Scott H Young

You’re Lazier Than You Think


Self Delusion?

Most people vastly overestimate their willpower. After four years of detailed feedback from readers on habit changes, I can come to no other conclusion. If willpower were cash, most people empty their wallets on the first day.

Keeping this in mind, when I set the first 30 Day Trials for the group of students enrolled in my monthly learning skills program, I made a warning to all participants:

Set easy goals. No more than 30-45 minutes per day, otherwise you’ll probably fail.

I know that sounds pessimistic and hardly encouraging, but after hundreds of back and forth emails and several years of doing it myself, I’ve learned one lesson: we’re all far lazier than we’d like to think.

Why We’re Lazy, and How Accepting that Can Help You Achieve More

Despite my warning, many of the members set challenges involving 90-120 minutes per day of work on several different goals. And, unsurprisingly, those were often the people that failed to stick with it.

These people fell into a common trap, which is having too much motivation early on. They get excited about the possibilities and set a challenging goal, which is fine. However, when the motivation simmers down, they can no longer keep up and they quit, which is not.

When I participated with the initial group, my challenge only lasted 30 minutes every day. Could I have done more, certainly. But that isn’t the point. The point isn’t to make a suicide run for the first few weeks, it’s to establish a ritual of behavior that will last for years.

Burnout Bloggers

This is my 800th post for ScottHYoung.com. I’ve been writing for over four years. While my particular strategy and posting frequency has undergone several revisions in those four years, I make a point of always showing up.

I write two articles per week, and aside from rare lapses, I always post two articles per week. That included periods when I had a dozen hours worth of exams in four days, weeks of late nights and international travel and intense competitions.

What’s important isn’t just showing up. It’s also why I’ve been able to show up–because my posting volume is sustainable. I’ve seen many new bloggers write in a frenzy for a few months and then watch their posting dwindle to nothing. They would probably be better off rationing their writing to a sustainable level and keeping it up for years, rather than rush in a frenzy.

Seduced by Willpower

Willpower is the superglue of planning efforts. It’s the substance you use to reinforce pieces of your strategy that otherwise wouldn’t connect. And while willpower is a good thing to have, if you rely on it entirely, you just end up with a mess.

The problem with many of the students setting trials to work on new study skills for 90 minutes every day isn’t their goal, it’s their method. Going from zero effort to 90 minutes a day, without exception, for a month is extremely difficult–even if you are motivated. Any complication (illness, exams, boredom) will completely derail their progress.

If you look at their planning effort, there was a huge gap being filled by willpower alone. The gap between zero work and 90 minutes of work per day was filled with nothing. No steady progression, no dedication of resources, no contingency plans to dodge complications, just willpower.

What’s the Alternative?

There are many alternatives to just relying on willpower. These alternatives may not work in every situation, but you can use some combination to reduce the amount of willpower you need to succeed.

#1 – Habits

The more you can ritualize and automate your plan, the less willpower you need. Here’s the key: if you need to spend a lot of time each day thinking about it, it isn’t a habit.

#2 – Modify the Environment

Want to know a good way to read more books? Have more books available. If you need to hit Amazon or Barnes and Noble every time you want to read something new, you probably won’t.

#3 – Progressions

How do you commit to a detailed, daily exercise schedule? Well you can start by just showing up for 20 minutes every day. Many of the members of my program who were too initially ambitious could have reached their goals with smaller stepping stones.

#4 – Experiments

Change your goal from a permanent new style to a short-term experiment. That will let you know what you’re up against if you decide to stick long-term.

#5 – Obsessive Focus

I’m currently employing a decent amount of willpower into studying French. But, as one of only two goals I’m pursuing actively at the moment, I can afford to do that. If you have a dozen goals, even the heroically disciplined will slip up.

Those are just a few examples, but if you apply them intelligently you can drastically reduce the willpower necessary to achieve the same goal.

Let’s say, for example, I wanted to start an extremely successful blog. How could I reduce the willpower needed to succeed?

I could start with habits. Setting 30 minutes every day to write, or committing to a new article every Monday and Thursday. I could change my homepage to my WordPress admin panel, so I’m reminded of blogging every time I use the internet.

I could start with the simple goal just to post something every week, and then move to more difficult goals and deliberate practice in writing. I could experiment with different writing styles before committing to them for the long-term and I could make blogging my #1 goal for the next 6-9 months to devote myself to it.

Discipline is Like Gold, Valuable (But Rare)

The point of this article isn’t to say self-discipline or determination are bad things. In fact, the opposite is true, discipline is extremely valuable. What I’m questioning isn’t the value of discipline in its ability to achieve goals. Instead, it’s the supply that is often incredibly limited.

The point of this article also isn’t to say that setting difficult goals is a bad thing. Instead, it’s to argue that if you are going to set difficult goals, you need to recognize your own limitations of willpower and come up with a really intelligent strategy to work around it.

Ultimately, sweat and willpower will always be required. But there’s a difference between putting in the effort to run a marathon, and getting exhausted and giving up because you got lost for several miles.


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29 Responses to “You’re Lazier Than You Think”

  1. Scott, thanks for you very unique take on life. This is really a key success factor, because I’ve made the mistake of getting too scattered on many goals. And then, due to my ‘willpower’, they’ve been abandoned. Fortunately, I’ve narrowed my goals down, and have become more patient and persistent with achieving those goals. It makes all the difference.

  2. First of all Scott, congratulations with your 800th post!

    It is like people only can act in spurts, in sprints. I hear one of my friends saying: ‘I want to study’ and he goes to the library full time for a week and than he drips off. Somebody wants to be a better blogger and he writes an article every day ‘just to test it out, see how it works’. That is great, but it won’t work.

    I think we have to embrace our urge to spurt. When you are feeling like blogging, go and write 20 posts, but archive them. You can post them in the upcoming 10 weeks, great. Don’t post them at once. Steady steps, going easy.

  3. Brannon says:

    When I set a new goal my enthusiasm always needs to be constrained. The initial high level of enthusiasm is never sustainable and if I mentally link my progress with my excitement then I’ve already failed.

    Once the obsessive intent to succeed subsides I’m left with one more failed attempt. For me at least, those previous “failures” haven’t been wasted because I’ve learned from them and been conscious enough to ask myself why.

    Congrats on 800 posts!

  4. Roman says:

    Wow… New, unique…aaannd I lilke it!
    Thank you for the post, enjoied reading it:)

  5. 100% agree with not over-doing it in so many aspects, and evaluating what is really going to work with your lifestyle. The great thing about blogging is it allows you freedom to create in different ways depending on your state of mind. Only having just begun blogging and reading blogs, I find that your 800th post is very inspiring. The blog world is fantastic for finding new inspiration. Good job!

  6. Great post, Scott. I’m a big fan of incorporating reality – however unsexy that might be – into our efforts. The more we can do that, the greater the chances for success.

    I like the list of willpower supplements. Taking an experimental approach is one of my favorites. I often do 30-day experiments, some of which turn into long-term investments, and others of which fizzle. Making it an experiment removes any pressure of success or failure, and giving it a finite time-frame helps keep me focused.

  7. First, congrats to your 800th post (and all the uncountable comments).

    What you write about selfdiscipline is correct – showing up, regardless of the circumstances, is a good thing as you remain focused and the people relying on you value this very much. Be it the boss/colleagues at work, friends and family or clients (like your visitors to this blog).

  8. Scott Young says:

    8313 comments (uncountable for me, but not for WordPress)

  9. Ketan says:

    This article completely clicked with me. I always have the enthusiasm when starting something new but I get carried away and burn out pretty quick. A slower and consistent approach definitely works for me now.

  10. Kelly says:

    Since I’ve discovered your site I’ve really enjoyed reading your articles, and all I can say concerning this one is that I totally agree 100%.
    I’ve tried and failed so many times over the years at so many things and as I look back now I can see that not only was my lack of self-esteem a problem, but I almost ALWAYS set myself up for failure by expecting WAY too much from myself too soon.
    Since I discovered myself how important it is to tackle these kinds of things exactly the way you described in your article, I’ve done so much better and that self-esteem problem I mentioned earlier is vastly improved.

  11. Scott, as my 11 year old says: “You are a legend”. Always inspired to read your posts. To me they feel sincere, measured and there is a purpose behind them. What more can I say – hats off…

    Regards
    Julian

  12. Scott Young says:

    Julian,

    Thanks, your comment made my day.

    -Scott

  13. Ian K says:

    Scott,

    vrai. C’est difficile à admettre… J’ai de la difficulté à l’admettre. Affronter la vérité… Je crois que Steve Pavlina est plus véhément à ce sujet que moi. “I know that is wrong but right now I am not strong enough to do something about it.”

    J’apprécie que tu publies tes idées,

    Ian

  14. Bud Hennekes says:

    Man I absolutely love this post. It goes back to basic psychology, the truth is MANY of us are OVERCONFIDENT in our abilities.

    It’s often hard for us to comprehend that SMALLER is BETTER. We get so caught up in wanting it all right now that we forget that small steps add up.

    One of my goals at the moment is achieve a six-pack by April 20th. While I could easily say I’ll exercise several hours a day I’ve instead kept it simple and worked hard in intense bursts. It seems to be working well for me at the moment. :)

  15. Dror Engel says:

    Scott,
    Keep on the good work! Have a great year ahead. hope to read your 1000th post soon

  16. Lies…ok maybe just a bi

  17. Vinod says:

    Congrats on your 800th post. It was a joy reading this article. It pointed the exact mistakes we do by over-estimating our will power. Now on I’ll make it a point never to consider more than 2 goals at a time. And ensure that I develop habits that are sustainable in the long run around those 2 goals till I achieve a certain level of proficiency or attain the goal. Thanks Scott for this eye-opener.

  18. Scott Young says:

    Dror,

    Well considering my current posting rate is 2x per week, that means I’ll see you in 2012!

    -Scott

  19. Ara says:

    Hi!
    I wanted to pop in and say that I like your blog, it is motivating and insightful. One thought I had relating to this is concerning what you spend you willpower on. It is my belief that if you put effort into sleeping well, eating right and exercising you will have more energy to focus on other matters. First things first so to speak. What is your opinion on this Scott?
    Thanks,
    Ara

  20. Andrea says:

    Scott

    Great blog! Your line on your home page “For too many of us we have settled for a quality of experience far below our ultimate capacity” really resonated with me.

    Congratulations on your 800th post. As a new blogger I’m impressed with your consistency and quality.

  21. [...] feel bad. It happens to the best of us. The reason, as Scott H. Young explained, is that you’re lazier than you think. That might not sound very positive or supportive. His point is that our plans typically rely on [...]

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  23. [...] his own advice. That’s like saying fat people should just stop eating so much. It’s not always just a matter of will. Introspection and applying those introspective thoughts are two separate [...]

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  25. shreevidya says:

    REALLY GOOD WARNING FOR NEW GOAL SETTERS INCLUDING ME.

  26. Louche says:

    Ummm, what about this? When the semester starts, I have the “willpower” to get all my work done… that’s a HELL of a lot more than 30 minutes per day. As the semester goes on, this willpower diminishes. If I start out only studying / doing homework for 30 minutes per day, I’m not going to get very far because ultimately I need to be studying / doing homework / in class for most of my waking hours if I’m going to get 5 classes worth of work completed.

  27. John says:

    OK you got some very good points, My idea is think 30 do 70. it’ll work because when we work we know what thing is right or wrong. Same for any profession, more exercise more Skills. ALways thinking is not good. sometimes may be different but odds don’t count.

  28. [...] been using sheer willpower to try to change my behavior, which, as I’ve been learning from Scott H Young’s Blog, Ramit Sethi’s Blog, and Cal Newport’s Blog, is limited and not very effective. [...]

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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