativity, do so because of their accomplishments. That is: how they – learned to – play their cards, not because of what they ‘are’: the cards they were dealt. Talent in the conventional sense is a myth. High performance is the result of practice. A good way to think of this is that you can achieve anything anyone else can, even if your journey may be longer or shorter. It may also include sacrifices you are not willing to make. Factoring this in is fine: working towards goals based on the cards you have is a good thing, making excuses for not working towards goals because of the cards you do not have is not. Instead of thinking in terms of limitations, think in terms of your possibilities.

2. Compare yourself only with your past self

A common habit we fall victim to is comparing our own performance to others, be it our family, friends or accomplished professionals. However, in doing so we usually look at the current skills of the person we are comparing ourselves to, disregarding the journey they needed to get there. A better approach is comparing your own performance now to your own performance in the past. If you have put in effort and are seeing progress: you are on the right track, and in the end: that really is all that matters. That said, while comparing is harmful to progress, being inspired by someone can be a powerful motivator. So, draw inspiration from others, but avoid making comparisons.

3. Foster a strong sense of curiosity

The Internet contains an almost infinite source of materials and methods to learn virtually anything. Given this it is a bit surprising that not everyone is continuously trying to actively learn new things. Curiosity is a good motivation for learning. However, it turns out that the feelings of insecurity, that each of us have, interfere with this. Feeling inadequate stops curiosity dead in its tracks. Children learn quickly because they are less afraid, less worried about failing, and still have this innate curiosity that everyone is born with. Dampening your insecurity and fostering your own curiosity is paramount.

4. Accept the fact that you really can develop yourself

In the past, people used to work in the same job, at the same place, performing the same tasks for many years. The dominant mindset was that you learned at school, and then put your skills to use at work. That is all there was. Scientists found that people’s improvement tapered off and plateaued, and reasoned that this indicated some sort of learning limit. However, this has since been found to be incorrect. Everyone can improve by refining and growing skills, but it requires conscious effort to do so. The rate and direction of growth are under your control. It may take a nudge, like for the telecommunications engineer mentioned previously. However, once you see the possibilities, you can develop yourself far beyond any current beliefs that may hold you back.

5. Do not be too hard on yourself

Learning does not progress as a straight upward line over time. It is rather a bumpy road dominated by regression and plateaus. This is entirely normal. Sometimes there will be clear progress, other times there won’t be any to speak of or even a slight regression. However, from a broader point of view: the more you zoom out, the more you see that your progress really does have an upward direction. Nevertheless, we are not naturally good at looking at things from this perspective. Failing is as much part of progress as is success. People are easily critical of their own lack of short-term progress. Having a clear purpose and meaning behind what you are trying to achieve can help with this. It is good to have ambitious, but realistic, goals. However, it is even more important to reward yourself for putting in the time that eventually enables you to progress towards these goals. Learning to enjoy the process itself and rewarding yourself for even the tiniest amount of effort you put in, is more important than eventually reaching the goal.

Conclusion

There is probably something that you have been putting off. Something that you want to do, but never really seem to get to. Perhaps you do not believe you can do it. Instead of confirming this belief: challenge it. Accept where you are right now, start working from where you are. Realize that you can develop yourself and be curious about the world around you. Take tiny steps and rewards yourself for each of these steps and compare your progress only to the progress you made the day before. Accept your failures, celebrate your successes. Realize that changing what you believe you can do is the first step into changing what you actually can do.

Sources:

  1. Colvin, G. (2008) Talent is Overrated.
  2. Flora, C. (2016) The Golden Age of Teaching Yourself Anything.
  3. Foer, J. (2011) Moonwalking with Einstein.
  4. Pausch, R. (2008) The Last Lecture.
  5. Pink, D. H. (2009) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

Breaking Free: How to Rewire your Brain

You have probably seen this all around you: people immersed in their phones, tablets and laptops. We spend a lot of time on-line. On the one hand the Internet offers a wealth of conveniences: information, entertainment and social contact are all literally under our fingertips. On the other hand, it disconnects us from the moment, our long-term plans and distant dreams. When was the last time you looked out a window and day dreamed away? When was the last time you worked on that one skill that required dedicated repeated effort? When was the last time you were on Facebook? Take a moment to ponder these questions.

Books have been around for a long time and have this same quality of immersing us in a different reality: the world created by the author. We all have the experience of being drawn into the elaborate worlds constructed by Tolkien, Rowling or Herbert. Yet, when you take out your mobile phone when you experience even a second of boredom it feels different. Instead of a deliberate choice it seems more like an itch that we need to scratch. Are we really choosing to visit that news site, to play that mobile game or to browse Twitter?

The reality is that many of these sites and apps are designed to keep you coming back. Designed, not as in ‘how they look’, but as in ‘what they do to your brain’. I do not mean returning to these sites as a deliberate choice, but as an addiction. We all feel it: the way we spend our time has changed profoundly in the last decade. We know something happened, but what actually happened and how does it work? There is actually a method to this and it consists of four steps.

Have you noticed what happens if you do not use Facebook for a while? You get an e-mail telling you that ‘your friends miss you’. It requests that you ‘please come back’. This is the first step: to trigger you. What do you do when you get that – obviously automated – e-mail? You take the second step: an action. You login to Facebook to catch up with what you have been ‘missing’. You read the posts on your news feed, you ‘like’ what others posted, you write comments, et cetera. For all this hard work you need something to keep going: the crucial third step is the reward.

To learn a bit more about rewards we have to go all the way back to the late fifties when researchers experimented with something called operant conditioning. They put pigeons in a cage with a small disc they could peck. Doing so would result in some food being dispensed. This way the pigeons learned that pecking the disc would result in something to eat. The researchers tried to find the most effective way to keep this learned behaviour in place. They found an approach that combines fast learning and ensures the behaviour sticks for the longest amount of time: the variable reward. Sometimes pecking the disc would dispense food and sometimes it would not. The pattern would not be predictable. In this variable case the pigeons quickly learned the pecking behaviour and kept going on with it for the longest amount of time compared to other approaches. A four minute look at this experiment and its implications:

Rewards come in three flavours. Firstly, the reward of the tribe: social rewards. Does it make you feel good when someone likes or comments on something you post on Facebook? That is the social reward in action. Secondly, there is the reward of the hunt. The best example of this is the feed. Consider that all social media offer some type of feed, usually arranged as a list of items. Not all of these items are equally interesting to you, some of them more so than others. It is this variation in relevance that makes the feed so successful. Why? Because you have to sift through the feed which gives you a variable reward. Already feel like a pigeon? This ‘list’ with items of variable reward is found in many successful Internet services like e-mail, news sites and search engines. Thirdly, we have the reward of the self: when you learn and master something, like when you play a video game. A four minute video further explaining reward types:

The reward is followed by the final step: the investment. This is when you fill out your profile, you post your own content, reply to comments, et cetera. The investment is what makes you want to come back: you put effort, and therefore value, into the service that you are using. This gives you a reason to come back. In fact, if you go through all of the four habit-loop steps repeatedly: trigger, action, reward and investment; you no longer need an external trigger. There is no need to show you a notification on your phone, or to send you an e-mail. Your trigger has been internalized. The habit-loop now starts with the internal trigger which is usually, but not always, tied to some negative emotion, such as: loneliness, boredom or ineptitude. When you feel these emotions you take your phone out of your pocket and open up Facebook, you go on-line to watch YouTube videos on your tablet, or play Bejeweled on your laptop.

About half the time you spend each day is on the habitual auto pilot. If you had to spend every moment consciously deciding what you should do from moment to moment you would probably turn mad. Hence, habits are highly efficient and not necessarily a bad thing. How useful they are depends on whether they align with your goals. Many people have a bucket list: a lists of things they want to do or achieve in their lives. Very few people have ‘posting ten thousand comments on Facebook’ as a high priority on that list, if at all. Yet, their habits lead them to work everyday on exactly that instead of other things high on their list.

Is there a way to change this? Can we do better? Can we rewire ourselves to work on those things we have high on our bucket list, things that are meaningful to us in the long run? Yes, we can. How? Start with identifying what triggers you. Maybe you feel lonely and therefore visit Facebook to get a social reward. Great, we now know that loneliness is your trigger. So, what if instead you call or visit a friend? This also gives you a social reward. This insight is key: identify your trigger, change your action, but keep the type of reward the same.

Another example: imagine that you are feeling bored, you whip out your mobile phone and play some game. Leveling up in the game gives you a reward of the self in the form of mastering the game. What if instead of taking out your phone, you picked up an instrument and starting learning a small part of a piece of music? Apply the same process: identify the trigger: boredom, replace it by a different action: playing the instrument, and get the same type of reward: mastery.

I am not saying that on-line resources like social networks, games and news sites do not have value or should be avoided at all costs, on the contrary: browsing social networks can be great at keeping you up-to-date concerning friends, co-workers and family; posting on such networks can be useful and lead to new insights – like I hope this post will do for you; playing games can be a fulfilling and relaxing pastime that takes your mind off the chores of daily life; reading articles on news sites is a great way to keep your knowledge fresh. However, it seems that few people have mastered the important skill of engaging in these more superficial activities in moderation.

Most of these activities, nice as they are to give us immediate satisfaction in the moment, do not give a deep sense of lasting fulfillment. That is usually because they do not require great skill or effort. The result is a negative emotion, like boredom, and moving on to something else that gives us the instant satisfaction we crave. In conclusion: working on long term goals requires planning, effort and dedication, but also brings fulfillment, meaning and happiness. It seems like a better idea to make working on those things the habits, and making superficial activities the exception.

If you want to get started, there are only three simple steps you need to follow. Firstly, take a moment to identify the habit that you feel makes you lose the most time. Secondly, think of the one thing that you always wanted to do or learn. Thirdly, rewire your habit-loop into working on that one thing. Remember: keep your trigger and reward the same, but change your action. Keep your new habitual routine in place, track your progress and notice the change over time.

Sources:

  1. Eyal, N. (2013). Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.
  2. Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change.
  3. McLead, S. Skinner: Operant Conditioning.
  4. Goldman, J. What Is Operant Conditioning?

Passwords and Security

After a long journey he was nearly there. In the distance there was the outline of the city wall. Moments later he approached the city gate.
“Halt!”, shouted a heavily armed guard.
He had grown used to this ritual, so he went through the motions.
“What is the pass word?”, the guard asked.
He spoke the phrase he had memorized. The guard nodded, lowered his hands from his weapon, and stepped aside to allow him entry.

The above is how I imagine passwords came into common usage long ago. Passwords are not very practical in the above scenario, which is probably why we now have passports: literally a document to pass through some port, such as a city gate or a border. Checks at the border can also be done using fingerprints. If the guard would take fingerprints and quickly compare them to a set of known prints, he could determine whether to let you pass based on a matching print.

Consider what these three things fundamentally represent:

  1. A password is something that you know, you need to memorize it.
  2. A passport is something that you have, you need to take it with you.
  3. A fingerprint is something that you are, you always have it with you.

Most security systems combine at least two of these three factors:

Access to your bank transactions requires two things. Firstly, your debit card: something that you have. Secondly, your Personal Identification Number (PIN): something that you know. Entering a modern house also requires two things: the keys to your door and the access code to disable the alarm, which again combines something that you have with something that you know. Finally, entering a foreign country may even combine all three ingredients: a border guard may ask why you are entering the country and where you will be staying, he will ask for your passport and may scan your fingerprints.

Where am I going with this? Good security systems combine at least two of the three factors above. Think about how you access all your on-line accounts like Google, Facebook and LinkedIn. Do you use a password? Is that the only thing that you use to gain access? The answer to that is likely yes, and that is not a good thing.

Of all the three fundamental ingredients above, the password: something you memorize, is likely also the easiest to bypass. Not so much because of technical issues, although those do occur, but because of completely understandable human limitations.

The problem with passwords is that a complex password is hard to remember, and a simple password is easy to guess. Most people err on the side of making their passwords too simple. Why are such passwords easily too weak? For that we have to do some calculations.

Let us assume that you pick a single number between 1 and 10 as password. Let me think: you likely picked either a seven or a three, am I right? Even if I am not, people prefer some numbers over others, and that is exactly the root of the problem. Consider that with a single digit password I would need to guess only ten times and then I would certainly be right. If I can make my guesses a bit smarter – starting with the digits that are more often chosen – I may be able to guess ninety percent of the single digit passwords with only five tries.

Obviously we need something a little longer, a four digit password would have 10^4 = 10000 possible combinations, which is already much harder to guess. This is in fact the search space of the famous PIN codes. Some banks allow their customers to choose their own four digit code, which is a bad idea. Four digits are, from a memorization point of view, ideal for representing a birth date, or some other significant date. Consider that many such dates either start with 19 or 20 and we are left with only two numbers we need to guess: 10^2 = 100 is a much smaller space of possibilities.

Digits are often not the only parts of a password, letters are often allowed. This seems sound, since adding twenty-six letters gives us an additional fifty-two possibilities, letters can be either lower or uppercase, yielding us (10+52)^4 = 14776336 possible passwords of length four. If we add in special characters this number grows even larger.

Adding extra symbols (digits, letters, other characters) to the possible password range may seem like a good idea. However, just as we saw with numbers: if the patterns are predictable they are easy to guess. Consider that if we make a word of two characters in English there are a limited number of actually valid words: ‘of’, ‘it’ and ‘to’ are all valid. In contrast ‘tj’, ‘gh’ and ‘lq’ are not valid words. Sequences of letters that are not words are difficult to remember. Hence, people rarely use them. This leads to predicable passwords that consist usually of nouns combined with predictable number sequences: ‘Ghost2012’, ‘lipgloss’ and even ‘password’.

Indeed the top five passwords are: ‘123456’, ‘password’, ‘12345’, ‘12345678’ and ‘qwerty’. Fortunately few people actually use these passwords. If you were to guess someone’s password using one of these top ten most popular passwords, you would succeed in about sixteen in one thousand tries. Which, while not spectacular, is still ridiculously high.

A thousand tries may seem like a lot, and it is if you would have to type all those passwords yourself. However, this can be automated quite easily. Trying all possible passwords is called ‘brute-forcing’. A modern computer can easily do this at a rate of five-thousand per second. Using some statistical insights, such as those mentioned above, this process can be made highly effective. In fact most passwords under ten characters can be easily broken in several hours using off-the-shelf computer hardware.

I hope it is clear by now that using only a password that you can memorize to secure your on-line accounts is a bad idea. So, how can we improve this?

There are at least two things that you can quite easily do with respect to passwords alone:

  1. Generate passwords, instead of making them up yourself. No offense, but: a randomly generated password by a computer is most certainly better than something that you can think of.
  2. Use long passwords, as we have seen the length of a password is a means to easily increase the difficulty of guessing it. A minimal passwords consists of ten characters, but as computing power increases, this may rapidly become too short. A password of twelve characters is a more realistic minimum nowadays, and sixteen to thirty-two characters is a safe range.
  3. Use a different password for each service that you use. This way, when one account is breached, you do not get a domino effect.

Using a very long password, is one of the few exceptions where you could suffice with choosing your own. Consider that a long sentence as password is quite hard to guess: there are so many possible sentences! Even though a completely random password of the same length is harder to guess, this matters less if the password is sufficiently long.

If you are not into the long passwords, then the best solution is using a password manager of some sort. Keepass and Lastpass are popular solutions that are easy to use. There are two caveats to these services:

  1. They usually use one strong ‘master’ password, which gives access to all the site-specific passwords. This is a single-point of failure is some sense, and can also lead to a domino effect, but this is not a major problem if you have a sufficiently strong master password combined with two-factor authentication: more on that later.
  2. Some of these services may store your passwords ‘in the cloud’ in encrypted form. Understandably not everyone is okay with that. Fortunately, there are also variants which store your passwords locally on your own machine.

In a sense using a password manager in some way may feel like ‘writing down your password on a piece of paper’. This is true, but a strong password written down on a piece of paper that you keep in a safe place, is much better than a weak password that you have memorized. The same applies to password managers: the benefits outweigh the risks.

Improvements to your password do not address the most pressing concern: remember that most systems combine at least two of the three factors: something you know, something you have and something you are. A password is still only one of those ingredients. Hence, where possible you should add another one of these ingredients.

Almost all major on-line service providers – Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, et cetera – offer some form of two-factor authentication. One popular mechanism called TOTP consists of codes that are generated using an app on your phone. How does this work? You take a picture of a QR image on the screen once, and a security app uses the data in this image to generate access codes that change every thirty seconds. You can set things up so that you are asked for a code only once a month on computers that you regularly use. So the effort is minimal and the security benefit is huge: in addition to guessing your password an attacker would have to gain access to your phone, which is way more difficult.

Some other services may rely on sending you an SMS with a code, or an e-mail with a clickable link. This is a bit less secure, but still way better than only using a password, and thus certainly worth it. If you use a password manager, then securing it with some type of two-factor authentication is an absolute must.

Say that you want to secure some other service X that does not offer two-factor authentication.
What to do? Well, the service may offer logging in via OpenID. This means that you can log in to the service using one of your main on-line accounts, like Google or Facebook. If you have secured that on-line account by enabling two-factor authentication, then transitively the account of service X is now also protected using two-factor authentication.

To wrap up: I recommend that you:

  1. Always use two-factor authentication wherever it is offered.
  2. Always construct sufficiently long passwords.
  3. Seriously consider using a password manager.

After a long journey the data packet, the first in a long data stream, was nearly there. Residing inside the last switch, in the distance was the faint hum of a server. Moments later the packet had entered the server system. The server unwrapped the data packet and found a password inside. But it knew the password was not enough. The server generated a code that it was expecting. It unwrapped the next packet in the stream and found the exact same code it had generated just a moment ago. It allowed the rest of the stream op packets to enter.