Human beings aren’t always the most logical creatures. We say we want to spend our time productively, but then waste hours on social media or TV. Or that we want to eat healthier, but then have a donut (or two) when they’re brought into the office.
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato called this Akrasia—or, simply put, acting against our better interests. Yet while we’ve known about this issue for 2500 or so years, we still make this mistakes every single day.
It was this insight that first inspired author, New York Times columnist, and financial planner Carl Richards down his current path:
“In its simplest form, I try to notice gaps in human behavior,” he explains. “More specifically, I look for the difference between what we say is important to us and what we actually do and then try to help solve that problem.”
Through deceivingly simple sketches, essays, and books like The Behavior Gap, Carl explores the reasons why we consistently act against our best interests and suggests ways to break free from short-term thinking.
In this interview, Carl explains how all our decisions begin and end with emotions (not reason), why we need to pay attention to making the right choices at the right time, and why long periods of time off are a prerequisite for good work, not a reward.
Your “why” is the secret to hitting your long-term goals
Money is probably the most obvious example of something we say we want to spend a certain way, but then act differently (I blame $5 coffees and fancy restaurants). And in fact, money was the initial framework for Carl’s ideas.
After accidentally becoming a financial planner (he thought he was applying for a “Security” job. Not one in “Securities”) Carl started to recognize that the way we talk about money is the same way we talk about feelings and emotions:
“I quickly saw how almost the exact same behavior challenges, human foibles, and blind spots exist around how we spend money and how we spend our time, how we say we want to eat, how we interact with our kids and spouse, and so on.”
It’s almost too simple of an idea. But the answer is what makes humans such complex creatures.
We say we want to eat healthy, but we gorge on snack food. We say we want to spend less time at work, but then Friday at 3:00pm rolls around and we choose to tackle those last to-do list items rather than leave early.
Over and over, we act against our so-called values. And it creates tension, stress, and anger.
“When you were thinking rationally, you made a decision that was supposed to manifest your values. But then in the heat of the moment you skipped it. Now, this isn’t some hard activity we’re talking about. It doesn’t take much skill to close the computer, stand up, and walk away. But even though it’s simple, it’s anything but easy.”
The problem, as Carl explains it, is that when push comes to shove, we give up on our long-term goals and values in favor of short-term gains. But if you want to do meaningful work in any way, you can’t be stuck just doing urgent work.
To get over this mental gap, Carl uses a simple exercise:
“Take a second and imagine yourself in 3 years. What would have had to happen for you to consider those 3 years a success? This could be about financial success, social success, career success. Anything.”
As he explains, 95% of his financial planning clients haven’t gone through this conversation. And outside of money, few of us have either. It’s difficult to imagine ourselves in the future—a condition psychologists call Temporal Myopia.
But once you spend the time trying to envision the future you want to work towards, it gives you all sorts of tools in the fight against procrastination, interruption, and all of our behavior gaps.
“Once you know what you’re working towards. The next question is: Why do you want that? And if you can answer that, then all of a sudden you have a deeper connection and an answer to why you should act the way you say you want to.”
For Carl, his vision of success comes down to two statements:
- “Time with my family. Mostly outside.”
- “Serving in the community.”
“Those are the reasons I do the things I do with my money. But most people don’t know why they want to act the way they think they do when it comes to money, time or any other goal.”
Bad decisions are a systemic issue. To fix them, we need a healthy dose of deviance.
Unfortunately, closing your own behavior gaps isn’t just as easy as understanding your why.
According to Carl, one of the biggest problems is that unhealthy behaviors have become the new normal. Think about our obsession with being busy and the glorification of long working hours. Or the social pressure you might feel on a night out to “just have one” drink or snack or something else you’re trying to abstain from.
For most of us, going against these new “norms” is hard. Even if we know it’s the right thing to do:
“Who tracks the time on their computer, looks at the reports and says ‘Oh look, I spent seven hours on email today. I shouldn’t do that?’ Nobody, really. So if you’re going to do that and want to make that change, you’re one of the weird ones. The same goes for food, exercise, spending money. All these things that most people never change.”
But we do need to change. Especially when it comes to the modern workplace, where tools and strategies are constantly changing, we need to be able to adapt and go against the grain.
“When it comes to knowledge workers, we’re really in uncharted territory. The traditional paradigms and structures don’t work.”
This is where Carl says we can take a page from his friend Pilar Gerasimo—a journalist and coach who promotes the idea of “healthy deviance.”
Healthy deviance is simply accepting that what most of us think of as “normal” isn’t really that normal. Think, the emotional and physical drain of most workplaces. Or the non-engaging and repetitive tasks we feel compelled to do. Instead, Carl says that to do great work, we can’t keep thinking that’s just the way things are.
“You can’t go into the coal mine and use this muscle called the brain and expect it to produce anything of value. For the modern worker it’s about quality of the output, not quantity. Yet, we don’t treat it that way.”
Long periods of uninterrupted time are a prerequisite for good work. Not a reward.
One of the biggest revelations around doing meaningful work came to Carl on a bike ride. He was living in Park City, Utah and started to notice that his best ideas would come to him out in the middle of the forest during a 4-hour training session.
“I started taking my phone with me and I would stop and record my thoughts. All of a sudden, I found myself doing amazing work sitting on a fallen Aspen tree in the middle of the forest. So then I started doing this on purpose.”
The problem for most of us, is that we see these sorts of activities as being only for a chosen few. Or worse, we assume that if you have the time for a 4-hour bike ride, you’re either not busy enough or you’re unsuccessful.
And that’s exactly what Carl started bumping up against as he worked more and more free thinking time into his own schedule.
“I started coming up with all these new phrases. So, if I was skiing and someone from the office called, I’d tell them I was ‘up to my neck in problems’ or ‘waist deep in issues.’”
But taking time for quality thinking and working through issues shouldn’t be something we feel guilty about. If what we’re judged on is the end result of our work, why should it matter how long it took us to get there?
“In the old framework, we thought of time off as a reward for hard work. But now, I think we need to reframe that and realize that to do high-quality knowledge work, being rested and taking time off is a prerequisite for that. It’s not the reward.”
“Why celebrate the people who work 80 to 100 hours a week? We should celebrate the person who makes it happen in 35 or 20!”
Using Micro-Actions to start working less but producing more
Getting to a place where you celebrate and actively seek out time off isn’t easy. In fact, for most of us it probably feels impossible. Which is why Carl recommends using micro actions—actions that are so small you almost don’t notice them—to help you get there:
“I love having the big ‘thing’ I want out there. The ‘what do you want to have done in 3 years?’ goal. That’s the direction you want to head in. But to get there, you need to start by taking small steps.”
In Carl’s case, his big goal is to run a 50-mile trail run when he’s 50 years old. But to get there, he explains the micro actions he needs to take to support that.
Get more quality sleep:
“Getting sleep wouldn’t be complicated if we were acting like humans have for centuries. But we’re not. We live in a system that’s fighting for our resting time. So a simple micro action for me is to create a buffer between electronics and bed.”
“We all know this is good. I could fill a room with research that says you don’t sleep well if the last thing you do is look at email or any screen. We can all agree that’s the case. So what can we do? Why not start with just 20 minutes of no screens before bed? ”
Start your day with something calming:
“On the other end, another micro action I practice is creating a buffer between waking up and diving back into work. That buffer could be as small as 3 minutes. Can you light a candle in the morning? Drink tea for 3 minutes? Can you do something that feels so small, but that can have huge returns on your day?”
Balance your digital time with your time off:
“My last micro action is around trying to spend less time on the computer. In order to hit my 3-year goal, I need to spend less time in email and more time outside. So I use RescueTime to track my usage and actively try to get it down each week.”
You are your most important client. So why aren’t you treating your time that way?
All of these choices come down to treating yourself with more respect than most of us do. We take our own time for granted and give it away freely to others.
But, as Carl explains, you are your most important client. When you give time to yourself, you’re giving time to the person who makes 100% of your income. But still, it’s not easy to explain that to other people.
“There’s always a backlash when you say you’re going to take a nap or go for a run during the day. So you can either play checkers or chess with this,” he explains.
“If you’re playing checkers, you’re saying ‘This is what I’m doing.’ But if you’re playing chess, you’re finding ways to make moves that people don’t even see. Like setting a meeting with yourself. Literally schedule that time for yourself on your calendar as a client meeting.”
“That person you’re meeting with is the single most important client you have. And you need to give them (aka you) permission to do the things that will help you do your best work. Whatever that is.”
In the modern workplace, where we not only have to navigate the work that needs to be done, but our relationships with people and technology, it can seem impossible to take time for yourself.
But, as Carl explains, that time is a prerequisite. Without it, you’ll never find a balanced career or do the deep thinking required to do meaningful work.
So if you find yourself getting stressed or stuck, try stepping back. Book time for yourself and give permission to get outside and let your brain decompress.
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