Procrastinator’s Digest

What follows are my key takeaways from Timothy Pychyl’s The Procrastinator’s Digest: A concise guide to solving the procrastination puzzle. I highly recommend the book, but for your benefit, my personal sparknotes are below:

Understanding Procrastination

When people are procrastinating, the act doesn’t make them feel better than working, even in the short term. There are numerous reasons for this, which I will go itno more detail below. Anways, procrastination is bad for your health. Procrastinators tend to stress out and to delay beneficial practices like exercising, healthy eating and sleeping.

Putting off pursuit of our goals is putting off what is most important in life, for the sake of short term mood. When people look back on their lives, they don’t regret what they did but what they didn’t do. To get more out of our life, we need to fully engage in it. Time is of the essence.

To head off procrastination it is important to consider: short term consequences, long term consequences and, perhaps more importantly, to understand the benefits both in the short term and, it goes without saying, the long term.

Preventing procrastination is about not giving in to feeling good now. I give in feel good way too often: eating, smoking and drinking too much. When we procrastinate, we do so because we are unwilling to regulate ourselves. We choose not to self-regulate because we “give in to feel good”. For procrastinators, short term mood takes precedence. Even worse, we feel a momentary positive emotion or relief when we avoid an aversive task, reinforcing the failure to act.

We need to understand that when we want to do something later, we are doing that to avoiding the negative emotion of dealing with the task now, not because it makes sense to avoid the task. It takes emotional intelligence to recognize this, and no wonder emotional intelligence is negatively correlated with self-control and procrastination. Thankfully, emotional intelligence is something that we can improve and grow (see my post on Mindset).

Realizization

There are many ways to convince yourself to avoid a task. The two most important are avoidance/distraction and falsely projecting that you will be more inclined to work on it later. The author says that, “the first step at the moment of procrastination is to stay put.” If you let yourself wander, you’re lost.

The key is to be prepared for this moment when you are about to let yourself turn away. “Implementation intentions” are critical in forming good habits such as these. An implementation intention is a predetermined reaction that you will have for a give event. When you have predetermined your intention, then you won’t need to use as much will power in the moment to convince yourself to implement the intention. For example, you can say to yourself, “When I come home from work, I will change and go to the gym.” Making this pre-decision will help you follow through. When you become aware that you want to procrastinate, the author suggests forming this implementation intention:

“If I feel negative emotions when I face the task at hand, then I will stay put and not stop, put off a task or run away”.

However, we don’t have to focus purely on the punitive. Lean into the negative feelings, but work from the positive feelings we get from things like curiosity and desire to succeed.

Traps to avoid

Don’t trick yourself. You won’t feel more like doing something tomorrow.

Studies show that we are not very good at forecasting our mood, or “affective forecasting.” When we perform affective forecasting, we tend to: (1) polarize our forecasts, that is very negative or positive outcomes, (2) underestimate the effect of future events on our point of view or personality (focalism), (3) overestimate the importance of the present in our predictions of the future (presentism).

How does affect our decisions to procrastinate?

When we intend a future action, such as putting off a task, our forecast state is often very positive. There are two main reasons. Firstly, we are getting a brief positive jolt due to the decision to put off our work, and our forecast state is skewed positively due to our presentism. Secondly, we are imagining a righteous future action that we think will make us happy. Imagining something pleasant that is in the future is very easy to do and very rewarding emotionally. In the moment of procrastination, we think, yes this will be great to do tomorrow, when really it probably won’t.

Psychologists recommend two main strategies to deal with affective forecasting bias. You can imagine the future as vividly as possible to reduce bias. The other method is to simply expect to be wrong about your forecasts. Then, realize that you can’t listen to yourself.

Approaches

The author champions two related concepts when fighting procrastination:

Just because you’re not motivated to do something at the moment, doesn’t mean that you can’t do it. Attitude and emotion follow behavior as much as behavior follows attitude. Just get started. Facing the task, not allowing yourself to stray and just beginning is the most important part. Once again, attitude follows behavior. You don’t need to feel like doing something to do it.

Our aversive attributions for the task will change once we just get started. Along with the good feeling of getting something done, this reinforces the good behavior.

Excuses and rationalizations to be aware of

  1. Discounting future rewards in relation to short term rewards
  2. Underestimating the time things will take and how much we can do
  3. Prefer tomorrow over today
  4. Protect self-esteem by not starting, not trying
  5. Manufacturing rationalizations that make it ok to forego our previous intentions
  6. Distraction, forgetting, trivialization, self affirmation, denial of responsibility, saying things could have been worse

In the end, the only choice to avoid procrastination is to change your behavior. What helps is to form implementation intentions i.e. If you see any of these rationalizations, then realize what they are and stay put, just get started.

Tips

  • Make concrete plans
  • Get organized
  • Be ready to deal with distractions (pre-decisions come in handy again)
  • Realize that it will be hard work to change your habits; practice self-forgiveness. Treat setbacks as learning opportunities and minor hitches, not a reflection of your true personality or a terminal diagnosis of procrastinitus
  • Willpower is a limited resource. Use it strategically. Also, exercise it to make it stronger!

P.S. Maybe this post will help be finally finish the second half of the learning business from family post…

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Mindset by Carol Dweck: Book Review

Ever feared judgment? Given up on something because you think you’re not cut out for it? On the other hand, have you ever rested on your laurels when to your frustration someone less talented or accomplished passes you by through hard work?

Mindset by Carol Dweck offers a different way to view things, a more hopeful and inspiring way to see the world. Her singular idea is that there are two different ways to view the world: that ability is fixed and difficult to change or that ability can be developed.

Those with fixed mindsets focus on personal performance. Thus every success or failure is a reflection of self-worth. Those with growth mindsets are more focused on learning. They are more willing to take on difficult tasks in which they are likely to fail, because these are tasks from which they can learn.

The author then discusses the difference between how these different mindsets would view results or potential outcomes and gives several examples from business, sports, academia, relationships and various other walks of life. The key is that people with the growth mindset seek out difficult tasks and feedback while people with the fixed mindset usually seek out things they are comfortable with and fear any negative feedback to the point of detriment.

To be fair, people can have different mindsets about different things. For example someone might think intelligence is static while thinking that body weight is easily changeable.

My key takeaways from this book were:

  • You aren’t stuck the way you are currently. Just consider the situation, get inspired and get going. You will make progress
  • People can change in miraculous ways, and merely believing this greatly enhances one’s chance to grow
  • Don’t put so much weight on comparing yourself to others. If you truly want to become something else, you can learn how to. The people you admire have probably worked harder and perhaps have had more opportunities to practice the attributes you admire. You can be rich, athletic, good with people, etc. You only need to mindfully practice more.
  • Instead of viewing the success of others as threatening, see it as inspiration, because you could find success too by working hard
  • Don’t view superiors at work as merely judgers but as colleagues and advisers. In the end, they are merely looking to accomplish something for the company and want you to grow.
  • Ironically, people with the growth mindset exhibit high self-esteem tendencies even though they don’t tie their self-esteem to each personal outcome the way fixed mindset people do. Growth mindset are willing to speak up, because they are interested in challenges and not embarrassed to admit ignorance or lack of skill, because they believe they can learn and grow.
  • I would bet children whose parents raised in an environment of “Concerted Cultivation“. Concerted cultivation encourages children to develop language skills and interact with people who are “higher” on the social strata i.e. adults. It encourages them to seek out answers to questions they might have by asking adults or other authority figures. They view themselves as more equal than most children raised in different environments, so they are willing to use the time of more experienced adults to help them understand or get things.
  • Some reviewers criticize the book because it only contains one main idea and then proceeds to repeat the idea and give various examples the rest of the book. This misses the point: that with work you can change yourself. Specifically, Dweck gives the reader a chance to let the idea sink in and makes the path to the growth mindset well-trodden through numerous examples.

Here’s a great a graphical summary of the two mindsets:

Diagram from Blackboard Battlefield (another WP blog!)

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My Korean Deli by Ben Ryder

My Korean Deli is the story of an endearing editor working at a small literary magazine, married to a Korean woman, who in a last ditch effort to earn enough money to move out of the basement of his wife’s parents buys a deli in Brooklyn.

Ben Ryder, the author and narrator, takes us on a journey with a literary editor, advantaged by and sheltered by his WASP-y upbringing, into the gritty world of small business in New York City:

“I focus on the drive into midtown—the glowering skyscrapers, the silhouettes of bankers and lawyers behind tinted windows a few stories above the traffic … and at street level my future comrades among the peonage: the restaurant deliverymen, the tarot readers, the no-gun security guards and the DVD bootleggers.”

I can relate to the desire to leave the stilted world of white collar workers to join the battle of business on the street level.

More importantly, I can relate to the desire to find the kind of work that is essential to being motivated and “loving” what you do. As my one of my bosses says, it is the kind of work that offers 3 things: a sense of autonomy, a personal stake in the success of the business and a direct correlation between the amount of effort and rewards.

As Ben quickly finds out, the deli business is not as simple as it seems and that autonomy, a personal stake, and correlation between effort and reward can also mean a sense of isolation, stress, and a lot of work.

He and his family make many mistakes when they first start due to the intricacies of the any business that only an insider could appreciate. He resents the loiterers, the rickety lotto machine, the incessant complaints of the customers, the drunkards, the monotony of being a cashier, but he learns that each of these things come part and parcel with ability to make sales. The loiterers bring repeat business; the lotto machines make horrible margins and aggravate the cashier, but bring in the lotto addicts; the drunkards are a big part of repeat business in one of its highest margin items; competent cashiers that can be trusted to treat the deli like their own are nearly impossible to come by unless the cashier has ownership in the deli.

Overall the story is entertaining and brings the reader along with Ben in his quest for cash, competence, and self-worth.

There are many anecdotes to look forward to – a few off the top of my head:

  • The importance of coffee to the commuters and how easy it is to lose them with a crappy brew or a price hike
  • A convict just released from prison looking for “Lucy” when Ben is manning the register. A “loosie” is a single cigarette, loose from the pack, that delis sell illegally, but Ben doesn’t know that.
  • The constant fear that deli owners have of the tickets and fines that NYC authorities can seemingly levy on a whim. For example, the ticket for selling a “loosie” is $5,000 in NYC, when the incremental profit on a loosie is less than 33 cents (loosies sell for $1, while a pack of 20 cigarettes sells for about $13, not to mention the benefit of selling 20 at once instead of 1).
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The Lean Startup in bullet points

  • Product Development:
    • Build-Measure-Learn Loop
      • Form a hypothesis on customer reaction to a new feature or product
      • Build that feature and only what is necessary to implement that feature
      • Scientifically measure customer reaction to that new feature
        • Control vs experimental, i.e. A/B testing
        • Since products are in early development and we are testing a new feature on an old feature, measure performance vs control based on growth variables rather than gross variables i.e. focus on activation %, conversion %, referrals per customer instead of # of activations, # of conversions, total customers
      • Learn
        • Learning is the most important. Learning helps guide next steps and helps eliminate waste
        • Understand the empirical/quantitative results and the qualitative feedback
          • Be scientific and unbiased about feedback
          • Don’t forget “Genchi Gembutsu”, which is a Japanese term used at Toyota meaning that you must see customer reaction and understand him firsthand
        • Choose how to proceed – whether to change direction based on feedback or try something related
    • Advice on optimizing the Build-Measure-Learn Loop
      • Apply the principles of Lean Manufacturing to the Build-Measure-Learn Loop
        • Kanban
          • Reduce inventory and make sure to not begin production until space opens in the next step of the product life-cycle
            • Sometimes referred to as Just in Time inventory management
            • For start-ups, the product/hypothesis/feature production line or life-cycle is:
              • Backlog
              • In Progress
              • Built
              • Validated
            • No progress until more space is opened up in the ensuing step
        • Quality control
          • If any defects are discovered, immediately stop production
            • Ask 5 Why’s
            • If you ask why enough, you can get pasto the root cause of the problem and the procedures that allowed it to happen
        • Use small batch sizes. In any process, there are steps. If one step is prone to error or cumbersome, then it can create a bottleneck for the entire production process. As they say, a chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link.
          • Defects in process can be discovered quickly
          • Lower inventory required
          • Greater ability to create diverse products
  • Company Growth:
    • 4 major ways to generate revenue growth
      • Word of mouth
      • As a side effect of usage
      • Through funded advertising
      • Through repeat purchase or usage
    • Identifying the company’s engine of growth can help guide the company’s focus and prioritize its energies
      • Engines of growth i.e. the main driver of growth
        • Sticky engine of growth
          • Businesses that rely on having a high retention rate or repeat business should focus on lowering churn
        • Viral Engine of growth
          • Focus on new customers/transactions generated per customer/transaction
        • Paid Engine of Growth (paying for new customers)
          • Focus on increasing life time value (“LTV” which is revenue less variable costs) and lowering cost of acquisition
  • Building a Culture with the Lean Startup Principles:
    • Use the 5 Why’s (see above) whenever a problem arises
      • Answer each Why? in an objective manner, not assigning blame to people but to procedures or objects
      • Make a proportional investment at each answer to help fix the problem at hand
    • Give startup or product development group security and a personal stake in its success. Make that group accountable for success, but give them room to innovate
    • Involve everyone up, down, and across the Company’s functions so as to:
      • Get comprehensive input
      • Get buy-in across groups and eliminate an aura of secrecy or threatening/disruptive innovation from the startup group
      • Make your company learn the most it can from each other, the lean startup way of thinking, product development and performance, and feedback from customers
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Review of Lean Startup

The Lean Startup is a book that describes a mindset for product development that emphasizes rapid development iteration and thorough, objective review of customer feedback. The author argues that in a startup or similar product development environment, the developer benefits most from learning through how the customer reacts to the product and any changes to that product. That understood, the developer should focus on minimizing the time through the build-measure-learn feedback loop. Launching with a minimum viable product (MVP) enables the developer to test the hypothesis that the product or change to the product is effective at providing a solution to a customer’s problem. Through quantitative and qualitative measures of customer feedback, the developer can assess the impact of each change, learn more about what the customer wants, and decide quickly and accurately how to focus development efforts.

The author focuses mainly on business situations with great uncertainty, in particular startups and product development. Interestingly, the author advocates a business mindset that is similar to the “growth mindset” espoused in the book Mindset. The “growth mindset” is a belief that success or failure for someone is an opportunity to learn and grow rather than a reflection on the static characteristics of that person, as someone with a “fixed mindset” would believe. In the case of the Lean Startup, the growth mindset is applied to business situations with great uncertainty.

The author argues that too many people put huge efforts into perfecting their product to avoid any negative feedback. Often these efforts might not be effective in solving a customer’s problem, and it is quite difficult to know whether the efforts will yield more business without testing the market.

One can minimize the build-learn-feedback loop by: hypothezing a solution to a customer problem, building an MVP to implement this solution, measuring customer feedback to the MVP (both quanitatively and qualitatively), and learning from this feedback to guide future development efforts.

The author lays out his argument and several case studies, which seem all too convenient and fitting. Nonetheless, the reader is left convinced. The author recognizes that the difficulty in working in the Lean Startup way is not in understanding the theory but in implementation. Business culture, frustrations with the new method, blows to confidence after failure, vacuous metrics, and lack of awareness can all derail the Lean Startup mentality. The author offers plenty of advice and examples in how to confront and prevent these problems.

The Lean Manufacturing principles of small batches, immediate stoppage of the assembly line for any inexplicable defects, and the 5 Whys offer a neat set of principles to help implement the Lean Startup way. Small batches minimize the build-measure-learn feedback loop; stoppage of the assembly line for any inexplicable defects maintains high levels of quality and builds a strong development/manufacturing methodology so as to save time spent on mistakes in the future; the 5 Whys gives a method for dealing with any mistakes or disruptions to business – simply ask “Why?” five times and focus not on static attributes of people or the Company, but the methods that the Company or the people use (the “growth mindset”).

I’ll add a bullet point summary of the advice from the book that stuck with me.

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