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Hack your goals


Weakness of will; acting in a way contrary to one’s sincerely held moral values.

Akrasia. The word is as old as philosophy itself, showing up in Socratic’ dialogues and persisting all the way to the present day. We know it more commonly as procrastination, and it is the single most pervasive source of bad decision making known to man.

It’s hard enough to know what you “should” do; doing everything you know to be in your best interest is next to impossible. We know intellectually that the rest of the dessert is just sunk cost, and that we are full and satisfied and really couldn’t eat another bite. But then we do anyway, at great cost to our comfort. As usual though, science has come to the rescue, and you didn’t even know it.

Piers Steel knows more about procrastination and motivation than anyone on earth, and in his book “The Procrastination Equation” he details exactly what factors make up a failure of will. To make a long story short, it’s this:


Where motivation is how much you feel like completing a task, expectancy is how much you expect to succeed, value is how good succeeding will make you feel, impulsiveness is how easily distracted you are, and delay is how long exactly it will take to complete the task (and get the reward).

This formula is a simple way to break down “failures of will” into their component parts. In many ways it relieves guilt. These factors tend to be aspects of the task itself, not you personally. Having a mental framework that takes into account human irrationality, can bolster your ability to  approach a goal.

Let’s consider some examples of how a goal can be set up for failure:

Expectancy. A goal can be set unreasonably high: “I will deadlift 1000 lbs by the end of the year.”
Value. It can be something you don’t value: “I’m going to grade 100 papers today” (no one actually values graded papers).
Impulsiveness. You can fail to put yourself in a low-distraction environment.
Delay. The reward can take too long to arrive: “I will eventually be the best salesman on earth.”

Seen this way, most of the goals you have ever failed to achieve were simply set in a way that led them to fail. So, how do you set goals you’re likely to follow through on? Raise your expectancy and value, and lower your impulsiveness and delay.

Raise your expectancy & value

For example, let’s say your goal is “Write my first novel.” To have a high expectancy, set a daily target that is truly easy to hit, and then cut that in half: “Write 100 words a day, at least.” sounds like a great start.

Increasing value can be a bit trickier, but one way Steel says it can be done is to always be aware of the meaning a goal has to you. In our writing example, if it ever feels like you don’t enjoy writing for its own sake, imagine for a moment how it will feel to finally have a book under your belt—how proud it will make you.

Another way low value can present itself is in the form of boredom, and if you are bored find a way to raise the difficulty of the task at hand until you can barely handle it. This seems like a contradiction at first, “Wait, my daily target should be easy, but difficult?” and the truth is yes, but in two different ways. You should expect to succeed, but not be bored by the attempt. I know I can make Ramen noodles, but the activity has no value for me because it is too easy (and they are gross). In our writing example, I could make my daily target more challenging by trying to do it more quickly, or by trying to write the most interesting hundred words I’ve ever written.

Push yourself! Push yourself hard enough that it’s interesting, but not so hard that your will fails you.

Lower your impulsiveness & delay

Piers details two major ways to handle impulsiveness: precommitment and goals. To precommit, maybe you unplug your router and turn off your phone when it is time to write, or go to a location where these distractions can’t bother you (the mountains maybe). Another interesting way to precommit is to have a service like stickK or Beeminder take your money if you fail to achieve your goal, substituting a lack of success in the future with immediate penalties for failure (a more powerful motivation).

Finally to decrease delay you could break your big task into smaller tasks that can be completed at a pace that motivates you. A good example would be “Finish chapter one by Sunday.” If you are naturally impulsive, frequent and meaninful rewards for your efforts are more important for you.

Recently I have revived an interest in chess by focusing on my ELO ranking in what are called “tactical problems.” I replaced an impossibly difficult childhood dream (Crush Kasparov) with something that could feasibly be done this month (Raise my rank 100 points). If I were more impulsive, I could decrease delay even further: “End the day ranked 10 points higher than when I started.”

There is much more to this in the book, but I hope you walk away from this with a sense that procrastination is not an immutable fact about how you work, but a problem with how you approach your goals. Piers’ equation can be a powerful guide to creatively designing goals and systems for achieving, and I hope it is as useful a tool to you as it has been to me.

Steel, Piers. “The nature of procrastination: a meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure.” Psychological bulletin 133, no. 1 (2007): 65.

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