The Multiple Selves Problem

Imagine for a minute that you had a mirror through which you could communicate with an earlier version of yourself. What would you tell your younger self? Did they understand how their decisions would impact their life, which is now your life? Would you tell them how a little effort at their moment in time would go a long way to improving your situation in the present?

Now imagine this mirror can only allow you to speak to the person you were last night. Would you say, “Go to bed now, not at 2am, I’m too tired to work,” or “Just spend 20 minutes planning out your day tomorrow because it’s 11am and I still haven’t managed to get anything done!” Perhaps you’d say, “You really don’t need to see another episode of Game of Thrones.”

We are not the same person at different points in time. At our most constructive, we regret the lack of productivity, self-control and motivation we have at other times. How can our optimal self influence the behavior of our more child-like self to get more done in the time we have?

So I’m talking about how our multiple selves, the various different facets of our personality, work against each other. How this phenomenon – where we feel differently about important subjects at different times – can sabotage our best efforts.

Have you found yourself, in the evening, planning how you will optimize the rest of your week, your month, your year? The moment is thrilling because you’ve finally realized what you need to do to get your projects, your job, your very life back on track.

Finally, you tell yourself, you have the knowledge, the motivation and the means to build something, to spend less, to create a new income stream, to get a better job. Tomorrow will be the beginning of a new era!

This commonly happens after you’ve seen a particularly inspirational Ted talk. Or perhaps after you read a click-bait article on “The Six Secrets of Elon Musk’s Productivity”.

The next morning, after snoozing your alarm twice, you crawl under the shower, dress the same as every other day and end up at work. There you try to react to the demands placed upon you to a high enough standard so you can go home with a clear conscience. Then you down half a bottle of wine and watch a movie.

So much for your new self.

Your Many Faces

One way to look at this, which has gained some traction among productivity hackers, is that you are not one person. You are in fact, multiple people, with differing personalities and motivations, depending on the time of day, the time of the year, the pressures placed upon you, the amount of sleep you’ve had and probably even the weather.

There are many ways to differentiate these different identities, but two of the most obvious are…

Me Today vs Me Tomorrow

The person I am today wants to be productive.

There’s a trap in that sentence. The person I am today isn’t productive, he just wants to be. So he tells himself that he will be productive tomorrow, and does the following things:

  • With pen and paper, he writes down the things he will do tomorrow that will result in his being productive
  • He scans google for literature on “productivity hacks”, “procrastination” and “motivation”. He finds excitement in the solutions provided.
  • He searches YouTube, and finds Ted and TedX videos from inspiring people telling him how to be productive.
  • He finishes all this research at 2am, goes to bed.

In case it wasn’t clear from the points above, this person is a master procrastinator. He just managed to use “being more productive” as an excuse to procrastinate until 2am, wasting time on google and youtube.

Me tomorrow doesn’t exist, because when I wake up tomorrow, tomorrow has become today, and I am “me today” again. That’s all I ever am. I also have a thousand excuses why that piece of paper I wrote last night, while hopped up on insomnia and a bottle of wine, is not very realistic in this precise moment.

What’s really happening here is that we’re pointing at a future version of ourselves that we never actually have to be. We then pass all the responsibility onto that imaginary version of ourselves. All the work, all the effort, all the hard graft of actually sitting still, concentrating for several hours at a stretch and doing those things that will make us great is offloaded. We’ll never feel all that pressure. When tomorrow comes, we will call it “today”, and we’ll be the same person again.

There was absolutely nothing preventing me from sitting down and doing some actual work. Instead I wasted time studying how someone might do some actual work. Reading or watching videos about productivity is not the same as being productive. Neither is planning to be productive later.

Evening Me vs Morning Me

In my case, in the evenings, I’m very good at planning my work for the following day. I’m also good at doing little tasks that absolutely need to get done. Things like paying bills, booking flights for holidays or fixing my daughter’s pram so it’ll work the next morning.

What I’m less good at in the evenings is getting any real work done. My evening personality likes to think that this sort of thing is more a “morning guy” activity.

Unfortunately the morning version of me isn’t great at this either. It’s just that the evening version of me has a very inflated opinion of what the morning version of me is capable of. He looks at his morning counterpart with admiration and says, “I’ll kill this once I’ve had a good night’s sleep, I’ll just write it down on this to-do list and pick it up in the morning.”

As dawn approaches, the idea of getting up at 5am to be hyper-productive isn’t nearly so obvious as it appeared. In fact, the morning persona is, after a few moments thought, really quite angry with the evening persona.

All this expectation, work and pressure exists because that evening guy didn’t want to get off his ass and do the work himself.

It never occurred to the evening persona to do some work. He’s egocentric, selfish and hedonistic. Evening watches TV, drinks alcohol, goes to the restaurant and plays computer games. Morning gets to do none of those things, I mean, who drinks in the mornings?

So there I am, sitting in my kitchen at 7am watching the clouds through the window, holding a cup of coffee, wishing these multiple selves really were separate so that I could strangle him.

In case this isn’t clear: this is a form of self-loathing.

Strategies To Deal With Your Multiple Selves

While this may all sound quite funny, the reality is that you really do have different motivations and personalities at different moments of your life.

The evening or “today” version of myself has an honest appraisal of what needs to get done. I need to be more productive, I need to write more, I need to be more “switched on” at work (in a flow state, if you like the trendy jargon).

The problem is that the evening version of myself is lazy and self-centered. He prefers to fantasize about what it will be like once I am productive, rather than actually being productive.

The morning version of me is not who the evening version of me believes he is. He doesn’t have that drive. He didn’t sleep that well, he’d rather drink his coffee in silence and look at the horizon for 30 minutes, and he’d rather not have all this pressure. He gets some work done every day, but not the amount the evening persona thinks he will.

The “tomorrow” version of me doesn’t even exist.

What can be done?

Environmental Design

Taken mostly from a book called Willpower Doesn’t Work by Benjamin Hardy, this method starts with the premise that willpower can’t sort the problem for you. You can’t force yourself to do something you psychologically, emotionally, truly don’t want to do.

If our approach to solving the motivation problem is to grit our teeth and force ourselves to work despite not wanting to, we won’t be able to do it for very long. None of our multiple selves will tolerate that kind of pressure for long. Nor will they repeatedly do something we actually don’t want to do.

Hardy argues that it’s better to create spaces in which work is the only option. We accept, when we go into these spaces that we are there to concentrate, to be productive, and that there is nothing else to do. Lunch is in the fridge, there’s no decoration, TV or social media and we can go home in a day, or a week, or a month, but for now – we are here.

Outside of the work space, we need to create recovery spaces. These are for anything but work. They’re designed with comfort and fun in mind. They’re good for rest and creativity. When we are in these spaces we place no expectations upon ourselves, so that our minds can properly recover and so we can create the space needed for creativity to flourish.

Dividing roles into specific spaces and designing those spaces accordingly allows us to segregate work from rest of our lives. Connected devices have turned every square meter of the planet into our office. Before this happened, this natural separation between work and home was a far healthier environment for our brains. It’s better for us to concentrate without distraction and rest without the burden of performance.

Lock-In

A concept that can be taken much too far, Lock-In is the idea that since you have multiple selves who both want the same thing but can’t seem to work together, you should create a contract between them that enforces the behavior they both want and need.

One example of this is: You give a meaningful amount of money to a third party and have them donate it to something you detest if you fail to reach a specific objective. You surrender control over the outcome except if you carry out a specific task.

For example, if you’re a Democrat you could give $1000 to a friend and tell them to give it to a Republican Electoral PAC. If you successfully write six chapters of your book within three months, with a minimum word count, you get the money back. As an animal rights supporter you could do the same with a hunting lobby. The important thing is to ensure that the outcome is unacceptable to you. If you thought, “I could never do that, my money can never under any circumstances go to support hunting,” then that’s exactly the right thing for you to use as leverage against your future self.

This is a simplistic view of lock-in, although it is believed to work quite well.

The idea is to create unacceptable outcomes that are linked with non-performance. This forces you to rise to a new level of effort and overcome procrastination to avoid the negative outcome. In your career, there is a much simpler way:

Sign up for a job that is (slightly) beyond your capabilities. Take on responsibilities that are significantly outside your comfort zone. Accept a job description that requires skills you don’t already have, but which can be learned.

The downside is that you could fail terribly, and this will have a long-term negative effect on your career. That should be enough to motivate you to work very hard. The upside is that you built the promotion you were looking for into your incentive system. You just have to live up to your own expectations.

Obviously not everyone can find the opportunity to get responsibilities beyond their current level. However: You won’t know unless you try. In fact, you’ll never get more responsibilities, pay or seniority if you don’t try, so that alone is a reason to take this path.

The Conflict Remains

Techniques like the ones above may help you overcome a tendency to procrastinate in the short term. They can lead to a period of high productivity. I very much hope that for you, if this is something you struggle with.

But this problem never goes away. Your multiple selves will always want to do different things in the short term, even if they have the same long term goals. It’s a part of the human condition and we struggle with it our whole lives. A solution that works today will stop working after a while. Perhaps those responsibilities have become easier for your to carry, and you need another push. Maybe you let some clutter creep into your work space or you don’t like your work that much any more.

You need to stay aware of your own performance, and that’s not as easy as it sounds.

The best ways to mitigate the urge to procrastinate or the loss of motivation in the longer term is to do something you love which is meaningful to you, with people you like, that gives you a sense of ownership and exciting outcomes if you manage to succeed.

I wish that for you – and you should wish that for yourself. Remember though: Nobody else is going to make any of this happen for you, the task is yours.

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