Why Multitasking is a Lie (And How To Do it Right)

Man on his Mobile

Like many of my fellow Gen Y’ers, I always used to think of myself as being an excellent multitasker. During university classes I would keep my laptop out “taking notes”, while really paying half attention to the professor whilst reading / chatting / doing other homework / browsing the internet. At home, I could never JUST sit and watch a TV show (on my computer of course- who uses actual TV’s anymore?) for fear of feeling unproductive. I would sometimes go so far as to read a full book while watching TV, or even try to read one book while listening to a separate audiobook (a fun mental exercise, but extremely difficult).

What I began to notice across all of these different task combinations was that there were often times when I would suddenly realize that I had no idea what the professor had said in the last few minutes, or what had happened on the TV show. I was able to listen / watch while casually browsing, or having even a few different text-based conversations, but as soon as I encountered something that really interested me suddenly my full attention was captured and my multitasking ability went out the window.

I began to do some more serious research to try and find out why this was the case, and, more specifically, did “true multitasking” actually exist, or was it just a function of our brains jumping back and forth between different tasks very quickly.

It turns out that the answer was “a little of both.”

The Neuroscience of Multitasking

The area toward the front of both lobes of the brain that controls attention and serves to coordinate tasks with the other brain systems is called the prefrontal cortex. A study conducted at the Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (INSERM) in Paris in 2009 lead by Dr. Etienne Koechlin asked participants to carry out two different tasks while measuring their brain activity with an fMRI machine. When participants were told that a large reward would be given for the successful completion of one of the tasks, scientists observed that the amount of neural activity increased predominantly in a single side of the prefrontal cortex. When the reward was associated with the other task, the neural activity increased in the other side.

When the study participants were asked to attempt yet a third task, scientists found that the subjects consistently forgot one of the three, and made three times as many errors as compared with when they were only attempting two tasks.

Koechlin explained how these results suggest that when the brain is focused on a single task, both sides operate concurrently, but when it tries to perform two separate activities simultaneously it splits itself and each side then operates independently. But when it comes to three tasks, juggling them all becomes quite difficult due to our only having two frontal lobes. And even with the two tasks, it seems likely that while brain is simultaneously keeping track of both goals, it still switches back and forth between them for active processing.

Another study from the University of California in 2010 analyzed the effects of multitasking on working memory (the ability to manipulate and store information in the mind over short periods of time), specifically focusing on the previously demonstrated reduced multitasking ability in older adults. The study described how, when interrupted mid-task, the brain “disengaged from a memory maintenance network and reallocated attentional resources toward the interrupting stimulus.” This step was performed similarly by younger and older adults. However, it goes on to state that “unlike younger individuals, older adults failed to both disengage from the interruption and reestablish functional connections associated with the disrupted memory network.”

The term commonly used to describe the negative ramifications of these mental gymnastics is “switching cost”, and has been shown to apply even when we are prepared for the new task or stimulus. So far it seems that switching costs can be reduced by foreknowledge, task familiarity, and younger brains, but never totally eliminated.

But if two simultaneous tasks is our limit, and even then we must switch back and forth between the two, then how is it that people are regularly able to do things such as walk, look out for cars, and talk on the phone all at the same time?

The Power of Habit

Koechlin stated that the ease with which we handle multiple tasks depends on how engaged the prefrontal cortex is. Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense. When we are really focused on something, whether it is an engaging book, challenging math problem, or deep conversation, we have a tendency to shut out external stimuli. This can manifest as a loss of awareness of our surroundings or as our forgetting anything else that we were doing that would take conscious thought.

But how much of what we do throughout the day really does require active attention on our part?

In his book The Power of Habbit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg goes into fascinating depth about what habits are, how they are formed, and how we can best take advantage of them. One of the key points that he repeats throughout the book is how once something has become a habit, it ceases to require active mental effort and attention. He even talks about a case of someone who had experienced severe brain damage which eliminated the ability to store new memories, but was still able to form new habits and perform them without any conscious awareness of what he was doing. Why? Because habits do not require conscious thought. They totally bypass the prefrontal cortex.

This then can help explain how some of us seem to perform the seemingly impossible task of doing three or more things at once. How do I eat breakfast, watch TV and IM all at the same time? It’s simple really. I have become so accustomed to eating that the mechanics of it take essentially no conscious thought. The IM conversation then is sporadic enough that it is a relatively simple task for me to watch TV and periodically switch my focus to read or respond to something. But if I read a message that really startles me, or have to write a response with a high degree of care placed on the content and wording, then there is a fairly good chance that I will end up having to rewind the TV show to re-watch a portion that I completely tuned out.

The Truth Behind Self-Proclaimed “Multitaskers”

I’m sure we all know people who claim to be great multitaskers. They keep their TV on, are always on their phones, conduct whole meetings in the car, and claim that they are the exception- able to perform all these tasks at peak efficiency. Dr. Clifford Nass, a researcher at Stanford who has been studying this type of people for years, would claim differently.

Nass examined a group of both “high multitaskers” and “low multitaskers” and studied their ability to filter information, switch between tasks, and maintain a high working memory, saying that these are the key components underlying successful multitasking. He theorized that the high multitaskers should perform better in at least one but likely all three of these areas. He turned out to be completely wrong.

We were absolutely shocked. We lost all our bets. It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.” – Nass

But if this is truly the case, and good multitaskers don’t actually exist (or are so rare as to be statistical anomalies), then why is it that so many people continue to believe that they are in fact great at it?

One likely answer can be taken from the research of Zhen Wang, a researcher and assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University. She was able to study a group of students over a period of time, analyzing their daily routines and study habits outside of a laboratory environment. She found that “There’s this myth among some people that multitasking makes them more productive, but they seem to be misperceiving the positive feelings they get from multitasking. They are not being more productive- they just feel more emotionally satisfied from their work.”

When comparing students who studies while watching TV with those who studied without, she found that those who studied with the TV reported feeling more satisfied and productive while simultaneously failing to achieve as great of a success in their cognitive goals.

My Multitasking Workaround

One key point from Koechlin’s study that is glossed over is the fact that both of his tasks involved some type of visual detection. This was doubtless due to the fact that the visual centers in the brain are easy to monitor in an fMRI and it made for cleaner data. However, it is fairly readily apparent that our visual system is really only designed for tracking single objects at a time, therefore attempting to multitask by keeping track of two different visual stimuli can be inherently difficult.

My own extensive experimentation with my multitasking abilities has lead me to the following simple rule:

The larger the number of shared sensory resources between two tasks, the more difficult it will be to perform them simultaneously, with attention capacity being finite across the board.

This is why it is so easy to listen to music while doing almost anything that does not directly require listening to something else. It utilizes the brain’s auditory processing resources and rarely has to fight for them. Additionally, we rarely have to worry about fighting for attention with the music because we are typically raised to prioritize visual stimuli over auditory ones.

Similarly, it is quite easy to give someone a massage whilst simultaneously watching a movie. The massage is both something that is practiced (and therefore largely habit that requires little attention) and also primarily based on touch, leaving the visual and auditory processing resources open for other inputs.

Optimize Your Productivity

What have we learned after all this?

  1. There is no “true” multitasking
  2. For two tasks, it might be possible to hold both in each half of the brain so as to more easily switch back and forth between the two
  3. Even for only two tasks, there are always some switching costs
  4. The more cognitively taxing a task, the harder it is to multitask with it
  5. The closest we come to actual multitasking is when one of the things we are doing is a habit that can be put on autopilot
  6. Multitasking makes us feel more productive while actually hurting productivity
  7. Multitasking is easier when the tasks have minimal sensory overlap

Nowadays the way that I look at it is not “how can I multitask most efficiently,” but rather “how can I make sure that I am utilizing my maximum brain capacity at all times.” The key distinction being that, contrary to popular belief, often the way to succeed at the latter goal is really just to be fully focused on a single task. But if the main task that I am performing does not take significant conscious thought, then I still try and figure out what I could be doing simultaneously so as to maximize my productivity.

Given how visually focused most of us are, the simple question that tends to cover 90% of the cases is just this:

“Could I be just as productive at my current task while listening to an audiobook? If not, what about if I listened to music?”

Note: There is actually a large body of research solely focused on the impact of music on performance for different types of activities. Much of it is based off of these underlying concepts, but I will be covering the specifics in a separate blog post.


Charron S, Koechlin E. Divided representation of concurrent goals in the human frontal lobes. Science. 328(360), 360-363 (2010).

Clapp W, Rubens M, Sabharwal J, Gazzaley A. Deficit in switching between functions underlies the impact of multitasking memory in older adults. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 108(17), 7212-7217 (2011).

Gopher, D., Armony, L. & Greenspan, Y.  Switching tasks and attention policies. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 129, 308-229 (2000).


Why Men Should Leave the Toilet Seat Up

The Issue.

The Debate.

That Problem.

Whenever men and women live under the same roof, this debate is pervasive beyond all others. And yet the womenfolk out there would have us believe that it is not in fact a debate. That instead it is our sacred duty, our moral imperative, to put down the toilet seat after use.

But have they ever really thought about it?

Let’s try and break this down.

What Women Actually Want

  1. The obvious: to not have to expend that egregious effort to constantly lower the toilet seat before using it.
  2. The less obvious: for the man to nonetheless always raise the seat before he himself uses it, so as to avoid the possibility of spray on the Queen’s Throne.

The Solution: Division of Labor

After submitting the issue to my panel of experts for debate, they have returned with a surprisingly simple answer:

Men should leave the toilet seat up. Women should leave it down.

Before the man uses it, he will then have to raise it. Before the woman uses it, she will have to lower it. Assuming an equal amount of effort for raising and lowering the seat, this means that each party is expending an equal amount of effort for each usage.

Additionally, if the seat is left up, then the woman will be secure in her knowledge that there was never any chance for a stray spray for her to dismay.


DISCLAIMER: My panel of experts may or may not consist of a multi-paneled mirror. But they are to be trusted.

Suits and Pajamas: Dressing For Productivity


It is a fine Tuesday morning, and Joe Shmoe has a day where he has no scheduled obligations until after 12:00 pm. His alarm wakes him up at 8:00, and, after a period involving multiple uses of the “snooze button,” he finally rolls out of bed close to 9:00. Still in his pajamas, his plan was to check his email, eat breakfast, and get straight to work on some assignments. Fast forward to 11:30 where Joe has realized that clicking on links in emails can be quite dangerous and is only just starting to take out his work. He then gets a solid 15 minutes in before he breaks to start preparing lunch.

I am Joe Shmoe. I’m sure that most you are too.

This type of situation happens to all of us upon occasion (some more frequently than others). There are many approaches one could take to try and head off this behavior, but one of the most effective is also one of the easiest: before you do anything else in the morning, make sure to get dressed. The more professionally so the better. This works for two, very interrelated, reasons:

  1. Your own self image at any point in time is greatly affected by your dress.
  2. You are more likely to be productive when your brain recognizes a productive environment.

In this blog post, Judith Rasband discusses how when what you wear is not congruent with your environment, your own comfort levels are adversely affected. She even recommends testing this yourself by going out one time dressed completely inappropriately for the occasion (e.g. wear a suit to a barbecue, gym a stained shirt to the office, etc.). I myself have taken this sort of experimenting to the extreme on multiple occasions with some very pronounced results.

The phrase “Dress for Success” is often bandied around, but, unlike many sayings, this one is 100% true.

The specifics of what you wear can certainly affect the efficacy of this technique, and soon I will be publishing a series of posts on the simple aspects of dressing properly, but until then know that regardless of what it is that you put on as long as you are used to associating that dress witha  productive mindset it will still provide a marked boost in your productivity.

Learning To Focus: Mind Your Mind

thought synthesizer
Once you’ve finished properly preparing your body, the next step is to ensure that your mind remains focused on your work and doesn’t get distracted.

Prepare Your Mind – Eliminate Distractions

  1. Never start working without first knowing what you want to accomplish.
  2. For each work session always try to have at least one set, concrete goal. For larger tasks, try and break it down into smaller, well-defined chunks and work on one chunk at a time.

  3. Focus on one task at a time.
  4. Studies show that multitasking leads to reduced efficiency. Every time you switch between tasks, your mind goes through the stages of goal shifting (changing what you want to accomplish at that instant) and rule activation (changing the set of mental structures required to perform each individual task). Each switch takes a distinct amount of time that can quickly build up when constantly going back and forth between tasks.

    Another ramification here is that, before starting to work, you should always

  5. Clear out your workspace, both digitally and physically.
  6. Remove all non-work-related distractions or activities from the picture. This means silencing your cell phone, disconnecting from chatting programs, and closing all webpages or programs non-essential to the current work at hand.

    Similarly, if you sit down to work at a table that is covered in empty food containers, papers, or any other bunch of random clutter this actually reduces your work efficiency. The more items in your field of view that your brain has to process the harder it is to focus on the task at hand. A clean environment is also mentally associated with ‘getting things done’ just because cleaning itself is so often procrastinated that just being in a clean room makes you think that you’ve already started working.

  7. Set aside a specific amount of time for a given session.
  8. Use a timer.
    If you have a large, indefinite amount of time to accomplish a task it is often difficult to really get into the flow of working on it. It becomes easy to let yourself get distracted. This is generally what happens when people “pull all-nighters.” They viewed staying up all night as an option and therefore failed to work efficiently from the start. If instead you set a smaller, specified amount of time to work with and a clear goal for what to accomplish you will find yourself moving through tasks at a very satisfying rate.

Learning to Focus: Don’t Let Your Body Win

Belinha has more than good looks

I went to sleep at 5am last night!”

“I never have time for anything but work!”

“No I don’t procrastinate!”

These are three claims that I often hear all coming from the same person. Yet, if the third one is be believed, do the first two really make sense? Can anyone really be that consistently busy?

I’m sure that in some isolated cases the answer really is yes. They really do have that much work.

For the vast majority of people this is not the case, with the problem lying with an inefficient workflow stemming from improper physical and mental preparation.

Over the next few posts I’ll be talking about various techniques to use to prepare your body, your mind and your workspace to get the maximum amount of focus and productivity out of a given block of time.

Many of these points may seem like simple common sense but it is really amazing how many people don’t seem to follow a single one. If you get into the habit of creating a study checklist for yourself that you go through every time you start to study I guarantee that you will start seeing a significant boost in productivity.

Prepare Your Body

  1. Prepare food or drink ahead of time.
  2. If you start working hungry you will constantly be shifting focus from your work to your stomach. Make sure to eat a full meal before any serious work session and you will find that you both can maintain focus longer and get tired less quickly. If you are the type of person who simply must snack all the time (I am certainly guilty of this trait) then makes sure to have snacks prepared ahead of time so you can’t use that as an excuse to get up and stop working. Ideally any such snack should be some sort of bite sized finger food that doesn’t leave any mess. This will minimize the distractions caused by the constant eating.

  3. Learn what time of day you study best.
  4. Some people are night owls. Others can’t work without sunlight. I know that as soon as the sun goes down I have a hard time working and so try to plan all of my work-sessions accordingly.
    For those times where there is too much work or your schedule is to inflexible for such luxuries, the next best thing is to trick your body. Go somewhere indoors with bright lights and no windows. Get a solar lamp if need be. This will help fool your body into losing track of the time of day and therefore help to bypass any biological time preferences.

  5. Keep a regular gym schedule.
  6. I have said this before on several occasions, but going to the gym really is one of the single best ways of boosting your productivity in every area of life. Often when people sit down and try to work for hours at a time they start getting a build up of nervous energy the takes it hard to keep focused. Going to the gym before a study session will keep this from happening whilst simultaneously fully awakening your mind.

Memory Training Series #1: The Fundamentals

Photo: Mike Behnken
Dull Field
Photo: Mike Behnken - edited

If you had seen each of the above two photos separately amongst a collection of pictures, which one would you remember more clearly?

The obvious answer is the one on the left. Why? Because it is more vivid. The colors are popping out of the page. You can almost imagine running barefoot through those verdant fields, feeling the warmth of the sun on your face, the soft soil beneath your feet, and the light kiss of a breeze rustling through your hair.

I am now willing to bet that you will remember that picture for a long time after reading this article.

The Key to Making Memories Last

Simply put: utilize your senses. The more the better.

There was a study conducted a while back where participants were shown a series of pictures, each paired with a completely unrelated smell. They were then told to try and form a mental link between the picture and the smell. So, for example, if a picture of a dog was presented with the smell of chocolate, they would try to imagine a dog swimming in a river of chocolate.

Later, when shown a random sequence of images, whenever a linked picture came up the participants were shown to have brain activity in the regions of the hippocampus related to the sense of smell. This activity was not present for brand new pictures.

This study demonstrates a fact that I am sure everyone has realized on some level: the way the brain stores memories is intrinsically linked to our five (or six) senses.

I bet that at some point or other you have tried to memorize something via rote. Be it a name, a phone number, an address, or a useless factoid for a history class, you ended up repeating it over and over again to yourself until you reached a point where (you hoped) it would stick.

Yes, this can work. I myself memorized the first 100 digits of pi like that while bored one time in high school. This is, however, one of the slowest, least effective, and shortest lasting methods for remembering anything.

The Technique

The essence of the technique I am about to describe is to take whatever piece of information you want to remember and build around it a vivid sensory scene in your mind.

Lets say that you just met your brother’s fiancé, were told that her name was Joy Greenspan, and that it would be very embarrassing if you didn’t remember this fact at the family dinner later that night.

Step 1: Ask yourself what this name instantly brings to mind.

When I heard the name Joy Greenspan my first thought was of happiness and laughter for the first name and a wide green expanse for the last.

Step 2: Use these associations to build a scene in your mind that includes the subject.

Imagine Joy skipping across a green meadow, a broad smile on her face, periodically breaking out into laughter or song.

Step 3: Make it interesting

The stranger, funnier, more exotic the scene the more likely you are to remember it. Try and doctor each scene to stand out as much as possible. In this case, I changed “Joy skipping and laughing through a meadow” to “Joy skipping and laughing through a meadow until suddenly she trips and falls, slamming her stomach on a rock, then turning green and vomiting all over the hillside.”

Yes, this may seem a bit harsh, but it’s actually one of my tamer memory scenes. Remember, nobody has to know about this but yourself, so feel free to make it as offensive, shocking, or crude as you like. In fact, the more so the better.

It also helps if you can somehow link it back to what you are trying to remember. In this case, I built it the way I did by imagining her joy getting cut off and turning green. This forms yet another link between the first and last names.

Step 4: Add in as much sensory data as possible

Go over each part of your scene and try to add in sensory depth. For our example, imagine how her hair looks blowing in the wind, the sun on her face. Hear the crystalline notes of her laughter on the wind and smell the freshly cut grass. Imagine the sudden change when she trips: the sound of her retching across the grass and the rancid stench of her bile. Then contrast this in your mind to the joy of moments prior.

With practice, this whole process should only take you a couple of seconds, and can be applied to almost every aspect of life.

Even if you are not building a completely separate scene, whenever you want to remember something try linking it in with as many senses as you can. You many be surprised by the results.

Doing this can get a bit cumbersome for large strings of information, but there are some very simple techniques that will make those quite manageable as well (to be covered in a future post).

How to Break a Bad Habit: Start a Better One in its Place

Hands Cracking Knuckles

“Don’t crack your knuckles! You’ll end up with arthritis!”

I’ve long since lost count of how many times I heard some version of this phrase while growing up. I don’t even know if it’s a true statement. For every study or article that I’ve read pointing in one direction, another seems to show up contradicting it. But never have I seen a single study saying that claims cracking your knuckles is beneficial. So I decided to try and kick the habit.

The Problem

Eliminating bad habits is difficult.

As a general rule, it is easier to remember to do something than to stop doing something. This is because the way your brain works is through triggers.

  • You hear an alarm and remember to take out the trash.
  • You open up the door and instantly check for your keys.
  • A scent of hot dogs on the breeze reminds you that you were supposed to be eating at the in-laws for dinner.

In each of these cases, something happens that triggers a response in your brain, reminding you to do something.

Bad habits work in a completely opposite fashion. They are things that you do without thought. This means that while you usually only remember not to do something at the trigger, here the trigger is you having already done it. This is why they can be so difficult to eliminate.

The Solution: Positive Overlap

In her blog over at Snack Girl, Lisa Cain talks about the NoFizz challenge. This is a general challenge for people to start drinking water instead of soda. She quotes Bobby DeMuro, the executive director of NoFizz Charlotte, saying how when they started by just telling people what to avoid soda, it didn’t work so well. But, as soon as they started telling people to drink 60 oz of water instead, response skyrocketed.

This is an excellent example of a broad technique for eliminating bad habits. Rather than just deciding to stop doing something, find a positive action that you can do in its place. In the NoFizz challenge, that positive action is to drink water. For this positive action, it is easy to remind yourself to do it with simple triggers such  as leaving three water bottles spread around your house in obvious locations. Then, once you are drinking the water, that in itself reminds you of your goal to not drink soda while at the same time quenching your thirst and thus actually reducing your desire to drink it.

For some habits, finding an action with a suitable positive overlap can be more difficult.

When I was trying to stop cracking my knuckles, I first stopped to think: “why do I crack them in the first place?” I decided that it was because I tend to get restless and need to always be doing something with my hands. Working off of this, I decided to start carrying around a little stress ball, and any time I started to fidget i would just pull it out and start squeezing.

Yes, there were still times where I would catch myself cracking my knuckles. Once I trained myself to really start using the ball, however, not only did it remind me about my knuckles whenever I was using it, but it’s amazing how much harder it is to crack your knuckles with a ball in your hand.

And so I was able to kick the habit. And build up my forearm in the process.

To recap:
  1. Think about what caused the bait in the first place.
  2. Come up with some action that will both make performing the bad habit difficult and constantly remind you not to do it.
  3. Use triggers to train yourself to do whatever action you decided upon.

The Key To Intelligence: Pay Attention

Girl Dressing

What color shirt was your roommate / spouse / significant other wearing this morning?

What type of car does your neighbor drive?

When is your boss’ birthday?

Was the girl in the above photo wearing a wedding ring?

If you had paid attention, you would know.

Most people go through life with their attention centered solely on themselves. If they are exposed to any piece of information that does not seem like it will have any lasting impact on their lives, they pay it no heed.

This is no way to live.

I have no illusions of being any less self-centered than the average man. In fact, I may be even more so than most. And yet I do pay attention. Not from any pretense about being an overly caring person, but because I understand the value of information.

Growing up, whenever I would get into the car with my mother I would instantly tune out the outside world. Whether reading a book, listening to music, or just having a conversation, I would not pay the slightest bit of attention to the route we were taking. Years later there were many times where I found myself in the embarrassing situation of not knowing my way around my own hometown. This embarrassment could have been avoided by simply paying attention.

There have been many times throughout my schooling experience where I have been required to sit in on guest lectures. While attendance was often taken at these events, they were seldom tested upon. As a result, it was commonplace during these lectures to look around the room and see people dozing, doodling, texting, or doing pretty much anything other than paying attention to the speaker. Yes, there were times when I was one of the doodlers. But almost every time where I have forced myself to pay attention I have been rewarded in some way.

A little over a month ago, I had been looking for a professor to start doing research and been having poor luck in finding one until I remembered one of these guest lectures. Over a year prior I had been required to attend a lecture on modern facial recognition technologies and, while at the time it had little relevance to me, it has turned out to be closely related to my current field of interest. Based on what I remembered from that lecture I was able to contact the professor who gave it, impress him with my knowledge, and now I am already involved in doing research under his supervision.

I didn’t get that job because I was smarter than everyone else who heard that lecture. I was just more attentive.

Society has a tendency to judge intelligence based on how much we know. At the same time, the human brain has a seemingly endless capacity for knowledge. And yet tremendous disparities in apparent intelligence in individuals abound, even in those with similar genetics or upbringings. Yes, some of this can be blamed on “good” or “bad” memories, but such attributions are like claiming that a body builder is just naturally stronger than his accountant brother. True, one may have a slightly different natural build, but the true difference between them is how much exercise they get.

Your brain is like a muscle, and it’s not too late to start exercising it. Pick one hour every day where you do your best to take in and remember every detail that you see or hear. No, you probably won’t be able to remember everything. But if you keep it up, you will start to find that you can indeed increase both the amount that you can take in and the ease with which you store it. It may take a good deal of time and effort, but the positive benefits that this practice will have on your life will soon make you realize how worth it it really is.

Pay attention.

How to Trick Yourself to Beat Procrastination: Why Many Lazy People are Ripped

Lazy GorillaThis morning I was walking to a class and found myself stuck behind a giant 300+ pound gym junkie ambling along at a pace that my grandmother could put to shame.

I don’t know about all of you, but while going to the gym is something that I try and do regularly, it is usually not something that I do easily. It is always a mental struggle against my own laziness to get me out the door and on my way. And yet I know many people who I would deem far lazier than I am that spend 2+ hours at the gym every day.

Strange as this may seem, I believe that there are three separate, logical reasons for this phenomena.

  1. Endorphins feel good – once you get to a certain level of physical fitness, working out ceases to be as much of an effort and actually becomes pleasurable.
  2. The power of routine – when doing something difficult becomes a part of your daily routine, getting yourself to do it ceases to be a challenge.
  3. Tiered procrastination – doing a difficult task is far easier when you know that it is putting off doing an even more difficult one. This is the reason that I will be discussing today.

How it Works

Have you ever found yourself cleaning your room or doing dishes instead of doing homework? Why is it that cleaning then is so easy but when you have no obligations at all during a day it seems so difficult?

Webster defines procrastination as “to put off intentionally the doing of something that should be done.” In essence this stems directly from one of the base laws of physics: an object will always attempt to take the path of least resistance. When applied to humans, this is sometimes referred to as the Principle of Least Effort (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principle_of_least_effort).

Taken to its extreme, this would mean that people would sit around and do nothing whenever possible. And while this is, sadly, sometimes the case, usually it just means that when presented with two or more things to do we will generally try and take the easier task. One could then be thought of as procrastinating as long as they are doing anything but the most difficult of the tasks laid out before them. This explains both the gym phenomena and that of the dishes.

If you have some difficult work to do such as math homework or doing your taxes, suddenly going to the gym or doing the dishes becomes the easier of the two options. And yet you can do it without feeling entirely guilty because after all, at least you are doing something productive.

How To Use It

What makes a task easy or difficult to do is all about how you approach it in your mind. The next time you have a lot of work to do, take a step back and think. Instead of getting intimidated and thinking “this is a ton of work, what’s on tv?” think “that essay is going to be a paint to write, let me delay that by doing this other required reading.” Or, if you really don’t want to do any of your work at the time, instead of just watching tv try going to the gym. You will find that making yourself go then suddenly has become a whole lot easier than usual.

2 Quick Tricks For Watching Your Weight – Combating Your Sweet-Tooth

The two primary factors involved in gaining weight are lack of exercise and an unhealthy diet. The former takes a lot of physical effort and a modicum of mental effort, the latter takes a larger amount of mental effort but essentially no physical. Physical effort is unavoidable, but mental effort can be extremely variable based on the individual and the techniques used. T

An unhealthy die usually stems from either A. unhealthy meals and / or B. too much supplemental junk food. Adjusting your meals really doesn’t take too much willpower, just an initial expenditure of effort in figuring out how to adjust your meal content. Limiting junk-food intake, however, can be very difficult, especially for those like myself who are cursed with a strong sweet-tooth.

Here are two simple techniques that will greatly reduce the level of willpower needed to control your junkfood intake: (and, as we now know, willpower is not an infinite resource)

Technique #1: The Miser Method

I don’t know about you, but one thing that I definitely value more than my junk-food is my money. Even if you are really craving a chocolate bar, if you see that the cheapest one they have at the restaurant you are in is $10, odds are you will be able to resist buying it fairly easily. Even if you just shelled out $60 for a fancy steak.

Why is this? Because you know that you could go right across the street and buy the same bar from CVS for only $0.99. Even if you know that you probably won’t end up actually buying it from across the street, the fact that you could lets you resist the urge to buy now.

The Technique

Get out a piece of paper (or open a text document) and write down a list of all the unhealthy food that you enjoy eating. Now, figure out the cheapest place in your neighborhood that this food can be purchased. Usually this will be a big supermarket or wholesale store. Now write down on the paper the cheapest unit price of each item on the list. Familiarize yourself with all of these numbers (you can carry it with you too, but that’s not so important as long as you have a general sense of all the prices).

From this point on, use this list as your baseline. If you’re at school and feel an urge for something sweet from the vending machine, look at the prices. It will be a lot easier to stop yourself from buying that small Snickers bar for $0.75 when you know that you could easily get 3 or 4 for the same price.

One of the situations where this technique has helped me the most over the past three years is with buying ice cream. On my campus there is a Coldstone Creamery less than a five minute walk from my apartment. And I love ice cream. Yet I have only ever been to Coldstone once in the entire time I’ve been here. Why? Because I know that for the same price as a milkshake at Coldstone I could go next door to CVS, buy a whole tub of ice cream, and get many, larger milkshakes for the same cost.

The next problem is preventing yourself from buying too much when you’re at the cheaper place, but if you give yourself a monetary cap for those excursions it shouldn’t be too bad. (I’ll probably talk more about that technique in a later article.)

Technique #2: Stretching Sweets

If I offered you $50 to down a milkshake in 30 seconds, would you do it?

I’d be willing to bet that most of you just thought “yes.” But do you think that you would get the same enjoyment out of that milkshake drinking it like that vs taking your time to down it? Probably not.

Food stimulates your taste buds and can induce pleasure. Yet the enjoyment you can get from a small amount of food in your mouth is fairly similar to what you would experience from a large amount of the same substance. Two M&M’s may be a little bit more satisfying than a single one, but definitely not doubly so.

Next time you’re about to eat some junk-food, stop for a second. Take only half of what you were going to, but make a conscious effort to eat it at half the speed. This may take some getting used to, but once you do you will find that that small Crunch bar really did satisfy you just as much as the king sized one would have (as long as you’re not using candy as a meal replacement, which I hope not…).

I have friends who constantly remark on how I can stay so thin while at the same time seeming to eat so much candy. The answer is really very simple: I can spend two minutes eating a single peanut M&M.

What methods do you use to control your sweet-tooth?