Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"The 7 Habits of Highly Ineffective People"

Taking off from Stephen Covey's famous concept, Prof. Dan Ariely has just posted a list of the 7 habits that will make you a highly ineffective person. Link here. Via Simoneon Sense.

Ariely begins with a valuable meditation about habits. Habits are automatic behaviors. When we say that a behavior is habitual we mean that it has something like a mind of its own. Whatever caused us to start doing it this way and not that way, when we continue to do it this way, without giving it any thought, it is a habit.

Habits can be good and bad. They are largely more efficient and more economical than having to think through your choices each time you have breakfast. You do not want to waste time every morning trying to figure out whether you should have Special K or a bagel for breakfast. Habits constitute life's daily routines. Without routines, and a sense of coherent organization, we would simply waste a large amount of time.

Ariely does not mention it, but one habit that must makes people ineffective is the insistence that their actions be meaningful expressions of thought or feeling. Too much spontaneity and surprise will make you highly ineffective.

Once a behavior becomes a habit, it bypasses a certain amount of mental processing and decision making. If you decided to behave a certain way because of a specific situation-- like avoiding subways after a threat has been announced-- and continue to behave that way after the threat alert has been canceled, then you have developed a habit. In this case, an ineffective habit.

Sometimes we even forget why we developed this or that habit. When we are dealing with a good habit, this is not a problem. When we are dealing with a bad habit-- like alcoholism, slovenliness, dawdling, or overeating-- it can become a problem.

Psychotherapy is divided over its willingness to accept the existence of habits. Cognitive and behavioral therapy works directly on changing bad habits; most often it follows Aristotle's concept that the best way to overcome a bad habit is to replace it with a good one. These therapies do not worry themselves about why and how the bad habit got its start. They simply want to change it.

Other forms of therapy are based on the concept that insight cures. Whether they know it or not, these therapies follow Freud. They assume that once you discover why you have gotten yourself into a rut you will naturally know how to get yourself out of it. The fact that this is not true has never much bothered practitioners of this form of treatment.

Thus, these therapies dispense with the notion of habit, and prefer to consider symptoms as meaningful experiences, albeit experiences whose meaning the person ignores.

That much being said, and without further ado, I would like to examine Ariely's list of habits that are guaranteed to make you less effective. In fact, I would not have chosen the same list, but that is not very important. Ariely offers an interesting take on bad habits, and that suffices to engage our interest.

His first bad habit is: procrastination. It has been called the thief of time; it involves putting off until tomorrow what you can do today. We all know that it is a bad habit.

An old psychological principle-- first articulated by Jeremy Bentham, I believe-- suggests that we tend to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Those who adhere to this principle present it as an axiomatic truth. Unfortunately, it does not work very well as an ethical principle.

Say you have a choice between an unpleasant task-- finishing a report, returning a message to someone who is not very important, chopping up vegetables for the pot au feu-- and a more pleasurable alternative-- watching a ballgame, going to a dance class, having coffee with a friend, shopping for new shoes-- which would you choose?

If you believe that you should seek out pleasure to reduce stress then you are likely to choose one of the latter options. If you believe that you should not put off until tomorrow what you should do today, you might feel ethically obligated to choose the former.

If you choose the more pleasurable activity you will be starting on the road to developing a bad habit. If the opposite, you will have laid the groundwork for a good habit, and for greater efficiency and effectiveness.

As Ariely says, after a while the prospect of performing the unpleasant duty will become more and more unpleasant, to the point where you will decide not to do it at all. Why would you not find something more pleasurable, and thus, less stressful, to occupy your precious time?

Of course, the theories that define us as pleasure-seeking organisms-- which used to be called lotus-eaters-- have no notion of the satisfaction of fulfilling obligations and getting a job done.

Ariely's second bad habit also concerns task management. He proposes that we often underestimate the amount of time that it takes to complete a project-- whether cleaning the house or getting cross town in traffic or sending out packages.

This may be caused by inexperience, or by insouciance. We might simply have no experience with mid-Manhattan crosstown traffic. But then, if we do not learn from being late for an appointment, we may develop the bad habit of underestimating the time it takes to travel in the city and find ourselves saddled with the bad habit of always being late, and of feeling obliged to invent ever more complex excuses.

Third of Ariely's list is this, which is, hopefully, limited to young people: texting while driving. For those of us who have never texted, this is the modern version of trying do too many things at once, getting caught in the multi-tasking trap of thinking that you are so superior that you can do everything at the same time.

Surely, when lose focus and concentration you will end up not doing anything well. As everyone knows, texting while driving can also be fatal, to oneself or to others or to both.

The bad news is that Ariely, who teaches at Duke, has discovered that nearly all of his graduate students have, at one time or another, texted while driving. If that doesn't get you worried about the younger generation, I don't know what will.

Ariely explains that a person who feels the need to text while driving is sacrificing short-term benefits for long term safety. But it is also amazing that students are so habituated to the form of instant gratification that texting seems to provide that neither they nor their friends can tolerate a delayed response to a message.

The fourth habit that Ariely declares will make you ineffective is: overchecking your email. This involves yielding to temptation, and especially the temptation caused by distraction. As with texting while driving this habit seems to reflect a basic anguish about feeling disconnected from others, an intolerance of separateness, and a wish to feel in constant contact with other people.

As with the third bad habit, this one also involves loss of focus and concentration. A person who is constantly checking emails cannot be properly focused on the task at hand and will necessarily become more ineffective than the person who can wait before checking emails.

The fifth bad habit concerns obsessively comparing ourselves to everyone else. Ariely calls this: "relativity in salary," and he explains it in terms of an experiment. Would you rather have a salary of $50,000 in a world where all salaries range between $40,000 and $50,000 or would you prefer to have a salary of $55,000 in a world where all salaries range between $55,000 and $65,000?

Strangely enough, most people would choose $55,000 even though that would put them at the bottom of the salary range. I say, strangely, because I would imagine that most people would choose to be at the top of the range rather than the bottom. If not, why would there be status hierarchies?

Since Ariely is a behavioral economist, I am confident that he has seen or performed research that has demonstrated his point, but I still wonder whether those who have been asked the question have been given sufficient time to give it full consideration.

Ariely's sixth bad habit is overoptimism. As he says, there is nothing wrong with optimism. If you do not believe that you will be able to complete the project then the chances are good that you will be spending too much of your time trying to figure out how you can excuse your failure. And yet, if you are overoptimistic, you might commit to complete far too many tasks in the time allotted, and find yourself with the exact same problem: how to explain away the fact that you did not do what you said you would do.

In an ironic twist, Ariely does not list a seventh bad habit. He says that he was too optimistic about his ability to come up with that many.

So, if you are looking for a seventh, I would recommend the one I offered at the beginning of this post: trying to make life into one surprise after another. Or else, making a fetish out of spontaneity. Or else, believing that all of your actions should express your thoughts or feelings.


Anonymous said...

M'eh.... It's been done before:

o Gluttony
o Lust
o Greed
o Despair
o Wrath
o Acedia
o Vainglory
o Pride

All of these things feel very very good and they will make you very ineffective until they kill you.

As we ponder deeply into the New Ways, wandering in the Wilderness, it seem we always rediscover the Old Ways.....


Anonymous said...

On that note:

trying to make life into one surprise after another.
o Lust

Making a fetish out of spontaneity.
o Lust (formerly, Extravagance)

believing that all of your actions should express your thoughts or feelings.
o Pride

wv: dectani (the unknown Celtic tribe that wasn't conquered by the Romans.)

--Gray, again

An Unmarried Man said...

My hypothetic solution to the riddle of #5. Why would people choose $55,000 in the 2nd scenario...

I think much of this is interrelated to real life situations of the modern and scary work environment.

First of all, for the sake of job security (if there is such a thing) and potential (once again, if there is such a thing anymore), people would choose the low end of a higher level than the upper end of a lower level, which in these times would seem to putatively leave one more exposed one to the evil layoff Grim Reaper.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks for the comment. It points up the fact that when people do these surveys to discover preferences they cannot normally factor in all the variables that go into decision making.

The decision is not just a personal preference. It is, as you say, an evaluation of marketplace conditions and even future fears.

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