436: How to hack your time and motivation wisely–and when not to–with Joseph Reagle

By May 8, 2019Podcasts

 

 

Joseph Reagle shares handy research insights on hacking life optimally and safely.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The question you need to ask when optimizing your life
  2. Why lifehacks should be taken in moderation
  3. How to use your own money  to hack your motivation

About Joseph

Joseph writes and teaches about digital communication and online communities. He’s an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University. He’s also served as a fellow and faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. His doctoral dissertation was on the history and collaborative culture of Wikipedia. Joseph has appeared in media including The Economist and The New York Times.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Joseph Reagle Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Joseph, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Joseph Reagle
Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your stuff. And I’d love to start with you sharing a little bit of how you came to adapt a practice of Japanese techniques of T-shirt folding. What’s the scoop here?

Joseph Reagle
I came by it by way of YouTube. I’m a bit of a sponge. I watch a lot of YouTube channels, I read a lot of blogs and whatnot. And I saw that there’s this particular technique for folding T-shirts, and I can’t say it verbally. If your listeners want to check it out, you can Google Japanese T-shirt. It’s very nice. You just kind of pinch two parts of the shirt, and you do a little flick of the wrist, and then, bam, it’s folded.

And it’s a trivial sort of thing. It doesn’t really save me much time, but I think the thing I enjoy about it is I don’t really enjoy folding laundry. And so, this gives me a little practice, a little technique that I can improve upon, that I can hone as I’m folding my laundry, so that gives me something to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is nice and it sort of makes you feel like there’s some craftmanship involved. And I believe this Japanese T-shirt folding practice is different than what Marie Kondo is advocating as I looked at your reference videos. Is that fair to say?

Joseph Reagle
It is. She also has some great ideas. I don’t know if she calls it vertical folding. But, basically, if you have a lot of T-shirts, or maybe we use this with the hand towels in our kitchen. Instead of piling all the hand towels on top of one another, you arrange them side by side so you can see your whole gamut of things that you want to select from. And that’s a very handy tip as well, and we use that in our kitchen.

Pete Mockaitis
And I like, in particular, the ability to not have to make one hand into a levitating shelf to take the things that are up above it in the other hand to grab the thing that is now on the new top. And then things get a little bit disjointed along the way. So, I’m right with you. Well, it’s funny, we’re already talking about it. You’ve got a book, it’s called Hacking Life and I’m quite intrigued by your premises and your discoveries. So, maybe you can start us off by sharing what was one of the most striking and surprising discoveries you made when putting this together?

Joseph Reagle
Well, in the book, I’m looking at lifehackers and all the domains of life that they apply this hacking ethos to. So, it includes things like motivation, time management, productivity, health, material possessions. And when I got to relationships, I was looking at various types of people who use various tips and tricks for seduction, pickup artistry, for managing their marriage, the negotiation part of a relationship, as well as people just going online like OkCupid and trying to figure out how to get themselves to be able to be matched with people that they might like.

And there was a Wired article about this one hacker who hacked OkCupid and he created fake profiles, and he downloaded a bunch of information, and he kind of figured out the sort of women that he would be attracted to, and the sort of questions that they were interested in. And he ended up calling it a success, and he published a self-help book about how to hack OkCupid. And he went on 88 dates.

And when I talk about that with students, they’re like, “That doesn’t sound very successful,” but I teach in Communication Studies, and most of my students are women, and when they hack dating, they also add a filtration mechanism, interestingly enough, so they don’t have to go out with bozos and boneheads.

And then I came across someone else, another engineer who went on 150 dates in four months. And he spoke about—it was so tempting in this age, when we have all this technology and choice available to us, to try one more date, to get one more datapoint to figure out like who that perfect person would be. And that’s been leading me into some of the downsides, I think, in approaching life this way.

I’m very hackery myself. I think we can learn a lot. There’s a lot of handy tips and tricks, and they can even help us craft some meaning for our lives. But there are some excesses.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. However, I want to talk about some of your hackeriness, if that’s a word, as well as some of the pros and cons. But maybe just to make sure, from a language standpoint, we’re on the same page, what makes a lifehack a lifehack per se?

Joseph Reagle
Well, the term “hack” goes back, surprisingly, far amount of time. It emerged at MIT at their Tech Model Railroad Club. So, that was a very geeky    early electronics club at MIT in the late 1950s, and hacker culture emerged out of that. And they started accumulating a fair amount of jargon back then, and they put out a dictionary in 1959, and they said a hacker is the person who avoids the standard solution.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Joseph Reagle
More recently, the founder of LifeHacker.com, Gina Trapani, she wrote that as a computer engineer-type of person, she thinks about reprogramming the tasks of her life how she would a program. And her goal is to optimize them to make them a little faster and a little more efficient. So, the idea of lifehacking spans the mundane and include things like tying your shoelaces or folding your shirt, but it goes up to what I call meaning hacking, trying to find contentment in a life of uncertainty and loss. But all of these entail an appreciation of systems and employment of systems, maybe trying to figure out how to exploit those systems, to bend the rules so that you can be a little more efficient.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I mean, that sounds great to me. What are some of the downsides you’re unearthing here?

Joseph Reagle
Well, what I wanted to do in this book is not pillorize lifehacking. And people do sometimes, particularly cultural critics and academics. You know, they hold their nose when it comes to self-help, and I think lifehacking is a part of self-help. And there’s plenty of shade that people can throw at lifehacking as well.

But I didn’t want to do that because, as I just said, I’m geeky myself. But what I wanted to do was then draw some distinctions. So, let’s not throw lifehacking out altogether. Let’s figure out, are there ethical lifehacks and less ethical lifehacks? Are there different types of hacking? And I call them nominal and optimal hacking.

And I think, in this case, optimal hacking certainly has some excesses entailed. So, you might optimize a wrong thing. So, the example that I spoke of, of that hacker who went on 150 dates, I think he was optimizing for the wrong thing. He got fixated on the dates rather than the starting of a relationship. And when you approach life as a system that can be optimized, you do have the tendency to sometimes fall into this trap of what I call naïve optimization.

Pete Mockaitis
These are great distinctions I’m wrapping my brain around here. So, I got optimal hacking, where we’re seeking to optimize something. In that one case, he was optimizing such that he could get a bunch of dates. And what’s nominal hacking?

Joseph Reagle
Nominal hacking is an engineering term, and I could’ve used the word normal, but I didn’t for various reasons, because that’s loaded as well. But it’s the idea that you’re good enough. So, for example, I spoke to lots of folks in the quantified self-movement and lifehackers who might want to lose a little bit of weight, or who have migraines. And so, they’re not trying to like boost their brains like some lifehackers and biohackers take nootropics that supposedly make them smarter. That’s how Tim Ferriss actually got his start, selling a nootropic online.

They’re just trying to get back to a good enough sort of state. And I can appreciate that certainly because if people take some risks there, they’re doing it for a particular reason. But when people get too far down the line of optimizing, sometimes they’re putting themselves at risk for a very marginal gain. So, for example, one of the people I speak of is Seth Roberts, and he was very big in the Quantified Self movement when that started. And the Quantified Self movement is just like the number measurement fixated wing of lifehackers.

And he came up with, well, he discovered for himself that eating half a stick of butter everyday made him a little bit faster.

Pete Mockaitis
Faster, running? Thinking?

Joseph Reagle
Thinking. And so, he had a little program on his computer, and it would give him little math puzzles, and he would respond to them as quickly as he could, and he would chart and measure his response times and accuracy, and he would track that over the days so he could see when he was a little bit faster, or when he was a little bit slower.

And he, originally, had started eating a large amount of pig fat everyday to help with his sleep because he discovered that helped him by way of accident. But then eating pig fat everyday was difficult because you can’t really carry it around with you. But he discovered if you ate half a stick of butter, you can get butter even when you’re out at a restaurant. That helped with his sleep.

Pete Mockaitis
Butter, please.

Joseph Reagle
Yes, and it improved his mathematical abilities. And when he would give talks about this, he was like, “This is really great. This really works for me. I prefer to manage my own health in this way.” He didn’t really trust the medical establishment. And he wasn’t a kook. He was a professor of psychology. He worked on rat psychology, but he was very much into his own quantification and experimentation. And a cardiologist, in one of his talks, suggest that he might give himself a heart attack.

And the big irony here was that he started a column at The New York Observer, where he would write about his lifehacking and experiments on a monthly basis, maybe it was weekly. And his first column was his last column. It was entitled “Butter Makes Me Smarter.” And a couple of days before, he had had a heart attack.

So, I can’t say that eating half a stick of butter gave him a heart attack. He’s just a single person. But I think it speaks to some of the risks. Like, why eat half a stick of butter so that you’re a couple milliseconds faster on this trivial arbitrary sort of little quiz you setup for yourself?

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Yes, so that’s very clear, optimizing for the wrong thing. So, you’re a little quicker but your health is suffering, and so that’s not a great trade certainly. So, given that, how has your thinking evolved in terms of establishing whether a particular practice seems like a good idea or a bad idea?

Joseph Reagle
I don’t know if I can say beforehand something is great or something is really a bad idea, but I have some heuristics. And so, again, if you’re to push yourself to that leading edge, I think you need to ask yourself, “Am I focusing on one thing beyond all others?”

So, there’s a fellow by the name of Nick Winter, and he wrote this really nice little self-published book that you can buy on Amazon called Motivation Hacker. And he read all the popular literature, the pop science literature on motivation, on habit formation, on curing procrastination. And he thought, “Well, what happens if I could amplify all this to be absurdly productive?” And he used all these psychological techniques, and apps and hacks that were available to him, and he was savvy about it.

He did end up working 120-hour work weeks as for fun almost, but he also had to create goals for himself, like to go on so many dates with his then girlfriend, now wife, go out to be social with his friends like 10 times a week, make sure he was still doing his pushups and pullups and health regime. So, that works for him. And you can go to a webpage, he dynamically, in live time, has a webpage where he charts his productivity and the hours he has spent coding. And he plots it against his running average over days, and months, and weeks. But at least he was cognizant of the fact that he had other things that he needed to keep his eye on, and he didn’t just focus on and fixate on productivity.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you know, what’s interesting is, as you talk about that life and that quantification and striving to sort of beat it and have it at the top, I mean, it’s interesting because I love spreadsheets for all sorts of things. And I have quantified a number of things in my day that most people don’t bother or would find excessive or over the top.

But, as I think about and imagine that scenario, it seems to me a real risk would be just a sense that your, I don’t know, meaning, or your value, or your purpose, or all that matters is that which is you are quantifying, charting, publishing, which can kind of suck you into some, I think maybe really, depressing places. Is that kind of what some patterns that you’re seeing in your research here?

Joseph Reagle
Oh, definitely. So, I have the chapters on hacking time, hacking motivation, material possessions, and you can almost see a progression of people looking for contentment. So, people think, “If I can be super-efficient, then I will be happy. I will be content.” And it turns out that’s not necessarily the case for a lot of people. They realize, “I still am not happy. I climbed to the top of my hierarchy at my work, I make a lot of money, and I bought a house. Now, I have all this stuff, and that’s making me anxious.”

So, then, you can look at the digital minimalist, another wing of lifehacking, and they decided, “Well, why don’t I do another experiment? Why don’t I get rid of everything except a hundred things?” So, there is the hundred things challenge, and some people did 99 things, and some people did 50 things. And that worked for some people for a time, and some people still lived that very minimalist life. But one of the people I spoke to, it’s a pseudonym, but I had been following her, and she, again, had had a breakdown, had a good job but very stressful, ended up on the floor in a pool of tears, that’s how she spoke about it. And quit the job, sold everything except what she could fit in a backpack and traveled the world writing about digital minimalism.

And, after a year or so, she quit it all. And I found that out because I was checking some of my sources for the book, and all her webpages were gone, and her e-book was gone, and her Twitter account was gone. But, fortunately, I still had contact information, and I said, “Now, what happened? Where did it all go?” And she said, “Well, everyone was doing the same thing, all shouting about how happy and content they were, and how awesome this was, but it just started to ring hollow,” and she got out of it.

And so, that’s the chapter on material possessions. And then there is a chapter on health and relationships, then ultimately meaning. Like, when you realize that none of those things will necessarily guarantee you happiness and contentment, when you realize that life, even perfectly optimized, is still likely to throw you some disappointments and loss. What do you do? And that’s the next to the last chapter when people start pulling from stoicism and mindfulness and Zen Buddhism in particular among lifehackers.

Pete Mockaitis
Fascinating. So, yeah, I can see how that really makes sense in that, just like, “Okay, if I could just do a little more, a little more, a little more of efficiency, or productivity, or production of stuff, then I’ll arrive.” And it’s like, “Oh, wait a second. It can’t get any more optimal than this and you’re still not doing it.”

Joseph Reagle
So what do you do then?

Pete Mockaitis
Bummer! A realization. And so, well, I mean, that’s a big question. Now, what do you do?

Joseph Reagle
Well, one of the parallels I draw, I found this really interesting in the meaning hacking chapter, was that people do, are very fond of the Zen minimalist sort of aesthetic, and mindfulness is really big in Silicon Valley. There’s a conference every year called Wisdom 2.0 where they bring in Google and a bunch of tech companies and all the mindfulness gurus.

And people pick and choose in various aspects of religions, and it tends to be very individualistic, and we’ll hear people talking about how like Tim Ferriss will talk about mindfulness as an efficient operating system for the brain. There’s a fellow who started at Google, he wrote a book and he has a non-profit called Search Inside Yourself because he started at Google, so he’s playing on this search thing. And he wrote about how EQ is great for your engineers’ and your techies’ and your employees’ emotional intelligence.

And the employees know the more EQ they have, the more money they’ll make, and so they’ll be happier at the companies. And that just seems very crass. And so, people get frustrated with that. And, again, the ironic parallel is Siddhartha, the original Buddha, started out living a life of extreme luxury. His father was the king, his mother the queen, he was provided with everything a young man could be provided with: money, exotic foods, courtesans.

And he woke up one morning and he just said, “I am not happy. I am not content.” He became a minimalist. He went out, traveled around, taught and learned from a lot of yogis. He became very extreme. He tried to optimize his asceticism, nearly starved himself to death, passed out, was revived by a young girl who fed him some rice milk, and realized, “Huh, maybe what I need to do is pursue the middle way, the middle path, the path of moderation.”

And so, wow, that’s the insight. Maybe being super extreme about optimizing everything is not the solution. Maybe moderation is good in all things. And that’s the neat thing about lifehacking as a type of self-help. A lot of the genuine bits of wisdom and insight that people do come to have been around for centuries, if not millennia. But what self-help does is it wraps up those bits of wisdom, those bits of insight, into a vocabulary that people in a current moment, in a current culture can understand.

So, what lifehacking really is it’s a type of self-help, for what’s been called, you know, the geek class, the engineers, the techies, the creative class, the people who aren’t on someone else’s clock but they still have a lot to do. And they have to figure out, “Well, how in this world of increased demands and expectations on your intention, but also increased distractions, how can you possibly focus?”

And so, lifehacking, as a type of self-help, says, “Here are some lessons that have been around for a while, like the middle path, the middle way, making sure you connect with your family and friends, and you don’t forget about it, making sure that when you schedule your day, you give yourself time to do meaningful long-term stuff, that you give yourself time to maybe be spiritual, or spend time with your friends and relations, and it couches it in contemporary terms.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I appreciate, Joseph, you’ve also given me a prescription for a bestseller, just to go ahead and find some ancient wisdom and package it in modern terms, and that seems to be a winning formula.

Joseph Reagle
That’s what self-help is. It’s always being done actually.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, all right. Well, that gets me all the more motivated to finish off Plutarch’s Lives and any other books that are on my shelf that I haven’t built in meaningful time to tackle just yet. Well, that’s really cool. So, getting acquainted then, or having covered these kinds of cautionary bits, and getting a broader perspective on what we’re really going for, I do want to touch base on a little bit of tactical stuff. What have you discovered have been, for many practitioners, some pretty excellent habits, or approaches, or hacks when it comes to time?

Joseph Reagle
One of the insights I came to in doing this work, and again this has been around for a while. There is a theorist, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, Schelling, who came up with this idea of Egonomics. And decades ago, he said that there’s a lot of things that we would like to do, but that we don’t do. And the Greeks even spoke of this as “akrasia.” We do things that we shouldn’t do, and we don’t do the things we should do.

So, one of the things that I take advantage of is called the Pomodoro technique. And “pomodoro” is the Italian word for tomato, and the guy who came up with it just happened to have a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato.

And the idea is that when you have a long-term task that you want to do or go on, like I want to write a chapter for a book, getting started writing a chapter of a book is daunting. It’s very hard to motivate yourself. So, what you can do is you can say, “I’m just going to set this timer for 40 minutes, and I’m going to sit down, and I’m just going to look at that page in front of me, I’m not going to allow myself to get distracted. But after the 40 minutes, I can take a short break.”

And that allows you to get over that hump of, “Oh, my gosh, I could never start this big project that I’ve been worrying about and thinking about.” And so, that’s one of the techniques I love. On the cover of my book, under the title, there is a little Pomodoro tomato timer. I don’t know how many people will get that, but that’s what it is. And I also glitched it up a little bit to show there might be a dark side or some excesses.

Pete Mockaitis
So, the Pomodoro, you are a fan there. And so that is, I believe, 25 minutes is the time there.

Joseph Reagle
I think that’s how it was started. I tend to do 45 to 50 minutes for writing.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very good. And so, that you found to be good and workable and helpful in your world.

Joseph Reagle
I do. And, again, the interesting thing is it’s not so much a time management. It’s really a self-management tool. Because time really is what time is. You can’t do a lot with it. The real challenge is motivating ourselves. An economist from a couple of decades ago, who won a Nobel Prize, actually called this Egonomics. He proposed a new field of study for ways that we might understand the economics of our own self-regulation, the sort of economy of our desires and wants.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is fascinating. Can you share perhaps an insight or takeaway or two from that study?

Joseph Reagle
Well, he didn’t do a study. He wrote an essay where he was proposing this sort of study. And some of the examples he used back then was, he says, “Well, people do things to keep themselves from smoking cigarettes, or biting their nails.” Like, people would paint some disgusting nail polish on their nails so they would taste it. Or, if you have poison ivy, you put gloves on your fingers. And so, he said, “Just as a real economics, you see these exchanges and tensions, we grapple with these within ourselves.”

And, interestingly, if we go back even further, the Greeks spoke about this. They had a term for it called akrasia. And that was that frustration related to doing things that you shouldn’t do, and not doing things that you should do. And the classic example for that is Ulysses. He wanted to hear the sirens when he and his sailors were sailing by, but he knew that if everyone heard the sirens, they would be pulled to their death on the rocks. So, what did he do? He had himself tied to the mast, and could listen to the sirens, had the men put wax in all their ears so they couldn’t hear the sirens, and he could enjoy it but he knew he wouldn’t go crazy.

And, in economics, they call those Ulysses pacts, or—Ulysses is another name for Odysseus. And what you do is you commit yourself to something that it’s not easy to back away from. So, earlier I mentioned Nick Winter and his book, The Motivation Hacker, and he’s really fond of this app called Beeminder. Now, this would never work for me, but the app, what it does is it asks you to commit a certain amount of money to a task. And if you don’t do that task you forfeit the money.

So, you might say, “I want to work for 50 minutes to get started on my chapter today,” you set your Pomodoro timer. But what’s going to keep you from getting distracted? Well, there are some tools like Freedom that can keep you from going to Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram. But you could also set a little goal on Beeminder that says you’re going to lose $10 if you fail to satisfy your Ulysses pact, your commitment.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And so, I guess then you just have to be honest.

Joseph Reagle
You do.

Pete Mockaitis
You could go back in there and say I did or did not do that thing.

Joseph Reagle
That’s the question. Like, “Well, why would anyone not just lie and not lose the money?” But the thing that I encountered when I spoke to users of this application is that, one, they have this app very much integrated into their lives and their quantifications, so they really want good, accurate data for like how many words they wrote in a day, or how many Pomodoros they did, or whatever it is that they’re trying to do. And they don’t like to have their data distorted, and that’s helping them manage their data.

And then, two, they really appreciate the service. And so, they’re happy. Like, if you have a habit you really want to create, spending 10, and then if you fail, 20, it doubles. Spending that amount of money is worth it to you. And they very cleverly designed the app such that you end up paying the least money that’s still worth what that task is worth to you.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow. How do you arrive at such a figure?

Joseph Reagle
They’ve done some research. The company is a joint effort of two folks, Bethany Soule, who has a graduate degree in Computer Science, and Danny Reeves who has a PhD in Economics and Incentive Systems. And they have applied that economic quantified approach to the whole of their lives. I talk about their marriage in the chapter on hacking relationships.

And they bid for things in their relationship, like who’s going to take out the trash tonight. The one person might say, “Well, I would give you $2,” and the other person will say, “Well, I’d give you $3.” And so, the person might, “Okay, I’ll take the $3.” And for them, from an economic point of view, it’s very efficient because the person who least wanted to do it didn’t have to do it, and the person who got the most value of it did it. So they have a very unusual but interesting approach to life.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And I guess, again, you need to be honest, like, “Oh, boy, I’d give you $500.” It’s like getting you trump, trump, trump, trumping them each time with a huge sum. But I guess that’s part of the marriage game is being honest and forthright and not trying to game the system there.

Joseph Reagle
Yeah, and they do exchange the money, they do have a hack on top of that, so they don’t exchange every single interaction they have. They only record and exchange money every 10 of these interactions, but then they multiply that interaction by 10. So, if it was $3 to take out the trash, it’d be worth $30. And it’s very unusual and they received some criticisms out there on the web.

But unlike some of the other excesses and unsavory hacking, at least they’re trying to be fair, at least it’s very explicit. They call it, you know, they are respecting one another’s utility curves. They’re not being exploitative. And I think you can find that in some other instances of lifehacking.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, respecting each other’s utility curves sure sounds romantic.

Joseph Reagle
Yes, that’s what some of the folks said, like, “This doesn’t sound like a real relationship.” And it’s definitely unusual, but it works for them. And when I tried to apply those distinctions of this, if it’s ethical or not, it seems above board.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly. And I’m sort of being a little cheeky with the actual words that phonetically you don’t sound romantic, but the concept, I think, really is in terms of being thoughtful about each other’s needs, and also somehow balancing your own stuff. And it reminds me back in the day when I had three roommates, and then we had four rooms in the apartment that were all a little bit different in terms of their pros and cons, with their space, and they have their own bathroom, etc. And it’s like, “Well, okay, how are we going to divide up this rent?”

And that was the game we played. It’s like, “Okay, you’d like the big room. Gotcha. And just how much would you be willing to pay in rent for that big room?” And so, by iteratively going through this, it worked out just right. It turns out I was a bit more frugal and I had the small room with a small rent, and the lawyer and the doctor, you know, they were living larger, and it was good and fine that way.

Joseph Reagle
Yes, it can be efficient. Of course, there are some downsides and they’ve had to think about that in the context of their relationship. So, she’s the only one that could actually be pregnant and have the kids. So, what is the value? Let’s say, for example, one of them was in school while the other person was working. And so, they had to figure out, like, “What is the value of these things?“

Their first daughter’s name was Fair, and they actually bid between themselves when they name the kid, and Fair won. And it went for a couple of thousand dollars between them. And, again, it’s very unusual, but at least, for them, those things weren’t taken for granted. I think that’s preferable to a relationship where you just assume, “Oh, you’re going to get pregnant and you’re going to stay home with the kids, and I’ll be earning the money and have plenty of spending money.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well said. Well said. Well, tell me, any final thoughts about lifehacking, great practices, how professionals might use some of this wisdom to accelerate their own ends?

Joseph Reagle
I would recommend people experiment with various things, but they need to ask themselves two questions, well, more than two questions, but let’s focus with two questions. When you go out and you buy a bit of self-help, whether about it’s productivity or minimizing and getting around the clutter, you’ll have to think about, “Well, compared to what? Is this technique going to be cost effective? Is it likely to be efficacious? And are there any side effects or harms?”

And I think if you’re attracted to something, and you can ask yourself those questions, and all that seems to bear out, I think it’s worthwhile trying while you’re also keeping yourself in check with respect to some of the excesses that fall from optimization.

Pete Mockaitis
Well-summarized. Thank you. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Joseph Reagle
Sure. So, one of my favorite books on time management, and again that’s a bit of a misnomer because it’s really about managing ourselves, was Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. And that was real popular back in the ‘80s, and even the ‘90s, but now other books like Ferriss’ 4-Hour Workweek, I think more people are probably familiar with. But he had this great quote, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

And that’s because, I think, someone was telling me like Elon Musk has a calendar where he schedules every five minutes of his day, and I think that would drive most people nuts. That would not be effective for most people. And what Covey is suggesting instead is if you do want to prioritize having time to think about the long term, the things that are of high value to you, things in your personal life that you want to make sure that there’s room for, schedule your priorities.

Pete Mockaitis
Well said.

Joseph Reagle
Don’t fixate on your calendar and making sure that every five-minute chunk of your calendar is full.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite study or a bit of research?

Joseph Reagle
This might not be appropriate because I know you’re looking for probably a study that tells you how to be more effective. But there’s a study I really like in terms of critical thinking, and it’s a follow-up to the marshmallow study. Pete, have you ever heard of the marshmallow study?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, right, Walter Mischel. It’s a fave. Did he do this one or was someone else building off that work?

Joseph Reagle
The follow-up was in 2012.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s hear it.

Joseph Reagle
So, the original one has been made use of a lot by people who were into like grit, and motivation, and sticking to it. And this study from decades ago was done by placing a marshmallow in front of a child, and they’d say to the kid, “You could have this marshmallow now or, if you wait, and I go look for more marshmallows and I come back in 10 minutes and you haven’t eaten the marshmallow, you can have two marshmallows.”

And so, in the study, they looked at the kids who ate the marshmallows immediately, and they looked at the kids who could persevere and hold off and be patient and wait for that second marshmallow. And then the interesting things is they tracked some of the indicators of those peoples’ lives as they move through their lives. And so, how did they do in school? Like, what was their SAT scores? Did they get a good job? Did they end up buying a house? You know, all those sort of things. Did they end up in a good relationship? And they found a very strong correlation between the people who were able to persevere and be patient, and those outcomes from later on in life, the good outcomes.
And for many decades, people then thought, “Well, if you want to raise kids, or if you want to do well in your life, you really need to learn how to persevere.” And the slight downside was that sometimes it led to the implication that if you ended up in life in a place where you didn’t really want to be, or if people fared poorly in life, it was their own fault because they didn’t have enough grit, and we just need to teach kids to have more grit.

Well, the study from 2012 added a step before the marshmallow. And the proctors of the study would do something with crayons. Before the marshmallow step, they’d bring out some dumpy crayons, half-used crayons, not a lot of shades of color, and they tell the kids, “Here are some crayons if you’d like to color in this book here. But I have a better brand-new set of crayons available if you’re willing to wait.” And they did the same thing. They said, “Would you be willing to wait and I’ll bring you back a nicer set of crayons?”

They went off and then the proctors came back and did one of two things. They said, “Oh, I forgot the really nice crayons. I’m so sorry,” or they gave them the good crayons. And so, the proctors were unreliable or reliable. Then they did the marshmallow study. And it turns out that when the kids had been exposed to an unreliable proctor, they did not get the nice new crayons, they ate that marshmallow right away.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and that liar is not going to come back with two marshmallows.

Joseph Reagle
Yes, exactly right. And so, this is really nice evidence that it wasn’t necessarily the kids’ grit and perseverance, maybe these kids had a lot of siblings. And if you have a lot of brothers and sisters, you know you can’t leave that marshmallow sitting there. Or maybe they grew up in an impoverished family. And maybe those with the things that correlated with later-in-life outcomes, rather than in any essentialist kind of notion of grit and internal stick-it-to-it-ness.

Pete Mockaitis
That is clever.

Joseph Reagle
Yeah, so I really like that study because I think, again, it’s great for critical thinking. I use it with my students a lot. And it also is a bit of a caution with respect to some of the self-help advice we get, which is very individualistic, pull yourself up by your boot straps kind of stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Joseph Reagle
I should’ve mentioned this earlier but there’s a great book on stoicism when you’re asking about that by William Irvine, called A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. And it really is, as you suggested, an up-to-date version of the ancient stoic philosophy. And so, he talks about how it emerged, and some of the differences between the Greek and the Roman. But the important thing is he says this is practical philosophy which isn’t taught in universities anymore. Now, it’s very formal, kind of a lot of history and theory.

But philosophy was supposed to be practical. It was supposed to give you some suggestions to provide guidance on how to live a good life. And I find Irvine’s book “A Guide to the Good Life” is full of really wonderful insights that are very applicable to the current day, to our immediate lives.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Joseph Reagle
Well, one of the things that’s just built into my personality, though I think it can also be developed, is I document everything. I’ve been blogging forever, microblogging forever. I have a mind map called Freeplane that I really like to use, so all my reading that’s going to Freeplane. I’m really fond of this application called Zim Wiki. It’s a personal Wiki, so you can just easily create pages, and tasks, and to dates. Maybe if people are familiar with Evernote, it’s kind of like that, but I like Zim Wiki a lot more.

So, I don’t have a very good memory, so whenever I need to remind myself or something or think about. Last time, I had to submit my expenses because we use this awful software in my work. Well, with the steps that I went through to make it work, and I have it all documented there, so I really love those sort of tools.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And a favorite habit?

Joseph Reagle
A favorite habit? I ask myself, “Would I be happier person in the future if I did the thing that I’m waffling about doing?” So, maybe it’s brushing my teeth, or going to meditation, or whatever it might be, I try to think about my future self and whether he would be content and proud of the present self.

Pete Mockaitis
That is excellent. Thank you. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with readers or listeners?

Joseph Reagle
This idea that self-optimizing can be suboptimal. I wrote a piece for The Guardian. That number, like a colleague just emailed me earlier today, saying, oh, she really loved that piece, and she wants to use it in her course.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Joseph Reagle
You can go to my website reagale.org, and I’m also jmreagale on Twitter.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Joseph Reagle
That’s a little bit difficult because then I would be setting myself up as a sort of self-help guru, which I’m being a little bit critical of. But I think people should be mindful of not only what they’re doing but why they’re doing it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Joseph, thank you so much. This has been a whole lot of fun. I wish you all the best with your lifehacking and optimally optimizing and falling into suboptimality. It’s been a lot of fun.

Joseph Reagle
Thank you, Pete.

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