Deep Habits: Never Plan to “Get Some Work Done”


A Useful Metaphor

In the first chapter of The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt introduces the metaphor of the rider and the elephant. When trying to conceptualize his own weakness in the face of his best intentions, he explains:

I [am] a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.

Ever since I first read these words, they stuck with me as useful for understanding the working world in particular. The whole edifice that we now call “productivity advice” distills, I realized, to instructions for cajoling the elephant. If you’re not firm, it’ll do what it wants to do.

It’s against this backdrop that I present the following truism about this metaphorical quadruped: if you’re not exceptionally clear about where you want it to go, it will wander.

I noticed this earlier in the week. Some uncertainty in my post-semester schedule  left me with an unplanned afternoon at my office. As so many knowledge workers do, I resolved simply “to get some work done.”

Three hours later, I was aghast.

I had spent this period in a state of fierce busyness: many e-mails were answered (yet the issues they concerned never quite got fully resolved), logistics were painstakingly worked out, and I must have made a half-dozen trips to the printer for some unknown reason.

But when I considered the most vital things on my radar — the projects on which almost everything important in my near future career rests — nothing of consequence was accomplished.

People sometimes chide me when I admit my habit of carefully planning every hour of my day (and every day of my week). They think I’m hopelessly rigid and unable to flow with the dynamics of a creative workday.

But it took only one afternoon free from structure to reaffirm what I know to be true. The elephant of your working mind has no interest in bringing you to where you need to go. It will always default to the watering hole of shallow busyness if not reined with confidence.

38 thoughts on “Deep Habits: Never Plan to “Get Some Work Done””

  1. Great post, Cal!

    It reminds of Taleb’s Antifragility concept. When uncertainty and randomness play a fundamental role in how things are going to turn out. Trying to become antifragile and develop a mindset to gain from disorder is, perhaps, the best approach to face randomness.

  2. Amazing post, Cal. Recently I bumped into a similar idea about the setbacks generated by planning, proposed by Daniel Kahneman, called the Planning fallacy:, which uncover our bias for estimating how long projects will take considering variations in tasks and time.

    I would like to hear from you if Deep Work offers some framework to cope with large projects (say, something that take 3 or 4 years), or some strategies to fragment monumental enterprises into more interdependent cores of work.


  3. I applaud your carefully planned schedule Cal.

    I periodically try to reduce time management to its simplest form. I keep returning to a sentence from Annie Dillard’s book The Writing Life: A schedule defends from chaos and whim.
    – Chaos: Distractions originating from the external world.
    – Whim: Distractions originating from my impulses or weaknesses.

    Her sentence only takes five minutes to memorize, and years to execute consistently.

    • That comment is going inside my planning notebook and above my desk. Thanks, David.
      Cal, the same thing happens to me at the end of the semester. It’s as if the sudden change in schedule makes it okay to waste time. Sort of a pre-vacation vacation day.

      • Hi Matt. I can totally relate to this. We are presently on semester break, and seriously, I feel and know that I have been wasting away my time. I haven’t done anything productive for the past 2weeks. Anytime I remember, I feel like beating up my self. Maybe I’ll try to implement Cal’s method. Nice post Cal

  4. Wow, this post resonates with me a lot!

    I envy those capable to plan carefully their paths and manage to follow literally what they envisioned. But I still believe that a rigid and inflexible schedule is more prone to high costs when things go wrong. I wonder if it’s possible to build a schedule susceptible to oscillations but at the same time robust enough to resist them.

    Because we have to admit, chaos is unavoidable. Eventually, unexpected events will happen.

  5. “The main cause of failure and unhappiness is trading what you want most… for what you want at the moment.”  ~ unknown

  6. In my case the elephant is too strong, if it doesn’t want to move in the direction of productivity there is nothing I can do about it. Being firm and knowing what needs to get done in detail doesn’t change anything. This happens a little too often to me for my own liking.
    I like the metaphor of the elephant but I do not like the advice of this post.

  7. Your elephant analogy also reminds me of a story from Eknath Easwaran’s “Passage Meditation”, where he compares the human mind to a wandering elephant trunk, unstoppable in it’s random hunger, unless given something to do. For Easwaran, this “something” for the human mind is a mantra. But let him tell it:

    On festival days in India you will often see a huge elephant, caparisoned in gold and gorgeous cloth, carrying an image of the Lord on its back through the village streets. Everyone enjoys the sight: the musicians with their drums and cymbals in front, then the beast slowly lumbering along and the devotees behind, all on their way to the temple. But there can be one difficulty. Stalls of fruits, vegetables, and sweets line the narrow, crooked streets, and the trunk of an elephant, as you may know, rarely stays still. It sways back and forth, up and down, constantly. So when the procession comes abreast of a fruit stall, the elephant seizes a shelled coconut or two, opens his cavernous mouth, and tosses them in. At another stall the big fellow twists his trunk round a bunch of bananas suspended from the roof. The mouth opens again, the whole bunch goes in with a thud . . . you hear a gulp . . . and that’s the end of it. The humble people who own these stalls cannot afford this kind of loss, and to prevent it the man in charge, the mahout, asks the elephant to grasp a firm bamboo shaft in his trunk. Though not sure why, the elephant, out of love for his mahout, does as he is told. Now the procession can pass safely through the streets. The elephant steps right along with his stick held upright in a steady trunk, not tempted to feast on mangoes or melons because he has something to hold on to. The human mind is rather like the trunk of an elephant. It never rests . . . it goes here, there, ceaselessly moving through sensations, images, thoughts, hopes, regrets, impulses. Occasionally it does solve a problem or make necessary plans, but most of the time it wanders at large, simply because we do not know how to keep it quiet or profitably engaged. But what should we give it to hold on to? For this purpose I recommend the systematic repetition of the mantram, which can steady the mind at any time and in any place. What Is a Mantram? Of late, the ancient word mantram (or the familiar variant mantra) has had considerable exposure on talk shows and in the Sunday supplements. To many it may conjure up an exotic image of flowing robes, garlands, and incense. It may seem to be something impractical and otherworldly, perhaps a bit magical and mysterious. Actually, just the opposite holds true. The mantram – under other names, to be sure – has been known in the West for centuries, and there need not be anything secret or occult about it. The mantram stands open to all. And since it can calm our hearts and minds, it is about as practical as anything can be.

    Easwaran, Eknath (2009-06-01). Passage Meditation: Bringing the Deep Wisdom of the Heart into Daily Life (Essential Easwaran Library) (pp. 65-66). Nilgiri Press.

  8. Hi Cal,

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while. Right now I’m working on my bachelor thesis and I can’t get my self to focus, I procrastinate and procrastinate. I have this feeling that there’s always something to do but I’m not that passionate anymore, kind of burned out if you will.

    Do you have any advice?

    I’m really lost at this moment.

    Thank you!

  9. Thank you Cal for the simple and visual reminder that we need to stay focused to achieve the “important stuff.” Thanks also to the pearls that several of you left in your blogs that made me pause and reflect.

  10. Cal, perhaps you could be a bit more specific on how to balance this advice? Do you need to allocate time towards a specific project or do you have to break it down into subtasks within that project. I currently do project-, not -task-, level. I find if I try to break a project down into subtasks I will lose sight of the overall picture and plus I usually jump between tasks as I see fit rather than working in a strictly linear way. e.g. if writing a paper I may read for a bit, then write a little, then read some more, then write more and edit what I initially wrote, etc. it’s a very fluid process.

    Also, how is it bad that you answered emails–isn’t that something you have to do anyway so may as well get it done when you have free time? I keep a zero inbox but then again I don’t get many emails and the ones I do get are either important or I delete them immediately.

  11. I usually have specific goals in mind, such as completing X task in 5 hours a week spending an hour a day; but I’ll just tell people I’m getting some work done. So glad that saying and planning are two different things. Also, the elephant analogy has me thinking about Evernote. LOL.

  12. Beautiful…..Yet I do think some of us are able to flow easily from one task to another, and get things accomplished efficiently. Unfortunately I am not one of these people. I need, though am not through resisting, structure to avoid majoring in minors.

  13. I chide those who chide you, Cal. Specificity and scheduling tasks are critical components to getting work done. That’s why you get so much done–you have decided what and when to do them and for how long.

    And that implies that you have already decided which specific work you need to get done and have prioritized what will done during each scheduled time slot.

    I think that’s were I get overwhelmed, in the decision making process of doing deep work–trying to analyze and decide what should be done when, so I know which direction to guide the elephant. But most of the time, I let the elephant decide and the elephant usually decides work that isn’t deep.

  14. Cal, I really enjoy your writing, even when (as with this post) I feel that you are missing an important element. Yes, I agree, you should never say “I’m going to get some work done”, but I disagree that an unscheduled afternoon needs to be rigidly detailed and planned.

    It is too bad that it got filled with busy-work. Obviously, though, the emails needed to be done, or they wouldn’t be there. Logistics have to be done sometime. So it seems to me you did exactly what you planned: you got “some work” done.

    For some reason, though, you aren’t happy about that. That’s where I’m interested in digging (and it’s in a direction that you’ve written extensively about): when you’re given that three-hour stretch, what about taking a moment, sitting down, and figuring out what you are drawn to? Isn’t that the moment when you can pursue your passion, instead of the things that seem so vital to your purpose?

    I personally disagree with the idea that the elephant will always default to busy-ness. I think the elephant (as described in Haight’s book) is, after all, part of us, a deeper, core part, and it often knows better than the rider when we are heading in the wrong direction. I think, at times, it’s good to listen to the elephant.

    • Thanks for sharing this thought, Gray. I felt similarly puzzled by why Cal was so bothered by the way he spent his afternoon. Errands and logistics have to get done at some point, and this free afternoon seems like a good time to do them. Cal, you also wrote that “logistics were painstakingly worked out” — it sounds like you were doing the kind of detailed planning that you describe in the planning posts you linked to. Isn’t this setting you up for a productive next few days or upcoming week?

  15. Hi Cal,

    Great post as usual! This really resonates well with me. Time blocking doesn’t work and no work gets done without some firm, confident ‘reining’

  16. I agree with your advice, Cal, but I think you’re missing the key point of the example you’re citing. The elephant CAN be controlled, but the point of there being an elephant at all rather than a man controlling his own legs is that there are times when one cannot rein in at all. The elephant goes where it wants not because of lack of control, but despite heavy control. That’s what he’s saying.

  17. I really liked the elephant metaphor because it really made me realise how my mind works when it comes down to getting some work done. Many times I’ve been puzzled over where all the effort I had made have gone. I really should schedule my time but where do I find time for that? Thanks for the post, it really gave me lots of food for thought.

  18. So very true. Great elephant metaphor as well, sums it up perfectly. This has happened to me on too many occasions, I’ve planned to get some work done in that spare couple of hours I had in between things, but ultimately nothing of true significance actually gets accomplished.

  19. Cal,

    Your thought’s that you have shared in your post were spot on. Frankly it have caused me to do some self reflection. Currently I’m a college student, and I will honestly admit I have thought those exact same words, “get some work done.” And as a result, work (assignments) aren’t done and I have caused myself to become frustrated. As I’m aware I have only myself to blame, but I was fascinated how you ended your remarks by saying, “The elephant of your working mind has no interest in bringing you to where you need to go. It will always default to the watering hole of shallow busyness if not reined with confidence.”
    To Conclude, I have been careless of where my “elephant” has taken me these past couple of months. I let go of the reins, and even though I have regained control of the “elephant” I have realized that I have to pay the consequences of my time management. But you know what? I will do it with gladness. I may not get an A in my classes but I take this opportunity to thank you for illuminating what I need to accomplish, it may be small to someone, but it means a lot to me.

    Thank you.


Leave a Comment