Behavioural Science vs. Personal Productivity

As a professional poker player for a decade, I spent a lot of time thinking about how my brain works and how I can get the best out of it.

At the poker tables, I had all sorts of impulses to do self-destructive things, which I had to learn to resist (often to no avail)… Taking unnecessary risks to avoid booking a loss. Going on tilt. Playing 4 games at once but still having the constant urge to check Skype messages on the side… The list could go on and on.

Away from the tables, I had to motivate myself to do 1000+ hours of poker study. For years, that meant looking for patterns in reams of data spewed out by poker training softwares (with 90s-level UIs). That sure was a hard task to get focused on. It was usually boring and slow. And the alternative was playing a game I loved, with all the fist-pumps, adrenaline and dopamine it entailed.

In my efforts to be productive, my intuitive impulses rarely felt like my ally. They mostly seemed to be out to scupper my long term plans, in favour of a quick lol from a poker meme. I loved what I was doing. I was clear on where I needed to focus. But often, I just wouldn’t follow through.

I’ve since studied behavioural science and helped build a start-up, developing tools to support new ways of working. We’re now developing a personal productivity app. So I’ve been diving back into the research and reflecting on all the practices I used to help me succeed in poker.

Here are the key takeaways that have dropped out so far.

Laziness is built deep into our nature

Behavioural science godfather Daniel Kahneman refers to a ‘law of least effort’. We generally do all we can to avoid things that cause mental strain — like reasoning or reflection. But we love the instant gratification of things that feel easy and we’re hard wired to respond to distractions.

Not the best cocktail, for sitting down to solve a hard problem.

What’s more, whenever we can muster the will power to do things that feel hard, we have a limited budget of mental energy, which runs out just like physical energy.

So don’t be too tough on yourself when you’re feeling lazy. It’s not you, it’s humans in general. In fact, research shows that being tough on yourself increases procrastination. It attaches more scary emotions to our task (I’m lazy, I’m a failure…), which we perceive as threats to be avoided.

Ideas to experiment with:

  • If you want to do something more, make it feel easier. Remove distractions, remove friction in getting started and always break big scary tasks down into small manageable ones.
  • …or make something harder. We’re very skilled at coming up with rationalisations to justify our laziness. So make clear commitments to yourself that your brain can’t easily weasel out of. That could be as simple as the Pomodoro technique. Or it might mean commiting to stretches of deep work in your calendar, where emails/notifications/meetings are strictly forbidden.
  • Mix up challenging tasks with mindless ones. Take lots of breaks. And don’t expect too much from yourself, particularly when stressed (30 productive hours/week trumps 60 stressed & overworked ones in my book..)

We prioritise short-term needs over long-term ones

Behavioural scientists call this the present bias. Most of us will take a smaller reward now, over a larger one later.

This is behind a lot of our self-destructive impulses. When we procrastinate, we get the short-term reward of avoiding our difficult task and the fears attached to it (plus, a little dopamine hit for our troubles). It’s a small reward in comparison to the guilt we soon feel from putting our task off. But it’s enough to keep many of us stuck in a cycle of procrastination.

Busywork is the same. Get the instant gratification of ticking off some (largely meaningless) task from your list. Or tackle that big important problem you’re worried you won’t be able to solve? No contest.

So we need to make the important things feel more short-term and rewarding.

Ideas to experiment with:

  • Break long-term goals down into smaller, short-term ones. Then celebrate your successes along the way.
  • Be explicit about what’s important and what’s not, to reduce the reward on busywork. If you leave the door open to justify reading a bunch of articles (like this one!) instead of tackling a big scary task, you’ll probably do it.
  • Try commitment device; tell your friend to buy themselves a meal on your credit card, if you don’t show them progress by the end of the week. Or use a tool like Beeminder. Making progress on a long-term goal can start to feel very urgent!

We can’t think straight with multiple thoughts in our head

When we try to focus with multiple different thoughts in our working memory, patterns in the brain overlap and interfere with each other. Trying to distinguish them wastes precious energy that could be used on deep work.

For me, this is why Getting Things Done can work well. You create a system to put all your ‘other thoughts’ in. Then, as long as you’re confident you’ll be able to find them again, you can stop wasting brain power trying to remember everything ().

You can remember a lot more stuff this way too. Because, vs computers, our memories suck. We have much less capacity and we’re not good at recalling things out of thin air, without external triggers (think of having someone’s name ‘on the tip of your tongue’. You know it’s there, but you can’t access it).

Ideas to experiment with:

  • Delegate remembering to computers, by regularly dumping all your tasks, ideas, articles & random thoughts into a productivity tool. Done well, it’ll allow you to constantly build on your past knowledge and ideas, without being overloaded with thoughts.
  • Before you start deep work, reduce the noise in your head. Add distracting thoughts to your productivity tool. Complete any quick tasks that are taking up a lot of headspace. Go for a walk in the park. Meditate.
  • Limit your work-in-progress. Wherever possible, close one loop of work before starting another. If you’re working on 5+ projects at once, it’s probably a problem.

Social nudges are often the most powerful

Humans are easily influenced by other humans. We like to conform with groups and we value commitments to others more highly than those we make to ourselves.

So think of ways you can use your friends/colleagues/the world at large, to boost the impact of the advice above.

Ideas to experiment with:

  • Share your commitments with other people they impact. Saying something out loud to another human makes it harder for us to back out without good reason.
  • Ask someone to be your accountability partner, to check in and ask you for progress.
  • Do deep work sessions on video chat with a friend. Tell them what you plan to do and for how long, then work in silence alongside them. Your brain will find it harder to hatch an escape plan (if your friends would find this weird, use FocusMate instead).

We’re bloody stubborn

Kahneman is famously pessimistic about our ability to ‘de-bias’ ourselves. Our intuitive behaviours are the result of millions of years of evolution, not a quirk of personality. And our reasoning-self spends a lot of time acting as our internal lawyer. Finding rationalisations for our intuitive beliefs, rather than challenging them.

So you’re not going to find a silver bullet that makes you always productive forever. You’re more likely going to find some things that help a bit, if you’re in the right mood and the wind’s blowing the right way. And it’ll take hard work.

But don’t underestimate the value of that. Finding ways to continuously be a bit more productive, some of the time, was a major part of my success in poker. So..

  • Run regular experiments on yourself, to find the practices that work.
  • Expect lapses and celebrate productivity whenever it happens.
  • Reflect and update your approaches often.

And note, this is just one part of the story..

Productivity problems are often downstream of other issues in your work. You might lack purpose or autonomy. Deeper fears might be blocking you. So if nothing’s working, don’t look for the 1001st hack. Zoom out and think what else might be getting in the way.

In summary: if you’re like me and most people, you’re a lazy, short-termist, stubborn, forgetful person, who’s easily influenced by others. And it’s ok :) If you’re proactive about it, you’ll find plenty of time to be focused and brilliant too.

Now go read another 10 articles about productivity practices, before actually doing your big scary task.

Ex-poker pro, now trying to make work better.