3 Surprising Habits of Original People


Just watched a genius TED Talk about the surprising habits of original people. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant argues the most inventive, innovative people have what most of us believe are “bad” habits: they procrastinate, they experience fear and doubt, they even have horrible ideas. But it is because of these “bad” habits-not in spite of them-that creative people have breakthroughs. 

1. Bad habit #1: They procrastinate

Ever since we took life skills class in 6th grade, we heard that procrastination was evil. “People procrastinate for fear of failure!” the psychologists roared. “Procrastination keeps us from doing our best work.” Though procrastination is a self-destructive habit in most cases, in some, procrastination operates to open us up to new ways of thinking. You’ll often hear procrastinators say this to justify their behavior: “I have to procrastinate…that’s when I get my best ideas!” Goal-oriented, pre-crastinators like me may have thought this was a load of shit, but study after study confirms the same thing: time pressure often forces us to think in unexpected ways.

What procrastination is bad for is productivity. If you’re procrastinating on your term paper by playing video games or watching pointless video after pointless video on YouTube, you’re not accomplishing anything. In this way, precrastination-the frenzied panic that compels ambitious go-getters to finish projects way before their deadlines-is more constructive: when we get an early start on tasks, we get more done.

However, as Grant points out, procrastination has its own virtues. By momentarily putting off the task at hand, we give ourselves a cognitive break of sorts, which allows ideas to incubate. But Grant distinguishes between 2 different types of procrastination. Brief procrastination, such as spending 5 minutes checking your email before writing your senior thesis, is just enough of a break from the problem to jumpstart your thinking and energize new insights. Extended procrastination over prolonged periods, on the other hand, seems to lead to more conventional modes of thinking and fewer revolutionary ideas. 

2. Bad habit #2: They undergo periods of doubt

Like the rest of us, the most groundbreaking pioneers experience doubt and fear. The only difference is that exceptionally creative people don’t doubt themselves-they doubt their ideas.

The difference between doubting yourself and doubting your ideas is the distinction between “I suck” and “This sucks.” “I suck” identifies us with our creative failure and paralyzes us in a state of hopelessness and inaction; “this sucks” is a wake up call. This kind of doubt, Grant asserts, actually leads us to recognize our failings and improve our work.

Say you’re writing an argumentative piece for your English class. You’ve been working for weeks researching your topic, developing a thesis, gathering sources. The paper’s practically complete when you realize a major hole in your argument. “I suck” would cause us to mercilessly berate ourselves; “this sucks” would cause a brief moment of panic but eventually lead to a practical approach to the problem. “Why isn’t my argument convincing?” we’d ask ourselves, “What’s missing?” After exploring possibilities, we might realize we don’t have enough facts or compelling stories to substantiate our argument. Or that we have to revise our claim all together. Regardless of the issue, “this sucks” would invite us to use our ingenuity and problem-solving skills to find a solution and ultimately write a better paper.

The most successful people know that doubt is the greatest driver of creativity. Remember the famous line Sylvia Plath once penned: “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt“-not doubt itself.

3. Bad habit #3: They have (a lot) of bad ideas and fail

It is a statistical fact: the more output you produce, the greater chance that you’ll produce something truly original. And the greater chance you’ll fail. All of the most original people-composers, filmmakers, brilliant entrepreneurs, world changing activists-have brutally, publicly failed.

The difference between the ordinary person and the successful one is the successful one persists. When we have resiliency of spirit-faith in what is possible instead of cranky skepticism and doubt-we can defy all odds. It is only when we yield to probabilities and chances that we are in danger. Faith is belief in spite of the odds. And faith is idiocy to an outsider. How can we believe we’ll survive stage 3 cancer when we’re told we only have a 50% chance to live?

Faith, I think, is the one quality shared by all remarkable people. Einstein. Edison. Tesla. All brilliant men had to believe in the reality of their vision when all other people saw was a lunatic’s hallucination, when time after time they failed. Time is relative?! Electricity can be harnessed as a form of energy?! When first proposed, these ideas seemed nothing short of crazy. But the revolutionaries and the innovators, the visionaries and the creators possessed the resolve to stand by their ideas, however ridiculed or unpopular, however many times they failed.



The Physics of Motivation

“BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!” my annoying alarm clock blared. 6 am and it was time to go to the gym…at least the time I was supposed to go to the gym. For over a year, I had been going to the gym diligently 3x a week no matter what. Now when gym day rolls around, I find myself crafting excuse after excuse:

Grandma’s staying with me. I should be a good host and stay with her.”

Whoops, woke up late,” I’ll say innocently, “Guess I can’t go to the gym without being late for work.” (Never mind that I purposely stayed up late the night before just so I could justifiably use that excuse.)

“What,” I wondered, “could explain this gradual dip in motivation?”

Since I’ve noticed my inability to stop hitting snooze, I’ve been trying to decipher the physics of motivation: Why had I been so reluctant to hit the gym? to do other things like go to meditation class? What causes people to lose the motivation to pursue their goals?

I suppose it’s hard for anyone to sustain drive over the long haul. Inevitably, life shows up and interrupts our routine.We start working 50+ hour weeks and can’t make time in the mornings. We have a huge midterm paper due. There’s nothing wrong with adjusting our routine once in awhile.

But as any former fitness nut knows, it’s hard to pick up going to the gym regularly once you stop. Just like anything else, habits require momentum; once we interrupt our momentum, it’s hard to gain that thrust again.

Think of Newton’s laws of motion: an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.

Once we stop following our established routine of going to the gym 3x a week (or writing every day or practicing violin for an hour, whatever it is), we’re like a rolling ball that gradually comes to a stop:

Aw, I don’t want to practice today, I’m tired/hungry/not in the mood. I’ll start again tomorrow…”

But what happens? We say the same thing tomorrow and the next day and the next day until we’re making more excuses than actually getting anything done. We have lost momentum and come to a stop. The only way to regain speed is for us to be acted upon by an outside force. Here are a few ways to overcome inertia, recover your motivation and get moving again:

1. create a sense of control

In his compelling account of productivity, “Smarter, Better, Faster: The Secrets to Productivity in Life & Business,” Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and contributor to the New York Times Charles Duhigg argues those who feel in control of their lives possess higher levels of determination. Why? Because if you believe your actions directly impact your life, you’ll feel as though your choices make a difference. Not only do proactive people who feel in control possess more drive and motivation; they are generally happier, more successful and even live longer. Conversely, those who feel like victims of circumstance will feel incapable of redirecting their destinies and suffer as a result.

The key to sustaining motivation then, it seems, is for us to find a way to feel in control. Say you have a particularly tedious task on your to-do list, like responding to a few emails. To maximize your motivation, allow yourself to exercise some control in completing the task. Which email do you want to answer first? Perhaps the easier ones that require less of a thorough response? Or maybe you want to tackle the lengthier messages first? Either way, giving yourself a choice will boost motivation and increase the likelihood that you get it done.

2. ask yourself “why?”

In his insightful blog post “20 Ways to Not Become a Real-Life Half-Dead Adult,” 20-something expert and hilarious author Paul Angone makes an insightful distinction between two types of passion: a passion can be a hobby or interest (as in, “I love painting” or “I adore fantasy football”) or it can be a hobby or interest that meets a real need (as in, “I’d love to eliminate the achievement gap in inner city schools”). For Angone, passion must be tied to something bigger than ourselves in order for our lives to be meaningful.

As I go through the sometimes mundane ins-and-outs of my daily life, I often wonder: Is my life bereft of this latter kind of passion? I have preoccupations and interests, but do I have things that drive me? I missed writing when I knew something was at stake, when I knew I had something important to share. Same with teaching. If we’re not careful to connect our daily labor with internal meaning, our work is in danger of becoming aimless and hollow.

Consider each lesson I have with a student: when I recall the significance of every lesson, when I utilize every question as an opportunity to teach students how to solve a particular type of problem and thus add another tool to their belt of test-taking skills, work is rewarding, validating. However, when I fail to connect my daily work to any broader objective, the same lesson feels boring and trite, the work feels mundane, and I feel listless and unfulfilled.

But is fulfillment simply a matter of attitude?

In one study, when 3 factory workers were asked what they did for a living, each gave a different response. One replied, “I go to work”; the second, “I make a living for my family”; the third, “I make products that make people’s lives better.” All three men performed the same job, but only one of them felt truly fulfilled in his work. Why? Because he connected the ins and outs of his daily labor with a significance greater than himself. The first man understood his days at the factory merely as time punched in; the second found a little more contentment by framing his work as a means to support his loved ones but the third man-by realizing the implications of his labor-understood that the seemingly trivial task of working with his hands was actually quite important.

We only lose enthusiasm for our goals when we stop asking ourselves why we’re striving for them. If we force ourselves to go to yoga class 3x a week without pausing to ask ourselves why we engage in the activity, our motivation will dwindle. Stern self-discipline might work for awhile, but after a few weeks we’ll start making excuses as to why we can’t put our yoga pants on.

The key to keeping up motivation is to connect our small, trivial actions to a larger purpose or goal. When we ask ourselves the simple question “why,” going to bikram yoga is no longer a torturous hour of sweating profusely in a 100+ degree room- it’s a step on the path to losing 20 pounds and finally being able to touch our toes. When we ask ourselves “why,” jogging on the treadmill is no longer a half hour of hell-it’s a means of building our toughness and stamina so we can eventually accomplish our lifelong dream of running a marathon.

Often times, the monotony of routine conceals the greater significance of our efforts. If we ask ourselves “why” we’re taking a certain course of action, we can sustain our motivation over the long-term. 

3. draw clear lines 

How many times have you made a beautiful, revelatory, paradigm-shifting resolution only to try and talk yourself out of it five seconds later? “I’m going to run 2 miles a day!” we triumphantly declare, hopeful and determined to finally achieve our ambitious goals. Fast foreword 3 days later and we’re binge-watching Netflix on the coach.

“I deserve to take a break, just for today,” we tell ourselves, “we’ll get right back to running tomorrow…”

But what happens tomorrow? Instead of lace up our running shoes, we spend tomorrow debating whether we should run or not.

I call this the negotiation process. Rather than take actual action toward realizing our goals, many of us squander our precious (and limited) hours debating whether or not we should take action toward our goals. Drawing clear lines means establishing non-negotiable rules for ourselves. If we decide to quit smoking, we don’t smoke: not once in awhile, not when we’re drunk, not “just this once.” If we resolve to train for a marathon by running 2 miles everyday, we run everyday no matter what. Debating with ourselves depletes our limited energy reserves. By drawing clear lines, we make it impossible to waste energy negotiating with ourselves.

The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom: Lessons from Asian American Parenting

3 hours of piano lessons a day. Extra homework. Furious complaints that their son’s 600 SAT Reading score just wasn’t “good enough.”

As a teacher with her share of experience with the “battle hymn” of the tiger mom, I’ve always thought authoritarian parenting-the setting of rigid, exacting (and, some might argue, impossible) standards must be unhealthy for the child.

Yes, a perfectionist and hard-working Asian American myself, I value commitment to rigor and academic excellence, but these parents were too much. Doesn’t demanding so much from your children inevitably hurt them? Damage their self-worth?

Forever bound by the hyphen, I may be Asian but I’m also American; these Chinese-American parents’ insistence on perfection often seemed cruel: what if your child couldn’t meet your impossible expectations? He’d feel worthless, like a failure. Even if he was capable of getting straight-As, serving as president of the French club and winning the national tennis championships, wouldn’t the pursuit of such high standards wear him out? I remember watching so many of my students work themselves into a hysteria over an A-. Their parents’ unrealistic ambitions, I thought, were unfairly robbing them of a childhood. 

But after examining the statistics social psychologist Roy Baumeister and journalist John Tierney provide, I’m a little less confident in my original analysis. Yes, Chinese-Americans are tough but their authoritarian style gets results: by the age of 2, most Chinese-American children are expected to possess the self-control of American children twice their age; Chinese-American students consistently outperform their American counterparts in school and-though they only account for roughly 7% of the U.S. population-Chinese-Americans make up more than 25% of the nation’s most prestigious schools.

tiger mom

In their fascinating study of willpower Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Baumeister and Tierney make a compelling argument for stricter, Asian American-style parenting:

Delayed gratification has been a familiar theme in the homes of immigrants like Jae and Dae Kim, who were born in South Korea and raised 2 daughters in North Carolina. The sisters, Soo and Jane, became a surgeon and a lawyer, respectively, as well as coauthors of Top of the Class, a book about Asian parents’ techniques for fostering achievement. They tell how their parents started teaching them the alphabet before their second birthday, and how their mother was never one to reward a child whining for candy at the supermarket. When they reached the checkout counter, before the girls had a chance to beg, Mrs. Kim would preempt them by announcing that if they each read a book the following week, she would buy them a candy bar on the next shopping trip. Later, when Soo went off to college and asked her parents for a cheap used car to get around, they refused but offered to buy her a brand-new car if she was admitted to medical school. Thus, the parents did provide good things for their daughters-but each treat was meted out as a reward for some valued achievement.

The many Asian American success stories have forced developmental psychologists to revise their theories about proper parenting. They used to warn against the “authoritarian” style, in which parents set rigid goals and enforced strict rules without much overt concern for the child’s feelings. Parents were advised to adopt a different style, called “authoritative,” in which they set limits but gave more autonomy and paid more attention to the child’s desires. This warmer, more nurturing style was supposed to produce well-adjusted, self-confident children who would do better academically and socially than those from authoritarian homes. But then, as Ruth Chao and other psychologists studied Asian-American families, they noticed that many of the parents set strict rules and goals. These immigrants, and often their children, too, considered their style of parenting to be a form of devotion, not oppression. Chinese-American parents were determined to instill self-control by following the Confucian concepts of chiao shin, which means “to train,” and guan, which means both to govern and to love. These parents might have seemed cold and rigid by American standards, but their children were flourishing both in and out of school” (Baumeister 195-196).

Though the self-esteem movement has most Americans preaching the importance of positive reinforcement and constant praise, statistical comparisons of Chinese-American and American children show that our national resistance to more traditional forms of discipline may be counterproductive. By refusing to withhold rewards for exceptional work and instead applauding mediocrity, our “everyone-gets-a-trophy-culture” promises American children will lack the discipline, diligence and self-control to attain success at the rate of their Asian-American counterparts. In fact, our emphasis on building self-esteem rather than character has led to rampant narcissism among today’s youth; in study after study, American children are shown to feel better about performing worse. We may rank as one of the world’s worst countries in math, but our students leave that exam room convinced they did well, better, even, than students from China and South Korea.

chinese american students

Has our refusal to embed values like self-control led to an epidemic of narcissism and delusional thinking in our culture?

After reviewing the data, I think so.

A soft, nurturing type, discipline has never come easy to me. Like many Americans, I was raised with the belief that too stern a style would intimidate and damage my students. Little did I know that-by refusing to consistently enforce rules and demand that my students meet my high expectations for behavior-was I actually setting them up for failure.

We insist that every child get a trophy because we’re afraid the children who don’t earn a prize won’t feel good enough. We are a nation of coddlers. We fret more about hurting our children’s feelings than establishing real opportunities for boosting self-worth.

It is only when we delay gratification-like, say, the Kims, who required that Soo be admitted into medical school before she got a new car-that we teach our children the perseverance and hard work they’ll need to be successful. Awarding our children with trophies they didn’t earn it is like rewarding them for work they haven’t done: it sets the expectation that you will always be recognized even when you didn’t work hard enough.

Perhaps this is why Baby Boomers so often lament the laziness and narcissism of our generation. Little do they know that it is their laid-back, hands-off style parenting that is to blame for so much that is wrong with our culture.

Can their generation’s distaste for the conventional type of parenting they endured as children explain my generation’s apparent failures to be autonomous and grow-up?

Can growing numbers of “boomerang kids”-adult-aged children who move back in with their parents-be a result of “you’re always good enough” coddle-style parenting?

In many ways, my generation was spoon-fed the misleading and ultimately false belief that we mattered. When we graduated from college and still couldn’t get menial jobs, we were shocked: this wasn’t how our parents told us the world worked. We were supposed to graduate college and immediately have careers. A degree, in fact, was supposed to guarantee us a job. Like an invitation-only after party, our degree was the ticket to prosperity and instant success.

But, in reality, it wasn’t good enough.

We needed real experience in our fields to be competitive, not to mention higher GPAs. Maybe our parents did spoil us.

Because we were always rewarded no matter what, many of us held the mistaken assumption that we’d always get what we want. We expected the world to just give us things but, we soon realized, that’s not how the world worked.

By American standards, the Asian American insistence on excellence and achievement may seem severe, but-time and time again-it’s proven to get results. Perhaps it’s time we open our ears to the galvanizing battle hymn of the tiger mom.

S-M-A-R-T Goals vs. Stretch Goals


In a hyper goal-oriented, productivity-driven culture, we’re always asking ourselves the same thing: what is the best way to set and achieve goals? What kinds of goals are best?

Pioneered by corporate giant General Electric, S-M-A-R-T goals have held sway since the company first began requiring its employees to outline such goals 80 years ago. Meaning specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound, the S-M-A-R-T strategy, Gary Latham, a research psychologist who helped developed the method, once said is the “difference between hoping something comes true and figuring out how to do it.”

This emphasis on setting realistic objectives and detailing specific, measurable means to reach them has deeply informed how we approach goal-setting today. Go to any management seminar or listen to any podcast about goal-setting and you’ll hear dozens of experts sing the praises of the S-M-A-R-T system. I myself find the S-M-A-R-T methodology extremely helpful for breaking up big ambitions into concrete, more manageable goals. A driven, goal-oriented person by nature, the second I have a dream I want to realize, I pull out my Passion Planner and create what’s called a “passion plan.” A visual representation of your goal, a passion plan takes a large ambition (like, say, studying for the GRE) and divides it into smaller, actionable steps with clear timelines. To return to my example of the GRE, the smaller steps might be to buy the official GRE book and learn 10 new vocabulary words every day. Each of these tasks would have a precise due date which would serve as a measure of success or failure. Such passion mapping is a direct descendant of our S-M-A-R-T culture.

passion roadmap
A passion plan example (I’m obsessed)


I’m an avid proponent of S-M-A-R-T goals so you could imagine my surprise when Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and author of “Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business” Charles Duhigg questioned their effectiveness. The problem, it seems, stems from S-M-A-R-T’s emphasis on realism. “If you’re constantly being told to focus on achievable results,” observed professor and goal-setting expert Steve Kerr, “you’re only going to think of achievable goals. You’re not going to dream big.”

Because the S-M-A-R-T system demands we develop a clear roadmap for reaching our objectives, it has the unintentional effect of discouraging our grander, more starry-eyed ambitions. The result? We may be more productive in the sense that we’re achieving our goals but we’re not realizing nearly a tenth of our potential. Imagine if the Wright brothers had been asked to break flying into realistic, achievable steps! They wouldn’t have been able to: the idea that man could soar through the skies was totally unfeasible.

Though S-M-A-R-T thinking proves useful practically in terms of getting things done, it often limits what we view as possible. That’s why we need stretch goals. Stretch goals are the antithesis of their S-M-A-R-T counterparts. Unlike S-M-A-R-T objectives which require we outline a comprehensible path on the route to our goals, stretch goals are so ambitious that they’re almost inconceivable. According to Duhigg, “numerous academic studies have examined the impact of stretch goals, and have consistently found that forcing people to commit to ambitious, seemingly out-of-reach objectives can spark outsized jumps in innovation and productivity. A 1997 study of Motorola, for instance, found the time it took engineers to develop new products fell tenfold after the company mandated stretch goals throughout the firm. A study of 3M said stretch goals helped spur such innovations as Scotch tape and Thinsulate. Stretch goals transformed Union Pacific, Texas Instruments, and public schools in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles. Surveys of people who have lost large amounts of weight or have become marathon runners later in life have found that stretch goals are often integral to their success” (Duhigg 126-127). In other words, a S-M-A-R-T goal is running 5 miles without stopping; a stretch goal is running a marathon. This is not to say that the S-M-A-R-T system is unnecessary: S-M-A-R-T thinking is vital to actually accomplishing our goals. But stretch goals push us to realize dizzying new heights of untapped potential. If S-M-A-R-T goals are sensible pragmatists; stretch goals are dreamers. Just as we need our inner realist to revise our beautiful but impractical ambitions and make them more workable, we need our inner idealist to expand what we think is possible.




I Was A Sandy Girl

I was a Sandy girl. And not bad Sandy, the sultry sex kitten with big hair and red lips who sashays on screen at Grease’s end. No, no I always preferred good Sandy, the prim goody too-shoes who was just a little too perfect.

Most girls idolized bad Sandy-her effortless, cool girl demeanor, the way she self-assuredly cocked her head and said, “Tell me about it, stud”-not me. Though I loved her tight 50s style hot pants, her bad girl act held no allure. To me, her heavy blue eye shadow was trashy, not sexy, and her red platforms shoes screamed uniform staple of a street walker.

bad sandy


For how much I loved Grease, I’ve always detested the end. Even before Judith Butler and Women’s Studies 101, I possessed a profound sense that the moral of the story was backwards: Shouldn’t the person you love accept you unconditionally? Isn’t love based on mutual respect?

Change yourself” was the disturbing message that seemed to underlie Grease’s light-hearted exterior. Rather than finally stand up to his tough guy friends and date the “good girl,” Danny only accepts Sandy when she metamorphoses into his male fantasy of her. Sandy’s transformation from demure, prudish good girl to tantalizing male play thing always represented a kind of loss for me: instead of affirm her own identity, Sandy-in conventional fashion-rejects her selfhood to please a man, a major defeat for feminism indeed. All the hallmarks of bad Sandy-the smoky, charcoal eyes, the volumized, over-the-top tousled hair-became tragic symbols of the ways in which women found themselves wanting…and worked to modify themselves.

danny & sandy


Like Sandy, I, too, had a hard time accepting my inner good girl. I can remember when my 7th grade science teacher Mr. Thompson would display our grades on the projector. While most kids shuddered at having their mediocre C-s projected on the screen, I dreaded the moment my A+ would be laid out for all to see. “Asia,” I remember Kenton, the class cool boy, saying sarcastically, “100%…sexy”

In that moment, I had a devastating realization: being a good girl wasn’t attractive.

Getting good grades, earning student of the month 8 years in a row-these badges of a good girl were actually telltale signs of a dork. Once I understood scholarly excellence and rule-following as roads to mockery instead of sources of pride, I became ashamed of my As. I was embarrassed when the teacher doted on me in class. Slowly, surely, I became more quiet and reserved. My being a good girl left me alarmingly insecure with myself.

Like most good girls, I eventually rejected my straight-laced nature and experimented with being a “bad girl”: I smoked profusely; I drank; I swore; and though I didn’t own a pair of 50s style hot pants, I revolted through the skinny jeans I wore.

By 2005, I was a completely different person.

Gone were the days of pristinely copied homework and neat hand-written notes. If I did turn in my homework (which was rare), it was crumpled and stained from having been misplaced in my backpack.

Gone were the days of naive optimism and blind obedience. By early high school, I was already wearing the aloof cynicism of much later adolescence.

Gone were the days of conservatism and mild manners. Sophomore year had me listening to Led Zeppelin and cheering on my guitarist boyfriend.

Good Sandy was dead. And I loved it…or so I thought.  

Despite the exhilaration of dispensing with social norms and experimenting with alternate lifestyles, my adolescent years as bad Sandy were a time when I felt profoundly lost.  A relentlessly driven, type-A sort of personality by nature, I felt disoriented without a set of rules.  Good Sandy wanted things: to be a cheerleader, to get good grades.  Bad Sandy had nothing to strive for.

Being a bad Sandy girl, I realized, was nothing but a negation, an anti-thesis of sorts.  Her only identity was as a converse; she was good Sandy’s opposite, no identity at all.  At the end of Grease, she feels sexy, perhaps, as she flies away with the hunky man of her dreams but she never realizes any of her own ambitions.

Today, I still harbor a secret admiration for bad Sandy girls, those women who are so liberated and carefree, who quite simply don’t give a shit but, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve accepted I’m just not one of them.  I love my planners and cardigans too much.



The Zeigarnik Effect: Procrastination, Planning & Goal-Setting

Zeigernik Effect



According to a phenomenon psychologists call the Zeigarnik effect, the human mind can only remember unfinished tasks. Like a song endlessly on repeat, chores left undone linger in the subconscious, expending precious cognitive energy until complete. In one experiment conducted by Florida State graduate student E.J. Masicampo, 2 groups of students were told to think about their most important examination: the first group was told to create a detailed study plan; the second group was told to simply think about the test. The control group was instructed to think about the most exciting upcoming event on their social calenders.

Afterwards, participants were asked to fill in the blanks of several words. Those in the second group who did not devise a study plan were more likely to fill in the blanks with words relating to finals. For example, a student in the second group would be more likely to fill a four-letter word beginning with the letter “e” with “exam” than a student from the first group.

Why? As the Zeigarnik effect demonstrates, creating a specific plan for executing our goals frees up mental energy for other cognitive undertakings. Those who simply thought about a daunting task (in this case, their most strenuous final exam) without developing a means of tackling it were subliminally controlled by the effects of procrastination.


What does this mean for us and practical goal-setting? Masicampo’s findings suggest careful planning can liberate us from the persistent mental nagging associated with procrastination. If we outline how we will complete a task before actually completing it, we can focus more keenly on other matters. What’s essential here is that we don’t even have to finish the task: simply designing a systematic, step-by-step method for reaching our goals is enough to fend off the perpetual distraction of not having an item crossed off our to-do lists.

For me, these results were both sensible and shocking, logical and counterintuitive. On the one hand, it made sense that items yet to be checked off our to-do lists badger our minds and subconsciously control our attention. Yet the idea that meticulous planning is freeing also seemed like a load of horseshit. Deadlocking myself into some preconceived notion of how my day was to supposed to go always felt more like a prison. Since I can remember, I’ve scolded myself for my obsessive scheduling because I thought such micromanaging behavior was a coping mechanism, a vulnerability shield, for dealing with the excruciating fact that, as humans, we have little to no control. Scrupulous hour-by-hour scheduling in my day planner, I believed, was proof of a major character defect, if not a full-blown pathology.

I’ve always regarded my chronic fixation with time as a problem to be remedied rather than a talent to be applauded. “You’re too uptight,” I’d reproach myself, “Why can’t you just relax and be like everyone else?” But is it possible my penchant for planners is an asset rather than a flaw? According to social psychologist and vulnerability expert Brene Brown’s theory of a “strengths perspective,” almost all “flaws” are incarnations of our greatest strengths. When we reframe our most detested shortcomings as assets, we can see how they operate to serve us and, more importantly, we can cultivate a more forgiving relationship of loving kindness toward ourselves.

Take my Type-A lunacy. From a self-critical perspective, I could view my rigidness and refusal to stray from schedule as evidence of my being high-strung, or I could understand it as confirmation of my commitment and follow-through. Same goes for my willful goal-orientation. I could view my obsession with setting and achieving goals as an unhealthy and detrimental addiction, or I could adopt the outlook that the single-minded pursuit of one’s goals is admirable. How we perceive ourselves depends on our perspective at a given moment. And the amazing thing about perspective is that we always have the power to choose.

To return to Masicampo’s findings, science has confirmed time and time again that planning is critical to reaching our goals. So I suppose my fondness for calendars and day planners isn’t so bad after all.


The Fallacy of Dreams: Why Maybe Will Get You Nowhere

“Maybe I’ll go back to school…”

“Maybe I’ll get my teaching credential…”

“Maybe I’ll move to San Francisco…”

If you’re like me, you know “maybe” intimately like a friend.  

Though “maybe” introduces a realm of possibility, the conditional form is also non-committal: it negates the responsibility for action.  I might write; I might sing.  “Might” exists in some far away future and, thus, absolves us of the practical steps we could be taking now.

Dreamy and a bit impractical, I’ve always preferred playing with possibility to transforming possibility into reality; I bolt from the first sign of serious commitment.  “Get my teaching credential? But what if after all the trainings and observations and money I will have wasted my time?”  Like most of us, I balk at the idea of having anything set in stone.

Perhaps we’re afraid to commit because we’re afraid of vulnerability, we’re afraid of failure.  To proclaim our dreams and carry out a plan to attain them would mean total humiliation if we met with defeat.  Easier to just drift from one meaningless job to another without the pressure of a “plan.”  

But if we’re to lead full, meaningful lives, we must have the conviction to be decisive and check yes or no.  So do away with maybe.  Shout a confident “yes!” to whatever it is that you want.