Why We Suck at Saving Money, and Suck Even Worse at Saving Time

Two recent articles in the New York Times got me thinking about why most of us really suck at saving money and more importantly why we suck at utilizing our time well. These are two separate but very connected issues. They are connected because after all we all know that time is money and money is time.

Both money and time seem like nonrenewable resources. Time actually is a nonrenewable resource. Although we don’t know exactly how much time we have, it’s a pretty good bet that most of us have between 70 and 90 years on this planet. And we each have 16 to 18 hours of conscious time each day. Just like oceanfront property, we can’t manufacture more time, we can only better utilize the time we have.

Money also seems like a nonrenewable resource for most of us. But it’s not really. In fact, thinking that money is a nonrenewable resource is probably one of the main reasons why people don’t use time better.

The first New York Times article, How to Pinch Pennies in the Right Places, gave a theoretical thought experiment. If you could save $10 on a $50 set of headphones, would you drive 30 minutes across town to get a better price at a different store? (Answer this before reading on.)

Or, if you could save $15 on a $400 television would you drive 30 minutes across town?

Research done by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1981 suggests that most people were more willing to drive across town to save money on the headphones than on the television. You save 20% on the headphones and only 3.75% on the television. But we don’t spend percentages, we spend dollars, and actually you’d be saving more money ($15) on the television than on the headphones ($10).

The same article discussed other research that suggested that consumers were willing to spend 20 minutes extra to save $3.75 on a $10 pen, but needed a savings of at least $278 on a $30,000 car to be willing to invest the same 20 minutes extra.

This of course is crazy! In the example of the pen people value their time at $11.25 per hour. But in the example of the car people are unwilling to make an investment of time that would pay them $834 per hour!

But we all fall prey to different versions of this. How much time do we waste surfing Amazon in order to save a few bucks on a product? Or to find a product that has 4 stars instead of 3 ½ stars?

This article also pointed out that people on the lower income level are less likely to fall prey to the percentage saved fallacy, because they care about each and every dollar. But I think the article misses a more important point – which is the real way to have more money!

Saving $10 or $15 on a purchase really doesn’t matter compared to lowering recurrent expenses. For instance, how much money do you spend each month on the following items: cell phone service, Internet service, cable or satellite TV, coffee drinks at your local café, restaurant meals, rent or mortgage, car payments? How much money did you spend on your last car? Spending $120 per month on cable TV comes out to $14,400 over 10 years. Nice late-model used cars can be had for $10,000-$15,000, yet many people drop $50,000 on a new car. Even just saving $30 on a less expensive cell phone plan means that you will save $3600 over 10 years.

(A number of years ago I looked at my recurrent expenses and realized that I was spending a lot of money on two business landlines, and on cable TV. I spent some time doing research and ended up purchasing a couple of Ooma telephone systems that when connected to the Internet provided completely free telephone service. I also put an antenna on my roof and switched to free over-the-air HDTV. The time invested was probably about 4 hours for all of the research and installation. But I saved almost $300 per month, without giving up anything I really cared about other than perhaps Monday night football (which is on cable TV only). My one-time four hour investment has paid me more than $10,000 in savings, which is roughly $2500 per hour! And I continue to save money each month.)

But the article also misses a more profound point, how to earn more money. People focus too much on saving money and not enough on earning more money, through work, entrepreneurship, education and training, and investment. In this era of the Internet there are 1 million ways to earn more money. And improving your education and training can help you earn more money in your current employment as well as well. Improving income opportunities lasts for life, while getting a good “deal” only lasts for a day! Or, if you can afford to invest money, then focusing your time on investing more successfully can yield huge benefits in total dollars. I know people that have spent the time to learn about investing in residential real estate, and who will retire with very nice incomes from the time they invested in acquiring and managing these properties.

Which brings me to the 2nd New York Times article, What Should You Choose: Time or Money? This is a fascinating and profound article. It summarizes research performed by Hal Hirschfield, Cassie Mogilner, and Uri Barnea which asked the question what do people choose, time or money? About 65% of their participants chose money over time, showing a small preference for money versus time. This in itself is not surprising or even particularly interesting. What’s more interesting is that those who chose time rather than money reported higher levels of happiness, even when the researchers controlled for participants’ amount of leisure time and income and money.

Realistically speaking, we are all in the business of balancing time against money. How we do this has significant implications in terms of our well-being and happiness. Research suggests that we should tilt in the direction of saving and valuing time rather than money if we want to maximize our happiness. There is ample research suggesting that experiences create more happiness than material possessions. And experiences take time (and sometimes money), while material purchases take money (and sometimes time.)

What can we learn from this research?

  1. When possible, tilt your decisions in favor of time rather than money. Don’t buy a cheaper house which requires you to spend many hours a week commuting. Don’t spend very much time in order to gain small savings in money.
  2. If you are going to invest time in order to save money, calculate your hourly “pay”, and only invest the time if the hourly salary is high. For instance, if it will take me 30 minutes to save 20 bucks, I’m earning $40 per hour. But if it takes me 30 minutes to save $5, then I’m earning $10 per hour. Try to be rational about these decisions and don’t pay any attention to the percentages saved, only to the dollar values and the time values.
  3. Time invested in saving money on recurrent expenses such as cable or satellite TV, car insurance, cell phone service, Internet service, etc. will always pay you a higher salary rate per hour. A few hours invested in researching less expensive alternatives and switching can save hundreds of dollars a month indefinitely which adds up to a very good return on your time invested.
  4. When you get excited about “getting a deal”, always calculate the true cost of the deal in time and in hassle. This will prevent you from driving across town to get a small savings or from spending too much time spent on the Internet looking for deals. (I am as guilty of this as most people, although I’m much more likely to spend time online rather than time in my car, even though both waste time.) Ask yourself whether on your deathbed you will be telling your grandchildren about this deal that you got. Remember that in the grand scheme of life, time is worth more than money. (See this classic parable about the poor fisherman and the entrepreneur.)
  5. Finally, remember that life is not just about time and money, it’s really about meaning and values. Spending money doesn’t really benefit you unless it ties into your core values and improves meaning in your life. That’s why even getting a multiplicity of small “deals” doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. What matters more is whether you spend money to support your core values. That’s why grandparents sometimes pay for their grandchildren’s college, even though it’s an expensive proposition. And that’s why taking your family on a really fun vacation is a good investment as it leads to experiences and memories that potentially last a lifetime. (My siblings and I will always remember magical experiences from our family trips – playing telephone tag in the elevators of the Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, riding donkeys along a precipitous cliff in Grand Canyon, screaming “beep beep” on a narrow, twisting road in Spain when our rental car horn failed.)
  6. And even time should be evaluated in terms of meaning and values. Here in Silicon Valley a lot of people retire early. This isn’t always a good thing however. What I’ve seen is that they often end up spending time doing things that don’t really add to their happiness. For instance, they will design and build a custom house, usually quite large, which eats up several years of their life playing at general contractor and quality control inspector.
  7. Just as spending money intelligently is challenging, it’s even more challenging to spend time well. I struggle with this all the time. But I try to continually improve how I spend my time, for instance trying to focus more on writing these blog articles rather than watching television or reading a novel.

This article ended up being a lot longer than I expected, but I think these are profound and important issues for all of us to think about and to improve. Now it’s time for me to have some fun!


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 CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Shopping for Happiness ™

I’ve been working on a book length project on how to apply the current happiness research to everyday life, and this is an excerpt from that book.

It is said that money can’t buy happiness. This is mostly true. Like most generalizations, though, there are exceptions. What I hope to do in this chapter is to use the happiness research to teach you how to be better at shopping for happiness.

The happiness research teaches us several things. One basic principle is that of habituation, or getting used to things. This unfortunately robs us of joy from new and shiny possessions.

Thus using your hard–earned money to buy that shiny sports car will most likely not result in as much happiness as you anticipated. This is disappointing. After all, what is the point of making money if spending it doesn’t bring happiness?

The happiness research also shows us what tends to make people happy are experiences. This gives us some clues how to spend money to maximize happiness. Instead of buying things, which fade remarkably rapidly in their ability to please us, it makes more sense to use your spending to purchase items that allow you to have experiences you will enjoy. Or to directly purchase experiences that you will enjoy such as exotic trips, unique experiences, or thrills and chills like a parachute jump or bungee cord drop.

Let me give you some do’s and don’ts of shopping for happiness.

In many financial magazines and journals you will see little articles about how much money you can save by skipping the latte at your local café. They run the numbers, calculating one latte per day investing for umpteen million years, invested at 10% interest, becomes some ridiculous number by the time you are 93, perhaps even several hundred thousand dollars. It certainly would be nice to have a spare $200,000 by the time you are 93, assuming you make it that far.

The problem with all these articles is that they ignore what science has discovered about happiness. It really depends how you spend the $3 on your latte. If you spend $3 on a latte just so you can rush in and out of your local Starsucks, jump in your car, and spend your morning commute more caffeinated, then the articles are right. You’d be better off making coffee at home, putting it in a go cup, and investing that money for the long term.

However, if the way you enjoy your latte is by sitting at your local café where you know people, chatting with your table neighbor, reading the New York Times or Wall Street Journal or the local paper, and in general, relaxing and socializing, then this is a $3 very well spent indeed! What you done is to purchase a pleasant and social experience. If you do this daily, you will form a community of sorts, which always increases happiness.

Spending money in order to have satisfying experiences leaves you with memories of those experiences, which linger, and raise your happiness level.

Let me give another example. Someone close to me was living with a woman and he was struggling to find athletic activities he could share with his partner. She didn’t like hiking,  and would complain bitterly when they climbed hills.

Biking was even worse. She was a slow and unconfident rider. He was resentful at how slowly she rode, as it prevented him from enjoying a workout. He also constantly worried about her in traffic, as she had little experience riding, and often would dart out into traffic. She would get mad at him when he rode ahead of her. It was no fun for either of them.

This was a problem. What was the solution? I suggested to them that they spend some money to solve this. What did I suggest? I told him to buy a tandem bicycle. I had seen one on EBay, a recumbent tandem, for about $1800 shipped.

He bought it, and they started to ride together. She would ride on the back of the bike where all she had to do was peddle, and he would steer the bike from the front position. He got a great workout, even if she didn’t peddle very hard, and she was guaranteed to keep up.

It became a very enjoyable activity for them, riding almost every weekend, talking while they rode, and enjoying a pleasant and athletic activity together.

What did my friend purchase? It seemed like he purchased an expensive tandem bike. But in actuality, he purchased a “ticket to ride” or a ticket to a recurring pleasant experience for him and his wife.

Similar examples would be buying backpacking equipment, golf equipment, scuba gear, running shoes, and so on. But it should be something you use regularly. Buying a pair of skis and boots that you only use 3 days a year will not have a significant impact on your happiness level, in fact, in many of these cases it’s better to rent.

For instance, I enjoy scuba. But other than a mask and fins, I own no scuba equipment. The main reason is that I only scuba dive a few days each year, and thus the hassle of buying and owning and maintaining the equipment is not worth the small increment in happiness that my own gear would bring. If I dove frequently I would own my own equipment.

This brings me to another useful principle in shopping for happiness. I didn’t invent this one, my friend Dan came up with this principle. Dan taught me one simple principle for purchasing things. He told me that one should buy the very best in things that you interact with every day.

Again, if I scuba dive daily, I should buy the best equipment I can afford. Or if I am a bicyclist, and I ride daily or almost daily, then it makes sense to spend three, four, or even five thousand dollars on a great bike if I can afford that.

As a result of Dan’s law, I am writing this on my very sleek three-pound Dell XPS laptop computer, which I use almost daily for writing and web-surfing in cafes. At home I write on a three monitor workstation, with a 32 inch monitor flanked by two 24 inch monitors. This is a delicious luxury which I use for many hours each day. As an avid computer user, I think one of the best investments one can make is to buy large flat screen monitors for all of your computers. Especially if you are over 40, and developing presbyopia.

How does this apply to buying cars? Cars are tricky because there are at least three different issues that are relevant: status, function, and add-ons.

The most obvious issue is status. Unfortunately, this is the one that has the smallest and most fleeting impact on happiness. If you buy your car to impress others, they will be less impressed than you expect, even if you buy an outrageous car like a Ferrari or Lamborghini. Secondly, their being impressed will actually give you less happiness than you expected, and you will get used to the oooh’s and aaaah’s all too quickly. Finally, the hassles and owning and insuring and driving a supercar will soon outweigh the relatively small happiness that status brings you. So rule # 1 is don’t buy things for status.

(The same applies for kitchens, bathrooms, televisions, or any other product where you might be torn between shopping for status versus function. If you are buying granite countertops because you like chopping food on granite, that makes sense. If you are buying them so your friends will say “Ooooooh and Aaaaaah” when they come into your kitchen, then your happiness dividends will be much less than you expect. After all, your friends will habituate to your new kitchen, and will stop marveling at its wonders after a few visits. And long before that, you too will have grown used to the “new normal” and lost your initial joy in it.)

Going back to the example of a car, you should be thinking about function. Therein lies the rub. Most expensive cars are not very different in function from less expensive cars. All cars have four wheels, a motor, brakes, and a radio. Heresy! You are thinking. Of course expensive cars are different. But not very much. Once you get into the $20,000 to $30,000 range for a car, you are getting a fast, quiet, and comfortable car that takes you where you wish to go. Above this amount, you are primarily paying for status or for features you can’t use much. Case in point, many expensive cars go very fast. A Ferrari can do a top speed of 155 mile per hour. Cool, right? There’s only one catch. It’s hard to get up to this speed on your morning or evening commute. In fact, you are lucky if you even get up to 45 mph.

So buying features you can’t use won’t increase happiness much, and may even frustrate you. Trying driving a six-speed manual transmission Ferrari in bumper to bumper traffic on the freeway sometime, if you don’t believe me.

Remember I said there were three factors. The first was status which I hope that I have demonstrated has relatively little lasting impact on happiness. The second is function. Function matters somewhat, but what really matters is the basic functions of a car, the ability to drive at reasonable speeds with reasonable comfort and quiet. That’s why convertibles rarely bring people as much happiness as they expect.

Convertibles are really fun about one or two weeks a year. But much of the time it is too hot, too cold, or too rainy to benefit. And convertibles are not very pleasant cars with the tops rolled up. So it makes more sense to rent a convertible for a week or two a year, and enjoy it. Most mid-range cars function very well, and expensive luxury cars have only a few additional functions, and sometimes these functions are more trouble than they are worth. As an example, the BMW 5 series, which has something called an I-drive ™ which is like a joystick that controls the car’s functions. Many reviewers have complained that this feature is confusing and difficult to use, and requires constant reading of the car’s manual.

The third principle of shopping for happiness with cars is the add-on principle. Instead of buying an expensive car, and having no money left over, buy a cheaper car and invest the money you save by customizing and improving the car in ways that will actually increase your happiness while driving.

An example is two items that can have a big impact on happiness. The first is a GPS unit. If you are like my friend’s girlfriend, who is directionally impaired, and who constantly is getting lost and arriving late to every destination, then buying a GPS unit will have a huge impact on your happiness level while driving. She has told me numerous times that buying a GPS was the best thing she ever bought for her car. It eliminated a constant annoyance in her life, for an investment of only about $300. (Or buy a good mount for your smartphone and use that as a GPS navigator.)

The other investment in a car that makes sense is a good sound system for your car. Now if you only drive 5 minutes a day, skip this paragraph. But if you are like most Americans, and you commute a significant distance each day, then it makes good sense to spend some money on adding a great sound system to your car, if it doesn’t have one already.

You will definitely want a way to play all of your favorite music. It doesn’t matter whether that is a way to plug in your Ipod, a CD changer, or some other device. You may also want to consider a satellite radio unit, especially if you like commercial free radio and you like talk radio without commercials. (No one has ever demonstrated that commercials add to happiness levels.) So for the mere $15 a month that it costs, satellite radio may be an excellent investment in happiness.

Once again, neither a GPS nor a satellite radio is very expensive, and they can be just as easily installed in a $15,000 car as a $100,000 car.

I practiced this with older cars for many years. When my Nissan Maxima passed its 15th year, I decided to give it a birthday party, and to improve the car. I replaced the sound system, put new shocks in the front, and added an anti-sway bar to improve its cornering ability. This greatly improved both the driving quality and the experience of being inside the car, and was much cheaper than buying a new car.

In a similar way, you could utilize the add-on principle for a house. Instead of buying a new house, you might focus on improving several areas of your current house, focusing on function rather than status.

I was speaking with a client recently, who loves cooking. She was contemplating a kitchen remodel. She was talking about granite countertops.

I asked her, “Can you cut food on granite?”

“No, of course not,” she said.

“Can you prepare food on granite?” I asked.

“You can,” she said, “but it’s not a good idea. The food can stain the granite.”

“How is a granite countertop going to make your cooking experience more enjoyable? “ I asked.

She thought about it for a moment, and then said quietly, “Well, it probably won’t make it more fun, but it will look nice.”

So I asked her how much the granite countertop would cost. She told me $12,000. I asked her if her budget was unlimited. She said no. Then I said, “Are there any functional items that would make your life easier as a cook? Are there any things you would rather spend your $12,000 on?”

She thought about it, and then she mentioned a special European dishwasher that had two drawers, so that you never had to unload it. And a special type of oven that was costly but worked better.

In the end, she decided to keep her tile countertops, and instead spent the money on high- end incredible appliances that she uses every day.

This was a great example of shopping for happiness. She spent her money on things that would bring her direct joy every day. In general, if you want to spend money on making your kitchen “look impressive”, you’d be better off spending the money on a beautiful painting, or on functional items that you can enjoy every day. Very few people spend time sitting in their kitchen, simply staring at and admiring the granite counters!

Let’s talk about more shopping decisions, and other ways to shop for happiness.

Travel is a great example where shopping for happiness principles are useful. First of all, travel in general enhances happiness. This is because even trips that aren’t that great tend to improve in memory, especially as we tell and retell the stories. Some of the biggest disasters on trips end up making the most memorable stories.

I’m reminded of an infamous bus trip I took while in graduate school, on a hippy bus line from Seattle to Baja Mexico. My then girlfriend and I decided it would be a lark to spend three weeks traveling around Baja on this hippie bus, and off we went. Many disasters ensued, including a middle of the night near head-on crash with another bus which took off the side mirrors on both buses, a trailered boat breaking an axle, falling off the bus, and taking a short and tragic trip across the chaparral, ending up in pieces, multiple encounters with Mexicans who were baffled by this group of Americans, getting off the bus when it became apparent that it was dangerous to stay on the bus, hiking to a deserted beach in the desert, and waking up in the morning to a beautiful experience of homemade fruit salad and skinny dipping, which resulted in every local bee attacking for hours, hiking out from the beach in a hurry as a result, and getting lost in the desert when I proudly said I knew exactly where we were, waking up in the middle of the night in a cheap hotel room only to discover 6 inch roaches trying to drag our food bags away, and then sleeping fully dressed, with blindfolds and the lights on for the rest of a very fearful night!

And these are just the highlights!

This is the stuff of legend, and I have to admit it was one of the best trips of my life. It also brought us closer because we had to cope with all of these disasters.

There are principles of shopping for happiness in travel which many people ignore. For instance, many people will pay more money to upgrade to business or first class when flying. This is generally not a good investment in happiness. (Unless work pays for it, then why not?)

(I should add at this point that these comments apply to people who do not have unlimited financial resources. If you are a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, you have a completely different set of problems in terms of shopping for happiness, which I will talk about later in a section called Shopping for Happiness Tips for the Billionaire.)

This is not to say that business class and first class are not pleasant experiences. In comparison to coach, they are. The reason why they do not deliver a proportionately higher level of happiness, relative to their cost, is that most airline rides are short. If you are flying 2 to 5 hours, the difference is not very significant. It’s especially less significant if you tend to nap on cross country flights. If I close my eyes, and nap for half of my cross country flight, then I am looking at a 2.5 hour experience in First Class, for a cost of an extra thousand or more dollars. Spending $500 an hour to have a slightly wider seat, better food, and a few free drinks seems like a bad investment in happiness.

The same principle applies to hotels. Many people like to stay in four of five star class hotels, probably because they like the status of doing so. In general this is not a wise investment of travel money, especially if you tend not to spend a lot of time in your hotel room.

If you mainly use the hotel to sleep, then a five star hotel offers very little that a two star hotel does not. As long as the bed is comfortable, and the room is quiet at night, nothing else really matters. A big TV is not important, as you can watch TV at home. A gorgeous swimming pool is also not so important, as you can use the five star hotel’s swimming pool even if you are staying across the street in the two star hotel. Or you can go to the beach, which is free.

There is one exception, though, which is if you plan on never leaving your hotel during your stay. In that case it may make sense to pay more for a luxurious hotel room, as you will get to experience that luxury 24/7. This may have a small impact on increasing your happiness level.

The better way to spend money on travel is to use the happiness research which tells us that status items do not bring much happiness, and that experiences are what we remember fondly. An example of this would be to skip the five star hotel in Hawaii which costs $300 or $500 a night, and to instead stay at the $150 three star hotel. Then invest the difference in buying great experiences.

One day you might spend $200 on renting a pair of jet skis, and have a very exhilarating experience zooming around the coast. Another day you could spend that $200 taking surfing lessons, and renting surfboards. Whether you surf successfully or not, you will have a memorable experience. The next night you treat yourselves to a dinner in the best restaurant in Honolulu, where you run into Barack Obama, who is having dinner with his family at the next table. (True story from 2006.)

Think about travel stories you have told or listened to. Was it very memorable that the hotel room was large or luxurious? No. What was memorable is when you left the hotel and had exciting experiences.

To be continued…

Copyright 2006-2017 The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions/Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D.

 Shopping for Happiness ™ is a trademarked term. Trademark 2006, Andrew Gottlieb.



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 CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

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 CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.