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.