Productivity Hacks Part 2: Increasing Willpower and Promoting Clear Thinking

A follow-up to Productivity Hacks I’ve Discovered Since College Part 1: Commitment Devices. Here are habits that have helped me make better decisions.

Setting budgets to make trade-offs more intuitive.

It’s hard to decide what is a worthwhile expense and what isn’t. Is eating out tonight worth spending an extra $10? What’s $10 worth, anyway? One reason this sort of question is so hard to answer, as suggested in Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s book  Scarcity, is that it’s unclear what exactly I’ll have to give up if I spend $10 today. It will chip into my savings and mean that I’ll have less to spend in the future, or maybe it will increase the risk that if a health catastrophe hits, I won’t be able to pay for the medical care I need. These costs are abstract and far away, so it’s hard to make smart tradeoffs. [2]

After graduating college, I figured out how much I would need to spend on rent and taxes, allocated 10% of my income to charity and $5,000 a year to savings, and subtracted how much I estimated I would spend on food and necessary home and school supplies. What was left over was for “fun”. I initially allocated myself a “fun budget” of $100 per month, and dropped this number to $70. [3] Up to $70, I spend money as if it doesn’t cost me anything except using up my “fun budget”, and over $70 I’m done.

Over time, it became much more clear which activities have high funness per dollar. I now know what I would do with a marginal fun-directed dollar, which helps realistically evaluate the costs of the tradeoffs I face. Seeing a $5 comedy show? That is much better than spending $5 on anything else I can think of. $18 for a few hours of rock climbing? That’s a few delicious meals. A trip to visit my cousin in Providence… now that buys a lot of falafel!

Costs and cognitive constraints

The main drawback of this policy is that I can’t budget optimally. Some months I don’t have much use for spending money on fun, but I spend it anyway. Some months I could use a lot more fun money, but I don’t have it. Large expenses are nearly impossible. I do permit myself to borrow and save between months, but I try to avoid it: $70 per month is much easier to think about than $8,400 decade, so I think about it on a monthly basis.

Planning in advance and writing everything in a place I look at frequently

I put everything on my Google Calendar on Sunday nights, print the calendar, and carry it around with me for the rest of the week. Now I almost never miss appointments; in the past I missed at least half of the appointments I scheduled that didn’t happen repeatedly.

I also keep a to-do list, which I have been doing for years. However, it’s not very helpful because I haven’t been able to get into the habit of frequently looking at my list the way I frequently check my calendar. When I need to remember something really important I write it on my hand, but it’s amazing how often I don’t notice that something is written on my hand. It’s more amazing how long I can walk around without anyone going “Hey, Liz, what’s that on your hand?”

Setting exercise goals to increase motivation

I exercise because it usually enjoyable, makes me feel better, and will extend my life. Accordingly, I used to exercise however and whenever I felt like it. I was a competitive athlete in high school and was on several teams in college, but for the last few years I’ve avoided taking exercise too seriously, constantly reminding myself that it is only useful insofar as it makes me happier or more productive.

This year, I signed up for a difficult trail race (May 10!) and started training for it. At the beginning of January, I had only been running ten or fifteen miles a week since I was recovering from an injury, so I made a plan to slowly build up to the 40 miles a week I wanted to be at a couple weeks before the race. I planned how how my weekly mileage and long run distances should increase, and I planned to periodically run intervals, hill repeats, sprints up Harvard Stadium, and lift weights in the gym. I wrote down what I did and how I felt every day. I started out motivated, and having a plan to follow and data to track has kept me motivated. On the rare days that I’d rather stay inside, thinking about placing well in the race gets me out the door.

The moral of this story is, pretending that sports is important makes me feel like it’s important, and feeling like it’s important makes it more fun.

(Aside: I’m eight weeks into slowly and reasonably increasing my running mileage. I’m not injured, I’m up to 25 miles a week with a 12 mile long run, and I barely notice hills that used to feel hard. I’m four weeks into lifting weights twice a week. I’m a lot stronger and can do thirty-five consecutive nose-to-the-ground push-ups. You serious athletes can snicker, but I’m proud of myself.)

Failures and Unsolved Problems

These are discussed at greater length above, but I think it’s worth pointing out that “life hacks” have costs and that not everything I try works.

  • I don’t remember to look at my to-do list. I write things on it and then don’t do them.
  • When I initially started setting a “go home and go to bed” alarm, I set it too late by about 40 minutes. Once I got home, I wouldn’t have time to hang out with my boyfriend or even chat with him while getting ready for bed, and I would leave dishes unwashed. Setting the alarm earlier fixed this, but neither the problem nor the solution was immediately obvious.
  • My monthly “fun budget” is inflexible and means that I will basically never go on an airplane for anything other than work or a family emergency.
  • My apartment is usually messier than I want it to be. I feel like I clean it all the time, but I guess that doesn’t happen as fast as it gets messier.

And a final caveat:

  • The fact that everything has been going well for me at once makes me worry that some other variable than good organizing is driving all this.

[2] This is an example of the absence of scarcity and is not really what the book is about.

[3] For people on the same stipend as me following along at home, I overestimated my taxes by a lot. This number could be higher and I’m going to rebudget after I find out exactly how much I’ll pay in taxes this year.

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About adaldrida

I'm a grad student. My interests are diffuse. Recently, I've spent a lot of time thinking about Empirical Bayes, psychiatry, and sports physiology.
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