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Episode Transcript

DUBNER: Angela Duckworth.

DUCKWORTH: Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: We’ve been making this podcast for about seven months, and we’re about to publish, here, our first ever repeat because of the holiday. You okay with that? 

DUCKWORTH: With a rerun? Yeah, I’m all right with that.

DUBNER: I was thinking, though instead of calling it a rerun, I wonder if we should rebrand it. If we should psychologically manipulate our listeners into thinking that this perhaps familiar episode is the way that Love Actually is for you. Maybe even better. 

DUCKWORTH: Better and better and better. Yeah, why don’t we call it like, No Stupid Questions, Actually. 

DUBNER: I can’t improve upon that. But Angela, I will say, in all seriousness, it’s been a lot of fun doing this with you, and I hope you have a great break with your family. 

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I want to tell you that I’m going to miss you.

DUBNER: Aw, it’s nice of you to say. 

DUCKWORTH: Aw. 

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: how much of your life is in your control?

DUCKWORTH: My teacher’s unfair. They’re always picking on me. And I get all these marks on my record, and then I can’t go on the field trip.

Also: why do we procrastinate and how can we stop?

DUCKWORTH: I don’t want to do that. I really don’t want to do that. 

*      *      *

Stephen J. DUBNER: Angela, my question for you today is really hard, but perhaps important enough to wrestle with. Are you up for it? 

 Angela DUCKWORTH: Of course. 

DUBNER: Okay. This question arose when I was reading Maria Konnikova‘s new book, The Biggest Bluff. So Maria, like you, has a Ph.D. in psychology. But she’s not an academic. She’s a writer. And this book is about her quest to become a professional poker player, starting from scratch. So, we made a Freakonomics Radio episode about her book that was called “How to Make Your Own Luck.” And really what Maria is wrestling with throughout that book is the relationship between luck and skill. She’s doing it in the context of poker, but it’s easy to extrapolate into our daily lives. So, here’s the passage that made me think of you. “There’s an idea in psychology,” she writes, “first introduced by Julian Rotter in 1966 called the ‘locus of control.’ When something happens in the external environment, is it due to our own actions — in other words, skill — or some outside factor, chance? People who have an internal locus of control tend to think that they affect outcomes, often more than they actually do. Whereas people who have an external locus of control, think that what they do doesn’t matter too much. Events will be what they will be. Typically, an internal locus will lead to greater success. People who think they control events are mentally healthier and tend to take more control over their fate, so to speak. Meanwhile, people with an external locus are more prone to depression and, when it comes to work, a more lackadaisical attitude.” So, Angela, my question has two parts. One, is it indeed better to generally have an internal locus of control, as Maria Konnikova writes? And if so, if I am more inclined toward the external, if I tend to feel life is more happening to me rather than me making it happen, how can I shift to have a more internal locus of control? 

DUCKWORTH: It’s a great passage from a great book, from a great author. So, I’m glad to be asked this question. I am going to throw in a bonus answer here. You didn’t ask me if I had an internal locus of control. 

DUBNER: No, I know where your locus of control is.  

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, you probably do know where it is. I have an internal locus of control. And yes, it is generally a good thing. It correlates positively with just about every life outcome you can think of: income, and well-being, and not going to jail, etc.  

DUBNER: I guess my suspicion, the counter, would be that it might also correlate with things like arrogance and narcissism. In other words, no characteristic that we think of is unabated good all the time, obviously. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, you’re right that it can’t be a complete recipe for a good human. And there might be instances in which it could be bad. I am not aware of a lot of research on the downsides of an internal locus of control. In my data, when I measure things that are conceptually siblings to locus of control — like growth mindset, or self-efficacy, or optimism — I don’t find negative correlations with good things. Now, that might be because I’m studying teenagers, and maybe I’m not measuring all the right outcomes. 

DUBNER: So, I would have imagined that your answer would be something along the lines of, “Well, of course, you want to have an internal locus of control when you’re talking about things that you actually can control. But it’s really, really important to acknowledge that despite your best efforts or maybe despite your worst actions, that there’s going to be a lot of countervailing activity from institutions, or societies, systemic things, other people, and so on, that you can’t control.” So, that’s, I guess, the answer I was expecting to hear. But it sounds like you’re saying that the more internal you have, at least for teenagers who you’ve studied, the better it is. Yes? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I mean, you asked me a really straightforward question, which is: what’s the correlation? Is it positive? Is it negative? And the answer is also simple, which is: it’s positive. But I think we should move on to the more interesting question. More than thinking about what’s the downside, I do think we should think: is it a fully accurate view of the world to think that you can control what happens to you? Or are people who are very aware of all the things like luck, and social inequality, and racism, and the list goes on — is that a more accurate view of the world? The idea of locus of control goes all the way back, as you said, to Rotter, in the 60s, when he was developing this idea it was really on the heels of behaviorism, where the idea that you would even have any thoughts in your head, expectations about the future, that didn’t really matter, because we were basically all just animals responding in very mechanical ways to stimuli, punishments, rewards, etc. 

DUBNER: Is that really true? As recently as the 1960s, you’re saying, that was the standard school of thought? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, certainly, the early 20th century was definitely behaviorism. And it was pretty dominant. And that’s why when you have a psychologist like Rotter and then, also Al Bandura, who is still with us — he’s in his 90s and at Stanford — he has a very similar idea called self-efficacy. They wanted to make the point that people are not just lab rats responding to rewards and punishments. They are thinking. And they’re projecting into the future and wondering, “If I do this, is it going to pay off?” It really was a conception of human nature which was much more agentic. Having agency, and having freewill, and having an influence on your future, as opposed to just, “Oh, when the environment does this, I do that.” That’s not just stimulus response. 

DUBNER: May I once again express my surprise, and I would say borderline exasperation, at the idea that it wasn’t until the early or even mid-20th century that psychologists came to the conclusion that people, as you put it, make sense of their environment and forecast into the future. 

DUCKWORTH: Have thoughts.

DUBNER: Does everything we know, even about the ancients, not persuade us that people have been thinking about this for millennia?  

DUCKWORTH: Well, I think what happened is that when behaviorism had its heyday with Skinner at Harvard and the major figures in experimental psychology all testing lab rats, and shocking them, and feeding them, and seeing how well they could move around lab rat behavior, I think maybe we did go too far and say, “Oh, everything is about stimulus and response. Everything is about reward and punishment.” It was also a little bit of a desire to be like physics, where there were these laws, and the laws were very elegant and simple. There were only three variables in the equation. So, it’s true that probably before this early-20th-century movement, most human beings would say, as a matter of common sense, “Of course, we have thoughts. Of course, we have interpretations of a reality and hopes and dreams and insecurities — and all of those things will determine what we do.” 

DUBNER: Okay. So, Skinner and his cohort made us throw our common sense in the trash for a decade or a few decades, maybe.  

DUCKWORTH: Well, it’s not that Skinner was wrong. It’s true that in some ways we are very much reacting to where we’ve been rewarded, where we’ve been punished. I think where behaviorism went too far is to say, “That’s all there is.” If you paid me a million dollars to eat a bag of black jelly beans, I’ll hate it, but I’ll do it anyway. So, everybody responds to incentives and punishments. But to go so far as to think that we’re just like lab rats and even lab rats are just like machines — you put an input and then the output comes out. That was not correct. 

DUBNER: Okay. So, you say that generally now, for teenagers especially, but for most of us, an internal locus of control is desired. You wanted to give some more nuance about what that is or isn’t?

DUCKWORTH: Well, I’ll say this. In the measures of locus of control, one of the very popular ways to measure it is you give people a forced choice. You get a bad grade on a test. A, you didn’t study enough. B, the test was unfair. And this forced choice is supposed to get to your inclinations. In an ambiguous situation, where are you biased? Are you biased to think that the outcome was mostly of your own doing, or mostly outside of your control? And I just don’t want people to come away from this conversation thinking that believing that everything is under your control is a good thing, because it’s just not. That can’t be an accurate world view. And it’s kind of obviously a dysfunctional view. Say, for example, I have a miscarriage. You don’t want to misunderstand that as something that I could have prevented, when in almost all cases, you can’t. So, I just want to give that nuance. But in the measurement of it, you force people into this black or white view in order to reveal their underlying biases. 

DUBNER: So, let’s take that experimental situation. Let’s say you’re the kid, and you just did really poorly on a test. You have a choice there. You can assume the test was unfair, the teacher didn’t teach it well, or that it was more you. So, let’s say you’re taking the external route. Bad teacher, unfair, too hard a test. You’re saying people would benefit from being more internal. How can you move across that border? 

DUCKWORTH: If you are a 15-year-old who gets a C-minus on their Algebra II exam — if your thinking is, “It’s all the teacher’s fault; I hate this class,” I do think that is not going to be a productive line of thought. I think the most productive thing is to “control the controllables.” What you want to do is have two categories in your mind. Here are the things that I can control. Here are the things that I can’t control. But I know there’s not an empty column for things I can control and therefore, I’m going to choose to allocate my finite amount of energy and attention to those things that are in the column of things I can control. 

DUBNER: Can you give me an example of a thing that many people might think they can’t control, but that you, Angela Duckworth, think you can? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, just to extend the 15-year-old example. I actually have surveyed lots of kids, and I’ve asked them questions like: what wishes do you have? And kids can write down anything. And they tell us they want to go on the field trip. Well, that was a pre-pandemic wish. But, you ask them: what’s the obstacle that stands in the way? Why do you think you might not be able to go? And then kids will say, “Oh, well, my teacher’s unfair. They’re always picking on me. And I get all these marks on my record, and then I can’t go on the field trip.” And that’s an example of a situation where I don’t even know this teacher or the situation. It could be true that the teacher does pick on this kid a lot. But I think it is nevertheless beneficial to say, assuming that’s all true, “Is there anything that you have control over, that you can then work on?” And that is a longer conversation. There’s usually a pause as the student thinks for the first time, “I don’t know; what can I do?” And then, eventually, most 15-year-olds, in my experience, are able to say things like, “Well, I guess I could also do my homework.” And then, we start to talk about when and where they’re going to start doing their homework and why they don’t do that as often as they need to. 

DUBNER: Okay. So, do either of those things — identifying, and thinking through the obstacle, and then really pondering what they could do to make the obstacle smaller — do either of those contribute to a long-term, or even a short-term change, from external to internal locus of control for these kids? 

DUCKWORTH: Yes. And I’ve done some of this with Gabriele Oettingen, the N.Y.U. psychologist. In our joint work, but also in her more extensive research, what she finds is that when you ask somebody about a wish that they have, and then you first ask them: why do you have that wish? And they tell you all the wonderful things that will happen if they do end up doing better in this class, or if they are working out more often. And then, after people identify an obstacle, should that obstacle be something which is outside of their control, gently, but pretty persistently, Gabriele will bring them back to objects that they can control that might be contributing to their lack of progress on this wish. And that has shown, in her random assignment experiments, to increase goal achievement. Because people, having identified an obstacle, can now make a plan to get over it or around it. And in two-year studies, she’s found that, for example, when you do this with people who are trying to eat more vegetables, even over the next two years, they will eat healthier. So, it’s not just a very quick fix.  

DUBNER: Let me ask you one last question on this topic. I’m curious about the modern conception of internal versus external locus of control, versus the ancients’. Obviously, there were a lot of things that were different. There was a lot of science that didn’t exist. So, you could see how you might be much more susceptible to thinking that things were happening to you 2,000, 5,000 years ago, than you making them happen. I get that. But do you feel we’ve perhaps tipped a bit too far in some ways? In that many, many people seem to feel that they should be able to have a lot more control driven by themselves, even though there are a lot of other people out there who have their own wants, and needs and institutions and society at large limit the ability of any one person to make happen what they might want to make happen. That wasn’t so much a question as a kind of cranky old man observation, so de-crankify me. 

DUCKWORTH: I want to be cranky with you, if that’s okay. So I do believe that focusing on things that you can control is helpful, because what else are you going to do? And frankly, the column of things that you can’t control is never completely empty or rarely so. But I do think there’s two cautionary notes that I’d like to be cranky about with you. One is, and it’s kind of personal, but I’m going to share. So, I used the miscarriage example as a hypothetical. But I did actually have a miscarriage. I now have two healthy daughters, but I remember calling my mom and saying, “I had a miscarriage. I’m — ” I don’t know what I said. I was devastated. I’m sure I was crying. And my mom started telling me about things that I should’ve, could’ve, would’ve done to prevent this miscarriage. And I was like, “Mom, actually, just so you know, largely these are not within the mother’s control.” And I do think it didn’t even occur to her that there could be circumstances beyond my control. So, that’s a personal note. But let me give you a social science example, which I think is really sobering. So, Sule Alan is a great economist and she did this random assignment study in Turkey, which is her native country. And what she taught kids was basically to have a growth mindset, to believe that their abilities could change, and to have grit. So, she did this week-long training for teachers. And the teachers had a curriculum and then they taught it to these kids. And the random assignment experiment was to ask: does that treatment actually change outcomes for the children? And in some of the ways that are very similar to what we were just talking about, yes. In fact, on standardized tests, even up to two years later, kids who are taught essentially to believe in their abilities, their destiny, they actually did better. So far it sounds like a fairy tale. So far it sounds like, “Yay, internal locus of control!”

DUBNER: All right. Bring on the villain. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, well, here’s the subplot. So, these same children who now are working harder and then doing better academically, they’re asked in the study whether they want to share a toy that they’ve been given as a prize. Do they want to share it with other children? Now, if they are told that the other children were in schools where they weren’t part of the same contest, then the kids are just as generous as the kids in the control condition. So far, still a fairy tale. But if there’s some ambiguity about whether the kids that they would be gifting this to could have maybe earned it on their own, then the kids are more selfish. And one could imagine this at the policy level as a kind of insensitivity to circumstances that are beyond the individual’s control. When, for example, you’re living in poverty and someone says, “You know — ” 

DUBNER: “If only you’d work a little bit harder.”

DUCKWORTH: Exactly. And it just suggests to me that we have to be very careful in how we encourage kids to think about their agency and their ability to make their lives better. Because while I do want everyone in the world to believe that there is something that they can do, I definitely don’t want anyone in the world to think that there aren’t real structural problems that you just don’t know about. 

DUBNER: What you’re saying really, especially when it comes to policy-making, is that what it really is, is an argument for understanding cause and effect better.  

DUCKWORTH: In all its complexity. 

DUBNER: In all of its complexity, which is something that societally, I feel, is one of the things that we do quite poorly. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, gosh. Horrifically badly.

DUBNER: And I blame our beloved media. I blame our beloved politicians. I even blame people, like you and me, whose jobs it is really to teach people about this, because plainly we’re not doing a very good job. So here’s to continuing our extremely uphill battle.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss how to tackle that project that you’ve been putting off for weeks.

DUCKWORTH: So, an example would be, you’re writing a book. And it’s just, oh, the dread.

DUBNER: My stomach hurts the minute you say those words. 

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I have a question for you.  

DUBNER: I’ll answer it. 

DUCKWORTH: And I want you to answer it right away. And that is: do you procrastinate? And if you do, why?

DUBNER: As Mark Twain once said, maybe — I mean, half the quotes attributed to Twain have nothing to do with Twain. But anyway, as he may have said, “Why put off till tomorrow what you can put off till the day after tomorrow?” So, do I procrastinate, how much, and why? Yes, of course I do, but much less than I used to.  

DUCKWORTH: In your callow youth. 

DUBNER: So, I think the why — and maybe I’m wrong. You’ll tell me. You’re the psychologist. But the why is usually tied to a fear of some kind. It’s not a laziness. It’s not about time management. It’s more about emotional regulation. 

DUCKWORTH: Can you give me an example?

DUBNER: Yeah. For instance, let’s say I have a week where I have a lot of work that I care about, like writing Freakonomics Radio, and maybe I’m writing some book chapter or something. So, that’s the kind of work that over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at not procrastinating at. But if there’s also a 10-page form that somebody sends me that has to be filled out for media insurance, that’s the kind of thing that I dread and procrastinate. And I think about it, and it’s like, why? It’s so stupid. It’s not that hard. Although, to be fair, a lot of paperwork of that sort is written in a way that makes me just want to jump off a bridge, because it’s painful to read. It’s so bad and confusing. But I think the reason that I procrastinate things generally is because they are intimidating or novel, and they seem like they are going to be really difficult and painful. And in fact, once you actually do them, they’re often not as bad. So, that’s the why. I’m constantly trying to train myself to, rather than procrastinate by keeping something at arm’s length, at least take a look at it, and try to get it in my brain, and get it cogitating, and get myself to believe that, “You know what? When I do have the time to attack this, it’s probably not going to be as difficult as I think or as gruesome as I think.” 

DUCKWORTH: So, you said that in your youth, you procrastinated more. Was it different then? Were you actually, in part, procrastinating because you were just lazy or not good at managing time? Or has it always been that it’s this emotional charge, that you’re trying to avoid a dread of some kind? 

DUBNER: So, I think there are two reasons for why I procrastinate less now than I did then. One is experience. I mean, it’s one of the better things about getting older — maybe the best thing about getting older — is that you actually can look back through your mental file and remember the times that you profited from not procrastinating or suffered from procrastinating. And I can definitely think of those. But the other thing that’s different now than when I was a kid, let’s say a student, is I just didn’t care that much. If you had a 10-page paper to write about something that you didn’t care about, of course, it’s more appealing to put it off. Whereas now, the luxury of A, being an adult, and the super-luxury of being an adult who gets to do work that I want to do — and I realize that puts me in a really small fraction of humankind — it means that when I sit down to work on something, I have a real interest in it and a real drive for it.

That said, I love deadlines and I need deadlines. Freakonomics Radio is a weekly show. The finished script, which includes the interview sections, the narration sections, all those things, it’s usually about 8,000 or 9,000 words. That’s the equivalent of writing a book chapter. And we do it every week. It’s a totally crazy amount of work to do from a reporting, and research, and production, and writing, and editing angle. It’s too much, but we get it done. And I think we get it done only because we have the deadline. And that if we didn’t have the deadline, I personally would be about 90 percent less productive than I actually am. To me, I don’t procrastinate, because I’ve built systems that make it really painful to do so, which is that there’d be a whole bunch of other people around saying, “What the hell are you doing? Where’s that script?”, etc.  

DUCKWORTH: Did you ever hear this possibly apocryphal story of Voltaire, who apparently had such a problem with procrastination that he gave his clothes to his butler, so he was totally naked, and then the butler was only allowed to give him his clothes back if he had written a certain amount of text. 

DUBNER: That’s what economists, and maybe you guys too, call commitment devices. You back yourself into a corner. So presumably, your field of psychology has a great deal to say about procrastination, right? The harms thereof and maybe even the upsides thereof. What can you tell us?  

DUCKWORTH: Well, mostly there are harms. So, some would argue that procrastination is a form of impulsivity. It would have a lot to do with failures to delay gratification. In the marshmallow task, you’re supposed to not do anything now so that you can have two marshmallows later. It’s really the same challenge, which is: are you going to put your future-self first, or are you going to privilege your present-self? So, if people ask me well, what does being a procrastinator correlate with? It’s worse outcomes, like lower achievement, lower emotional well-being, etc. It’s definitely helpful to get out of a procrastination loop when it is causing you even more harm. You didn’t do something. And now, the fact that you haven’t done it is even worse than just the task itself. Now you’re feeling bad about yourself for not doing the task.  

DUBNER: A classic vicious circle. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes, absolutely. All that angst that you’re feeling about not getting something done is probably making you in an even worse position to do it. And I do think, by the way, that the escape hatch from that spinning of your psyche is, in some cases, letting go of the thing altogether. 

DUBNER: So, I was surprised that you summarily dismissed the upsides of procrastination. Doesn’t your friend and Penn colleague, Adam Grant, preach some upside of procrastination vis-a-vis creativity? If I recall correctly, procrastination is like you’re keeping the file open on your desk. So, rather than rushing to complete this thing, you’re keeping it in your mind. And it reminds me of that idea that our minds are sharper when we know we’ve got more tasks to do on the horizon. 

DUCKWORTH: Like the Zeigarnik effect? 

DUBNER: The Zeigarnik effect, yeah.  

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, that’s one of my favorite effects in psychology.  

DUBNER: All right. So, tell us about the Zeigarnik effect. 

DUCKWORTH: So, the Zeigarnik effect is named after the, I believe, Russian psychologist. 

DUBNER: And psychiatrist. Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik 

DUCKWORTH: Zeigarnick was sitting in a cafe or something and was really impressed by how many orders the waiter could remember. And just seemed to even defy conceptions of what human memory could do. 

DUBNER: If I recall correctly, it was more than just the open orders. It was like: who’s paid and who hasn’t paid? Who’s in a hurry and who’s not? All these things.

DUCKWORTH: All these things. And then after all the meals are served and you ask the waiter, “Okay, can you remember what I ordered, and can you remember what she ordered?” They can’t anymore. So, it’s while the task is unfinished that your memory just keeps it all. And then, of course you close the file, and then you don’t need it anymore. I don’t remember anything about how to raise a four-year-old, but I apparently did it twice. But I don’t need to know, because guess what? They’re 17 and 18. 

DUBNER: So, I for one, find that state of unfinished tasks incredibly exciting. One of my favorite parts of every day is fairly early in the morning. Have some coffee. I try to do some good reading to start, to get some good words in my head and some good ideas and whatever, but then I sit down and start to do some tasks. And the tasks are email, and scheduling, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And what I used to do is try to be very methodical about it, make lists with all kinds of reminders. And I realized that I would take 15 minutes to write a little to-do list. And then, it wouldn’t help that much, because I’d have to keep looking at the lists and going back and then check it off the list. And it made it longer, slower, less creative, and less pleasant. And then, I just started not making a list at all, but just keeping it all in my head. 

DUCKWORTH: As if you were this waiter.

DUBNER: And there’s an excitement of having that file open or having those uncompleted tasks. So, I do think there’s something about the way the mind engages with uncompleted tasks that is appealing and, for me, borderline intoxicating. So, I can sort of buy this argument from some people, maybe, that procrastination is a useful creative tool. 

DUCKWORTH: And that’s Adam’s argument, among others, right? That when you are not closing the file, you actually have an opportunity to have new ideas, to connect some ideas that have been rolling around in your mind, and you realize that they’d go well together. But you needed that extra time. 

DUBNER: You sound not enthusiastic about that notion.

DUCKWORTH: Well, one of my favorite pastimes is just arguing with Adam. So, I usually just start with the contrary position and see where it takes me. But no, I agree. I just wonder about the term. So, I would not call that procrastination. Say, for example, I’m working on a problem: how do you teach ninth graders to be nice to each other? If I decided, “Okay, I have time on Tuesday at nine o’clock to think about that problem. I have all the way until 10 o’clock,” and then that was it — that would result in a dramatically worse solution than if I started thinking about it on Tuesday, but then it’s simmering in the back. Almost all good ideas are like this. And therefore, we don’t want to close the loop or check off the box too early. But I don’t call that procrastination. I think when people say, “Oh gosh, I procrastinate,” there’s automatically this negative association. That’s because we are using that word, procrastination, to refer specifically to times where we regret having delayed. And we wish we had done it earlier.

DUBNER: Yes. I take your point fully that it’s different. This simmering is not procrastination. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I think this is all especially relevant to this coming fall. Many students, whatever grade level they’re in, are going to be in some asynchronous learning-through-digital-technology environment for the first time in history, really. And I think that procrastination — like, at some point, please watch this 30-minute video — is going to be a real problem. 

DUBNER: If psychology has accomplished anything, I would like to think it has accomplished some guidelines for getting things done, for setting goals, and so on. So, what do you have? 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. The first tip is to break down a big task into small tasks. 

DUBNER: Chunk it.

DUCKWORTH: Exactly. Chunk. 

DUBNER: I think of the Chunky chocolate bar.  

DUCKWORTH: Oh, yeah. I don’t know if they still make that. 

DUBNER: Now, I’m afraid to bring up any food I like because we had the rum raisin fiasco a couple of weeks ago. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, yeah. That’s right. Yeah, I’m coming around on the rum raisin. Okay, so, chunking — let’s just use that word. But basically, you take a big task, and you break it out into a series of smaller tasks. So, an example would be you’re writing a book. And it’s just, oh, the dread. 

DUBNER: My stomach hurts the minute you say those words. 

DUCKWORTH: Right! I mean, it’s terrifying, horrifying, so hard. If you think, “Today, my job is to make progress on ‘the book’” — who wants to do that? But if you say, “Okay, let me just take this one subtask, like, what I really need to do is review my editor’s notes that they emailed me.” That’s a tiny fraction of a fraction of a fraction of what you really have to do. But I think that works, in part, because the dread is often because when thinking of an enormous task, you are anticipating the enormity, the lack of progress. So, Al Bandura, one of my favorite psychologists — who, by the way, you were just talking about locus of control — was very much a pioneer in this idea of human nature as being agentic. Al Bandura did a study of kids. These kids — I think they were elementary school kids. They were learning math and so their condition was, here is all this math, and here are all the pages you have to learn, etc. And the other condition was a subgoal condition where they were given the same exact assignment, just framed a little differently. This week, do these pages, and the next week you would do these pages. And it was literally the same amount of work. And the kids who had this divided up did better. And when I think of my own life, when I end up procrastinating, or even when I’m just not making progress on something, I always think, “I’ve got to do what those kids in the Bandura study did. I have to actually start breaking these down into smaller bites. And if I can, I’ll do better. And if I can’t, then it means I probably have to go even smaller.”

DUBNER: So, especially when I was writing books, and even before I wrote books when I was just a student writing, and so on, and I was intimidated by the assignment, I would think, “I know I need to work on this, but I don’t feel like I’m ready, or I don’t want to. But you know what? I’m just going to pull it up. I’m going to get out the paper, pull up the file on the computer, and I’m just going to look at the notes that I made, or I’m going to just look at what I wrote yesterday.” And then, the mind engages. And the next thing I know, I’ve been writing for two hours. And to me, that’s just self-deception. I’m curious whether you think that’s maybe sustainable and a good idea, or ridiculous and to be avoided. 

DUCKWORTH: I do it myself, so therefore, of course, I think it’s a wonderful idea. Let’s take exercise. Not a lot of people are writing books, but almost everyone’s trying to exercise. And sometimes when I think, “Oh, I should do an hour of online Pilates class,” it’s like, I don’t want to do that. I really don’t want to do that. Well, maybe I’ll do it at four o’clock. Well, maybe I’ll do it at six o’clock. Well, I guess it’s not going to happen today, so I’ll do it tomorrow, right? But here’s a tricking of myself that I do that sounds a lot like what you do, which is like, “Well, I’ll just get into this tank top. And whatever, I could still not do it.” Once I get into the tank top, I’m like, “Well, fine. I mean, I could just find the right video. I don’t have to do the video.” And then, you’re right, as soon as you do one minute of an exercise video, it’s, in a way, easier to keep doing the video than to stop doing the video. So, I think this idea of tricking yourself is maybe more about where you’re putting your attention. And if you’re just putting your attention at the very front end of something, then you’re not seeing the enormity, right? So, there’s all kinds of ways to avoid dread. One is to literally make the task smaller, but another one is to just put your eyeballs at the little front end, which isn’t so bad. And then, by the time you get into it you’ll be in a different place. 

DUBNER: So that we can be the opposite of Mark Twain. Having said that, Mark Twain wrote a boatload during his life. 

DUCKWORTH: Gosh. Can you imagine what he would have done if he weren’t such a procrastinator? 

*      *      *

No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio and People I (Mostly) Admire. This episode was produced me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations. 

Stephen begins the procrastination conversation by quoting Mark Twain: “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow just as well.” Stephen was skeptical about the origins of this quote since so many pithy aphorisms are often falsely attributed to Twain. In this case, the adage was published in The Galaxy magazine in 1870. Twain apparently did author the quote, but, in the magazine, he comically attributes it to Ben Franklin.

Angela says that Voltaire’s solution to his issues with procrastination was to have his butler take his clothes and only return them once Voltaire had written a certain amount of text. This is actually a famous story about French poet and novelist Victor Hugo, who authored Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hugo would strip naked and ask his valet to hide his clothing to prevent Hugo from leaving the house when he needed to write. 

Finally, Angela was unsure about whether Chunky candy bars are still in production. Nestle Chunky is a milk chocolate bar filled with raisins and roasted peanuts. The candy was originally created in New York City in the 1930s, but instead of peanuts, it contained brazil nuts and cashews. In 1964, Chunky had its own pavilion at the World’s Fair where viewers could observe the candy being made at the aptly named “Chunky Square.” Angela and Stephen will be happy to know that you can still purchase Chunky bars today. That’s it for the fact-check.

No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, James Foster, and Corinne Wallace. Thanks also to our intern, Emma Tyrrell, for her help with this episode. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to our show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can also follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show. Also, if you heard Stephen or Angela drop a reference to a person or a study that you’d like to learn more about, you can check out Freakonomics.com/NSQ, where we provide links to all the major references that you heard here today. Thanks for listening! 

DUCKWORTH: We raise little kids to think like, “Well, why don’t you pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

DUBNER: Why don’t you bake your own frickin’ cake, kid.

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Sources

  • Maria Konnikova, author of The Biggest Bluff.
  • B. F. Skinner, former professor of psychology at Harvard University.
  • Albert Bandura, professor of psychology at Stanford University.
  • Gabriele Oettingen, professor of psychology at New York University.
  • Sule Alan, professor of economics at the European University Institute.
  • Adam Grant, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Dale Schunk, professor of education at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

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