Finally, a Productivity System You Can Actually Stick With

A brand new system leverages the science of "procrastination penalties" to keep you accountable.

If you're reading this article, you, like me, have in the past tried your hand at at least one productivity system. David Allen's Getting Things Done, for example. And for a few days, you, like me, probably managed to use that system successfully.

But then something happened.

On day two, or three, or five, or seven, you failed to perform your daily upkeep. The next day, you dropped the ball again. Next, your overall interest in the system declined dramatically and soon, you stopped using the system altogether.

In the face of this failure, you probably grew self-critical. Chastising yourself for not giving it your all. For not taking the system seriously enough.

But what if you were never the problem?

In recent decades, behavioral scientists have uncovered the true cause of our failure. A powerful, psychological force so predictable, so contrary to our self-interest, it's unconscionable that no productivity system ever addresses it.

Until now.

In this article, I want to share with you a new productivity system that was specially designed to protect you against this psychological force. A productivity system that you'll be able to, once and for all, stick with.

But before we get there, you must understand what the psychological force that I keep referring to is. And in order to explain, I need to tell you a story.

The Real Reason You've Never Been Able to Stick With Productivity Systems

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Imagine the driver of a car on his way home from work, cruising down a long and narrow road.

Just a couple days prior, the Driver started using a new productivity system and coming up on his right is the library where he's promised himself he’ll perform day three of his system upkeep.

But just as he’s about to make his right turn, he happens to see in the distance, that the local movie theater is screening the new Star Wars. The Driver, committed to his goal, endeavors to ignore the distraction. He looks away. He bites his hands. But it’s no use; he’s struck by a powerfully irresistible feeling that practically bars his hands from turning the steering wheel right.  

The next day the Driver tries again. But this time, as he nears the right turn, out of nowhere, a thought hits him like a bolt of lightning: I don't have time for my productivity system today, I have that urgent client report I need to write! So the Driver speeds past the library, races home, and plunges into his client work instead, only to wake up the next morning wondering, “what the hell was I thinking?”

For the next few days, the Driver continues to try to make that right turn--but fails every single time. That’s where we come in to the story. You and I, dear reader, are his advisors. And our first task is to answer the question: what is the root cause of the Driver’s irrational behavior?

If we look again closely at the picture of the Driver sitting inside his car, we’ll quickly learn his persistent failures are no accident. They’re sabotage.

The real reason we fail productivity systems: The Passenger.

The real reason we fail productivity systems: The Passenger.


Sitting beside the Driver, unbeknownst to him, is a passenger. An invisible bloke who, every time the Driver tries to make his right turn to maintain his productivity system, moves heaven and earth to make sure he doesn’t. To the Driver, his inability to make the right turn is a bug. To the Passenger, it’s a feature.

If we want to help the Driver stick with his productivity system, we first have to answer two obvious questions: Who is the Passenger and what in God’s name does he want?

Who Is the Passenger and What Does He Want?

By now you probably realize that the Driver and Passenger are a metaphor for the profoundly conflicted nature of the human mind.

The Driver represents the rational part of our brain. The more recently evolved prefrontal cortex. The system in our brain where we reason, make decisions, and plan for the future.

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The Passenger, on the other hand, represents the emotional part of our brain, the more primitive limbic system. The limbic system is tasked with many responsibilities, but one of its most important is responding rapidly to potential threats in our environment.

It's clear from our story that the Passenger sees the Driver’s attempts to execute his productivity system as one of these threats. But why?

There's likely an evolutionary explanation. In an incredibly dangerous primitive world, early man couldn’t afford to spend his precious time and energy on activities that delivered delayed rewards, such as saving food for a rainy day or practicing proper running technique. By the time the payoff for these activities arrived, he might have already been devoured by a giant hyena. And so evolved Passengers to help steer us towards immediately gratifying activities like food or sex.

The Passenger evolved to steer us towards immediate gratification.

The Passenger evolved to steer us towards immediate gratification.

However, today, we are living in a radically different environment. But because evolution hasn’t quite yet caught up, we are still endowed with Passengers that strongly favor immediate gratification, and conversely, disfavor delayed gratification.

Which explains why the Passenger sabotages our Driver every time he tries to maintain his productivity system, an activity that clearly requires delayed gratification.

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But how exactly does the Passenger compel the Driver to procrastinate?

As you’re about to learn, the Passenger uses a remote control to do his dirty work. Because it turns out the Passenger is no ordinary passenger. He’s a professional hacker.

How the Passenger Sabotages the Driver's Attempts to Stick With a Productivity System

As the Driver approaches the right turn, the sights and sounds associated with the library start to become salient. That’s when the Passenger sits up in his seat.

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Feeling threatened, he presses the fear response button on his remote control that allows him to deploy one of two kinds of hacks.

Sometimes, the Passenger hacks the Driver's body (aka the Redfli). In this hack, the Passenger causes the Driver to experience a powerfully aversive feeling of tiredness, or exhaustion, or anxiety in his body that makes him want to do anything but use his productivity system. That's why it's called Redfli, short for "really don’t feel like it."

Other times, the Passenger's hacks the Driver's mind (aka the 180). In this hack, the Passenger causes the Driver to have a sudden change of heart, often without him even realizing it. He brainwashes the Driver into believing that his daily productivity system upkeep is just not that important anymore. Everything else -- client work, an "urgent" phone call from a colleague -- seems far more critical. Only much later, after the spell wares off, does the Driver realize he’s been manipulated.  

The Passenger sabotages the driver’s attempts to maintain our productivity system using the 180.

The Passenger sabotages the driver’s attempts to maintain our productivity system using the 180.

So now that we understand the mechanisms by which the Passenger prevents the Driver from making the right turn and executing his productivity system, what can the Driver do about it?

Can Willpower Help the Driver Overcome the Passenger's Sabotage Attempts?

At this point, your first inclination might be to tell the Driver to fight back against the Passenger's hacks. In other words, to exercise willpower. But not so fast.

Willpower usually doesn’t stand a match for the powerful surge of emotions associated with the Redfli. Granted, willpower will help the Driver win a few of these battles, but over the long haul, trust me, he’ll lose the war.

Moreover, willpower is even less effective against the 180. Remember, when under the spell of the 180, the Driver is brainwashed into thinking his productivity system isn't as important as other priorities. So the Driver doesn't even realize that he should fight back. As a result, willpower goes unexercised.

If we're going to have any hope of defeating the Passenger, we need a different approach.

Instead of trying to fight back against the Passenger's hacks, what if there was a tool that could help us prevent the Passenger from hacking the Driver in the first place?

There is such a tool. They're called Procrastination Penalties.

The One Feature A Productivity System Must Have to Stop The Passenger: Procrastination Penalties

Let's remember the reason the Passenger sabotages our Driver whenever he tries to use his productivity system: The Passenger hates delayed gratification. Which begs the question: can we design a productivity system so that using it reliably delivers immediate gratification?

Trying to make using the productivity system more pleasurable won't work, because we can never make it more fun than the alternative (e.g. watching Property Brothers).

Behavioral science suggests a different route: what if we made procrastinating the productivity system more painful? What if every time the Driver put off his productivity system, he received a mild, but significant penalty?

This modification would make executing his productivity system immediately gratifying, in a sense. Avoiding the penalty would earn him a feeling of cool relief. And as a result, the Passenger would no longer have a good reason to sabotage it.

Procrastination penalties may seem unorthodox, but when you look, you find them everywhere:

  • Why are people able to show up every day to a job they don't like? Because they know if they don't, they'll get fired.

  • Why are people able to perform their taxes on time each and every year? Because if they don't, they know the IRS will fine them.

  • Why are people able to pay their cable bill each month? Because if they don't, the cable company will cut them off, and they won't be able to watch Property Brothers.

Therefore, if we want a productivity system that reliably protects the Driver from the Passenger's hacks, the system needs to administer a mild, but significant penalty every time he procrastinates it.

Enter Daily Blueprint.


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How Daily Blueprint Uses Procrastination Penalties to Stop the Passenger

STEP 1: Every Saturday, tell Daily Blueprint what time you’ll perform your nightly planning throughout the week

Log in to the Daily Blueprint app and indicate what times that week you’ve decided to do your 5-minute daily blueprinting.

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STEP 2: During the week, login to the app from your computer (or smartphone) when you said you would and prepare your daily blueprint.

Answer three simple questions:

  • What are your 1 - 3 most important tasks for tomorrow?

  • When specifically will you work on those tasks?

  • How will you deal with the inevitable distractions and obstacles that will arise?

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STEP 3: If you’re late, or skip your daily blueprinting session altogether, Daily Blueprint will dish out a small procrastination penalty to prevent you from doing it again.

You get a choice. Either complete a 3-minute, mildly tedious online task called The Sentence or make a $5 donation to charity. Most people choose to perform The Sentence.

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STEP 4: At the end of the week, Daily Blueprint will email you a progress report showing how much more productive you've been.

You will be shocked at how a little accountability has transformed your productivity. 

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Can Daily Blueprint Finally Help the Driver Beat the Passenger?

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Per our advisement, the Driver wastes no time signing up for Daily Blueprint. He tells the app that he'll perform his daily blueprinting every weekday at 5pm. Right now, it's 4:55pm.

As the Driver nears the dreaded right turn that will take him to the library, he braces himself, ready to be hacked by the Passenger like he has been so many times before. But this time, because of Daily Blueprint's procrastination penalties, the hacking never occurs.

As a result the Driver finds himself able to make the right turn with ease, arriving at the library, and, at long last, using his productivity system. And as the weeks and months go by, the Driver continues to perform his daily blueprinting religiously.

Soon using this new productivity system has become an unshakable habit, making him more, focused, more in-control, more productive than he ever imagined.

Ready to Try Daily Blueprint for Yourself? Here Are the Results You Can Expect After Just 30 Days.

You’ll get more done in less time

With their daily blueprint in hand each day, clients find themselves achieving a new level of productivity they never thought they were capable of. Projects that used to take them weeks, take them days. Tasks that used to take them days, take hours. The only question is what will you do with all that extra time?  

You’ll experience less stress and overwhelm. 

After a few weeks, members begin to feel like a weight has been lifted from their shoulders. With a clear understanding of what’s important, they give themselves permission to stop sweating the small stuff. As a result, they feel like their workload has shrunk considerably, and consequently, their stress. 

The ability to enjoy time off guilt-free  

Daily Blueprint doesn’t just help you identify when you’re working, but also forces you to recognize when you’re not. This time blocking makes you more productive during work, but just as important, makes you more at peace when you’re at home. You’ll finally be able to enjoy your time off guilt-free.

You’ll, for once, have a productivity system that you’re actually using consistently

After just a few short weeks most people are astounded at how effective, the Daily Blueprint punitive system is at keeping them consistent. Even on their busiest days, they do their daily blueprinting on time in order to avoid getting penalized. The result is unwavering consistency.  
 

The First Week of Daily Blueprint is Free. After That, It’s $12.95/month.

If at any time during the week, you wish to cancel, just let us know and we’ll cancel your membership—no questions asked. If you do choose to continue, at the end of your trial, you’ll get auto-subscribed into our month plan.

The Passenger Knows How Dangerous Daily Blueprint Could Be To His Own Health. Beware the Lies He Will Tell You.

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LIE 1: You're too busy. Why add one more thing to do your todo list?  

Truth: Daily Blueprint's central mission is to make you less busy and to free you from stress and overwhelm. When you use Daily Blueprint, your todo list doesn't get longer, it gets shorter.

LIE 2: Daily Blueprint Won't Work for You.  

Truth: Daily Blueprint works for the vast, vast majority of people who try it. But don't take our word for it. We have a 1 week trial so you can see for yourself. 

LIE 3: Daily Blueprint Is Too Expensive.  

Truth: $12.95 a month for a system that will double your productivity, dissolve your overwhelm, and put you back in control of your workday? Most people spend double each month on coffee. 

LIE 4: You'll Sign up for Daily Blueprint Tomorrow.  

Truth: Tomorrow, the Passenger will convince you to put off signing up again, and then again, and then again until you inevitably forget. Don't let him win.

When You Sign Up You'll Get a Bonus Onboarding Session with the Founder

To set you up for the success, when you sign up for the Daily Blueprint 1-week trial, you'll receive a private 25-minute onboarding session with Al Pittampalli. Over the phone, Al will teach you how to use the app to maximum effect.

Sign up Below and Your Free 1-Week Trial Will Begin on Saturday.

Sign up using the form below. Once you do, you’ll be asked to schedule a one-on-one onboarding phone call with Al sometime this week. Then your trial will officially begin on Saturday.


Don't Let the Passenger Win.

If you have any questions, concerns, or fears about Daily Blueprint send us an email at hello@dailyblueprint.org. We'll get back to you as soon as humanly possible. Let's conquer the Passenger once and for all.  

About the Founder

Al Pittampalli is the author of this piece and the founder of Daily Blueprint. He is a productivity coach and writer for Harvard Business Review and Psychology Today. He lives in NYC. Learn more about him here.

The Real Reason Meetings are Unproductive

Unproductive meetings have become a worldwide epidemic. From Boston to Budapest, they clog calendars, crush souls, and prevent progress towards our most important goals. The reason has always appeared obvious: people don’t know how to conduct good meetings. Organizations assume that if they fill in the knowledge gap, meetings will improve.

So we’ve spent a fortune teaching leaders effective meeting practices: create an agenda, articulate a clear purpose, call meetings only when absolutely necessary. But, surprisingly, the training has made but a dent. Why? Because, by and large, people already know these meeting fundamentals. Don’t you? 

The problem is not that people don’t know what to do; it’s that they don’t do what they know. But why? I’ll explain with a metaphor.   

Imagine you’re the driver of a car. Your goal is to get from New York to the sunny city of Los Angeles as quickly as possible. Meetings are like the pit stops you make along the way, to refuel, tune up, get directions. 

It doesn’t take long, however, to realize the pit stops are dreadfully drawn-out, inexplicably inefficient, and there are, frankly, way too damn many of them. Seems like a simple problem to solve, so you promise to create an agenda, set a time limit, and make stops only when absolutely necessary. But 24 hours later you’re mystified to find you’ve largely not followed through on your promises. You vow to try harder this time, but the next day, after frustratingly meager change, you’re still hard pressed for an explanation. 

That’s because the true explanation, the one you’ve not even thought to consider, is both unsettling and rather unbelievable: sabotage. 

Unbeknownst to you, sitting beside you in the car is a passenger. An invisible bloke who, every time you try to make the pitstops more productive, actively undoes your work. Because, the passenger doesn’t want to get to LA. To you, inefficient pit stops are a bug. To him, they’re a feature. 

If you want to solve the problem, you can’t just naively try to optimize the pit stops. You have to address the problem lurking behind the problem. You must deal with the passenger.

Who is the passenger?

Have you ever found yourself cleaning your fridge instead of preparing for a presentation? Binging on the entire first season of Stranger Things instead of doing your taxes? Skipping the gym because today is your half birthday, and sleeping in, you’ve suddenly decided, is a gift to yourself? 

After each of these events, you no doubt looked back at your irrational behavior with disbelief asking, “why in the world did I do that?” The question was meant rhetorically, but it deserves an answer: the passenger.  

Across the years, the collective psychological forces that have prevented us from doing our work, the ones I’m now calling the passenger, have gone by many a name. The Greeks called it akrasia, loosely translated as “weakness of will.” The acclaimed author Stephen Pressfield named it the Resistance, “the most toxic force on the planet.” [1] Psychologists call it procrastination, delaying an action despite expecting to be worse-off for it. [2]

An extraordinary number of productivity problems throughout history have been caused by this formidable foe. As Piers Steel chronicles in his book, The Procrastination Equation, hieroglyphs dating back 4000 years suggest the ancient Egyptians struggled to plant their crops on time. Centuries later, the Greek poet Hesiod, warned his countrymen to “not put your work off till tomorrow and the day after.” More recently, writers from Kafka to Hemingway to Foster Wallace have fallen victim. 

Today, while the passenger still plagues farmers, writers, and artists, its target du jour is the organization, and meetings have become its weapon of choice. But before we can understand how, we should ask why; why exactly is the passenger so intent on preventing us from doing our work? 

What does the Passenger Want?

No one knows exactly when the passenger first arrived on the scene, but it was probably a long, long time ago — born with a simple mission: help humans survive. For our earliest ancestors, a focus on rewards that could be realized quickly was critical to survival. Most important were the four basic drives: fighting, feeding, fleeing, and mating. 

The passenger, with his impulsive preference for smaller pleasures now over larger pleasures later — in short, instant gratification — afforded humans an evolutionary advantage. 

Today, however, we live in a world where the key to thriving is delayed gratification. To write a book, build a skyscraper, learn to perform cardiac surgery, all require a heavy dose of real, sweat-inducing work. Work, I define as any activity that causes us some unpleasantness now, but moves us significantly closer to our long term goals. These are exactly the kind of tasks that the passenger, still foolishly stuck in the past, doesn’t want anything to do with. 

But how exactly does the passenger get human beings, a species with such high ambitions, to avoid our work? By deceiving us. [3]

Silent but Deadly: Make-Work

We’re already well aware of the most obvious way the passenger distracts us from our work, by seducing us with pleasurable distractions, or what I call not-work. Watching TV, checking Facebook, browsing an electronics store (for the technophiles among us) — they’re all examples. 

The problem, for the passenger at least, is that pleasurable distractions are so obviously not work (hence the name) they’re trailed by an insufferable feeling of guilt that, before long, goads us back to work. And so the passenger has a more stealthy deception that keeps us distracted for much longer: make-work. 

Make-work looks just like real work but it’s not, because it doesn't get you significantly closer to your long-term goals. Unlike not-work, make-work feels like real work, a hamster wheel onto which the passenger easily baits us. And the biggest problem is, because there’s no guilt, we don’t even realize we’re on one. 

For writers, the most common form of make-work is research. Research can be real work, allowing a writer to better understand her topic, make her argument, and ensure her thesis intersects with reality. But, as the passenger so deftly understands, research without direction or specificity can be a place to hide. A not so obvious distraction, some writers research for years, convinced they’re doing real work, but in the end, never write the actual piece. 

For individuals who work inside organizations though, the passenger lulls us with an even more dangerous activity: meetings. 

For organizations, meetings can certainly be real work. There’s often no better forum for communicating, collaborating, and most critically, making important decisions. Unfortunately, the passenger knows that when meetings have an ambiguous or minor purpose, they go from levers of progress to the most powerful form of make-work there is. He only needs a couple of tricks with which to to fool us. 

The Houdini

A manager needs to make a decision on whether to approve a new marketing campaign, so she emails her staff to setup a meeting. But in the e-mail, rather than stating the obvious, I need to decide yes or no on the new campaign, she writes let’s discuss the campaign, shall we?. See what just happened there? I call this trick the Houdini, because the passenger makes the decision — poof! — disappear. 

The passenger abhors decisions. He knows that nothing moves us more quickly towards our goals. And if he can channel us into conversations loosely related to a decision but obscure the decision itself, the result is a circular discussion that goes nowhere. What’s worse, one discussion turns into another and another and another, ultimately taking five meetings to reach a decision that should have taken one. Chalk one up for the passenger. 

But if somehow we manage to identify the decision, the passenger has a backup plan: disappear the decision owner. We’ve all heard the stories, a dozen people on a street corner all witnessing a mugging, yet no one steps in to help. Psychologists call it a diffusion of responsibility: when it’s unclear who should act, no one does. The passenger exploits this psychological phenomenon by ensuring no one person is responsible for bringing the decision to a close, thus prolonging it indefinitely.

The other way the passenger fools us into make-work is by compelling us to meet for issues so minor, they never warranted meetings to begin with.  

The Mountain

Every day, organizational leaders are bombarded with dozens of urgent matters. Though all of them may feel mission-critical, in reality, only a minority are vital enough to warrant the mass interruption that a meeting entails. But the passenger scares us into meeting for even the trivial. I call this trick the Mountain, because it has us make a mountain out of a molehill. 

When a tech leader wants to make an announcement, the passenger warns him that if his staff doesn’t read the memo or even worse, misunderstands it, chaos will ensue (it almost certainly won’t). So he calls a meeting. 

A weekly high school administrator’s meeting is supposed to focus on moving forward the education of all students, but the passenger convinces the team that a student’s embarrassing antics at last Friday’s football game deserves to be at the top of the agenda (it doesn’t). 

A top salesperson is about to reject a meeting invitation for a topic that doesn’t affect him. But, alas, the passenger plants a seed of FOMO in his head, “What if there’s something discussed that you’ll be sorry you missed?” (they’re likely won’t be). And so, an hour that could have been spent engaging his most important prospect, is now spent on make-work.  

Perhaps if one person were to spend an hour on a trivial issue, we could consider it real work. But when five or six or seven convene, much like deploying a bomb squad to rescue a cat from a tree, the benefits don’t outweigh the costs and it’s decidedly make-work.   

Sadly, these individuals may never realize how brilliantly they were fooled into make-work, or that they were in fact, doing make-work at all. These tricks are good, but the greatest trick the passenger ever pulled is convincing the world he didn’t exist. [4] 

But you don’t have to be so easily tricked. 

The passenger's greatest strength is his ability to operate in the dark. Luckily, there are three simple, yet powerful questions that will help us turn on the lights.

Our Greatest Defense: The Three Questions

I. What decision(s) need to be made? 

This question must be asked before calling or attending any meeting, but  especially when you hear yourself or others utter any of these four danger words — discuss, review, update, plan. They’re telltale signs the passenger has already obscured the decision and make-work is around the corner. 

To avoid this fate, ask: what decision(s) need to be made? Sometimes the answer will be obvious, other times the passenger has buried the decision so deep that you’ll need to do some digging. 

The next time you call a meeting to review the proposal, stop yourself and ask: what decision actually needs to be made? You’ll realize that the whole point of reviewing the proposal is to decide whether or not to accept it. 

When your boss says let’s plan the event, realize the word plan is hiding several decisions, so list them: Where should we hold the event? What date? Who will we invite? 

Want to hold a meeting to update your staff on a new policy change? Asking why as relentlessly as a six-year-old will get you to the decision. Why update? To get feedback. Why feedback? To learn if the staff has any problems with the change. Why does it matter if the staff has problems? Because if they do, the policy will need revising. Bingo. There’s the decision: do I need to revise the new policy?

II. Who will own each decision?

Even when the decision is out in the open, the passenger can rest assured that as long as no one person is accountable, a circular discussion will ensue. That’s why, for each decision, you must identify a single decision owner. 

Companies often object, claiming they make decisions by consensus. But it goes without saying that getting general agreement on a decision is usually the first step and naming yourself decision owner doesn’t change that. 

Decision owner doesn’t mean sole-decision maker. Instead, it means shepherd of the decision-making process, the person whose job it is to make sure a decision is made in a timely manner. This is especially important when consensus is elusive. Hold a vote? Make a decision unilaterally? If the decision owner doesn’t make these hard choices, who will?

III.  Does this meeting significantly contribute to our major goals?

In my shirt pocket sits a folded sheet of paper. On it, I’ve written my three most important goals and I carry it with me everywhere I go. Everywhere. Why? It’s my greatest defense against the Mountain. 

The passenger desperately hopes we lose sight of our goals (or never identify them to begin with) because when we do, it's easier to make a mole-hill look like a mountain. Something that appears important is revealed as relatively unimportant in a side-by-side comparison with your goals. Spending an hour with your team debating a new brand logo can feel major, until you view it next to your goal: get 100 new clients by the end of the month. 

The next time you receive a meeting invitation, assume the sender has already been compromised by the passenger and he’s unwittingly trying to get you to join him in make-work. Only respond after you’ve had a chance to consult your goals and ask “does this meeting significantly contribute to our major goals?”. 

***

Organizations all over the world will sadly continue to struggle with unproductive meetings unless they address the root cause, the passenger. A stealthy saboteur willing to use every trick in the book to prevent us from doing our work. 

We have to remain vigilant. We have to ask the three questions relentlessly. And most importantly, we have to be even more committed to achieving our mission than the passenger is to sabotaging it. 
 

Free Download: Want even more ammunition to take on the passenger? The Conquer the Passenger Action Guide provides 8 powerful habits that will help you implement the 3 questions. Download the Action Guide now. 


Notes

[1] - Thanks to Stephen Pressfield whose incredible book The War of Art was an inspiration for this article. 

[2] - Thank you to Dr. Piers Steel, Tim Pychyl, and Alfred Mele for allowing me to interview them for this piece. Your contributions were invaluable.

[3] - To be clear, we deceive ourselves. The passenger is only a metaphor, one that represents psychological forces that operate in our own minds. The truth is we are the passenger. I should point out, there is a debate about whether or not we’re actually trying to deceive ourselves. As Al Mele, author of Self-Deception Unmasked told me, what’s actually happening is an unintentional process called “motivationally biased false belief.” His case is incredibly compelling, but in order to save a lot of research-summarizing, I’ll let curious readers explore Mele’s illuminating book themselves. But regardless of the passenger’s intent, we must pretend he is, in fact, trying to sabotage us. Because, as even Mele admits, he behaves remarkably like someone who is.

[4] - If you don't recognize this movie reference, shame on you.

Stop asking for references

One day, several years ago, I got a call from a business owner who was looking to hire a video editor. He told me the editor, let’s call him Arnie, had put me down as a reference.

To this day, I have no earthly idea why Arnie chose me. I’d had a terrible experience with him: Arnie’s work was shoddy, his communication nonexistent, and he ended up charging way more than our agreed upon budget. So, although I took no satisfaction in it, I told the business owner the truth about my negative experience. The owner listened politely, thanked me for my time, and then hung up the phone.

The next day, I got an e-mail from Arnie. To my shock, he wasn’t angry. He was jubilated. The first line read, “Thank you!”

Turns out, the business owner had hired Arnie just a couple hours after our call.
 

The Real Reason We Ask for References

References are supposed to lead to better hiring decisions. The thinking goes, what better way to get information about the effectiveness of a candidate than to talk with people they’ve interacted with in the past?

The problem with this strategy is what’s known as sampling bias. The reality is, we’re forced to rely on the candidate to provide their references. So, even if 98% of people have terrible things to say about them, they’re sure to pass along the 2% that give praise. Even the Unabomber could’ve found a few people to vouch for his character. Because of this unrepresentative sample, references seldom lead to better hiring decisions. Indeed, a 2005 meta-analysis conducted by Aamodt and Williams showed the practice to be largely unsuccessful in predicting future employee success.

So why do we ask for them? For most people who seek references, making a better decision isn’t the primary goal. Validation is.

Looking back, it’s easy to see that the aforementioned business owner wasn’t interested in my help making his decision. When he ignored my warnings, he revealed his true motivation: he was trying to feel better about the decision he had effectively already made.

It’s difficult not to empathize with him. We’ve all experienced the intolerable anxiety of not knowing whether or not we’re making the right decision. When this happens, it’s tempting to find ways to reduce that anxiety. Just think of the last time you went to a particular friend or colleague for advice, because you knew they would tell you what you wanted to hear. This validation gives you the confidence boost you were looking for.

While that confidence boost might make you feel better, it comes with a cost. You end up distancing yourself from reality. After all, believing you’re right, doesn’t make you right. And an artificially inflated sense of confidence can make it more difficult to realize when you’re headed off a cliff.

At this point, you’re no doubt thinking: if asking for references is unproductive, what can I do instead to ensure I’m making the right decision?

That, my friend, is the wrong question.

We can never ensure we’re making the right decision, as most decisions are inherently uncertain. Rather than trying to eliminate that fact by asking for references or seeking out biased advice, better to embrace it. That’s what effective leadership is all about.

This article was originally published on Psychology Today