Cognitive Dissonance as a Productivity Hack (and Introducting: Killing Bob)

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For a long time, I thought I was a robot. I have no idea why. I wasn’t lacking empathy or emotion or soft, fleshy skin. I didn’t talk in a monotone voice or have an awkward walk like C3P0. But, for some reason, I expected that my goals were the only inputs into my decision-making and that I should naturally be following them like I was executing some kind of computer code. The only thing standing between me and greatness was the right set of goals! Unfortunately, I’m human, and that’s not how humans work.

The biggest barrier between me and success was my own psychology.

What’s wrong with me? I thought. Why am I constantly acting against my own best interests? The answer lies in the genes I inherited from my ancient ancestor, Bob.

Laziness 101

Bob was lazy. You wouldn’t know it from watching him though. He hunted, gathered, fished, fought, evaded, outsmarted, and killed on a daily basis. But he did it out of immediate necessity. He would have loved to sit around all day, if it wouldn’t have lead to certain death. Necessity propelled him to action. Just because a child with a gun to his head is following orders, doesn’t mean she isn’t lazy at heart.

The reason for Bob’s laziness is that action – any action – is calorically draining. And in a time when life depended on maintaining a surplus between energy consumed over energy expended, to use up energy on non-essential activities would be ridiculous. Our genes carry this message: “Do enough to survive, but no more.” It’s not survival of the fittest. It’s survival of the fit enough.

But we live in a very different world today: one where energy is no longer hard to come by and complimenting a woman on her caloric surplus is likely to get you slapped. There’s no need to be so protective of our movements. More calories are only a Big Mac away.

The Mental Side

This instinct reverberates through every aspect of our lives. As you know, laziness is more than just about physical movement. We’re cognitive misers too.

And the problem with mental tasks, as opposed to physical ones, is that we rarely see an immediate reward. Whereas the body has evolved mechanisms to encourage you to get up and run when a threat exists, the ability to sit down and work doesn’t have that genetic benefit.

Our minds are cheapskates, but they aren’t very good at calculating future value. And like the business owner who values frugality over reinvesting in his business, this is a sure path to failure.

Is There an Escape?

Fortunately, psychologists have spent enough time studying the brain that we’ve learned how to trick ourselves into greatness. When you structure your goals in such a way that your mind sees them as both crucial and immediately valuable (and prime your brain to be in a state to handle them), you will be able to funnel your natural ability to accomplish into whatever tasks you face. No matter how dull it might seem.

This article is going to show you one of my favorite techniques to harness this power: employing cognitive dissonance to force your behavior into alignment with your goals.

Cognitive Dissonance

Fancy psych words are scary, so let’s simplify things: cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling you get by holding two conflicting opinions, most often when the version of reality inside your head doesn’t mesh with the outside world.

The most common reaction to this gap is self-deception. Rather than acknowledge the problem and do something about it, it’s more comfortable to convince ourselves that the problem doesn’t exist. “There’s no way she’s ignoring my calls – she must have lost her phone.

Sure, buddy.

But rather than shying away from reality by eliminating cognitive dissonance, you’re going to learn two techniques for amping up the dose of reality. We’re going to confront reality head on.

First, an example of how powerful it is. Fostering cognitive dissonance has long been used as a manipulative compliance technique by marketers. In order to test its influence, psychologists performed a famous experiment where researchers asked a small group of randomly selected people to put a small sign on their lawn that said: “Be a Safe Driver.” Almost everyone agreed. Weeks later, the researchers went door to door asking households to put up a massive, ugly billboard that encouraged safe driving. The result: those who had been primed with the small sign were over four times more likely to agree to the larger one. Putting up the small sign subconsciously affirmed their self-perception as a person who is against unsafe driving. Even such a minor reminder was enough to significantly influence their actions weeks later.

And, like many compliance techniques that can be used on us by others, we can use cognitive dissonance to change our own habits. There are two ways of accomplishing this: by affirming our identity to encourage acting in accordance with it or by tracking our behaviors to make plain the gap between our beliefs and our actions. Essentially, these are two sides of the same coin: the goal is to force ourselves to see reality as plainly as possible so that the discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance can work its magic.

Affirm Your Identity with Accountability

Like in the “Be a Safe Driver!” study, you can encourage a behavior in yourself by reaffirming your desires that it aligns with. By reminding ourselves of our overarching beliefs, we tend to act in accordance with them.

That sounds vague, so here’s the most important piece: put your goals (which are really just the concrete manifestations of your beliefs and values) in writing. Beliefs are fuzzy, so they lend themselves to self-deception. And self-deception is the enemy!

By putting your goals in writing, there’s nowhere to hide. If you accomplish them, you succeeded. If you don’t, you failed. Not allowing for any self-bullshit is crucial in keeping yourself motivated.

This can be done privately, but it’s infinitely more powerful if done publicly. Announcing your plans, goals, and beliefs to the world works wonders to motivate us towards acting in accord with them.

In one study where a group of dieters were made to announce their plans publicly on Facebook, compliance with the diet skyrocketed. The hypothesis is that they could no longer delude themselves into not taking their food choices seriously in their moments of weakness. The devil on their shoulder, whispering, “You never really cared about this diet anyways” was instantly shut up. They’d publicly declared the importance of this diet. To not follow through would be to acknowledge their weakness and shatter their identity.

This is the path you should take. Make your goals known. That way, not only is there an indisputable record of what you hoped to accomplish for you to compare yourself to, but the rest of the world can see it too. Yes, there is the risk of looking like a failure. But a risk of looking like a failure that decreases the chances of actually being a failure is no risk in my books.

Acknowledge the Gap through Tracking

“What gets measured, gets managed” – Peter Drucker

Tracking our actions is another way to make clear the gap between our self-perception and reality. As was discussed above, it’s easy to delude ourselves about fuzzy notions. Translating these loose beliefs into concrete measurements creates enormous behavior change with almost no effort.

We often hold vague beliefs like “I’m a hard worker” or “I eat healthily” without really examining our behaviors to see whether they support these beliefs. Forcing ourselves to see whether the facts align with our perceptions can often be jarring.

Sticking with the diet examples, there was a study where experimenters had groups of volunteers follow different diet plans. The most successful group actually didn’t get any diet instructions at all. Instead, they were required to photograph every meal and snack they consumed. The cognitive dissonance between the participants’ self-perception and the reality of the folder of pictures saved on their phones shaped their behavior better than any meal plan could.

So what does this look like from a general productivity perspective? Time tracking.

Time tracking is one of the biggest instant performance boosts I’ve ever experienced. As my friend and absolute productivity machine Sebastian Marshall wrote: “If you’ve never tracked yourself, you don’t even know how much power there is in tracking. I couldn’t even explain it adequately. You wouldn’t believe me. You’d think I was exaggerating.”

Admit it. After that review, you’re itching to try it out.

Principles of Time Tracking

The idea of time tracking is just that – to track your time. There really isn’t anything else to it. If that means writing a detailed journal every night, that’s fine. If it means filling out a worksheet, that’s good too. The simple act of breaking down your behavior will force you to examine it and learn from it. Essentially, all the advice that follows serves only two purposes: to allow you to record the most useful information with the least possible effort.

Here are the four principles of time tracking that have led to successful results for myself and the people I’ve helped.

1) Focus on the right things

If you don’t care about your diet, don’t write down what you have for breakfast. If you don’t care about how much sleep you get, don’t write down how many hours you slept. This seems obvious, but the urge to track everything quickly becomes overwhelming. Focus on the habits you want to develop and the behaviors you want to be doing on a daily basis.

2) Start small and build up

Although the purpose of time tracking is to develop better habits, time tracking itself is a habit. And, like any habit, it’s important to start small and build up. As tempting as it is to want to track everything, don’t overwhelm yourself with a complicated 20 page document to fill out every night. I promise: if your time tracking sheet involves writing an essay, you won’t last a week. Make it as easy as possible so the time tracking habit becomes automatic. Then, if you still want, add more variables.

3) Never skip a day

Momentum is king. By missing a day, you harm yourself in two ways. First, you make justifying future slacking easier. Second, you sabotage your results and make the entire process less useful, so the benefits are less likely to outweigh the costs.

Jerry Seinfeld’s method of comedy writing revolves around this principle. It doesn’t matter if what he produces is good or bad, long or short. If he writes something, he can cross a day off the calendar (the psychological benefits of this are discussed more in Module 4 of our Killing Bob course). He claims that the momentum is the key to staying on track.

Take his advice. Never skip a day.

4) Make it easy on yourself

In the same way that it is important to keep your time tracking sheet short, the ease of filling it out is crucial too. As was touched on above, you’re far less likely to stick with writing a nightly essay than filling in a few one-word answers.

Try to stick with as many Yes/No questions as possible. Filling in numbers is good too.

Make everything as straightforward and objective as possible. Make filling out the sheet easy enough that, when you’re tired and want to go to sleep, you don’t put it off.

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Accountability practices and time tracking are amazing techniques to promote cognitive dissonance and accomplish your goals. However, they’re only one piece of the puzzle. In order to share more big picture psychological principles and corresponding productivity tactics, we’ve created a course called Killing Bob: 6 Psychological Tactics to Get Rid of your Inner Procrastinator. Check it out.

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11 comments

    • Zach

      I provide as much value as I can for free, but bigger projects require more time and compensation. I’ll keep pumping out awesome unpaid content, and you’re free to stick with that if you’re not interested in learning more.

  1. Imran

    THANK YOU! There’s such a gap between pop psychology and dense psychology journals, it’s nice to see someone in the middle. I’ll be signing up for the course first thing tomorrow morning.

    • Zach

      Thank you Imran. I appreciate the kind words and look forward to seeing you in the course in a couple weeks. It’s gonna be a barnburner.

  2. Alex

    Thank you for the information! It was a good read.

    What do you use to track? Can you recommend anything? You mentioned about just answering a few yes/no questions, do you think that’s sufficient data for tracking something?

    • Zach

      Thanks Alex.

      I’m old school – I print out an excel spreadsheet and fill it out by hand. Something about physically checking off a box is good psychological reinforcement for me.

      Re: Sufficient data. It depends on your goals. I’m less concerned with using my results to analyze trends in my behavior, and more concerned with forcing myself to record it and therefore acknowledging the results.

      I go pretty deep into my time tracking system in the course, but maybe I’ll write a blog post about it soon, too. People seem to find it really helpful.

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