Best Documentaries 2018

I like documentaries as much as I do (fiction) movies, particularly if they make me think, are well crafted and have a coherent narrative. Here are my recommendations based on documentaries that I have watched in the past year.

1. Avicii: True Stories

Avicii: True Stories focuses on the Swedish DJ Tim Bergling, better known as Avicii. In contrast to the uplifting music he made, this film highlights the darker side of the trade-off of becoming famous. An artist that cares about music that gets dropped into a shark tank where the sharks care about money, and money only. If anything it serves as a big warning to not make your passion your profession. Contrast that with popular advice! It is similar in spirit to Amy and Cobain: Montage of Heck, taking the same personal perspective. This makes it all the more impactful. Sadly, like Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain, Avicii also joined the list of young people that took their own life. Watching this, one can’t help but think: wouldn’t he have been better off being less famous?

2. Generation Wealth

Documentary maker Lauren Greenfield explores excessive wealth with a surprisingly personal perspective. Make no mistake: much of Generation Wealth is Lauren’s self-reflection, her choices in life, relationship with her family and participation in the ‘rat race’. That may sound corny, but for this subject matter: it really does work. If anything, she tries to understand her subjects through her own lens. By doing so, she reveals truths about human nature that may not be surprising in the end, but that are good to be reminded of.

3. HyperNormalisation

If you don’t mind something a bit longer that uses its time to make you think, then look no further than this 2016 documentary. Expertly crafted by Adam Curtis, HyperNormalisation leads us through a large part of modern history to make one key point about the world: the difference between how we perceive it versus how things really are, and the consequences of this. Curtis interleaves major global developments: technological, political and cultural, to construct a tapestry of arguments to support his conclusions. Whether you agree with these or not does not really matter, as what he offers is a perspective that leaves you pondering for days about its deeper implications.

Representing Data: Bits and Bytes

If you use a computer regularly, you know that every document you write, every music file you listen to and every photo you see is stored as a file. You may also know that a file consists of bytes and that bytes consist of smaller building blocks called bits. But, what are bits and bytes really? How do they work, why do they work that way, and how does storing them create text, sound and images? To find out we have to start with something very basic: counting.

Decimal Counting

Consider what happens if you count using ten fingers. Once you reach ten you have no more fingers left and thus, when you reach eleven, you remember one times ten and keep up one finger. This same thing happens over and over again as you keep counting upwards. This is also reflected in the way that we count when we write down numbers. Though in that case we use ten symbols instead of ten fingers: 0 up to including 9. Once we reach nine and want to express ten, we no longer have any symbols. So, we remember 1, which for writing means: we shift the number 1 to the left, and start over again with a 0, giving us 10. The difference with finger counting is that for zero we use no fingers at all, whereas when writing numbers we use the symbol 0 to denote zero.

Counting Conventions

The way we write down numbers is just a convention. The number system that we use most often is the decimal numeral system, because it has, as discussed, ten symbols that we enumerate. Consider that there is nothing stopping us from defining a counting system with only five symbols: 0 up to including 4. In this case we will run out of symbols when we want to express five, and we will have to do the same thing we did before: shift 1 to the left and then start over again. This gives us (again) 10. But since we now count with five symbols, this means that the two symbols 10 actually represent the value five. If you find this confusing, try counting from zero to five using your fingers on only one hand and use the first finger for the zero. Notice that reaching five forces you to remember one and continue counting by resetting your hand to one finger again for zero.

Binary Counting

The ten-symbol decimal counting system is just one of an infinite number of possible counting systems. However, there are only several such systems in common usage. Namely, the octal system that uses eight symbols, the hexadecimal system which uses sixteen symbols (letters A through F are used to denote 10 up to 16) and also the binary system, which uses only two symbols: 0 and 1. Having only two symbols is similar to counting with only two fingers. So, how would we count from zero to three using only two symbols? Zero would just be 0, one would just be 1. For two it becomes more complicated. Since we have now run out of symbols we need to shift 1 left and start over with zero, giving us 10. Finally, for three: since we still have a next symbol for the rightmost position, we only have to replace the 0 with a 1 to express three in binary, giving us 11. If we now want to go up to four, we can not increase the existing symbols anymore. Hence, we have to set them to 0, and add a new position with a 1, giving us 100. In the table below we show the values for counting up to including five. If this is not immediately clear: do not worry, a more intuitive explanation follows.



The binary system brings us to our first definition: the binary digit, commonly shortened to ‘bit’. One bit is thus simply a single-digit binary number. Glancing at the table above we see that higher decimal numbers need more bits to be expressed in binary notation. Specifically, to store the number two or three we need two bits, and to store the number four or five we need three bits. The key insight is that by concatenating bits, that themselves can only take two values, we can represent any whole number, no matter how small or large, by using a sufficient amount of bits.

there are only 10 kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary, and those who do notnumeral base joke

An intuitive way to think of bits is as switches that turn on or off values. Take a look at the table below. The first row contains numbers, the second row contains a 0 if the number is ‘off’ and a 1 if the number is ‘on’. Try to work out the decimal value by summing the values of the first row for all the ‘on’ switches.

Solution (click to expand)
128 * 0 + 64 * 1 + 32 * 0 + 16 * 0 + 8 * 1 + 4 * 0 + 2 * 1 + 1 * 0 = 64 + 8 + 2 = 74


The second row represents a number (01001010) written in binary notation. The first row consists of powers of two if you consider them from right to left. In fact we can simply rewrite the first row of the table as follows:


Why powers of two? Well, since we have two symbols: 0 and 1. Starting at the right, each step towards the left increases the value by one power of two. If we would have three symbols, each position step would represent a power of three. Consider what happens when we have not two, but ten symbols, as in the discussed decimal system: each step towards the left is then an increase of a power of ten. An example:

10^3 = 100010^2 = 10010^1 = 1010^0 = 1


If we try to express this as a decimal number we get 1000 + 100 = 1100, which in fact is exactly the same as the on/off switches concatenated (1100), as each switch represents a power of ten.

Bitwise Operations

Back to bits: it may seem as though storing numbers in binary is inefficient, as we need more bits to store higher numbers. However, the number of bits required does not increase linearly, instead it decreases exponentially. To see this, let us write the decimal number ten in binary: 1010. This requires four bits, now a thousand: 11 1110 1000, requires only ten positions despite being a magnitude hundred larger than ten. This in another key insight: we can represent very large numbers with relatively few bits.

You can think of a bit as the smallest possible piece of information. Many things map nicely on the two states that a single bit can have. For example: a logic statement can be either true or false. However, by adding additional bits we can express more states than just two and perform actual arithmetic with them. If we want to add the numbers 1 and 2 in binary we can simply do this by turning on all the switches that are ‘on’ in the representation of both 1 and 2 of the result. If we look at 1 and 2 in the table below, we see that to form 3, the sum of these numbers, we can look at the two rows above 3 and set the bit to 1 if either the bit in the row of 1 OR the row of 2 is one. This is why this is called an OR operation.

1 =0001
2 =0010
3 =0011


There are in fact four of these logical operations we can do on bits:

  • OR : turns on the switch in the result if either of the two input switches are on.
  • AND : turns on the switch in the result if both of the two input switches are on.
  • XOR : turns on the switch in the result if either of the two input switches are on, but not both. This is called an eXclusive-OR.
  • NOT : takes one input row and inverts all the switches, turning all zeros to 1 and all ones to 0.

With these four operations we can implement common mathematical operations on whole numbers. A hardware implementation of one of these operations is called a logic gate and your computer has many of them: billions.

Bytes & Text

Now we have some feeling for bits, let us turn to bytes. Computers only work with these binary numbers expressed as groups of bits. So, how do we get from groups of bits to stuff such as text, audio and images? The answer: mappings. You are probably familiar with many systems in the real world where a number ‘maps’ to something else. For example: a telephone number maps to a person or a company, a postal code maps to some area within a city, and in some restaurants a number maps to a specific dish. The same mechanism of mapping a number to something with a specific semantic interpretation is used in computers.


For storing text on a computer we need to map the numbers to the alphabet. There a twenty-six letters in the alphabet. However, if we need to express both upper and lowercase letters, we would need to double that amount: fifty-two. How many bits would that take? The closest power of two is 64 which is 2^6, thus we need at least 6 bits. However, we also need to express many other symbols. Take a look at your keyboard and you will find that it contains at least a 100 or so keys, and some combinations of keys can produce yet other symbols. Though, historically six bits were indeed used to store text, over time many more symbols were added. This eventually led to an 7-bit standard known as ASCII, commonly extended with 1 extra bit for additional language-specific symbols. The modern day successor of this is Unicode which can use up to 32 bits per character, allowing for many more symbols. Yet, the first 7-bits of Unicode still map to the same symbols as ASCII.

Processing Units

Early microprocessors were designed to operate on eight bits at a time. Early personal computers used eight bits as well. Since these groups of eight bits form a natural unit we refer to them as a byte. A byte can take 2^8 = 256 distinct numeric values, which in practice means 0 up to including 255. Half a byte, four bits, is sometimes referred to as a nibble, which is a tong-in-the-cheek reference to the larger ‘bite’.

A byte is thus just a group of eight bits. Any meaning that a byte has really depends on what we are expressing. In a text file the bytes are characters, in a music file they are audio samples and in a digital photo they represent the colours of a specific part of the image.


Image files are quite intuitive to understand. If you take a photo and put a grid over it, you can give each small square in the grid a specific colour. Zoom very far into a digital photo, and you will see this grid, the small squares are often referred to as pixels: a portmanteau of ‘picture element’. If a digital photo has more pixels, it contains more information and we say it has a higher resolution.


The colours of pixels can be encoded in bits. Indeed, colours are often expressed in the Red Green Blue (RGB) format. In a commonly used variant of this format each colour is one byte and can take a value from 0 to 255 that maps to the intensity of the colour. So, for each square in the grid we use three bytes: twenty-four bits. For example the colour (R=0, G=0, B=0) would represent pure white and (R=255, G=255, B=255) is pure black as in these cases all colours are mixed evenly. However, (R=255, B=0, G=0) would be bright red, and so on.


If you have ever edited a web page and had to change a colour, you probably noticed that colours can be expressed as a hashtags followed by some combination of characters and numbers, for example: \#\textrm{FF0000}. This takes us back to the discussion of counting systems. The hexadecimal system is another way to represent numbers. For this system we count 0 through 9 and then A through F, giving us 16 possibilities in total. Perhaps you already see what those symbols behind the hashtag mean.

Let us look at \#\textrm{FF0000}. This actually consists of three groups of two symbols. The first group is FF, we know that F maps to 15 in decimal, so the hexadecimal value of FF is 15 * 16^1 + 15 * 16^0 = 255. The other two groups are 0. These three groups in this notation are the three colours! The first group is red, with value 255 (\#\boxed{\mathbf{FF}}0000), the second is green with a value of 0, and the last is blue, also with value 0 (\#\textrm{FF}00\boxed{\mathbf{00}}). Hence, again we have bright red (R=255, G=0, B=0), but now expressed in hexadecimal as \#\textrm{FF0000}.

Practical Considerations

Modern images take up a lot of storage space when we would just store them in RGB format. A modern camera easily snaps photos at 16 million pixels, for each of these pixels we need to store three bytes. So that’s over 48 million bytes (megabytes) for one photo. Storing video is similarly challenging, as that is essentially a collection of still images in sequence, typically at least twenty-four per second. Fortunately, digital compression techniques exists that can make images and video files much smaller. These techniques take advantage of repetition and patterns within and across images and remove small differences that can not easily be seen by the human eye.

Sound & Samples

How sound is represented digitally is a bit more complex than text and images. To get a better impression of this, imagine you are sitting on a swing. You are swinging right to left from my perspective. Let’s say that I want to take pictures, so I can later play them back as a filmstrip. A choice I have to make is how many pictures I take relative to the time you are swinging.

If it takes you ten seconds to swing back and forth, and I only take a picture once every ten seconds, all pictures would have you frozen in the exact same place, since I am missing the the 9.99 seconds where you are actually swinging. If I take a picture every second, I’d see you swing, but it would look a bit choppy. Taking pictures in more rapid succession would fix this and yield smooth motion. However, the minimum amount of pictures I’d need to snap to be able to see you move is actually longer than one second: half the time it takes for a swing, which would be every 5 seconds. I’d catch you at times 0, 5 and 10, respectively for ‘up to the left’, ‘centered’, and ‘up to the right’, and so forth. Differently worded: I’d need to snap pictures twice as fast as the rate at which you are swinging.


The process of determining how many pictures to take in an audio context is called sampling, and instead of pictures we record the amplitude of the audio signal at specific points in time. The signal consists of a mix of sound frequencies that relate to the pitch of what you are hearing. The speed of the swing is comparable with the highest possible frequency of the audio signal. Frequencies are expressed in Hertz, 1 Hertz = 1 swing per second.

If you imagine many people sitting on swings next to you, going back and forth at different speeds, we’d need to snap pictures so we can catch the fastest one: snapping twice as fast as that speed. This corresponds to the highest frequency for audio: we need to record a certain minimum amount of samples in order to reconstruct the original recording. If our sampling rate is too low, we will not be able to record sounds with a higher frequency. Like with the swings: we need to sample at least twice the rate of the highest frequency we want to be able to record. This is one of the main reasons that telephone audio sounds rather poor: the sampling rate is low: 8000 samples are taken each second, limiting the range of the actual audio to 4000 Hertz. Human hearing can distinguish sounds from 1 up to 20 000 Hertz. This is the reason Compact Disc audio sounds so good: it takes 44 100 samples per second, enabling an actual range up to 22 050 Hertz.


This does not get us the actual bytes yet that we need for audio, which takes us to the other part of representing audio digitally: how precise a value we are going to record for each sample. The more bits we use for a sample, the more accurately we can model the original signal. If we would only use one bit we can only record either no sound, or the loudest possible sound: it’s on or off. With two bits we can record four levels, etc. Compact Disc quality audio records samples with 16 bit resolution, giving 2^{16} = 65536 possible levels.

Practical Considerations

Like with video files, sound files also quickly grow large. In Compact Disc quality we need to store two bytes for every sample of which there are many thousands every second. Fortunately, as with video there are compression techniques to reduce the sizes of such files, the most famous of which is undoubtedly mp3 which takes advantage of differences that the human ear can not easily distinguish.


In this post you have learned about counting in the familiar decimal system, but also in the likely less familiar binary counting system. You have also seen how a number raised to a certain exponent relates to the counting system: the decimal system uses ten as the base number and the binary system uses two. These two possibilities act like an on/off switch, and each of these switches is referred to as a bit. You have an understanding of bitwise operations that can be performed to implement basic arithmetic. Finally, we have seen how groups of bits form bytes, and how bytes are often mapped to various things such as characters in text, colours in images and samples in sound. I hope this gives you a better feeling of how the basic primitives of modern computing, bits and bytes, relate to the things you see and read on screens and hear through speakers and headphones.

Copyright and the Information Age

In the previous article we looked at the origin of copyright. We learned three things. Firstly, that the introduction of copyright was driven by reduced costs of creating copies of creative works. Secondly, that copyright has shifted from authors to large corporations. Thirdly, that compensating the original authors is no longer really what copyright enforcement is primarily used for. In this article we look at what happens when the costs of copying are further reduced to nearly zero. What are the consequences and how should we deal with them?

Perfect instant copies

Like many eighties kids, I too had a cassette recorder. I used to record radio shows with it. These were sufficient for listening them back shortly thereafter, but did not have the same quality as the original broadcasts. In fact: they actually degraded over time.

Back then blank cassette tapes were subject to a special home-copy fee. To this day Dutch citizens still pay this fee for each blank CD or DVD they buy. This legislation has been extended to also cover hard disks and memory sticks. What is the purpose of this fee? It gives users the right to make copies for private, non-commercial, use without violating any laws. The collected fee is indirectly distributed back to the authors.

Analog copies, made using cassettes and videotapes, are quite different from digital copies, made using DVD’s and hard disks. Why? Firstly, digital copies are perfect: they do not degrade over time. Digital films, series or home recordings will look identical played back fifty years from now. Secondly, while copying onto a cassette still took effort, creating a digital copy is as simple as clicking a button. Thirdly, modern digital storage devices can be erased and rewritten many times. This further reduces the monetary costs of making and holding onto copies. Combined with today’s fast download speeds, the costs of copying a creative work like a movie, song or book, are reduced to near zero.

The implications of effortless zero-cost copying are profound. Importantly, it allows creative works to spread broadly and quickly. This aligns with at least one of the goals of its creators: reaching a large audience. However, ironically, it also conflicts with another goal of those same creators: financial compensation for exerted effort in creating the work in the first place.

Creative works as ideas

Now, before I go on, I want to avoid the trap of oversimplifying consumers and producers of creative works. Frequently the needs of a producers and consumers are presented as being opposed. I do not think this is the case. There’s a much more complicated interaction going on than a simple exchange if you consume a creative work.

If you listen to a song that resonates with you, it changes you. It inspires you to find different music of the same form, or even to make your own version or to remix it. Contrast this with buying a bottle of water or a bag of potato chips. These are things you consume to sustain you. Instead, consuming creative works changes you, and may even change the creative work itself by leading to indirect derivatives. In short: creative works are more like an idea. For these works differences in physical form (digital, analog, etc …) do not play a big role in conveying the idea itself.

Since ideas build upon one another, it is much more difficult to classify what really constitutes an original creative work. This is in fact the subject of many law suits. Listen to Taurus by Spirit and tell me if you think the intro riff of Stairway to Heaven is still original. Listen to Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke and Got To Give it Up by Marvin Gaye. There is no clear cut definition of where inspiration ends and where plagiarism starts. That’s because these examples are essentially all ideas building on one another.

Charging for copies

Back to physical copies: when copying still took effort, it made perfect sense to collect money at the point where these copies were produced. It made sense to charge more for a cassette, videotape, or even a DVD than its material value. The surplus intended for the authors of the work, and those on the intermediate ‘chain’: distributors, promoters, etc. However, when the costs of producing a copy reach nearly zero, this model becomes much harder to sustain. Indeed, the last two decades have revealed substantial cracks in this approach.

There have been numerous clashes between technologies that enable fast and easy access to content and the copyright holders of this content. The response: a mix of artificial copy-restriction mechanisms and harsh legal steps against copyright violators. Content distribution intermediaries tend to think of zero cost copying as a treat to curtail. Perversely, copy-restriction mechanisms penalize legitimate buyers of creative works. It makes them jump through hoops and imposes usage restrictions. This leaves a vacuum, inadvertently pushing consumers towards obtaining content illegally, depriving the artists of their remuneration [5].

Abstractions that worked in the physical world do not easily map onto the new digital reality. For example: I once encountered an on-line library that had only five digital copies of a specific book available. Since they were all ‘lend out’, I could no longer ‘lend’ this book. This bizarre example underscores the odd dichotomy. On the one hand, authors want their books to be read and spread as much as possible, making a case for unrestricted copying. On the other hand  authors want payment for each copy, making a case for restricting copying. This raises the question: is the point at which a creative work is copied, still the right point to charge for it?

Easy access

There are platforms that still charge for each copy, like Apple’s iTunes. iTunes is interesting because it broke with the traditional method of selling music. Instead of having to buy an entire album, consumers could conveniently choose to buy individual songs. This again emphasizes that the rise of piracy may have less to do with consumers being unwilling to pay authors for their works, and more to do with those works being hard hard to access legally. Indeed, piracy seems to be a service problem, not a pricing problem [3].

There are also alternatives that have moved away from charging for each copy, instead charging a subscription fee. This fee is distributed to the copyright holders of the original work. Sidestepping the issue of charging per copy, instead providing on-demand access to content for an ‘all you can eat’ fee. Examples of this are Netflix and Spotify. The downside of the subscription model and platforms, is that users tend to flock to popular ones. These popular platforms grow in terms of user base and power. When they become too dominant, they have an incentive to take a increasingly larger cut of the proceeds. This siphons away compensation from the author to the distributor. Hence, digital distribution platforms risk becoming the new middle-men. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

The upside is that there is a willingness to pay for easy legal access to content, regardless of whether this is based on copies, or subscriptions. This is hopeful for both producers and consumers, more niche creative works will get a chance, which leads to more choice as well, and more quality by sheer volume of creative works being produced.  The recent rise of high quality television series is testament to this.


Is there an alternative model of compensation we could think of? Going back to the idea behind copies: the first copy of a book or movie is very expensive to make, but all subsequent copies cost almost nothing to produce. Finding a buyer for that first copy that distributes the subsequent copies for free is economically optimal and efficient. However, this still assumes that copies are the right way to think of creative works, is this still really the case?

Another way to think of a creative work is simply that creating the work itself boils down to putting in time and effort. Instead of paying for the copy, we can reward authors for their investment of time. This circles back to the original intention of copyright: to recoup your costs. Indeed there are alternative models that follow this model more directly: Kickstarter projects get funding in advance for producing a creative work based on an estimation (though some still rely on copy protection afterwards); pay what you want models ask you for a fee of your own choosing after the creative work is already produced, with usually no restrictions on copying; The gig model is based on spreading a creative work for free and then shifting to experiential modes of reproduction that can not be copied: giving concerts, provide public readings, etc.

These alternative ways of charging for creative works is interesting for producers and consumers as well, particularly because it allows cutting out the middle-man: studios, distributors, etc … this enables a much more personal and more direct connection between authors and their fans, and more efficient economics at the same time.


The ability to make perfect instant copies at negligible cost has changed the world profoundly. It has also, for better or for worse, has led to a much broader spread of creative works, some of which is legal, some of which is not. One point of view: sharing copies freely acts as a disincentive for authors to keep up their creative endeavors: the original problem that copyright intended to address. However, the low cost of spreading (and even producing) creative works seems to have led instead to a proliferation of such works, available under many different compensation schemes. Making it easier to both produce and consume such works.

Instead of the dire predictions, mostly by large corporate copyright holders, of a world deprived of creative works, we now live in one that has undergone a Cambrian explosion of such works. It seems that the original copyright model has outlived its usefulness. A more liberal approach that allows copying of creative works by consumers in combination with novel compensation schemes for producers, seems prudent for sustaining the ongoing dialogue of ideas these works represent.


  1. Stallman, R. (1997). The Right to Read
  2. Economist (2004). Killing Creativity
  3. Newell, G. (2011). Gabe says Piracy isn’t about Price
  4. Rosen, B. E (2010). Walking on Eggshells
  5. Kinsella, S. (2010). Kroes wants copyright as a building block
  6. Kelly, S. & Robinson, R. The Fast and Furious Rise of the Subscription Economy

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.


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

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.


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.


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.


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!


  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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


  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