Make Plans Work on 20% Effort

I’m currently doing an experimental pilot course with Cal Newport about applying the ideas of deliberate practice to a career setting. To get better feedback, we limited the course to fifteen people.

We also had the potential applicants jump through a number of hoops to eliminate the uncommitted. A $500 tuition fee, application form including a short essay response and even an honor agreement signed by each participant that they confirmed they were committed for the course. Finally, I went through each application by hand, eliminating people with any red flags that they weren’t completely dedicated.

I probably won’t get such a highly filtered group of candidates for any course I run again.

Given that stringency, what percentage of students do you think fulfilled the only commitment of the course for the first week: investing exactly five hours of time?

Only 47%. Less than half.

Now I’m not trying to criticize the students. To their credit, we did get full responses from every member which is the reason I know 53% of them had difficulty sticking to their precommitted time in the first week.

In fact, I am also shadowing the course curriculum to understand it better. And in my first week I nearly missed the final hour I had scheduled!

My point isn’t to blame the candidates, as I think they’re doing remarkably well. Instead it’s to point out how much more fragile our self-discipline is in reality than in our mind. During the application process, asking the students to commit to five hours a week was easy. However once we started, many found it much more difficult, even in the first week.

Why Plans are So Unrealistic?

What happened? Why did half of the students, and nearly myself as well, fail to put in the minimal commitment of five hours per week to an expensive course they had jumped through hoops to get into?

My answer: because plans are simple and reality is complex. Your plans for the day or week can be crisp chunks of scheduled time, forming neat colored blocks on your calendar. Life is a messy assault of interruptions.

The result is that your ability to commit to things in theory, is much stronger than in practice.

The 20% Rule

Imagine you were a person with a fifth of your normal discipline, willpower and free time. How would you make a plan to accomplish the goal in front of you? Now make that your actual plan because the 20% you is closer to reality than your planning fiction.

That means if you think you could commit ten hours a week to a new goal, ask yourself how you’d set it up if you could only do two hours. You may end up doing more than two, but it’s a more realistic starting point than ten.

Most of the time this rule isn’t quantitative. It just serves as an exercise for reimagining plans with significantly less time or energy.

When I got back to Canada, I decided to restart my Anki studying for Chinese. The first few days, I learned 100 new flashcards. In my enthusiasm, I felt like I could probably keep going at this rate and quickly finish the cards I didn’t have time to learn in China.

Then I remembered the rule, cut my new intake down to just 25 new cards each day. Sure enough, a week later, I was just barely keeping up.

What if Your Plan Isn’t Possible at 20%?

I realize the absurdity of me writing about plans with 20% effort. By that logic, completing the MIT Challenge on-time would have meant I could have foreseen doing it reasonably in 2.5 months.

So, to the rule, I add an exception: you can safely predict your future capacity to execute a plan by your past capacity. If you plan to go to the gym every day, and previously you kept the habit of a daily exercise, it’s probably not an unreasonable belief that you can do it again.

Before the MIT Challenge, I had done a few courses outside of the curriculum and a pilot course under the exact conditions I wanted to replicate. Extrapolating one class to the remaining 32 isn’t guaranteed, but it’s a lot safer than trying to just imagine the time commitment without experience.

The 20% rule is, therefore, most useful when you’re tackling an unfamiliar kind of goal. The participants in our current course had never set aside exactly five hours for this kind of project. As a result, many had some initial hiccups as they encountered problems fitting it to their busy schedules.

Start Slow and Grow

If you need to tackle a challenging, yet unfamiliar goal, I recommend starting at 20% and moving upward. Figure out what you feel you could reasonably accomplish, cut it down severely and then slowly increase it as you get used to the habit.

Some examples:

  • Writing. Think you can do 1000 words a day? Make it 200 the first week, 250 the next, etc.
  • Exercise. Think you can do an hour a day at the gym? Start with 15 minutes.
  • Reading. Want to read a book a week? Try reading 5 pages a day.
  • Language learning. Start with a twenty minute lesson, once a week.

Hat tip to the ever-insightful James Clear for the inspiration of this post.

  • Yves

    I’ve enjoyed your 20% posting. So true a read. One consideration is the demand of working and the sudden added duties of the employed. I work in health care an the expectations of ongoing professional development and immediacy of duty do way lay our personal commitments to self development. I have no other point other than as a group we appreciate the no frills, give me straight immediately applicable package cause time if available is an immeasurable measurable, gossamer at the beat of times :-). I’ll give 20% a try and see how I do. Thanks again.

  • Ayub

    What I do instead is instead of planning time, I just give myself activities.

    For example, I’ve been going to the gym 6/7 days of the week for 3 weeks now, and I’ve had very little trouble. I’ve never had a habit this successful before, and I think the reason is, the same thing that just made me uncomfortable calling it a habit in this response.

    I don’t see myself as making working out a habit. That puts it in a negative frame of mind I think. A “have not” frame of mind. You either have a habit or you don’t, and not having it demotivates you. And you can never really even know if you have a habit.

    Rather, I see myself as just doing all the exercises I do because that will make me stronger and more attractive, and healthier too.

    In moments of weakness, I no longer try to use self discipline to try to force myself to do them. Fuck self discipline. What I do instead is make myself want to do it. Changing your state to wanting to do it is a lot easier and sustainable than trying to make yourself do it with guilt trips.

    Shortly before this, I wrote down some thoughts I had, and what they say is:

    If Ayub is not happy before, during, and after a behavior, it will not last.

    I think this is true, and I am basing all my changes around it.

    I also follow BJ Foggs advice and set VERY low minimums for my activities. So in your example, I wouldn’t ask myself to even write 250 words a day. I would ask for 50, and see where it turns out.

    In my exercise example, for the month of October when I began, my only requirement was to go to the gym, let the door close. After that I could go back home. I did this on 2 occasions. I would get negative self talk about those two times, saying how I “missed” working out on those days but I would immediately tell myself, no, you were in the right. You’re completely allowed to do that. That was all the requirement stated. You did work out on those days!

    A surprising thing is, also the amount and type of self talk I have. I’ve never had this happen before, or maybe I didn’t notice it, but when I go to the gym now, I have a lot of positive self talk. I keep thinking to myself how great I am doing, how I have made so much progress. How I’m going to keep making progress. It seems success breeds success.

    Anyway, back on point. Don’t schedule your time. Instead, give yourself activities to do for the day, and start with VERY easy, low weight activities, so you can get into the “success breeds success” mindset.

    Currently my roster is:
    * Go to the gym and do 1 activity
    * Spend 1 session of 25 minutes working

    I don’t think the goal should be to get a habit. I think the goal should be to get into a “success breeds success” mindset for that activity, so motivation is mostly automatic. Doesn’t matter if it starts off with small success. A penny compounded for 30 days gets you 5 million dollars.

    Albert Einstein — ‘Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world’

  • Owen

    The “Start Slow and Grow” advice reminds me of Tim Ferriss’s approach to building the habit of flossing: just floss one tooth. Every day. Most of the time, you end up just flossing the rest while you’re at it, but having a low level of commitment makes it easier to get started.

    I have a question about implementing the 20% rule, though: say I am planning a five-hour weekly commitment and this seems reasonable. Remembering the 20% rule, perhaps I should scale that back to 1 hour per week. Then should I still try to block off five hours (knowing that interruptions may reduce it to one hour anyway), or just one (knowing that if my schedule is more realistic, I will be better able to abide by it)? I am curious to know what has worked for you.

  • Charles

    I wrote recently my 2015 yearly goals and I wanted to make them S.M.A.R.T.
    It includes making them realistic. So I wrote them while keeping in mind to keep them quite easy. And I think they are.

    But then, I asked myself “Ok, if I reach the goal in April, which is quite probably, what do I do next?”.
    It makes me think of using “difficulties” for goals. Instead of writing one goal, I would break it down in 3 levels of difficulty. First priority is to achieve every goal at the “easy” difficulty, but then, once reached, I don’t stop myself.
    Easy could be the “20% rule” for example.

    What do you think of this system?
    Do you think it would be doable with a daily planning (would require a lot of work just for planning I think)?

  • David Zinger

    Scott:
    Well said. I like the differentiation between plans and actualities. I often say small is the new significant but only if it is attached to the significant. I was just reading that in many MOOC’s only 50% of students even view the first lecture and at best 4% complete a course and the rates don’t climb much even with tutors and mentors: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12
    David

  • Farrukh Shahzad

    A Very good analysis of human psychology, and help full the persons socially me. Thanks Scot

  • Bruce Harpham

    The conflict between plans and reality is certainly frustrating. That’s one of the dangers I see with using a digital task manager – the feeling that you can adding tasks. That’s one of the reasons why I find Cal’s approach with schedule productivity more compelling (not clear how to implement it in my situation yet – day job in corporate world and building a web business on the side).

  • Jorge David Fernandez

    this talk reminded me of this post -> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKTxC9pl-WM

  • Jorge David Fernandez

    this talk reminded me of this post -> https://www.youtube.com/watch?…

  • This is a great observation, and it’s one of the biggest reasons why I don’t like digital task managers. Another problem with them is that they require you to create a habit immediately to use them. They don’t do a good job of following the Hooked method.

  • Hien Lam

    This is a great observation, and it’s one of the biggest reasons why I don’t like digital task managers. Another problem with them is that they require you to create a habit immediately to use them. They don’t do a good job of following the Hooked method.

  • Hey Charles,

    My thinking here is that you break down your personal goal into doing 20% chunks. Once you have those, then apply the SMART technique to them. That way you don’t have to scramble to come up with a new plan when you achieve your goal.

    My rule for habit change or goal setting is to make it achievable, so that you can maintain daily consistency. Hope the goals are coming along.

    Hien
    http://www.chillpill.io

  • Hien Lam

    Hey Charles,

    My thinking here is that you break down your personal goal into doing 20% chunks. Once you have those, then apply the SMART technique to them. That way you don’t have to scramble to come up with a new plan when you achieve your goal.

    My rule for habit change or goal setting is to make it achievable, so that you can maintain daily consistency. Hope the goals are coming along.

    Hien
    http://www.chillpill.io

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