Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success Posts on Tips: Fighting Procrastination

Monday Master Class: How to Use a Monotypic Inbox to Kick the Compulsive E-mail Checking Habit

August 11th, 2008 · 12 comments

E-mail AnonymousE-Mail Zero

Some students have no trouble with e-mail. Others, however, find themselves constantly checking their inbox — in class, while reading, while studying — making it hard to concentrate. This article is for the latter group.

The modern information consumer knows that the most efficient way to handle e-mail is to check your inbox just a few times a day and always process it back down to empty. For a lot of us, however, this is easier said than done. It’s just so damn tempting to take a quick peek; a glance to see if something cool has slipped in over the past few minutes.

In this article I’ll describe a simple but devastatingly effective hack for curbing this bad habit.

Eliminate the Difference Between Read and Unread

The hack works as follows:

  • Setup a filter that automatically marks every incoming message as read.

(In Gmail you can accomplish this by creating a filter with a wildcard — * — in the “From” field, then selecting “Mark as Read” as the action to apply.)

This hack eliminates the difference between read and unread messages — no more bold message titles or increasing inbox counts to titillate your senses. It makes your inbox monotypic — a term I’ve stolen from botany to capture the idea that your inbox now contains only one “species” of message.

The Power of a Monotypic Inbox

If you apply this hack, here is what will happen: At first, you’ll maintain your old habits, taking frequent quick peeks to see if anything interesting has arrived. As usual, this breaks your concentration and makes it hard to make serious progress on the studying or paper writing or reading before you. As you continue to take quick e-mail breaks, however, the number of messages in your inbox grows; and they are all marked as read.

Once your inbox gains a few dozen messages, things start to get annoying. You can’t easily remember which messages you’ve already glanced at and which are unread. You find yourself re-reading some messages and missing others.

Eventually, you get fed up and clean out your inbox. To avoid this pain again you stop checking your e-mail so frequently; making sure to now always leave yourself enough time to process it back down to empty so you won’t confuse new messages with old.

This of course is exactly the behavior we hoped to achieve. It’s a rough tactic, I’ll admit it. For most people it’s unnecessary. However, if you’re someone for whom frequent e-mail checks is scuttling your ability to concentrate, then it might be time to pull out the big guns. The monotypic inbox might be crude, but it works.

(Photo by dampeebe)

Bonus Post: An Author Who is Proud to Admit that he Sucks at E-Mail

August 7th, 2008 · 10 comments

E-mail Zero Strikes AgainE-Mail Zero

Once again I’m using Thursday to publish a bonus post about my E-mail Zero project. For the uninitiated, this short series questions the idea that all people should use e-mail and related technologies in the same way. It seeks out examples of alternative communication lifestyles.

Today, I’m happy to report that the venerable Merlin Mann from 43 Folders has recently published an article series on a similar topic. I wanted to point your attention to another E-mail Zero practitioner that Merlin recently wrote about: author Neal Stephenson.

I’m a Bad Correspondent

Here is a key excerpt from the author’s web site:

Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time…If I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all.

Which leads to:

If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. [If I instead get interrupted a lot] what replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time…there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons.

And then the big finish:

For me it comes down to the following choice: I can distribute material of bad-to-mediocre quality to a small number of people, or I can distribute material of higher quality to more people.

What Does This Mean For You?

The big picture point: Ultimately, you gain respect and reward in this world for the hard things you do. Ask yourself this: what distractions disrupt your concentration? Does being constantly available by text message, or e-mail, or on Facebook make you better at being a student? Or does it make you worse? Do you really need to be that accessible?

The right answer differs for different people. But the one thing this series makes clear: not every communication technology is right for every person. Even if it seems like everyone is using it…

If you’re curious about the types of places such questions might lead you, consider this fact: I do not have — nor have I ever had — a Facebook account. And yet, mysteriously, I still have friends who know my relationship status and what movies I like.

Crazy. I know. But once you start asking the right questions, interesting answers shake loose…

(Photo by dampeebe)

Monday Master Class: Conquer Cramming with the Same Day Rule

July 28th, 2008 · 7 comments

Bad Problem, Worse MetaphorStudent Studys

Are you a procrastinator? Not necessarily a psychologically-scarred, can’t start work if your life depended on it because you resent your major and are crushed by the weight of your parent’s expectations-style deep procratinator, but instead someone who tends to wait just a little bit too long to get started on big assignments? The type that ends up getting your ass kicked by built-up work at the end of every term?

Many students are in your same boat.

Today, I want to give you a simple rule that will turn your academic rudder and point this boat back towards shore. Where the shore, in this instance, represents the promised land of not procrastinating, and my introduction represents how to construct a terrible, strained metaphor.

A Common Scenario

Here’s the scenario. It’s October 5th, the semester is young, you’re in your art history class marveling at how much better dressed everyone in the room is than you (something about art history students always make me feel, by comparison, like I was dressed by a rabid pack of color-blind monkeys). The professor hands out a sheet describing your big scary original research paper due at the end of the semester.

Your instinct is to immediately lose the sheet and then forget about the big scary original research paper until a few weeks before it’s due. At this point you’ll start diligently adding it to the very top of your to-do list, perhaps accented by several stars for emphasis, and then promptly do nothing. Finally, with a week to go, panic kicks in and you’ll dash together the type of sloppy of paper that makes professors sigh loudly then reach for that bottle hidden in their bottom desk drawer.

I want you to resist this urge. I want you to instead do do something so stunning, so unexpected, that it may take a moment for you to regain your senses: I want you to get started on the assignment the same day it’s assigned.

Allow me to explain…

The Same Day Rule

This rule is one of the most effective procrastination defusers I’ve yet to encounter. It’s formalized as follows:

For every medium to large size assignment, do some work toward its completion the same day that it’s assigned.

It should be serious work; at least a half-hour. But it certainly doesn’t have to eat up your whole evening. The logic here is simple. Big assignments scare us so we resist starting. As we all know, once you get started, the scariness diminishes and it’s easier to make progress. The same day rule takes advantage of this reality and pushes it to its extreme.

A few implementation tips:

  • You can adjust the rule to require that you get started within a week. For example, I used to leave my Saturdays free from regular work like reading assignments and problem sets. When given a major project, I would, at first, use some time on Saturday to start making progress. There was something nice about it being the only task for the day (other than killing a hangover.)
  • The best first steps involve planning. You can’t, of course, start writing a research paper the day its assigned. You can, however, gather some books or sketch out the type of sources you need to make progress.
  • The best first steps end with the identification of the second step. If you want to reap the full benefit of this rule, make sure you end your first small piece of work having clearly identified the next small piece of work. At this point, the big scary project has been reduced to a tiny little next action that you’re happy to act upon.

Conclusion

It’s a simple piece of advice. But one I still use. Not only does it take away the fear of large assignments, but there’s something about starting so early that gives you a little jolt of self-satisfaction. Like some sort of academic junkie, you’ll begin to crave this jolt, and might just find yourself cured of your procrastination habit altogether. At very least, your shiny ‘A’ might impress all those well-dressed bastards who think they’re so much cooler than you.

(Photo by xb3)

5 Articles That Will Change The Way You Think About Personal Productivity

July 18th, 2008 · 11 comments

Re-Thinking ProductivityThe Thinker

There’s nothing more satisfying when reading than that magic moment when something flips a switch deep within the neuronal recesses of your brain, and completely transforms your world view. I wanted to share with you a collection of productivity-related articles that, for me, generated this feeling. They have helped challenge my own beliefs about what it means to be “productive.” Indeed, you’ve likely seen their influence ricocheting throughout many of the recent posts here on Study Hacks. These are the the type of articles that keep me excited to check my RSS feed in the morning.

I hope they have the same effect on you…

#1. The Alternative Productivity Manifesto

This attention-catching tirade on the counter-cultural The Growing Life blog, is motivated by a simple question: if our productivity has doubled since WWII, why aren’t we working 20-hour weeks?

This article is one of the first I’ve seen to note that many of the most popular productivity gurus — ahem, Mr. Allen — are not working in the interest of the people; their goal, instead, is to help companies squeeze as much work as possible out of us poor worker drones.

#2. Rethinking Life Hacks

Writing with the trademark tone of academic sophistication that separates the Academic Productivity blog from so many others, Jose investigates a damning question: when it comes to productivity advice, where’s the evidence?

Of particular juicy goodness, is his list of some of the top internet productivity gurus — Steve Pavlina, David Allen, etc — annotated with what, exactly, these people have achieved to justify their guru status. The result, as you might imagine, is not too kind to the gurus. Like any good academic, Jose concludes with some suggestions for a more systematic approach validating life hacks.

#3. The Planning Fallacy

The always thought-provoking Eliezer Yudkowsky, in a guest post on the I Will Teach You to Be Rich blog, describes a common cognitive shortcoming: we are terrible at planning. Again and again, research has revealed that our attempts to estimate how long things will take are really no different than our prediction of the best case scenario. In other words, we are hopelessly optimistic.

Understanding this ingrained flaw can transform the way you think about project planning, leading you to take on less and schedule more time for completion.

#4. How to Act Productive

The mysterious grad hacker lampoons hyper-stress work cultures in this hilarious, and often biting, 12-part satiric series. Each entry, from #8 Skip Meals to #2 Talk About How Much You Haven’t Slept, helps pick away at the shell of social convention that conceals our worst work instincts. It also draws attention to just how much of the stress and unhappiness in our work lives (especially student work lives) is invented; a show we put on to prove to others that we belong where we are.

The series is a must-read for anyone who: (a) owns a blackberry; (b) uses the phrase “how you holding up” as a standard greeting; or (c) thinks productivity advice is for other people, you know, those with much easier jobs.

#5. The Only Guide to Happiness You’ll Ever Need

The incredible success of Leo’s Zen Habits blog baffles many people. On the surface, he peddles the same life hacking-style advice as countless others, and his format, including inspirational quotes, long tip lists, and, of course, the ubiquitous pictures of generic people jumping or watching sunsets, reeks of cliche. But something about Leo stands him above the crowd.

At its core, Zen Habits tells the story of a real man, living on an isolated island with six kids and real problems, struggling — and more often than not, succeeding — to construct a life that is engaging, but also happy and, above all, peaceful. We see us in him, and his experiences give us hope.

This recent article is an example of Leo at his best. He summarizes the core components to living a good life. Though simple, this advice resonates strongly. Something about it just seems right. It sweeps away the gunk that builds up when you spend too much time down in the proverbial dirt of the life hacking world, trying to figure out how to make the little things slightly better, and provides, instead, a big picture target. If you set down a path to satisfying the advice given here, the rest seems like it will all just click into place.

Bonus Post: How the World’s Most Famous Computer Scientist Checks E-mail Only Once Every Three Months

July 17th, 2008 · 34 comments

E-mail Zero ReduxDonald Knuth

Two weeks ago, I introduced E-mail Zero, the concept of living life with no e-mail. The motivation was to investigate innovative ways to combat the stress and lack of focus caused by living in your inbox. My case study was MIT professor Alan Lightman, who though very busy and important, communicates solely by phone, mail, and in-person meetings.

Thanks to Mike Brown, over at the BrownStudies blog, I’ve found another fascinating E-mail Zero case study to share. I’m talking about Stanford Professor Donald Knuth, arguably the world’s most important living computer science personality (my advisor, no small shakes herself, recently won the “Knuth Prize,” a major honor). Professor Knuth is perhaps best known for his famed series: The Art of Computer Programming (named by American Scientist as one of the best twelve physical-science monographs of the century.)

On his official Stanford web site, Professor Knuth notes:

I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime.

He continues with a rationale for his decision:

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.

The argument here is obvious. But still, nonetheless, powerful. For some jobs, e-mail hinders your ability to perform at your peak. In such situations, it would seem, as Professor Knuth has concluded, you might have an professional obligation to stop using highly distracting electronic communication.

But wait! The good professor is the author of famous textbooks, and he is famously diligent about tracking down bugs (he rewards any reported bug with $2.56 — one hexadecimal dollar). He also plays a major role in the computer science community and is constantly, I imagine, in contact with all sorts of famous people and powerful academics and members of the media. He has to stay in touch with tons of people all the time!

No worries. He’s got that covered:

On the other hand, I need to communicate with thousands of people all over the world as I write my books. I also want to be responsive to the people who read those books and have questions or comments. My goal is to do this communication efficiently, in batch mode — like, one day every three months. So if you want to write to me about any topic, please use good ol’ snail mail and send a letter to the following address…

But wait again! What if someone requires an urgent response? Again, he’s a step ahead:

I have a wonderful secretary who looks at the incoming mail and separates out anything that she knows I’ve been looking forward to seeing urgently. Everything else goes into a buffer storage area, which I empty periodically.

Okay, but what about us poor computer science students, with a textbook bug to report. We’re not going to take the time to buy stamps and envelopes — which none of us own. Once again, Professor Knuth has us covered:

My secretary prints out all messages addressed to taocp@cs.stanford.edu or knuth-bug@cs.stanford.edu, so that I can reply with written comments when I have a chance.

Two important things to notice here. First, these are specialty addresses. “taocp” is an abbreviation for his book, and “knuth-bug” is specifically for reporting mistakes in his book. Therefore, these e-mail addresses — which get printed and added to his snail mail pile — can be used only to ask a question about his book or report a bug. Anything else — as he clearly goes on to state — is discarded.

Knuth’s Two E-mail Lessons

Professor Knuth offers two important insights for our E-mail Zero discussion:

  1. Some jobs are performed better without e-mail.
    Professor Knuth is quite insightful to notice that for some jobs — such as those that require long periods of concentration — on the whole, e-mail can do more damage than good. Sure, it’s convenient for some things, but it scuttles your primary professional purpose. When contemplating the E-mail Zero lifestyle, ask yourself the following two questions: What do I do that makes me most valuable? Would e-mail make me better or worse at this primary role? A simple idea. But as mentioned, powerful in its implications.
  2. E-mail can be processed like snail mail.
    Professor Knuth was savvy to realize that certain groups he wanted to hear from — i.e., young people finding bugs in his books — would probably only communicate via e-mail. Having the messages printed and added to a snail mail inbox is a great way to keep these avenues alive without the distraction of a checkable electronic inbox. Of course, most of us don’t have a secretary to handle this printing. But I imagine that this is a perfect place for a part-time, out-sourced virtual personal assistant (VPA). Tim Ferriss, for example, talks frequently about his VPA who manages his e-mail and forwards him the most important messages. Imagine, instead, having a VPA paid only to check your inbox once a week. He filters out the obvious spam, discards messages that match some rules you provided, and then prints, scans, and sends you a PDF of the rest. Once a week (a month? every three months?) you can print the PDFs and sort them with your snail mail. Worried about urgent communication? Have your assistant sort these out and send them in a separate PDF that you print and process every week.

I’m just thinking out loud here. But we have to give Professor Knuth credit for giving us some outstanding new insight into the different roles e-mail might play in a hyper-efficient, hyper-focused work style.

Who else do you know that does or would benefit from the E-mail Zero lifestyle?

(photo from StanfordAlumni.org)

Monday Master Class: Stop Procrastinating by Making it Easier to Procrastinate

July 14th, 2008 · 17 comments

The Student’s CurseWillpower

After spending years confronting the peculiar peccadilloes of the student set, I’ve learned that one problem, in particular, looms above the rest. I’m talking, of course, about procrastination. For many students, it’s the personification of academic troubles: “if I could only stop procrastinating on my work, I would be doing fine.”

My experience has revealed that there are two types of procrastination. The first, which I’ll call light procrastination, is the standard resistance to shutting down e-mail or turning off the TV that we all feel. I’ve posted before on hacking this issue; simple tricks, like working according to a regular schedule, starting early rather than late, and keeping yourself well-fed.

The real monster, however, is what I call deep procrastination. This is a state, reached by an alarming number of students, in which the pressure of starting at the absolute last minute becomes necessary to motivate any work. Students who suffer from deep procrastination pull frequent all-nighters and are often found begging for extensions on assignments they couldn’t bring themselves to begin before the deadline.

This is a serious problem, and I want to offer an unconventional solution — born from experience — for eliminating its worse effects.

The Roots of Deep Procrastination

The most common reason given for procrastination: work sucks. You assume you delay because the chore itself is brutal. But is this true?

Think back to the last assignment that you put off until the minute. Now imagine during the upcoming fall semester you have no courses to take. Your professor says he believes in your talent and that he wants you to complete this one assignment at your own pace.

For most students, the work would be rather enjoyable. Be it a research paper or a big chunk of reading, there is something very satisfying about mastering material over time. It makes you feel competent (one of our three basic psychological needs), and most people, when not under incredible pressure, actually enjoy learning new things.

The reason, then, that some students suffer from deep procrastination: their schedule as a whole is too demanding. Put simply, there is too much work and not enough time. Night after night they forced into a situation where they have to work, probably late, and this sucks. After a while a resentment grows toward their schoolwork — it is making their life miserable. And once they resent the work — and get none of the joys of competency and learning and mastery that classes could provide — their mind starts doing whatever it can to avoid getting started.

Curing Deep Procrastination

So what works? Stricter schedules and more intense productivity rules won’t cut it. The problem is not disorganization, it is, instead, a deep-seated antipathy to student work in general. If you want to cure deep procrastination you have to remove the source of resentment. And this means doing less; much less.

Student’s who shift to schedules with much more free time find themselves handling their workload without pain. Without the pain, they don’t grow to resent their schedules. And without the resentment, no deep procrastination will arise.

This is somewhat unexpected, as making your schedule lighter makes it easier to procrastinate in the sense that you can get away with more last minute heroics. However, for most students, the opposite occurs. The light schedule takes away their fatigue, and a true interest in their work blossoms again. Guess what? When you’re interested in your work, it’s not that hard to get started…sometimes even real early.

Are You a Deep Procrastinator?

If your procrastination has gotten to the point where your grades are starting to suffer, or you’re frequently working into the twilight hours to make deadlines at the last minute, seriously consider why this is happening, then ask yourself what you might gain by rebuilding a happy relationship with your schoolwork.

Here are a few past articles to help you get started:

  • The Zen Valedictorian
    Take a look at law #1 (underschedule) for a discussion of how and why to keep your schedule light.
  • The Radical Simplicity Manifesto
    No-nonsense advice for achieving an underscheduled lifestyle. It’s based on the Rule of One: one major, one course load, and one extracurricular.
  • How to Be Happy
    If you understand the science behind your happiness, you’ll be more likely to take you course load seriously.

E-Mail Zero: Imagining Life Without E-Mail

July 2nd, 2008 · 23 comments

Lightman Lives LightlyProfessor Lightman

At first glance, Alan Lightman is the poster boy for a fast-paced, turbo-charged lifestyle. He’s currently an adjunct professor of Humanities, Creative Writing, and Physics at MIT, where, among other feats, he introduced the Institute’s first undergraduate writing requirement and founded a science writing graduate program.

Professor Lightman is perhaps best known for his writing, including the bestselling book Einstein’s Dreams. His essays on science and life have also appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harpers, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and, basically, every other impressive literary publication on the planet.

When you read Professor Lightman’s biography, it’s hard not to imagine the prototypical gung-ho celebrity intellectual, glued to his blackberry, making moves, and ping-ponging messages with movers and shakers well into the night. One can only guess how many messages clog his inbox. 10,000? That’s chump change for the average busy professor. A better guess might be closer to 50,000!

But then you look a little closer at his official web site and notice a curious note:

I do not use e-mail, but you can reach me at my MIT office: [address removed], telephone: [number removed]

If anyone could make an argument that he had to have e-mail, it would be Alan Lightman. Think about it. He has to communicate constantly with students and his colleagues. He also has to zip around manuscripts and magazine articles. And what about keeping in touch with all of his high-power friends and fans? Imagine all the cool opportunities that he’s missing by shutting off the electronic spigot.

But here’s the thing: he’s busier than you and me, yet he’s doing just fine without e-mail. It hasn’t stopped him from accomplishing his professional goals or living an interesting life.

With this in mind, I implore you to shut the door, pull the blinds, and ask yourself, softly, the following question…

What would happen if you lived life without e-mail?

A Powerful Thought Experiment

I’ve been obsessed, recently, by this insidious little thought experiment. Over time, I’ve come to believe that for a significant cross section of society, life without e-mail would not only be possible, but would also reduce stress and not really cause any serious impact on their daily life or professional productivity.

First, however, let’s note who this probably doesn’t apply to: people with bosses. As has been often discussed, e-mail is asymmetrical. It’s easier to send e-mails than to receive them. Bosses want their lives to be easier at your expense. Ergo: you have to answer e-mail.

But what about the entrepreneurs or academics or writers or freelance consultants among you? Though your knee-jerk reaction might be “That’s impossible! My clients/collegauges/students/editors would never abide an e-mail free me!”, on closer examination, your situation just might be more flexible than you first believed…

Problems and Solutions

Let’s extend the thought experiment by facing our worst fears. What would become a problem if you were to lose e-mail? How might we fix it?

  • Lose touch with friends. This one’s easy. E-mail is poor way to keep up with close friends. Many people, myself included, tend to have a call rotation that keeps us up to date with everyone worth pinging.
  • My clients demand access. Yes. But this doesn’t have to mean e-mail access. Back in the good ‘ole days when I ran my own dot-com, we made good use of a regular phone check-in schedule and a sophisticated extranet that gave our clients the ability to check in on daily progress. At the time, this was crucial, because I was attending high school, and was a varsity athlete with daily practice, which meant that I was literally away from e-mail from 7 am to 5 pm most weekdays. They adapted.
  • E-mail is the best way to send files. Register a files@<yourname>.com e-mail address. Give this to people that need to send you a file. You can check it when you know a specific file is being sent. Of course, never actually respond to any e-mails sent to this address.
  • Too many people won’t go through the hassle of calling me, but they would have sent an e-mail. I’ll be missing out on this communication. Good! This filters communication down to the truly important.
  • My business requires me to handle a constant stream of requests and queries from customers (or students). Build a custom web site form that allows your customers (or students) to specify:
    • the type of request,
    • a description of the request, and
    • a list of actions, if any, they require from you.

    If you want an example of such a form in action, check out the contact pages deployed by some of the more popular productivity blogs. (For example: 43 Folders.) If they insist that e-mail is the best way to contact them, build into your system the ability to do one-way e-mail. That is, to send a message, from the control panel of your request submission system, to an e-mail address, and have the reply-to address be set to something fake. You can automatically append a standard signature of the form: “please do not reply to this e-mail. If you require further information, you can…” (If you need to process a huge quantity of such requests, consider a professional grade ticket system of the type used by system administrators.)

  • I’ll be left out of discussions driven by messages that are cc’d to multiple people. Very good! These are time wasters. If someone wants to put something on your plate they have to take the time to get in touch with you by phone, or in person, and explain, clearly, what is needed. If they need to check in on an ongoing project, the same holds: phone or in person. The result: less ambiguous crap. More focus.
  • In general, I’m going to miss out on some communication. That’s fine. We don’t need to communicate as much as we do now.
  • The editors/agents/clients I need to contact are only available on e-mail. Not true. People read letters and answer the phone. You just don’t want to make the effort.
  • Regardless of what you say above, I can think hard and come up with some work, or clients, or opportunity that would be impossible without e-mail. I’m sure such things exist. Don’t do those things.

The Benefits

The benefits that arise in this thought experiment are two-fold: (1) less crap; and (2) more focus. You still accomplish the important stuff, but also free yourself from all the small, or annoying, or unnecessary, or, worst of all, ambiguous requests that eat up so much of our day. Perhaps even more profound, imagine the focus you could achieve if there was no inbox to check. Instead, you just worked until you finished what you needed to, then shut down the computer, and got down to the business of living life.

The Implication

I don’t know what to make of this thought experiment. Should we really turn back the clock on such a powerful innovation? Would we really want to? I don’t know. But Professor Lightman’s example does make one thing clear: regardless of how you personally feel, the e-mail zero lifestyle is possible. If you live in your inbox, it’s a choice you’re making; a choice you could reverse.

For the students among you, this is something to keep in mind as you plan your ideal life after college…

The Science of Procrastination Revisted: Researchers Rethink Willpower

April 23rd, 2008 · 26 comments

Willpower as a Limited ResourceLow Stress

In January, I posted an article titled The Science of Procrastination. It reported on the work of Dr. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist from Florida State University. Baumeister had demonstrated an effect called ego-depletion. The idea was simple: self-control depends on a limited resource — a resource that, like a muscle, depletes during repeated, continuous use.

The experiments were elegant and convincing. Give a subject two tasks that require self-control and they’ll do worst on the second. Replace the first task with something that requires no self-control and their performance on the second increases.

The conclusion: willpower is a limited resource. The more you use, the more you lose. So use it wisely during the day.

A Problem Emerges

In February of this year, an article appeared in the journal of Social and Personality Psychology Compass. It was written by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, a pair of pioneering social psychologists from the University of Rochester, who, over the past three decades, have innovated our understanding of motivation.

Their message to Baumeister: your experiments are nice but your conclusions, unfortunately, aren’t quite right.

Enter Self-Determination Theory

Ryan and Deci have been amassing, for more than a decade, a substantial body of evidence supporting a model of energy and vitality that they call Self-Determination Theory (SDT).

This model overturns Baumeister’s “willpower is like a muscle” message, and provides us with a more nuanced view of why sometimes we’re energized when we face work, and why other times we are very much not.

Self-Control is Hard; Except When it’s Not

Ryan and Deci’s SDT framework describes how we maintain and enhance vitality. The concept of vitality captures, roughly, physical and mental energy. Among other things, it’s often associated with “vigor,” feelings of positive affect,” and “calm energy.” In short: the opposite of the mood that fuels procrastination.

The SDT model makes several predictions about what affects our vitality levels. Perhaps the single prediction most relevant to our discussion of willpower:

  • Autonomous self-regulation (decisions made based on your own deeply held interests) is less depleting than activities that are controlled (decisions made based on other sources, from societal pressures to external control).

Ryan and Deci’s response to Baumeister is that self-control can deplete willpower. But, if the activity is autonomously self-regulated — if it derives from a deeply held interest or value — then willpower (as described by vitality) will not be depleted; in fact, it might even be enhanced.

In short: the effect self-control has on your willpower (vitality) depends not on how much work you’re doing, but the ultimate reason why you’re doing it.

Putting the Theory to the Test

In a series of experiments, conducted in 1999 by Ryan and Deci, along with Glen Nix and John Manly, also of the University of Rochester, this hypothesis was put to the test.

Experiment #1. The subjects were given the Wisconsin Card Sort, a standard cognitive problem-solving task. Half the subjects were self-directed. They could solve the task however the wanted. The other half were other-directed. They had to follow the strategy of the previous subject.

Happiness and vitality were tested before and after the task. As predicted by SDT: vitality decreased for the other-directed subjects but stayed the same for the self-directed. Happiness increased for both cases. (People are temporarily happy when they do well.)

Experiment #2. The researchers investigated a more subtle form of control. They turned their attention from external control (the experimenter giving instructions) to internal control (in this case: ego.) The subjects, who, like in the first experiment, were college students, were given a series of puzzles to accomplish. The task-directed group were given some background on the artist and told about the comics in which the puzzles originally appeared. The ego-directed group, on the other hand, was told that the puzzles were increasingly being used to measure intelligence and perceptual skills. A story was weaved about the Air Force using the puzzle to screen pilots. Both groups were given positive feedback throughout the experiment.

Once again, the non-controlled, task-directed group had vitality stay strong, while the ego-directed group crashed and burned.

Same task. Same positive feedback. No external control in either case. By simply turning the framing of the experiment to one of supporting ego, the task became not about a freely made decision or interest, but, instead about the maintence of others’ perception of the subject’s abilities. By doing so, the task became a willpower drain.

Implications for You

As college students, we’re quick to blame feelings of burnout or mental malaise on the amount or type of work we face. (“Not another paper! I’m tired of this!”)

The work of Ryan and Deci, however, gives us new insight into the source of these student slumps: The “why” matters. We can harness this insight to generate a collection of concrete strategies to avoid such low points:

  • As much as possible, engineer your student life to make the source of your actions intrinsic — that is, freely chosen and connected to an honest interest.
  • Run fast as hell from any large commitment that you feel like you’re expected or have to do. Over time, these will keep draining your vitality until you spiral into a burnout.
  • Be careful about asking for advice from authority figures. Hearing, for example, a parent telling you that you should follow a certain path can have the effect of making the related actions feel controlled — even if you might have arrived at the same conclusion on your own. Mentors are safer as they exist outside of an existing framework of control in your life.
  • Spend the time necessary to figure out what’s important to you and what’s not. Without real values, almost any activity will be arbitrary or controlled by outside forces.
  • Leave your schedule open enough that, on a regular basis, you can pursue random, interesting opportunities as they arise. These provide the vitality equivalent of booster shots; keeping your zest for life strong.

In Conclusion

Procrastination remains inevitable. But the hope provided by Ryan and Deci is that for many activities it’s allure can be weakened. When you’re doing something that you choose to do, it’s just not that bad.

Not surprisingly, this empirical research resonates well with the optimal lifestyle approach described by my anecdotal experiences. I’m talking, of course, about the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy. When you read the story of a ZV-practioner like Tyler, with his defiant choice of a classics major, a focus on research he enjoys, the lack of resume-fodder activities, and his open, random-event rich schedule, it’s hard not to imagine Ryan and Deci smiling with approval.

Keep these experiments in mind next time you feel like your college schedule is becoming too much to bear. Remind yourself often of what is perhaps the most important question you can learn to ask: why?