Have you ever considered starting a big project, only to make a U-turn when confronted with the amount of work that would go into making it a reality? If you answered “yes”, how did you handle that reality check? Did you decide you’d take care of it some other time, when you had more time, money or energy? I know I have, and I want you, my dear readers, to have the tools to get past what keeps you from giving your dream projects a shot.
Affective Forecasting & You
What happens when you first look at something big and difficult is based on our instinctual desire to avoid pain. You might then decide that the task we want to accomplish can be taken care of at a later date, when you’ll inevitably be adequately energetic, wealthy and/or educated to take care of it. This is a phenomenon called affective forecasting, and it has a big impact on how you make decisions.
As the name implies, affective forecasting is when you predict how you’ll feel (known in psychology as an affect) in the future. The sad truth is that humans are normally terrible at forecasting things, most of all our own emotional states. The reasons you put off doing something today are rarely predicted ahead of time: a longer than usual work day, unexpected family or health problems, a sleepless night – the list goes on and on. But when we look down the road, most of us have a clear bias that makes us believe those issues won’t pop up later on.
We do this in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Have you ever felt like you’re living in an ideal moment where you don’t have time, money, energy or knowledge constraints? I know I certainly haven’t. It doesn’t make sense to wait around for this imaginary situation – but we do it anyway.
Confronting Our Future Selves
Some psychologists believe that at least a portion of this thinking is due to the fact that we disassociate our futures selves from our present selves. The amount of disconnect we feel is measured by what is referred to as future self-continuity. In a 2011 study, a team of psychologists at New York University (lead by Hal Ersner-Hershfield) tested this idea in a novel and interesting way. Participants were given $1,000 hypothetical dollars and then told to create a budget for it. They were given a choice of spending the fake dollars on present expenses and entertainment or saving for retirement.
Unsurprisingly, most of that money ended up getting allocated to present expenses. This is a common enough behavior that psychologists have yet another term to describe it: temporal discounting (aka delay discounting). Temporal discounting is our tendency to give less value to rewards in the future – even if that future reward is more valuable than its present counterpart.
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The psychologists running this experiment expected this, so they came up with a high-tech way to circumvent it: aging software. Participants had their pictures taken and the software put retirement-age gray hairs and wrinkles on their faces. They were then confronted with this image of their “future selves” and then instructed to once again set a budget for $1,000 fake dollars. Amazingly, budgets started leaning much more towards retirement. Transforming the “future self” into a real construct appears to have a substantial impact on how we view the future.
My Five Minute Solution
Let’s summarize what we know about ourselves now:
- We don’t like pain, so we avoid it at all costs.
- We predict that we’ll be in a better position to deal with problems later on.
- We’re terrible at factoring in real-world problems when we make our forecasts.
- We think of our “future selves” as separate, idealized constructs.
In other words, you’re not exactly designed to be a productivity machine. So how do you get past these problems and start building things you want to build? I can’t give you a comprehensive answer here, but I can share with you a simple way to get past the hardest part: starting.
I wrote the first draft of my book in a few weeks, and since then I’ve gotten more than a few surprised looks when I give people that timeline. It seems that people either A) don’t believe me, or B) think I’m some sort of productivity Übermensch.
Now, to be fair, I did have quite a bit of material to go off of when I started. I’d been working on improving my various learning systems for more than six years by the time I sat down to write the first page of my book. It’s also worth pointing out that the book (which is still going through its final stage of touch-ups) has gone through five drafts and the total time from when I started spans over three months.
The first draft was done in a mad dash that started with a simple hack that I’ve been using for years. It’s been useful for everything from working out to writing blog posts, and I want to pass it along to you. Like most effective strategies, it’s both simple and highly effective.
When I decided I was going to write a book I made a simple promise to myself: that I would work for at least five minutes. If I wasn’t feeling it that day, I’d stop and do something else. I was filled with doubts about my writing ability when I first sat down and didn’t think I’d be able to take care of more than a few paragraphs before realizing the whole thing was futile. More than a few times I’d fallen victim to analysis-paralysis and given up before starting.
But his tiny commitment changed the whole dynamic. There’s no time horizon to consider because it’s only five minutes, so thoughts of future pain simply didn’t factor into it. I didn’t have to worry about the level of pain either, since I had a quick and easy escape hatch to jump out of if it became too much to bear. In that very first session, I wrote over five pages – far more than I thought I would.
Starting was the biggest obstacle for me, and using this simple trick allowed me to overcome it. I continued using it every day and I found myself losing track of time as I blew through fifteen to twenty page blocks. By week three I had a satisfactory first draft. Many of those pages ended up getting altered (and some were even outright deleted), but I’d come face-to-face with a big project and won.
An important feature of this timeline is that I had days where five minutes were all I put in. I certainly had moments where I was too exhausted or busy to put in anything meaningful. For a portion of that time (when I was about fifty pages in) I was traveling, and couldn’t put in more than twenty or thirty minutes per day. Some of my contributions consisted of little more than a few sentences – but every day I was at least adding something.
Hopefully you now understand this: if you want to make something, start today. Whether it’s a book, painting, transmission or song, sit down and try doing it for five minutes. If it is as painful as you’ve been imagining, stop. But don’t put in less than five minutes. You’ll most likely find that it’s far less intimidating than you think. If that’s the case, go for another five minutes and see how you feel. Keep going until you think you’ve had enough.
Give it a shot and let me know in the comments how it works for you. If you’ve ever used this type of trick to get big projects done, I’d love to hear about that as well.
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