You’re making irrational and bad decisions every day. And you don’t even know it.

You’re making irrational and bad decisions every day. And you don’t even know it – because bad decision making is built into your genetic code. Let me explain by introducing you to my first attempt at fighting my genetics and making a rational decision.

But, you have to stick it through for another 40 years, or else you’ll be WASTING your 4 years of education!

This is the nonsense I faced ever since I came out of the “career closet” and told the world (more like my friends, family and mentors) that I don’t want to be a lawyer. The outrage bubbled out of this notion that I had wasted my time on schooling, studying and working in a firm. There was little to no talk, however, about the opportunity to take the contacts I’ve made and skills I’d learned – namely, how to never cry in public and speed reading –  and applying it to better opportunities.

Despite the “advice” to follow the well beaten path, I decided to use the power of a law degree to gain a competitive advantage in the game of entrepreneurialism. My determination to follow my intuition, and not the advice, was supported by a nagging thought: why should I force myself to suffer another 40 more years simply because I’ve already suffered for four….And at this juncture, ladies and gentlemen, I had my first victory over our “loss aversion” neanderthal brain; a brain that prevents us from properly weighing “pros and cons” in order to trick us into taking the (mistakenly) predictable and safer, but worse, option.

Think you’re too smart to fall for any irrational behaviour? Well, have you ever:

  • Eaten the entire plate of food at a restaurant only because you paid for it and not because you’re enjoying it!?
  • Choked down a bunch of mouldy cheese because it’d be a waste of money to throw it out (okay, I do this a lot)?
  • Hold on to a dress/shirt/pants you never wear just because it was expensive?
  • Bought a pair of tickets for a movie and you watched the entire thing, despite the movie being terrible?
  • Failed to call it quits on a bad relationship or unfulfilling job because you already spent so much time in it?
  • Held on to a terrible client that takes up more energy than he’s worth?

If so, then you also suffer from neanderthal brain because, in each of these cases, you’ve let a relatively small sunk cost waste a disproportionate amount of your time, money and energy.

What drives us to hold on to bad relationships, bad projects, bad ideas and unfulfilling jobs?

Reason 1: Our genetics compels us to avoid suffering a loss, even when taking the loss would lead to an even greater opportunity

Exceptional researchers, psychologists and behavioural economists have spent more hours than Americans have on Netflix studying this bizarre “thing” we do: we make our decisions based on our fear of losing something, rather than the opportunity to vastly improve our situation. Essentially, we really don’t like the idea of losing. This holds true even when walking accepting a loss and moving on would make better financial, emotional or psychological sense (Wilson, Arvai, & Arkes, 2008).

Why are we so afraid of loss? Because it was once useful. Thousand of years ago, our job was to stay alive by avoiding threats, despite the possibility of a huge gain. For example, even if there was a 90% chance that a rustle in the bush was a warm plate of food and not a ravenous bear, we’d still choose the safer option – to hold tight to those berries we just picked and run away. Fast. After all, berries in hand are better than the risk of discovering a warm plate of food in the bush.

This very useful “loss aversion” approach to life helped us stay safer for longer. However, this focus on “saving” a past investment, rather than pivoting to a better option, is no longer useful. In fact, it’s detrimental.

Our “first world” lives are much safer, which has allowed for our loss aversion survival instinct to transform into a justification for inertia. After all, it’s easier to not change. Especially when our loss aversion instincts fool us into exaggerating the benefits of an “investment” (Festinger, 1957, 1961) so as to avoid admitting a loss or failure and to avoid pivoting (Gilovich & Medvec, 1994; Gilovich, Medvec, & Chen, 1995). The problem is that our neanderthal no longer protects us from the real threat in today’s society: a life filled with regret.

Reason 2: Our mental health depends upon us seeing the fruits of our labour, so walking away from our work to make a change hurts.

This is a bit existential, but it makes sense: we derive meaning from seeing that our efforts have produced something. Anything. This is because what we’ve produced is an extension of who we are. And to walk away from something which we’ve poured hours into creating is tantamount to saying: I don’t matter. I am garbage. I don’t exist.

Destroying our work has such an impact on our self worth that many POWs, gulag and concentration camp victims were purposefully subjected to this type of psychological torture; they’d be forced to dig a hole or build a wall and then fill it or dismantle it. This broke down their identity, purpose and essence of what it means to be human. Another, less horrid, study goes to explain this further:

“In Man’s search for meaning: The case of Legos, Ariely asked participants to build characters from Lego’s Bionicles series. In both conditions, participants were paid decreasing amounts for each subsequent Bionicle: $3 for the first one, $2.70 for the next one, and so on. But while one group’s creations were stored under the table, to be disassembled at the end of the experiment, the other group’s Bionicles were disassembled as soon as they’d been built. “This was an endless cycle of them building and we destroying in front of their eyes,” Ariely says.

The Results: The first group made 11 Bionicles, on average, while the second group made only seven before they quit.*

The researcher, Ariely, found that people derive validation, meaning and happiness from seeing their work. Destroying their work made them feel irrelevant and meaningless. It makes sense, then, that we’d push on despite all rational and economic factors screaming at us to walk away and pivot! For example, many of my friends and colleagues who are miserable in their professions won’t make a change because doing so, in their minds, would make all of their schooling and achievements irrelevant. In other words, they continue to spend their lives doing the same thing – despite hating it – because walking away would make them feel like their work and lost time and, therefore, they don’t matter.

So, what can we do about this deeply ingrained behaviour?

To see clearly, always remind yourself that you’re wearing neanderthal-coloured-glasses.

The goal is obvious: to fight our neanderthal brain, we must always ask ourselves: am I erring on the side of rational or irrational caution? For example, have you justified throwing good money after bad because nixing the project would mean that you’ve given up hope? Or, are you not making the change because you have 10 new orders coming in and these new orders will greatly offset any money invested?

What if you know you’re being irrational, but you can’t motivate yourself?

The answer is simple: leverage your aversion to loss.

We hate to lose things we have, so pretend like you already have what you want. And then imagine that you’ve lost what you want because you didn’t make a change. For example, let’s say that you have every rational reason to leave your job and do something new.

First, you’d imagine what it’d be like quitting your job – you’d be doing work that fulfills you and makes you more money. You’d imagine what your daily routine would look like, what you’d wear, where you’d go, what you’d eat, the people you’d work with, the feelings you’d experience etc. Go through every detail so as to make it feel as if it was already yours. Now imagine this glorious opportunity being taken away from you simply because you refused to cut your (minor, in comparison to the opportunity) losses and make a change.

If that isn’t painful enough, remember that palliative care nurse, Bronnie Ware, found that the most common regrets of the dying is not that they took a chance, but that they failed to do so. In other words, a life filled with “oh wells, is invariably better than a life filled with “what ifs”.

*For a fabulous Ted Talk on the subject of what motivates us visit Jessica Gross’ talk, What motivates us at work? More than Money.

Want to be creative? Procrastinate. Want to stop procrastinating? Get creative.

People think I’m one of the most focused creative minded individuals around. The truth is, I’m none of these things. I just create circumstances to force productivity and innovation. And here’s how…

How I focus and innovate … and other surprising habits of “thought leaders”

I’m going to blow your mind with what I did before I started researching, writing and editing this week’s discovery on how to act, think and do better: I spent well over an hour reading everything about whether or not Genghis Khan brought stability to the steppe region (answer: he did not).

It didn’t stop there.

I then roped myself into some heavy research on whether or not hurricanes are god’s punishment (answer: unlikely).

After some three hours wasted, I then fretted about this article, did a lot of research. Wrote an outline. Crossed it out. Re-wrote it. Thought the ideas were garbage. Scribbled a few more ideas. And… then saved and closed my blank Word document …. That’s right. Blank. As in: Not. One. Word.

To most, I clearly wasted my time. And that’s why most, according to Adam Grant, Wharton Professor of Management and Psychology, are not thought leaders.

The surprising habits of creative and productive people (and by productive, I mean people who do valuable work and not just busy work for the sake of telling people they’re busy) are as follows:

  • They procrastinate.
  • They also have self-doubt.
  • They fluctuate between hating their ideas and loving them.
  • They don’t get married…to their ideas, that is. Creative and productive people don’t believe they are their ideas. If their idea fails, this does not mean they too are failures. Rather, they’re open to pivoting and abandoning a path if the path no longer makes sense.
  • And then they execute.

Let’s take a moment to let that sink in….

Isn’t it liberating to know that being human – characterized by scattered minds, giving into distractions and random Google searches – won’t lead you to certain catastrophe?

My 5 Best Tricks to Procrastinating with Purpose and Getting Results

Certain types of procrastination have helped me – and can help you – be more productive and exponentially more creative. Let me point to Professor Grant’s research to substantiate my theory:

“We asked people to generate new business ideas, and then we get independent readers to evaluate how creative and useful they are. And some of them are asked to do the task right away. Others we randomly assign to procrastinate by dangling Minesweeper in front of them for either five or 10 minutes. And sure enough, the moderate procrastinators are 16 percent more creative than the other two groups.

Now, Minesweeper is awesome, but it’s not the driver of the effect, because if you play the game first before you learn about the task, there’s no creativity boost. It’s only when you’re told that you’re going to be working on this problem, and then you start procrastinating, but the task is still active in the back of your mind, that you start to incubate. Procrastination gives you time to consider divergent ideas, to think in nonlinear ways, to make unexpected leaps”.

Essentially, to boost creativity and to motivate yourself you have to procrastinate with purpose only after you know what you have to do.

While the research sounds great, the real difficulty is implementing the strategies this research suggests – i.e. adopting the willpower to stop procrastinating.

Here are a few simple ways to make sure you tap into your inner genius without tapping too deep into your uncontrollable habit ofsearching for pictures of Eddie Redmayne wearing glasses (because he looks so cute) or trolling through hours of Facebook pictures of friends of friends who seem to live a perfectly balanced, luxurious, calm vacation-filled lives.

Tip No. 1: Open up mental space with a to do list

First, create and organize your “to do” list. Write down (or type) the big “projects” that are occupying your mind (personal or professional) and then add 1 to 3 actionable steps you can take per project. This simple listing exercise reduces anxiety because it provides clarity and concrete solutions.

When you jot down the task, along with a next step, you’re effectively creating a road map that leads you straight out of the fog, also know as your anxious mind. This works because your focus shifts from problems to solutions and what you need to do to solve the problems.

The relief you’ll experience writing down your “to do list” will also allow you to focus on other things – such as being creative. This is not just a hunch. The sense of relief you get when writing something down and the corresponding impact on stimulating creativity is attributed to a well-research psychological principle called the Zeigarnik Effect.

The research behind the Zeigarnik Effect shows that our minds get fixated upon unfinished tasks. We forget, however, about the tasks that have been completed. You can see this effect in action when you go to a restaurant. You remember exactly what you and your friends ordered…that’s until the drinks are placed down and you have your food.

The “take home” insight from all of the literature on the Zeigarnik Effect and related psychological principles is as follows:

  • Our brains have a limited capacity;
  • You can only remember so much at any given time;
  • And by not writing things down and listing actionable steps, we slow ourselves down both creatively and practically.

The solution, however, is simple: writing down the task, along with its corresponding steps (that’s critical!). You’ll then be able to release the part of your attention that is fighting to categorize, manage and resolve all of the “to dos” floating in your mind. This is because the simple action of writing down the task and the next step makes you feel like the task has been completed. This mental trick, in turn, satiates your obsession with keeping uncompleted tasks in your memory and opens up room to come up with creative ideas.

Tip 2: Put an end to procrastinating by getting inspired

Watching other people “get back up one more time” is motivating. And, yes, it’s cliché, but it’s what I do and I’ll never sacrifice telling you what works for sounding cool.

Watching these videos reminds us that others are also flawed, make mistakes and procrastinate. Yet, they still achieved their goals! Just like them, you have to keep on moving forward, get dirty and get ‘er done.

If you’re looking for some incredible clips, take a look at Kayla Kozan’s 10 videos that will “get your heart pumping”. They feature a range of people; from psychologist Amy Cuddy, Steve Jobs, motivational speaker Eric Thomas, Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, and more.

Tip 3: Get motivated by starting your day with a few big wins.

One of the most discouraging things to do when trying to get motivated is working on things that make you feel disempowered, confused and frustrated. While working on improving your weak areas is important, it’s never made sense to me to start my day discouraged. So, I do the things I’m good at straight away – no matter how insignificant. These wins make me feel like I “can do” the boring stuff, rather than just deferring to my “don’t bother-let’s-see-what-Genghis Khan-is-up-to-on-Google” attitude.

Tip 4: You’re procrastinating because you’re unhappy. So, do something about it.

Journalist, public policy scholar and author of Temptation: Finding Self-Control in an Age of Excess, Daniel Akst wrote that ultimately, “procrastination is a mood-management technique.” We procrastinate not because we’re lazy or born with an inability to focus, but because we’re unhappy.

The solution is to build simple joys into your routine. For example, I listen to my favourite podcasts when I have to do something mundane, such as working out or organizing my bills. I know some people who drink while doing boring work … if you’re resorting to that as your mood-booster, I strongly advise that you change jobs. After all, your boss may not take to drunk emailing…same goes for your liver.

Tip 5: Use external measures to enforce discipline

Here’s another secret of mine: I have NO ability to stop eating peanut butter. None. I’ve tried everything and I just can’t do it. Put any nut butter in front of me and it’s gone. Every drop. The only solution: get rid of it completely.

Over the years, I’ve learned that my lack of self-control requires me to create external restraints. For example, when getting too scattered and too obsessive in my Genghis Khan-Google search, rather than focusing on work, I’ll re-locate myself to a busy café of hipsters who are diligently working. I sit where everyone can see my screen (confidential info not shown, of course) because I believe people will judge me if I’m not doing real work.

While my discipline-by-humiliation technique does work, it can fail me on occasion. If I’m in super binge-mode, I then use one of these online tools to force my attention. My favourite tools are ones that block my ability to access websites that insight rabbit hole research and nonsense reading.

And if that doesn’t get you focused, then give your colleague who you don’t really like $100. Tell her that if you don’t get your task done by 5PM, she gets to keep your $100. If you do complete the task, however, you get it back. Do this and you’ll notice focusing just got very important.