Tag: Personal Development

The Illusory Truth Effect: Why We Believe Fake News, Conspiracy Theories and Propaganda

When a “fact” tastes good and is repeated enough, we tend to believe it, no matter how false it may be. Understanding the illusory truth effect can keep us from being bamboozled.

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A recent Verge article looked at some of the unsavory aspects of working as Facebook content moderators—the people who spend their days cleaning up the social network’s most toxic content. One strange detail stands out. The moderators the Verge spoke to reported that they and their coworkers often found themselves believing fringe, often hatemongering conspiracy theories they would have dismissed under normal circumstances. Others described experiencing paranoid thoughts and intense fears for their safety.

An overnight switch from skepticism to fervent belief in conspiracy theories is not unique to content moderators. In a Nieman Lab article by Laura Hazard Owen, she explains that researchers who study the spread of disinformation online can find themselves struggling to be sure about their own beliefs and needing to make an active effort to counteract what they see. Some of the most fervent, passionate conspiracy theorists admit that they first fell into the rabbit hole when they tried to debunk the beliefs they now hold. There’s an explanation for why this happens: the illusory truth effect.

The illusory truth effect

Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.

Aldous Huxley

Not everything we believe is true. We may act like it is and it may be uncomfortable to think otherwise, but it’s inevitable that we all hold a substantial number of beliefs that aren’t objectively true. It’s not about opinions or different perspectives. We can pick up false beliefs for the simple reason that we’ve heard them a lot.

If I say that the moon is made of cheese, no one reading this is going to believe that, no matter how many times I repeat it. That statement is too ludicrous. But what about something a little more plausible? What if I said that moon rock has the same density as cheddar cheese? And what if I wasn’t the only one saying it? What if you’d also seen a tweet touting this amazing factoid, perhaps also heard it from a friend at some point, and read it in a blog post?

Unless you’re a geologist, a lunar fanatic, or otherwise in possession of an unusually good radar for moon rock-related misinformation, there is a not insignificant chance you would end up believing a made-up fact like that, without thinking to verify it. You might repeat it to others or share it online. This is how the illusory truth effect works: we all have a tendency to believe something is true after being exposed to it multiple times. The more times we’ve heard something, the truer it seems. The effect is so powerful that repetition can persuade us to believe information we know is false in the first place. Ever thought a product was stupid but somehow you ended up buying it on a regular basis? Or you thought that new manager was okay, but now you participate in gossip about her?

The illusory truth effect is the reason why advertising works and why propaganda is one of the most powerful tools for controlling how people think. It’s why the speech of politicians can be bizarre and multiple-choice tests can cause students problems later on. It’s why fake news spreads and retractions of misinformation don’t work. In this post, we’re going to look at how the illusory truth effect works, how it shapes our perception of the world, and how we can avoid it.

The discovery of the illusory truth effect

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.

Henry David Thoreau

The illusory truth effect was first described in a 1977 paper entitled “Frequency and the Conference of Referential Validity,” by Lynn Hasher and David Goldstein of Temple University and Thomas Toppino of Villanova University. In the study, the researchers presented a group of students with 60 statements and asked them to rate how certain they were that each was either true or false. The statements came from a range of subjects and were all intended to be not too obscure, but unlikely to be familiar to study participants. Each statement was objective—it could be verified as either correct or incorrect and was not a matter of opinion. For example, “the largest museum in the world is the Louvre in Paris” was true.

Students rated their certainty three times, with two weeks in between evaluations. Some of the statements were repeated each time, while others were not. With each repetition, students became surer of their certainty regarding the statements they labelled as true. It seemed that they were using familiarity as a gauge for how confident they were of their beliefs.

An important detail is that the researchers did not repeat the first and last 10 items on each list. They felt students would be most likely to remember these and be able to research them before the next round of the study. While the study was not conclusive evidence of the existence of the illusory truth effect, subsequent research has confirmed its findings.

Why the illusory truth effect happens

The sad truth is the truth is sad.

Lemony Snicket

Why does repetition of a fact make us more likely to believe it, and to be more certain of that belief? As with other cognitive shortcuts, the typical explanation is that it’s a way our brains save energy. Thinking is hard work—remember that the human brain uses up about 20% of an individual’s energy, despite accounting for just 2% of their body weight.

The illusory truth effect comes down to processing fluency. When a thought is easier to process, it requires our brains to use less energy, which leads us to prefer it. The students in Hasher’s original study recognized the repeated statements, even if not consciously. That means that processing them was easier for their brains.

Processing fluency seems to have a wide impact on our perception of truthfulness. Rolf Reber and Norbert Schwarz, in their article “Effects of Perceptual Fluency on Judgments of Truth,” found that statements presented in an easy-to-read color are judged as more likely to be true than ones presented in a less legible way. In their article “Birds of a Feather Flock Conjointly (?): Rhyme as Reason in Aphorisms,” Matthew S. McGlone and Jessica Tofighbakhsh found that aphorisms that rhyme (like “what sobriety conceals, alcohol reveals”), even if someone hasn’t heard them before, seem more accurate than non-rhyming versions. Once again, they’re easier to process.

Fake news

“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. ”

— Carl Sagan

The illusory truth effect is one factor in why fabricated news stories sometimes gain traction and have a wide impact. When this happens, our knee-jerk reaction can be to assume that anyone who believes fake news must be unusually gullible or outright stupid. Evan Davis writes in Post Truth, “Never before has there been a stronger sense that fellow citizens have been duped and that we are all suffering the consequences of their intellectual vulnerability.” As Davis goes on to write, this assumption isn’t helpful for anyone. We can’t begin to understand why people believe seemingly ludicrous news stories until we consider some of the psychological reasons why this might happen.

Fake news falls under the umbrella of “information pollution,” which also includes news items that misrepresent information, take it out of context, parody it, fail to check facts or do background research, or take claims from unreliable sources at face value. Some of this news gets published on otherwise credible, well-respected news sites due to simple oversight. Some goes on parody sites that never purport to tell the truth, yet are occasionally mistaken for serious reporting. Some shows up on sites that replicate the look and feel of credible sources, using similar web design and web addresses. And some fake news comes from sites dedicated entirely to spreading misinformation, without any pretense of being anything else.

A lot of information pollution falls somewhere in between the extremes that tend to get the most attention. It’s the result of people being overworked or in a hurry and unable to do the due diligence that reliable journalism requires. It’s what happens when we hastily tweet something or mention it in a blog post and don’t realize it’s not quite true. It extends to miscited quotes, doctored photographs, fiction books masquerading as memoirs, or misleading statistics.

The signal to noise ratio is so skewed that we have a hard time figuring out what to pay attention to and what we should ignore. No one has time to verify everything they read online. No one. (And no, offline media certainly isn’t perfect either.) Our information processing capabilities are not infinite and the more we consume, the harder it becomes to assess its value.

Moreover, we’re often far outside our circle of competence, reading about topics we don’t have the expertise in to assess accuracy in any meaningful way. This drip-drip of information pollution is not harmless. Like air pollution, it builds up over time and the more we’re exposed to it, the more likely we are to end up picking up false beliefs which are then hard to shift. For instance, a lot of people believe that crime, especially the violent kind, is on an upward trend year by year—in a 2016 study by Pew Research, 57% of Americans believed crime had worsened since 2008. This despite violent crime having actually fallen by nearly a fifth during that time. This false belief may stem from the fact that violent crime receives a disproportional amount of media coverage, giving it wide and repeated exposure.

When people are asked to rate the apparent truthfulness of news stories, they score ones they have read multiple times more truthful than those they haven’t. Danielle C. Polage, in her article “Making Up History: False Memories of Fake News Stories,” explains that a false story someone has been exposed to more than once can seem more credible than a true one they’re seeing for the first time. In experimental settings, people also misattribute their previous exposure to stories, believing they read a news item from another source when they actually saw it as part of a prior part of a study. Even when people know the story is part of the experiment, they sometimes think they’ve also read it elsewhere. The repetition is all that matters.

Given enough exposure to contradictory information, there is almost no knowledge that we won’t question.

Propaganda

If a lie is only printed often enough, it becomes a quasi-truth, and if such a truth is repeated often enough, it becomes an article of belief, a dogma, and men will die for it.

Isa Blagden

Propaganda and fake news are similar. By relying on repetition, disseminators of propaganda can change the beliefs and values of people.

Propaganda has a lot in common with advertising, except instead of selling a product or service, it’s about convincing people of the validity of a particular cause. Propaganda isn’t necessarily malicious; sometimes the cause is improved public health or boosting patriotism to encourage military enrollment. But often propaganda is used to undermine political processes to further narrow, radical, and aggressive agendas.

During World War II, the graphic designer Abraham Games served as the official war artist for the British government. Games’s work is iconic and era-defining for its punchy, brightly colored visual style. His army recruitment posters would often feature a single figure rendered in a proud, strong, admirable pose with a mere few words of text. They conveyed to anyone who saw them the sorts of positive qualities they would supposedly gain through military service. Whether this was true or not was another matter. Through repeated exposure to the poster, Games instilled the image the army wanted to create in the minds of viewers, affecting their beliefs and behaviors.

Today, propaganda is more likely to be a matter of quantity over quality. It’s not about a few artistic posters. It’s about saturating the intellectual landscape with content that supports a group’s agenda. With so many demands on our attention, old techniques are too weak.

Researchers Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews at the Rand Corporation refer to the method of bombarding people with fabricated information as the “firehose of propaganda” model. While the report focuses on modern Russian propaganda, the techniques it describes are not confined to Russia. These techniques make use of the illusory truth effect, alongside other cognitive shortcuts. Firehose propaganda has four distinct features:

  • High-volume and multi-channel
  • Rapid, continuous and repetitive
  • Makes no commitment to objective reality
  • Makes no commitment to consistency

Firehose propaganda is predicated on exposing people to the same messages as frequently as possible. It involves a large volume of content, repeated again and again across numerous channels: news sites, videos, radio, social media, television and so on. These days, as the report describes, this can also include internet users who are paid to repeatedly post in forums, chat rooms, comment sections and on social media disputing legitimate information and spreading misinformation. It is the sheer volume that succeeds in obliterating the truth. Research into the illusory truth effect suggests that we are further persuaded by information heard from multiple sources, hence the efficacy of funneling propaganda through a range of channels.

Seeing as repetition leads to belief in many cases, firehose propaganda doesn’t need to pay attention to the truth or even to be consistent. A source doesn’t need to be credible for us to end up believing its messages. Fact-checking is of little help because it further adds to the repetition, yet we feel compelled not to ignore obviously untrue propagandistic material.

Firehose propaganda does more than spread fake news. It nudges us towards feelings like paranoia, mistrust, suspicion, and contempt for expertise. All of this makes future propaganda more effective. Unlike those espousing the truth, propagandists can move fast because they’re making up some or all of what they claim, meaning they gain a foothold in our minds first.  First impressions are powerful. Familiarity breeds trust.

How to combat the illusory truth effect

So how can we protect ourselves from believing false news and being manipulated by propaganda due to the illusory truth effect? The best route is to be far more selective. The information we consume is like the food we eat. If it’s junk, our thinking will reflect that.

We don’t need to spend as much time reading the news as most of us do. As with many other things in life, more can be less. The vast majority of the news we read is just information pollution. It doesn’t do us any good.

One of the best solutions is to quit the news. This frees up time and energy to engage with timeless wisdom that will improve your life. Try it for a couple of weeks. And if you aren’t convinced, read a few days’ worth of newspapers from 1978. You’ll see how much the news doesn’t really matter at all.

If you can’t quit the news habit, stick to reliable, well-known news sources that have a reputation to uphold. Steer clear of dubious sources whenever you can—even if you treat it as entertainment, you might still end up absorbing it. Research unfamiliar sources before trusting them. Be cautious of sites that are funded entirely by advertising (or that pay their journalists based on views) and seek to support reader-funded news sources you get value from if possible. Prioritize sites that treat their journalists well and don’t expect them to churn out dozens of thoughtless articles per day.  Don’t rely on news in social media posts without sources, from people outside of their circle of competence.

Avoid treating the news as entertainment to passively consume on the bus or while waiting in line. Be mindful about it—if you want to inform yourself on a topic, set aside designated time to learn about it from multiple trustworthy sources. Don’t assume breaking news is better, as it can take some time for the full details of a story to come out and people may be quick to fill in the gaps with misinformation. Accept that you can’t be informed about everything and most of it isn’t important. Pay attention to when news items make you feel outrage or other strong emotions, because this may be a sign of manipulation. Be aware that correcting false information can further fuel the illusory truth effect by adding to the repetition.

We can’t stop the illusory truth effect from existing. But we can recognize that it is a reality and seek to prevent ourselves from succumbing to it in the first place.

Conclusion

Our memories are imperfect. We are easily led astray by the illusory truth effect, which can direct what we believe and even change our understanding of the past. It’s not about intelligence—this happens to all of us. This effect is too powerful for us to override it simply by learning the truth. Cognitively, there is no distinction between a genuine memory and a false one. Our brains are designed to save energy and it’s crucial we accept that.

We can’t just pull back and think the illusory truth only applies to other people. It applies to everyone. We’re all responsible for our own beliefs. We can’t pin the blame on the media or social media algorithms or whatever else. When we put effort into thinking about and questioning the information we’re exposed to, we’re less vulnerable to the illusory truth effect. Knowing about the effect is the best way to identify when it’s distorting our worldview. Before we use information as the basis for important decisions, it’s a good idea to verify if it’s true, or if it’s something we’ve just heard a lot.

Truth is a precarious thing, not because it doesn’t objectively exist, but because the incentives to warp it can be so strong. It’s up to each of us to seek it out.

The Positive Side of Shame

Recently, shame has gotten a bad rap. It’s been branded as toxic and destructive. But shame can be used as a tool to effect positive change.

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A computer science PhD candidate uncovers significant privacy-violating security flaws in large companies, then shares them with the media to attract negative coverage. Google begins marking unencrypted websites as unsafe, showing a red cross in the URL bar. A nine-year-old girl posts pictures of her school’s abysmal lunches on a blog, leading the local council to step in.

What do each of the aforementioned stories have in common? They’re all examples of shame serving as a tool to encourage structural changes.

Shame, like all emotions, exists because it conferred a meaningful survival advantage for our ancestors. It is a universal experience. The body language associated with shame — inverted shoulders, averted eyes, pursed lips, bowed head, and so on — occurs across cultures. Even blind people exhibit the same body language, indicating it is innate, not learned. We would not waste our time and energy on shame if it wasn’t necessary for survival.

Shame enforces social norms. For our ancestors, the ability to maintain social cohesion was a matter of life or death. Take the almost ubiquitous social rule that states stealing is wrong. If a person is caught stealing, they are likely to feel some degree of shame. While this behavior may not threaten anyone’s survival today, in the past it could have been a sign that a group’s ability to cooperate was in jeopardy. Living in small groups in a harsh environment meant full cooperation was essential.

Through the lens of evolutionary biology, shame evolved to encourage adherence to beneficial social norms. This is backed up by the fact that shame is more prevalent in collectivist societies where people spend little to no time alone than it is in individualistic societies where people live more isolated lives.

Jennifer Jacquet argues in Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses For An Old Tool that we’re not quite through with shame yet. In fact, if we adapt it for the current era, it can help us to solve some of the most pressing problems we face. Shame gives the weak greater power. The difference is that we must shift shame from individuals to institutions, organizations, and powerful individuals. Jacquet states that her book “explores the origins and future of shame. It aims to examine how shaming—exposing a transgressor to public disapproval—a tool many of us find discomforting, might be retrofitted to serve us in new ways.”

Guilt vs. shame

Jacquet begins the book with the story of Sam LaBudde, a young man who in the 1980s became determined to target practices in the tuna-fishing industry leading to the deaths of dolphins. Tuna is often caught with purse seines, a type of large net that encloses around a shoal of fish. Seeing as dolphins tend to swim alongside tuna, they are easily caught in the nets. There, they either die or suffer serious injuries.

LaBudde got a job on a tuna-fishing boat and covertly filmed dolphins dying from their injuries. For months, he hid his true intentions from the crew, spending each day both dreading and hoping for the death of a dolphin. The footage went the 1980s equivalent of viral, showing up in the media all over the world and attracting the attention of major tuna companies.

Still a child at the time, Jacquet was horrified to learn of the consequences of the tuna her family ate. She recalls it as one of her first experiences of shame related to consumption habits. Jacquet persuaded her family to boycott canned tuna altogether. So many others did the same that companies launched the “dolphin-safe” label, which ostensibly indicated compliance with guidelines intended to reduce dolphin deaths. Jacquet returned to eating tuna and thought no more of it.

The campaign to end dolphin deaths in the tuna-fishing industry was futile, however, because it was built upon guilt rather than shame. Jacquet writes, “Guilt is a feeling whose audience and instigator is oneself, and its discomfort leads to self-regulation.” Hearing about dolphin deaths made consumers feel guilty about their fish-buying habits, which conflicted with their ethical values. Those who felt guilty could deal with it by purchasing supposedly dolphin-safe tuna—provided they had the means to potentially pay more and the time to research their choices. A better approach might have been for the videos to focus on tuna companies, giving the names of the largest offenders and calling for specific change in their policies.

But individuals changing their consumption habits did not stop dolphins from dying. It failed to bring about a structural change in the industry. This, Jacquet later realized, was part of a wider shift in environmental action. She explains that it became more about consumers’ choices:

As the focus shifted from supply to demand, shame on the part of corporations began to be overshadowed by guilt on the part of consumers—as the vehicle for solving social and environmental problems. Certification became more and more popular and its rise quietly suggested that responsibility should fall more to the individual consumer rather than to political society. . . . The goal became not to reform entire industries but to alleviate the consciences of a certain sector of consumers.

Shaming, as Jacquet defines it, is about the threat of exposure, whereas guilt is personal. Shame is about the possibility of an audience. Imagine someone were to send a print-out of your internet search history from the last month to your best friend, mother-in-law, partner, or boss. You might not have experienced any guilt making the searches, but even the idea of them being exposed is likely shame-inducing.

Switching the focus of the environmental movement from shame to guilt was, at best, a distraction. It put the responsibility on individuals, even though small actions like turning off the lights count for little. Guilt is a more private emotion, one that arises regardless of exposure. It’s what you feel when you’re not happy about something you did, whereas shame is what you feel when someone finds out. Jacquet writes, “A 2013 research paper showed that just ninety corporations (some of them state-owned) are responsible for nearly two-thirds of historic carbon dioxide and methane emissions; this reminds us that we don’t all share the blame for greenhouse gas emissions.” Guilt doesn’t work because it doesn’t change the system. Taking this into account, Jacquet believes it is time for us to bring back shame, “a tool that can work more quickly and at larger scales.”

The seven habits of effective shaming

So, if you want to use shame as a force for good, as an individual or as part of a group, how can you do so in an effective manner? Jacquet offers seven pointers.

Firstly, “The audience responsible for the shaming should be concerned with the transgression.” It should be something that impacts them so they are incentivized to use shaming to change it. If it has no effect on their lives, they will have little reason to shame. The audience must be the victim. For instance, smoking rates are shrinking in many countries. Part of this may relate to the tendency of non-smokers to shame smokers. The more the former group grows, the greater their power to shame. This works because second-hand smoke impacts their health too, as do indirect tolls like strain on healthcare resources and having to care for ill family members. As Jacquet says, “Shaming must remain relevant to the audience’s norms and moral framework.”

Second, “There should be a big gap between the desired and actual behavior.” The smaller the gap, the less effective the shaming will be. A mugger stealing a handbag from an elderly lady is one thing. A fraudster defrauding thousands of retirees out of their savings is quite another. We are predisposed to fairness in general and become quite riled up when unfairness is significant. In particular, Jacquet observes, we take greater offense when it is the fault of a small group, such as a handful of corporations being responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s also a matter of contrast. Jacquet cites her own research, which finds that “the degree of ‘bad’ relative to the group matters when it comes to bad apples.” The greater the contrast between the behavior of those being shamed and the rest of the group, the stronger the annoyance will be. For instance, the worse the level of pollution for a corporation is, the more people will shame it.

Third, “Formal punishment should be missing.” Shaming is most effective when it is the sole possible avenue for punishment and the transgression would otherwise go ignored. This ignites our sense of fury at injustice. Jacquet points out that the reason shaming works so well in international politics is that it is often a replacement for formal methods of punishment. If a nation commits major human rights abuses, it is difficult for another nation to use the law to punish them, as they likely have different laws. But revealing and drawing attention to the abuses may shame the nation into stopping, as they do not want to look bad to the rest of the world. When shame is the sole tool we have, we use it best.

Fourth, “The transgressor should be sensitive to the source of shaming.” The shamee must consider themselves subject to the same social norms as the shamer. Shaming an organic grocery chain for stocking unethically produced meat would be far more effective than shaming a fast-food chain for the same thing. If the transgressor sees themselves as subject to different norms, they are unlikely to be concerned.

Fifth, “The audience should trust the source of the shaming.” The shaming must come from a respectable, trustworthy, non-hypocritical source. If it does not, its impact is likely to be minimal. A news outlet that only shames one side of the political spectrum on a cross-spectrum issue isn’t going to have much impact.

Sixth, “Shaming should be directed where possible benefits are greatest.” We all have a limited amount of attention and interest in shaming. It should only be applied where it can have the greatest possible benefits and used sparingly, on the most serious transgressions. Otherwise, people will become desensitized, and the shaming will be ineffective. Wherever possible, we should target shaming at institutions, not individuals. Effective shaming focuses on the powerful, not the weak.

Seventh, “Shaming should be scrupulously implemented” Shaming needs to be carried out consistently. The threat can be more useful than the act itself, hence why it may need implementing on a regular basis. For instance, an annual report on the companies guilty of the most pollution is more meaningful than a one-off one. Companies know to anticipate it and preemptively change their behavior. Jacquet explains that “shame’s performance is optimized when people reform their behavior in response to its threat and remain part of the group. . . . Ideally, shaming creates some friction but ultimately heals without leaving a scar.”

To summarize, Jacquet writes: “When shame works without destroying anyone’s life, when it leads to reform and reintegration rather than fight or flight, or, even better, when it acts as a deterrent against bad behavior, shaming is performing optimally.”

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Due to our negative experiences with shame on a personal level, we may be averse to viewing it in the light Jacquet describes: as an important and powerful tool. But “shaming, like any tool, is on its own amoral and can be used to any end, good or evil.” The way we use it is what matters.

According to Jacquet, we should not use shame to target transgressions that have minimal impact or are the fault of individuals with little power. We should use it when the outcome will be a broader benefit for society and when formal means of punishment have been exhausted. It’s important the shaming be proportional and done intentionally, not as a means of vindication.

Is Shame Necessary? is a thought-provoking read and a reminder of the power we have as individuals to contribute to meaningful change to the world. One way is to rethink how we view shame.

66 Personal Development Habits For Smart People

Steve Pavlina’s book, Personal Development for Smart People: The Conscious Pursuit of Personal Growth, offers an interesting look at self-improvement.

“Perception is the most basic aspect of truth,” Pavlina writes, “If you want to improve some part of your life, you have to look at it first.”

For example, if you want to know how your relationship is doing, you ask yourself “How do I feel about this relationship? What parts are working well? What parts need improvement?” Ask your partner the same questions and compare your answers. Figuring out where you stand will help you decide what changes you’d like to make. Perception is a key component of personal growth because we react to what we perceive to be true.

The first step “must be to recognize that your life as it stands right now isn’t how you want it to be.”

It’s easy to say you should face the cold, hard, truth but in practice it can be very difficult. However:

You can’t get from point A to point B if you refuse to acknowledge that you’re at point A!.

There are two powerful ways you can apply your mind’s predictive powers to accelerate your personal growth:

First, by embracing new experiences that are unlike anything you’ve previously encountered, you’ll literally become more intelligent.

New situations shift your mind into learning mode, which enables you to discover new patterns. The more patterns your mind learns, the better it gets at prediction, and the smarter you become.

Read a book on a topic that’s completely alien to you. Talk to people you’d normally avoid. Visit an unfamiliar city. Stretch beyond the patterns your mind has already learned. In order to grow, you must repeatedly tackle fresh challenges and consider new ideas to give your mind fresh input. If you merely repeat the same experiences, you’ll stagnate, and your mental capacity will atrophy.

If you want to become smarter, you must keep stirring things up.

The second way to apply your mind’s predictive powers is to make conscious, deliberate predictions and use those predictions to make better decisions. Think about where you’re headed and ask yourself, “How do I honestly expect my life to turn out?”

Imagine that a very logical impartial observer examines your situation in detail, and predicts what your life will look like in 20 years, based on your current behavior. What kind of future will this person predict for you? If you’re brave enough, ask several people who know you well to give you an honest assessment of where they see you in two decades. Their answers may surprise you.

A list of habits that can boost personal effectiveness (hacked and lightly edited):

  1. Daily goals. Set targets for each day in advance. Decide what you’ll do, then do it. Without a clear focus, it’s too easy to succumb to distractions.
  2. Worst first. To defeat procrastination, learn to tackle your most unpleasant task first thing in the morning, instead of delaying it until later. The small victory will set the tone for a very productive day.
  3. Peak times. Identify your peak cycles of productivity, and schedule your most important tasks for those times. Work on minor tasks during your non-peak times.
  4. No-comm zones. Allocate uninterruptible blocks of time for solo work where you must concentrate. Schedule light, interruptible tasks for your open-communication periods and more challenging projects for your blackout periods.
  5. Mini-milestones. When you begin a task, identify the target you must reach before you can stop working. For example when writing a book, you could decide not to get up until you’ve written at least 1000 words. Hit your target no matter what.
  6. Timeboxing. Give yourself a fixed time period – 30 minutes for example – to make a dent in a task. Don’t worry about how far you get. Just put in the time.
  7. Batching. Batch similar tasks such as phone calls or errands together, and knock them out in a single session.
  8. Early bird. Get up at 5am and go straight to work on your most important task. You can get more done before 8am than most people do in a full day.
  9. Pyramid. Spend 15-30 minutes doing easy tasks to warm up, then tackle your most difficult project for several hours. Finally end with another 15-30 minutes of easy tasks to transition out of work mode.
  10. Tempo. Deliberately pick up the pace, and try to move a little faster than usual. Speak faster. Walk faster. Type faster. Read faster. Go home sooner.
  11. Relaxify. Reduce stress by cultivating a relaxing, clutter-free workspace.
  12. Agendas. Provide clear written agendas to meeting participants in advance. This greatly improves meeting focus and efficiency. You can use it for phone calls too.
  13. Pareto. The Pareto principle is the 80-20 rule, which states that 80% of the value of a task comes from 20% of the effort. Focus your energy on that critical 20%, and don’t overengineer the non-critical 80%.
  14. Ready-fire-aim. Bust procrastination by taking action immediately after setting a goal, even if the action isn’t perfectly planned. You can always adjust course along the way.
  15. Minuteman. Once you have the information you need to make a decision, start a timer and give yourself just 60 seconds to make the actual decision. Take a whole minute to vacillate and second-guess yourself all you want, but come out the other end with a clear choice. Once your decision is made, take some kind of action to set it in motion.
  16. Deadline. Set a deadline for task completion, and use it as a focal point to stay on track.
  17. Promise. Tell others of your commitments, since they’ll help hold you accountable
  18. Punctuality. Whatever it takes, show up on time. Arrive early.
  19. Gap reading. Use reading to fill in those odd periods like waiting for an appointment, standing in line, or while the coffee is brewing. If you’re a male, you can even read an article while shaving (preferably with an electric razor). That’s 365 articles a year.
  20. Resonance. Visualize your goal as already accomplished. Put yourself into a state of actually being there. Make it real in your mind, and you’ll soon see it in your reality.
  21. Glittering prizes. Give yourself frequent rewards for achievement. See a movie, book a professional massage, or spend a day at an amusement park.
  22. Priority. Separate the truly important tasks from the merely urgent. Allocate blocks of time to work on the critical Quadrant 2 tasks, those which are important but rarely urgent, such as physical exercise, writing a book, and finding a relationship partner.
  23. Continuum. At the end of your workday, identify the first task you’ll work on the next day, and set out the materials in advance. The next day begin working on that task immediately.
  24. Slice and dice. Break complex projects into smaller, well-defined tasks. Focus on completing just one of those tasks.
  25. Single-handling. Once you begin a task, stick with it until it’s 100% complete. Don’t switch tasks in the middle. When distractions come up, jot them down to be dealt with later.
  26. Randomize. Pick a totally random piece of a larger project, and complete it. Pay one random bill. Make one phone call. Write page 42 of your book.
  27. Insanely bad. Defeat perfectionism by completing your task in an intentionally terrible fashion, knowing you need never share the results with anyone. Write a blog post about the taste of salt, design a hideously dysfunctional web site, or create a business plan that guarantees a first-year bankruptcy. With a truly horrendous first draft, there’s nowhere to go but up.
  28. Delegate. Convince someone else to do it for you.
  29. Cross-pollination. Sign up for martial arts, start a blog, or join an improv group. You’ll often encounter ideas in one field that can boost your performance in another.
  30. Intuition. Go with your gut instinct. It’s probably right.
  31. Optimization. Identify the processes you use most often, and write them down step-by-step. Refactor them on paper for greater efficiency. Then implement and test your improved processes. Sometimes we just can’t see what’s right in front of us until we examine it under a microscope.
  32. Super Slow. Commit yourself to working on a particularly hideous project for just one session a week, 15-30 minutes total. Declutter one small shelf. Purge 10 clothing items you don’t need. Write a few paragraphs. Then stop.
  33. Dailies. Schedule a specific time each day for working on a particular task or habit. One hour a day could leave you with a finished book, or a profitable Internet business a year later.
  34. Add-ons. Tack a task you want to habitualize onto one of your existing habits. Water the plants after you eat lunch. Send thank-you notes after you check email.
  35. Plug-ins. Inject one task into the middle of another. Read while eating lunch. Return phone calls while commuting. Listen to podcasts while grocery shopping.
  36. Gratitude. When someone does you a good turn, send a thank-you card. That’s a real card, not an e-card. This is rare and memorable, and the people you thank will be eager to bring you more opportunities.
  37. Training. Train up your skill in various productivity habits. Get your typing speed to at least 60wpm, if not 90.
  38. Denial. Just say no to non-critical requests for your time.
  39. Recapture. Reclaim other people’s poor time usage for yourself. Visualize your goals during dull speeches. Write out your grocery list during pointless meetings.
  40. Mastermind. Run your problem past someone else, preferably a group of people. Invite all the advice, feedback, and constructive criticism you can handle.
  41. Write down 20 creative ideas for improving your effectiveness.
  42. Challenger. Deliberately make the task harder. Challenging tasks are more engaging than boring ones. Compose an original poem for your next blog post. Create a Power Point presentation that doesn’t use words.
  43. Asylum. Complete an otherwise tedious task in an unusual or crazy manner to keep it fun or interesting.
  44. Music. Experiment with how music can boost your effectiveness.
  45. Scotty. Estimate how long a task will take to complete. Then start a timer, and push yourself to complete it in half that time.
  46. Pay it forward. When an undesirable task is delegated to you, re-delegate it to someone else.
  47. Bouncer. When a seemingly pointless task is delegated to you, bounce it back to the person who assigned it to you, and challenge them to justify its operational necessity.
  48. Opt-out. Quit clubs, projects, and subscriptions that consume more of your time than they’re worth.
  49. Decaffeinate. Say no to drugs, suffer through the withdrawal period, and let your natural creative self re-emerge.
  50. Conscious procrastination. Delay non-critical tasks as long as you possibly can. Many of them will die on you and won’t need to be done at all.
  51. TV-free. Turn off the TV, especially the news, and recapture many usable hours.
  52. Timer. Time all your tasks for an entire day, preferably a week. Even the act of measuring itself can boost your productivity, not to mention what you learn about your real time usage.
  53. Valor. Pick the one item on your task list that scares you the most. Muster all the courage you can, and tackle it immediately.
  54. Nonconformist. Run errands at unpopular times to avoid crowds. Shop just before stores close or shortly after they open. Take advantage of 24-hour outlets if you’re a vampire.
  55. Agoraphobia. Shop online whenever possible. Get the best selection, consult reviews, and purchase items within minutes.
  56. Reminder. Add birthday and holiday reminders to your calendar a month or two ahead of their actual dates. Buy gifts then instead of at the last minute.
  57. Do it now! Recite this phrase over and over until you’re so sick of it that you cave in and get to work.
  58. Coach. Hire a personal coach to keep yourself motivated, focused, and accountable. After several months of pep talks, you’ll be qualified to start your own coaching practice.
  59. Inspiration. Read inspiring books and articles, listen to audio programs, and attend seminars to keep absorbing inspiring new ideas (as well as to refresh yourself on the old ones).
  60. Gym rat. Exercise daily. Boost metabolism, concentration, and mental clarity in 30 minutes a day.
  61. Troll hunt. Banish the negative trolls from your life, and associate only with positive, happy, and successful people. Mindsets are contagious. Show loyalty to your potential, not to your pity posse.
  62. Anakin. Would your problems be easier to solve if you turned evil? The dark side beckons…
  63. Politician. Outsource your problems. How many can be solved more easily if you define them in financial terms? …
  64. Modeling. Find people who are already getting the results you want, interview them, and adopt their attitudes, beliefs, and behavior.
  65. Proactivity. Even if others disagree with you, take action anyway, and deal with the consequences later. It’s easier to request forgiveness than permission.
  66. Real life. Give online life a rest, and reinvest that time into your real offline life, which, if you’re a gamer, is probably suffocating beneath a pile of dead smelly orcas.