The NO BS guide to Productivity (Part II): Grandma knows best

Can your grandmother help you hack your biases and be more productive?

“white and brown owl on tree during daytime” by Philip Brown

The topic of productivity, or how to be more productive is very squishy. We defined being productive as:

Being productive — doing things that progress you towards completing your goals

In this part, we will have a look at some wisdom that stood the test of time. More importantly, we will try to extract practical advice from it, so that you can make detecting BS easier for you. After all, removing things from your attention will free up time for making progress towards your goals (Less is more).

Cognitive dissonance

People rationalize that things they can’t do are bad for them anyway, in order to avoid inconsistent beliefs. That follows from the theory of Leon Festinger. But its roots can be found in “The story of Ahikar”:

Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance, etc.

Missed your workout? Nothing to worry about, you say, one workout can’t help you lose that much weight, and the gym would’ve been so full you couldn’t do it anyway! Right?

What does this mean in practice?

Don’t you find it peculiar that people who smoke (more often than not) know that smoking causes cancer, yet they continue to smoke? That’s cognitive dissonance right there, they rationalize it somehow and remove “the bad facts” from the picture.

In practice, you try to reduce the effect of the cognitive dissonance in four ways:

- Change the behavior or the understanding: “I’ll eat no more chocolate.”
- Change the conflicting understanding: “Of course, I’m allowed to cheat on my diet once in a while.”
- Add new understandings: “I’ll do 30 minutes of extra cardio to work off the chocolate.”
- Ignore or deny information that conflicts with existing beliefs: “This dark chocolate is not a high-calorie food.”

Loss Aversion

“Segnius homines bona quam mala sentiunt” (Men feel the good less intensely than the bad)
in Livy’s Annals (XXX, 21)

More recently Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman wrote about it in their 1984 paper “Choices, Values, and Frames”

It is better to not lose $100 than to find $100. It is better to not break your Habit streak than to add one more day to it! Yes, that’s why “don’t break the chain” principle works!

What does this mean in practice?

Well, you hate losing money, don’t you? You can bet against that you would do something (go to the gym, ask the nice waitress out or call your long lost friend). If you don’t — you lose it. That might be a bit harsh, sometimes, especially when money is hard to find :) Games often do this really well they often threaten you to lose your progress. Man, didn’t I hate dying as I was playing Diablo 2 (especially in hardcore mode)?

Negative advice

The good is not as good as the absence of bad
We know the wrong better than what’s right
Nassim Nicholas Taleb

What does this mean in practice?

I need to bring very little logic and data to the table advising you that smoking is bad for you! However, telling you that you should strictly follow the ketogenic diet requires a lot of arguments, logic, and data to convince you that it is, in fact, the thing for you!

Similarly, I could tell you not having goals is bad for your health (ask Ice Cube, ahem…) without the need for much convincing. Telling you that your goals should include meditation for 30 minutes and using a fitness wristband daily should make you a little uncomfortable and wanting to know why?

Skin in the game

“You can’t chew with somebody else’s teeth.”
Yiddish proverb
Talk is cheap and people who talk and don’t do are easily detectable by the public because they are too good at talking.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb

What does this mean in practice?

Surprisingly, this one can answer questions of the type “What do I want to be when I grow up?”. Want to have skin in the game and know if you are good or not? Then you should be judged by your clients — software developer, designer, engineer, writer, plumber etc or unambiguous principles — mathematician, physicist or engaging in other hard sciences. Want to be possibly full of it — macroeconomist, a behavioral economist, psychologist.

Additionally, skin in the game makes you smarter! Having the possibility of both winning or losing something gives you that edge that you might need to get it done. Are entrepreneurs addicted to entrepreneurship because of their skin in the game?

Time discounting

“A bird in the hand is better than ten on the tree.”
Levantine proverb

Research by Bickel, Odum, & Madden, 1999 states that:

Present rewards are weighted more heavily than future ones. Once rewards are very distant in time, they cease to be valuable. Delay discounting can be explained by impulsivity and a tendency for immediate gratification, and it is particularly evident for addictions such as nicotine

What does this mean in practice?

Eating that cheeseburger right now will give you instant gratification — salty, tasty meat and cheese. It is hard to imagine your future self on the scale tomorrow morning, swearing and puffing. That one is tough, right?

So what can you do to fight this? One way is to lose something (use Loss Aversion) if you choose the thing right now. Note that it might be best to act right now, depending on the situation (see the Levantine proverb).

Less is more

“Truth is lost with too much altercation”
Publilius Syrus

The exact phrase is from the 1855 poem “Andrea del Sarto“ by Robert Browning:

Well, remember how you spend countless hours deciding your new phone make and/or color? How about when you were customizing your new car — seats, rims, extras, colors? Me, I am guilty of spending sooo much time looking for the best productivity app. My grandmother, on the other hand, was living blissfully unaware of such problems!

In his book “The paradox of choice — why more is less” Barry Schwartz tells us that:

- The more options you have, the harder it gets to make a decision.
- The more options you have, the less happy you will be, and it does not depend on your final choice.
- Good enough is the best for most situations — satisfying is good for your health.

What does this mean in practice?

Choose your tasks, habits, and goals wisely. Focus on a few, at a time. Those you really believe you should do (even if unwanted)! Accept that you will not do everything you can possibly do.

All else must be removed from your mind and let not bother you “what if I chose to do that” type of questions. Doing 100 tasks a week does not make you a productivity wiz!

The paradox of progress

When King Pyrrhus tried to cross into Italy, Cynéas, his wise adviser, tried to make him feel the vanity of such action. “To what end are you going into such enterprise?” he asked. Pyrrhus answered, “To make myself the master of Italy.” Cynéas: “And so?” Pyrrhus: “To get to Gaul, then Spain.” Cynéas: “Then?” Pyrrhus: “To conquer Africa, then … come rest at ease.” Cynéas: “But you are already there; why take more risks?”
The paradox of progress can be explained as the fact that there are great advancements in technology, medicine and communication etc over the past century but this has created more problems for people to deal with, instead of making life easier. higher economy and consumerism leads to more stress as people work more and society falls behind. As we move forward as a society we create more problems. this is the paradox.

What does this mean in practice?

Buying into the latest fad — fitness wristband, veganism, “science-based” productivity app or CrossFit might seem like a great thing at first. You’re all in on the “good life”, correct? They all will take you on a roller coaster ride promising high rewards at the end of your journey — healthier life and happiness. But you’re better than this — you’ll do research and I mean research. Reading through 2–3 blog posts, of people who know how to write persuasive blog posts, will confirm your bias and you might even open your wallet to the premium CrossFit membership (whatever that is).

See, all of these might be beneficial for you but you have Lindy on your side and knowing that scientism isn’t science can help you choose what you want to progress towards more carefully.

Up next

Disappointed or troubled? Shouldn’t be, life is complex and largely unpredictable. You now know what you shouldn’t do if you want to be productive, for the most part.

In the next part, you’ll learn more about progress and what should you progress towards. After all, we defined being productive as making progress towards your goals!

Say hi in the comments :) Thanks for reading!