The Two Selves: Implications for Time Management and Productivity

I’m on vacation. I’m sitting on the deck of a house overlooking Sunset Beach in Hawaii. It’s a windy day and the waves are blowing. Since I’ve been so lazy here I’ve been thinking about productivity. And the paradox of our two selves.

Here’s an interesting question:  How is it that sometimes we tell ourselves “I’m going to do such and such task” and then don’t do it?

Who is the self who is giving the orders and who is the self who is not following them?

How is this even possible? Are we a collection of multiple personalities?

It’s such a common phenomenon that we take it for granted. We are never surprised when we say to ourselves “I think I’ll skip that cake” and then we end up eating the cake. Or we say to ourselves “I think I’ll work on that project,” and then we surf the internet instead.

And yet there is something profoundly strange about all of these phenomena. It is as if there is one self who tells the other self what to do, and then that other self decides whether or not to do it. Who is driving this bus?!

How do these two selves work? There is a little bit of research about this. In his book Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow Daniel Kahneman discusses these concepts and notes that we always assume that our future self will be more disciplined and more self-controlled. Sadly, this is almost never true. Our future self is merely an extension of our current self with all of its flaws. In fact, it is our incorrect belief in the future self being more sensible that allows our current self to overeat, smoke, drink, or procrastinate doing work.

We make the dangerous assumption that we can afford these bad behaviors in the present because our future self will clean up the problem. Unfortunately, our future self is just as much of a slacker and just as self-indulgent as our present self.

So how is it possible that we have these multiple selves and cannot control our own behavior? Who is driving the bus?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this issue lately and I have to admit I am somewhat puzzled by these phenomenon.

First of all, we need some terminology. Let’s call the telling-yourself-to-do-things-self the Commanding Self. And let’s call the self that actually does things The Behaving Self.

One possible explanation is that our real self is the Behaving Self, and the Commanding Self is the aspirational and illusory self. In this formulation, the reason that we don’t follow through on things is that we don’t actually really want to. Using this model we can elegantly use Occam’s razor to reduce our two selves to one self; the Behaving Self who is actually the real self. We would become behavioral reductionists, and to determine what people want we would observe what they actually do.

But then why do we spend so much time and energy having this other self who tells us what to do? And there are time when we actually do listen to the Commanding Self. What is different about those times when we listen and those times when we resist?

For instance, most of us have the experience of doing exercise, at least occasionally. And in order to do this we must listen to our Commanding Self.

Perhaps some of the current research on willpower can help us to understand the circumstances when the Commanding Self is listened to, and when it is not.

Current research on willpower suggests that it is a precious and limited commodity. It diminishes rapidly when used, and perhaps has about a 15 to 30 minutes half-life before it is exhausted. Other research suggests it is powered by our glucose metabolism so ironically the best way to resist overeating is to have a little bit of a sugary drink to restore blood sugar and thus willpower. The other factors that diminish willpower include being tired, hungry, or emotionally upset. The 12-Step people were onto something with their model of Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired (HALT) which captures this concept perfectly, and predicts relapse.

So perhaps another way of conceptualizing this strange dichotomy of selves is that the Commanding Self and the Behaving Self have relatively different strengths depending on our state of being both physically and emotionally.

The Commanding Self has more relatively more strength when we are well-rested, emotionally balanced, sober, and well-fed. The Behaving Self takes over when we’re tired, emotionally upset, inebriated, or hungry.

Perhaps we should label the Behaving Self the Misbehaving Self! After all, most of the time the Behaving Self actually does misbehave. And perhaps we should label the Commanding Self as the Demanding Self.

There are many other self splits that we can look at. For instance, there clearly is a split between our short-term self and our long-term self. Many of the discrepancies in our behavior are a result of this particular split.

For instance, dieting. The short-term self wants immediate food gratification regardless of the long-term consequences on our weight or health. The short-term self wants to spend money in contradiction to the long-term self’s goal of spending less money and saving more.

So how can we integrate these multiple selves? Is it possible to create cooperation between our Commanding Self and our Behaving Self?

Can we possibly learn to show up for ourselves and actually follow through on what we say we are going to do?

Exercise: Testing the Commanding Self by Interviewing the Behaving Self

Here’s an interesting exercise. What if you means-tested each command from the Commanding Self by asking yourself “How likely is it that I will do this?” And only issuing the commands that your Behaving Self agreed with?

So if you sit down at your computer and say “I’m going to do some writing,” you would ask yourself, “Do I really want to do some writing, and will I actually follow through and do it?” If the answer was not a resounding yes, then you would not issue the command.

It would be a very interesting experiment to spend an entire day doing this. One could also experiment with lowering the expectations of the Commanding Self. For instance, rather than saying I’m going to lift weights for 30 minutes, I would say I will lift weights for 5 minutes and then decide if I feel like doing more. That way I have at least lived up to my own expectations.

Same with eating. Rather than say I’m only going to eat one chip , I would instead say I’m going to eat the entire bag. Then if I leave a little bit I have actually outperformed my expectations.

In a sense what I’m suggesting here is that we have an honest dialogue with ourselves. As we write down our to-do list each morning, we should pretend that we are a boss or a manager asking an employee if they are willing and able to do each task. “Are you willing to sit down today and write for an hour?” “I don’t really know. I’m feeling sort of tired and unmotivated today. I guess I can commit to writing for 30 minutes, but I am not sure about an hour.” “Okay, why don’t you write for 30 minutes?”

And with each item on the to-do list we would have this honest discussion. We might also have a meta-discussion about the entire to-do list. For instance, “I notice that there are a large number of items on this to-do list and you only have a few hours free today. Is it realistic to really expect to accomplish all of these items or should you be moving several to another day?”

“Yes, I see what you mean. I probably can’t achieve all of these items. I guess I have to pick one or two items and focus on those.”

“Which items would you like to select? Which are your highest priorities?”

I recently did this experiment for several days and discovered that unless my ratings of wanting to do something were in the 80 to 100 range (hundred point scale), I didn’t usually do the task. This was very consistent. I also noticed that sometimes the rating of wanting to do something didn’t get up to this critical range until the task became urgent, which of course explains procrastination.

Using the Technique of Paradoxical Agenda Setting

The technique of paradoxical agenda setting involves taking a devil’s advocate approach. Rather than trying to motivate yourself to do things by telling yourself all the good reasons why you should do those tasks, you instead ask yourself about all the reasons not to do the task?

By focusing on all the reasons not to do something you can honestly assess your motivation and even address some of these resistances more honestly. Rather than just saying to yourself “Just do it!”, you look at your resistance and troubleshoot how to eliminate it.


Exercise One: Write down all the commands you give yourself for an entire day. That includes to to-do list items that you set yourself to do, informal commands such as “I won’t eat the entire pie,” as well as any agreements you make with other people to accomplish tasks.

Write down the tasks and the commands as you issue them, not later. Otherwise you won’t remember them. At the end of the day take an inventory. Determine how many of the commands you actually accomplished. You probably want to calculate a percentage accomplished.

Take a look at this percentage. If it is over 80 percent then your two selves are very well integrated and you probably should stop reading this article right now. If it’s between 50 and 80 percent you are doing better than most people but still have plenty of room for improvement. If it’s between 30 and 50 percent then you are struggling with a split between your Commanding Self and your Behaving Self. In fact, you might just want to call it your Misbehaving Self. And if you are below 30 percent then you are probably suffering many negative consequences from your inability to integrate your multiple selves.

Exercise Two: Learning how to lower your own expectations. Write down a goal for today. Now cut it in half. Now cut it in half again. That’s the new goal. We always bite off way more than we can chew.

Exercise Three: Ownership. Write down a goal for today. Ask yourself is this is really your goal or someone else’s goal? Is it something that you want to do or is it something that you think you should do based on someone else’s opinion.?

Exercise Four: Under-promise and over-deliver. For today, practice making very small promises to yourself and overachieving on each promise. You want to be authentic and sincere in these small goals. Don’t pretend that they are actually larger goals. For instance, set a goal to walk for 10 minutes for exercise, and then walk for 15.

Exercise Five: Gradually increasing goals. If your exercise goal is to exercise 5 days a week for 30 minutes, but you only exercise once a week, then you must lower your goal first to one time a week. See if you can achieve that goal several weeks in a row. If you can, then you get to increase the goal to perhaps two times a week of exercising. Once you’ve achieved that goal you get to increase the goal to three times. But each time and each week you must reach that new goal otherwise you must go back to the previous week’s goal.

That means if you set a goal of exercising three times but you fail to meet that goal then you must roll back the goal to two times and achieve that goal that for at least two weeks in a row. This will train you to make reasonable and achievable goals and to follow through on those goals.

“Everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die” : The Paradox of Goal Versus Time Management

One of the ways to explain the disparity between our multiple selves is the trade-off principal embodied by the heaven quote.

We all have many goals, but in order to achieve goals we need time. Goals are infinite, and we can add an unlimited amount of them to our to-do list. But time is the ultimate finite quantity. We can manufacture as many goals as we choose, but we can’t produce a single extra minute of time.

Hence lies one very simple explanation for the two selves paradox. The Commanding Self produces a list of goals or tasks to achieve. The other self, which we will call the Behaving Self, must perform the task of accomplishing these goals within limited time, and must balance the time to achieve one goal versus another goal. But because the Commanding Self doesn’t really consider time in it’s estimations, the Behaving Self is almost certain to fail. The problem is that the Commanding Self does not understand the trade-off principle. The Commanding Self assumes that time is infinite. Which of course is patently untrue.

So how to fix this paradox? Perhaps the Commanding Self should be required to first estimate how much time each task or goal will take. And then double or triple this time estimate. But that won’t be enough. Instead of a to-do list, perhaps the Commanding Self should only use a calendar and time schedule. If the Commanding Self wants to straighten up the house, then it should be required to put it on the time schedule. And if it doesn’t fit on a time schedule, then don’t put it on.

This gives power back to the Behaving Self. And it is the Behaving Self that actually performs tasks. So we need to take the power away from the Commanding Self, and give it back to the Behaving Self. This should resolve many of the paradoxes between the two selves.

In a sense, what I am suggesting here is for all of us to get rid of our to-do lists, and replace them with time schedules and calendars. If a task doesn’t fit in our schedule, then it doesn’t become an action item. Of course the challenge of this is that we tend to greatly underestimate the time it takes to accomplish each task, so we would have to either leave extra time, or split tasks into numerous sessions of work spread out over several days.

I am reminded of Neil Fiore’s book The Now Habit. He talks about the UnSchedule. What he suggests is that people put on their UnSchedule all of the things they have to do every day. This includes basic tasks of daily life such as showering, eating, commuting, all meetings, etc. What is left is the actual time you have to accomplish tasks. And for most people this is a very small amount of time. He then suggests that you fill in half hour blocks of work, after you accomplish that 30 minutes of work.

It is very sobering to do this. Most people realize that at best they have an hour or two per day to actually accomplish new work. Many jobs include multiple meetings which are required, leaving relatively little time in the workday to actually accomplish anything. When I did the UnSchedule I realized that after I included all of my basic tasks of daily life, exercise, returning phone calls, processing emails, and seeing clients, most days I only had an hour or two to accomplish anything else. And this hour or two could easily be used up doing a few tasks. When I realized how little time I really had during the work week, I lowered my goals and was happy accomplishing one or two significant tasks each day.

So these are some rambling thoughts from the beach about the paradoxes which make up our lives. Now my Behaving Self is saying time to go for a swim!


Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Increase Your Productivity: 5 Easy Ways to Get Things Done Even When You are Stuck

Productivity is such a mystery for most of us. In a previous article, I wrote at length and I admit, rather philosophically, about getting things done. In this article, I am going to do something a little different. Clients often ask me for specific tips to help them get moving and increase their productivity. We’ve all had the experience of being completely blocked, seemingly unable to get anything done, and struggling to get moving. Some of this is mood and energy based. When we are tired, sleep deprived, or blue, it’s hard to motivate to do anything, especially tasks that are not fun or interesting. But life demands that we function even under these circumstances, so here are 5 tips for how to get moving when you are blocked.


1. Priming the Getting Things Done Pump

The first secret of increasing your productivity is to prime your “getting things done” pump by getting something done, anything. Pick a small task that you’ve avoided or failed to do for a long time. It can be anything. It should take no more than 5 or 10 minutes to complete. The key here is that you are going to complete something, and it’s something you’ve been avoiding for a long time.

I picked a Microsoft Class Action legal settlement form that entitled me to $125 in rebates on computer products. I had sent it in a long time ago, but it had been rejected and returned on a technicality. I pulled it out, found an appropriate receipt to attach it to, and put it in an envelope, and mailed it. Time? About 8 minutes. Not only did I get something done, but I made $125 in 8 minutes, that’s $937 per hour!

The principle is to get something a small task done, which flexes your “getting things done” muscles. By picking something you’ve avoided for a while, you get an even bigger kick.

2. The Smallest Piece Technique

You can use a related technique even for huge and complicated tasks that we all tend to avoid starting, and thus never finish. If you have a huge task, break it down into component pieces. Then pick a very small piece, a piece that will take 5 to 10 minutes, and do it.

This breaks the ice and gets you moving on the big task. Often once you’ve done the first small piece you can then do more pieces. Often it is best to use a pump-priming strategy here. Pick the smallest piece there is, and get it done. For instance, if you want to do your taxes, you might simply set the task of pulling out your tax folders and putting them on your desk. That’s it, you are done. (But now you want to do more, don’t you!)

This also works well for getting started with exercise. Rather than saying to yourself, “I’m going to take a 1-hour walk”, and then doing nothing, decide to take a 5-minute walk. Once you are outside and walking, you probably will find yourself walking for more than 5 minutes. The key is to set the task of walking 5 minutes every day, and then you break down your resistance.

3. The Dice Man (or Woman) Technique

The next technique is a good one if you find yourself frozen with indecision. You have many important tasks to do, and you can’t decide which one to do first. You are like an octopus that is pulled in many different directions by each of its tentacles and hence is frozen in place completely. This can really harm your productivity. 

In this case, use the Diceman strategy. The The Dice Man is the title of a comedic novel published in 1971 by George Cockcroft under the pen name Luke Rhinehart, in which a psychiatrist begins to make all his life decisions using a set of dice. (It’s a wild novel, and pretty interesting.)

To use this strategy, make a short list of the some of your main tasks. Number them 1-6 or 1-12. Then throw one or two dice, and do the one that the dice indicates. Or you can throw darts at the list, or even just toss a penny onto the list, and do the task the penny falls upon.

What this does it to short-circuit the part of your brain that is trying to prioritize many equally important tasks, and gets you moving and finishing a task. Often, once you do this, it is much easier to continue picking tasks and doing them. Sometimes the secret to productivity is just to do anything. 

4. The Entertainment Strategy

What about those tasks that are just plain boring? For instance, like filing, or unloading or loading the dishwasher. The best way to do these tasks is to pair them with some other activity that is fun.

For loading or unloading the dishwasher, you could use a phone with a hands-free headset, and talk to someone you like while you take care of the dishes. The same technique is useful for straightening up the house. For filing, this is also a good technique. Another approach is to do the boring task while watching or listening to some entertainment. I find baseball and football games on television perfect for tasks like filing. Both have many slow points, which allows me to get a lot done without missing key points. Listening to a good show on the radio also works. I have a whole bunch of multitasking media consumption methods that help increase my productivity.  Even the famous writer, Tim Ferris, uses this technique, putting the movies Casino Royale and Shawn of the Dead on repeat, muted, late at night, to provide an illusion of social contact while writing late at night. 

5. When All Else Fails, Bribe Yourself!

Another way of increasing your productivity, and getting unpleasant boring tasks done is to pair them with specific rewards. For instance, let’s say you have a big task to do like doing your taxes. This is a task that takes a couple of days. Before you start, set yourself a specific reward once you have finished. It could be that you get to buy something for yourself. Or go do an activity that you like. The key is to make sure that the reward is big enough to motivate the task. Telling yourself you get to eat a piece of pie after spending two days doing taxes won’t work. It probably will take something bigger, and not pie! I call this strategy “paying yourself to get things done.”

So there you have it. Five quick ways to increase your productivity, explode your resistance and get something done! Good luck!

I have to go now and pay one bill.

Copyright 2008 The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

All Rights reserved (Any web links must credit this site, and must include a link back to this site.)


Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Getting Things Done: The Inner Game

How We Don’t Get Things Done

Today I am going to write about a topic that simultaneously seems ridiculously simple and yet is deeply complex. This isn’t based on any article or book, only my own musings, so you have only me to blame if this makes no sense. The question is: “Why can’t we accomplish our goals? Why can’t we get things done that we tell ourselves we want to do? Why is getting things done so hard?”

After all, think about it this way. If you want to raise your right hand and touch your chin, you will have no difficulty in doing so. You think, “Move your right hand to your chin,” and your hand moves completely predictably and reliably. You don’t forget to do it. You don’t struggle to do it. It is easy, almost effortless.

There are so many other examples where we get things done without apparent effort. You go to a restaurant, order food, and eat. No struggle, no difficulty. You don’t have to make a list of what to do. You don’t make a list; “1. Order food, 2. Eat food, 3. Pay bill.” You don’t check off anything. It all happens without drama or hassle.

So why is it so hard to do things like paying bills, cleaning up the kitchen, or doing financial planning? Why is it so hard to exercise? Who exactly is running the show? Which self says, “You should exercise.” Which self refuses to do so? How many selves do we have?

This is a deep mystery of the self. It’s almost like we have multiple warring selves, some of whom want to accomplish tasks and be productive citizens and some of whom want to sleep all day, or go to the beach, or eat crackers in bed.

How can we make sense of this? I’m going to propose a model for understanding this. It will develop as I write, so hang onto your hats.


The first Big Question we need to examine is What Do We Really Want? Perhaps the problem is that we tell ourselves to do many tasks that we really don’t have any interest or intention of doing.

Why would we do this? Mainly because of social pressure, which we internalize. We are told you should clean up, pay bills, exercise, call your mother…and so on, and we end up internalizing these demands. But do we really want to do any of these things?

So when I tell myself, “You should pay the bills now,” do I really want to do this? I would argue that the behavior that follows answers the question. If I immediately sit down and pay the bills, then I wanted to pay them. But if I struggle, avoid, and don’t pay them without a lot of internal mental friction, then the answer is I didn’t want to pay them. I can force myself to do things that I don’t really want to do, but it’s hard, and takes extra time and effort. I want the bills to be paid, but I don’t want to pay them. That’s a common dilemma—we want the outcomes of an action, but we don’t want to do the action itself.

I am reminded of two stories that shed light on this dilemma. The first is a famous Zen story. A young monk visits the old Zen Master, telling the old master that he wishes to study with him to gain enlightenment. He goes on and on about how great it would be to study with the old master. The old Zen master says “walk with me.” They walk up a hillside, through a forest, and then come to a lake. The old Zen master walks out into the lake. Figuring that this is what Zen masters do, the young monk follows him out into the water. Soon the water is up to their necks. Calmly, the old master reaches out, forces the young monk under water, and holds him there with remarkable strength. The young monk struggles, and just when his lungs are bursting, he fights to the surface, and takes a huge breath. He looks with horror at the old Zen master, who simply smiles calmly and says, “Come back when you want enlightenment as much as you wanted that breath of air.”

Clearly we have no difficulty getting things done when we want those things done as much as the monk wanted that breath of air.

The second story is something I learned from a friend of mine who is a large animal veterinarian. I was always curious about the psychology of large animals like horses and cows. Carol worked with those, but also with more exotic beasts like buffalo. One time she mentioned a “buffalo bridle.” I was curious about what kind of bridle could be strong enough to control a buffalo, and asked her about it.

She looked at me with a sly smile, as if to say, “What a city slicker you are!” Then she explained that the buffalo bridle was not a thing, but rather something you know. Falling for it, I asked the obvious question: what do you need to know to control buffalo?

She said, “You only need to know two things.”

“What are they?” I asked.

“The first thing is that you can make a buffalo go anywhere you want…

as long as the buffalo wants to go there.”

“And let me guess the second principle,” I said. “You can keep a buffalo out of anywhere you want…. as long as they don’t want to go there.”

“Exactly!” she said.

So that’s another clue. We are a lot like buffalo. We get lots of things done, mainly the things we want to. And we are really good at not doing the things we don’t want to do.

So there you have it, a simple theory of why we get things done or don’t get things done. The things we get done easily are the things we wanted to do, and the rest is just a bunch of internalized “shoulds” that we never really wanted to do in the first place. In this radical notion there is nothing wrong with our “getting things done” mechanism. We simply have to stop fooling ourselves that we want to get all these things done. Accept our limited ambitions, and be done with it!

But there is a problem with this elegant and simple model. If this model is right, then what do we do? How can we get things done? It wouldn’t really work very well if everyone stopped doing the things they don’t want to do, like paying bills, cleaning the dishes, taking out the garbage, going to meetings, and so on. Unfortunately, sometimes we really need to do the things we don’t particularly want to do, like working at job, for an example.

Yet there is a simple allure to this model. And maybe we can use it to sort out the genuine wants from shoulds in our lives. Here’s an exercise. Take out a piece of paper right now. Make four columns vertically. In the first column list all of the tasks you find hard to get done. You can stop after 10 or so.

Next, label the second column “Want Rating.” In this column I want you to rate the degree to which you want to do each thing. This is your genuine desire to do the task, not the degree to which you think you should do it. Use a 0-10 scale where 10 is intense wanting.

In the next column rate the degree of should that you feel about the task. Again use a 0-10 scale.

Now look over the tasks where the rating for want is low, and should is high. In the last column write down what would happen if you never did the task. What would be the consequences?

This exercise can help sort out the wheat from the chaff, and help us eliminate thankless tasks or at least outsource them. For instance, I hate mowing the lawn, and can’t think of anything I’d rather not do instead. So I pay a gardener to do it. And I hate paying bills, so I don’t. Instead, I have most of my bills automatically deducted from my checking account or Visa card. If we analyzed all of our lives this way, perhaps we could spend more time doing our wants, and less time doing shoulds, and thus find happiness.

But let’s continue on our journey into the land of getting things done. Another question we need to ask is how can we want to do certain tasks? How do we increase our wanting? How do we become like that monk who desperately wants that next breath of air?

A Brief Digression into the Language of Wanting

But before I discuss that I want to take a slight detour through the intellectual forest, and talk about how we figure out what we want and perhaps more important, what we don’t want.

People often talk about doing things in terms of “having to.” “I have to go to work today. I have to take out the garbage, I have to pay the bills, I have to exercise, I have to take the kids to school.” Then there are other things that we don’t use this language about. No one really says, “I have to do the crossword puzzle, or I have to watch TV, or I have to kiss you.” But the truth is that the words “have to” don’t mean what they say. I don’t really have to go to work today. I don’t have to pay the bills. I can let the kids stay home and watch television. I can even let the garbage rot in the pail.

But we choose to do these things, mainly because we don’t want the negative consequences of not doing them. I don’t like the smell of rotting garbage, nor do I like bill collectors or truant officers banging on the door. The reason we don’t use the “have to” formulation for doing crossword puzzles, or watching television is because we enjoy them, and there are no negative consequences for not doing them.

Another difference is between process and outcome. Tasks that are easy are usually fun during the process of doing them, and have a good outcome. So watching a good show on television is fun during the watching, and leads to a satisfying outcome, assuming you are not watching the cliffhanger “24.” But paying bills is a mostly thankless process, and the only outcome is that you are poorer.

Another distinction is that easy tasks lead to some reward in the outcome, while hard tasks often the outcome is simply the lack of any negative outcome. When I pay bills, at the end I am a little poorer, and my creditors richer. All I have accomplished is to avert financial disaster.

So what happens if we change the inner and outer language we use? What happens if instead of saying “I have to _____” we instead say, “I choose to do_____” or even “I choose not to do _____?”

What is interesting is that saying “I choose not to do ____” is very powerful. It forces one to confront one’s actions as a conscious choice, rather than pretending that forces beyond your control are determining your actions.

And sometimes, when we say, “I choose not to do ____” we discover that that is just fine. For instance, my garage is a mess, but this weekend I choose not to clean it up. Instead I will take a bike ride.

Capitalism is to some extent based on altering what people choose to do. Forbes recently had a survey of the highest paying jobs in the United States. Almost all of them were medical jobs. Surgeons, anesthesiologists, dentists, and oral surgeons were all on the list. CEO’s were actually a little lower on the list.

Let’s think about this. We tend to think of these as good jobs. But let’s get real. Surgeons stick their hands inside the bloody guts of sick people. Anesthesiologist watch people sleep and try not to fall asleep themselves. Dentist and oral surgeons poke around people’s smelly mouths with small sharp tools. In order to get people to take on high stress, bloody, and often disgusting jobs, we pay them really well. Imagine if these jobs paid $40,000 a year. No one would do them. Most jobs that pay well require either lots of training, high stress, or great talent, and people are willing to work towards these jobs because they pay well. Salary is one way we get people to want to do things more than they would otherwise want to do them.

I often do a mental experiment with clients. When they are struggling to get something done, I ask them if they could do it if, upon completion, I wrote them a one million dollar check (and the check wouldn’t bounce.) Invariably, they say they would have no problem. So this tells us that one of the challenges of getting things done is that hard tasks have inadequate rewards. Or the rewards are too far off in the future to matter much. If I tell them instead of giving them a million dollars on completion, I will pay them 30 years later, then my offer loses most of its appeal.

How to Alter What We Want

So if my simple model is correct and we fail to accomplish things because we don’t want them enough, how do we change our wanting?

It seems that the key is to understand the basic principles that make us want to do things. Those things we do easily either are pleasant and fun during the actual process of doing them, or they have powerful rewards that follow their completion.

So understanding this we can begin to think about modifying tasks so that we can get them done. The first step is to improve the actual process of doing the task. For many boring, repetitive tasks, the easiest way to do this is to add another activity you do simultaneously. For instance, I usually clean the kitchen while on my headset phone talking with my mom or my brother long distance. This makes the experience almost painless, and I also benefit from staying in touch with people I love.

Or I will watch a baseball or football game on TV while sorting and filing papers. I have a rolling filing cabinet which I roll out into the living room, and this makes filing fairly painless.

Or I will listen to a podcast while grocery shopping.

Almost any task can be improved by adding good music, or an audiobook to the background.

The other strategy for lowering the aversiveness of tasks is time. If instead of trying to do an hour or two of boring paperwork, I instead break it down into 5 or 10 minute pieces, I can tolerate that much more easily. Some tasks are just too annoying to tolerate for very long, so breaking them down into smaller pieces makes good sense.

Another strategy is to change the reward structure. Let’s say you have 4 hours of filing to do. Although your papers will be filed at the end of the day, this is too small a reward to really motivate. You could break it down into 10 minute pieces, but this would mean you’d be still filing in 2050! The best strategy here is to create an artificial reward structure. Establish a reward you get when finished. Maybe you get to buy that Ipod Shuffle ™ you didn’t really need. I like to think in terms of an hourly rate of pay, even for nonwork tasks. I’ve set mine at $30 per hour, so after a four hour task I get to spend $120. Yours might be higher or lower, just be sure it’s high enough so that you are motivated. Pay yourself well for scut work!

This is the end of Part 1. In the next Part I will talk about the perils of prediction, the limitations of memory, and I’ll comment on the official Getting Things Done system.

Copyright 2007 The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions


Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.