Smart people sometimes do dumb things. Why is that? You may want to ask Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioural economics who has made a name for himself by studying why we often behave irrationally.
Pictures: Dan Keinan/Flickr
He’s also the cofounder of an interesting new calendar and to-do app called Timeful, which intelligently prioritises your tasks. We spoke with Dan to learn about his own priorities, how to deal with one’s own irrational behaviour, and how he works.
Location: Right now I am in Brazil, watching the World Cup and trying to understand soccer, and human nature surrounding it. So far I must admit that I am largely baffled — maybe I need more time to get more research on this topic.
Current Gig: Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, and co-founder of Timeful
One word that best describes how you work: Constantly
Current mobile device: iPhone 5 and Nexus 5
Current computer: MacBook, 13-Inch
What apps/software/tools can’t you live without? Why?
Most of the writing I do is on the long side. Sometimes these are either academic papers, and at other times these are longish essays and chapters about social science and its application to everyday life. Because I find the logical flow so crucial to my writing, I always spend a lot of time upfront writing an outline. But, the problem is that when the outline is in my head, most of the details are abstract and sketchy, and when I actually sit down and write them out, I almost always have to reshuffle things and rewrite sections. The best tool I found to grow an outline into a document so far is Scrivener. Scrivener is a tool that approaches a document as a set of sub-documents, providing the ability to work on each part and to work on the whole document. Most importantly, this approach allows me to set the names of the sub-documents with my logical flow, work on the different parts, and easily play around and change the flow of what I am working on (plus Scrivener has many other interesting features, such as the ability to include research notes and sections that I might want to use one day).
Another tool I can’t live without is Vail (in fact this is a tool that I find so useful that I was deeply involved in its development). Many years ago I suffered from burns that covered most of my body. I still have lots of scars and all kinds of leftovers from this injury, but the largest challenge I still face today is typing. The basic problem is that if I write more than a page or two a day I get a lot of pain in my hand, have a hard time sleeping, and the next day starts in a worse state than the previous day. I have tried Dragon Dictate and the native OS X dictation, but these don’t work very well for me.
Vail is not a full solution for typing but it helps me with one small (in reality not so small) part of life — email. When I get an email that I can quickly and efficiently answer with voice, I use Vail. While looking at the email I press the record button, and start responding to the email. When I finish with my answer I press the send button, and now Vail attaches the voice file to the email and sends it. This very simple app not only saves me a lot of typing, but at times it even helps preserve some of my sense of humour (which often gets lost in email).
Another approach I use to help reduce the amount of typing I need to do is TextExpander. As I look at what I write, and particularly at my emails, much of it is repetitive, and TextExpander helps me create quick shortcuts for these answers. For example, when I type “notime” this is what the email expands to:
This is a very interesting and important topic and close to my heart. But sadly, my life is so full these days that I don’t even have time for the things I’ve already promised to do. I even have a few of my own projects that I haven’t been able to find the time to work on. Not to mention that I have projects with close collaborators that I promised to work on and haven’t been able to.
So while this sounds exciting, I know at the end of the day, it would just put me in a deeper spiral of obligation and place even more constraints than I have now. I hope you understand but I have to decline.
Wishing you all the best and lots of luck.
Another approach that I have been using for email is Shortwhale.com. I get a lot of email from people I don’t know with different questions, points, suggestions and requests. I try to answer all of them, but the problem is that the amount of time I need to spend on these emails takes a very substantial part of my day.
So, I started asking people to write me using Shortwhale.com/danariely. This is a website-based email, where I ask people to write me in a way that is simpler for me to process (and hence more likely that I will respond). There are choices to pick from a menu that specify what type of request this is and what timeframe they want an answer by. In my mail program (the native OS X mail app) I have filters that redirect the email based on the topic and requested timeframe. These tags allow me to stop my workday only to deal with important and urgent requests, and keep the rest of the email to the weekend, downtime, and flight delays. On top of that, Shortwhale also allows people to easily create multiple choices within the email, and this way all I need to do when I get their email is to click on my selected answer and they get the response. What has been incredibly satisfying using Shortwhale is that I find out more directly what people want, it improves my use of time, and it helps me respond better to more people.
What’s your workspace setup like?
I am on the road a lot, and when I am travelling, I like working in coffee shops. I like having some background noise, I like looking around at people from time to time, and of course coffee. When I am at the office, I have two desks, one a standing desk and one sit down desk and I try to mix my workday between them. When I am at the standing desk, I try not to have my browser and email open and only focus on writing — this approach works occasionally.
What’s your best time-saving shortcut/life hack?
I have fully embraced the idea that variety is the spice of life, and I try to have multiple projects at different steps. This way, when I get tired of working on one project with one particular type of activity, I switch to a different project, at a different stage, and use different skills.
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
I have tried many types of to-do lists over time, and to a large degree I feel that they are “write-only-lists.” In fact as the ease of adding things to to-do lists increases (with some software making it just one key press away to add more to-dos), it is becoming more and more tempting to just add things to the to-do list whenever in doubt. For example, I remember a book that I want to read — add it to the to-do list. There is a chair that I might want to get at some point, again, add it to the to-do list. The basic problems with to-do lists is that many software tools have made it too easy to put things in, but they are not designed to help us decide what we should do. This is one of the ways where Timeful is different. Timeful examines the to-do list and suggests at the top of the calendar when to tackle different tasks. I happen to be a part of Timeful’s development and have found it very helpful in prioritizing and getting things actually crossed off of my to-do list.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?
I have a remote control for presentations that has a “blank” button, which allows me to turn the screen black (off). This might be a simple thing, but when I present I like to be in control of the discussion, and I find that if the screen is full of information, people look at the screen and pay less attention to the topic of discussion — with the blank button I am able to reduce the temptation people have to read, and get more of their attention and mindshare.
Being an expert on human fallibility, what do you do to cope with your own irrational behaviour?
It might sound irrational, illogical, or maybe even stupid, but the reality is that I spend much of my day trying to do the things that will matter to me one day in the future, but too often I end up short. Why? Because of myopia (being short sighted) and because of a wrong time perspective (looking forward instead of backward).
On a regular day I get to the office rather early, and I am immediately bombarded with a long list of tasks that at the moment seem very important (mostly to other people). At this point I have a choice to make: I can either dedicate the first two hours of the day to something I deeply care about, and something I will value at the end of the month and at the end of the year, or I can first deal with the large amount of email that is waiting for me, and spend the next few hours (which for me are some of the most productive hours of the day) responding to other peoples’ requests. This is where I sometimes fail (the truth is that I fail more than sometimes, but I have a hard time admitting it, so I am adding this as a footnote), and it turns out that I am not the only one.
In my attempt to work on what is important instead of what seems to be urgent at the moment, I implement multiple approaches. First, I indicate on my calendar the hours of the day where I have the capacity to be productive, and I try to protect this time. (In the near future, Timeful will include a much better version of this feature.) Second, I try to start the day with the large tasks that I know will be important for me, and not even open my email until I have made some substantial progress on my main tasks (because I know that once the temptation is near, the game is lost). Third, I set up the exact time that is dedicated to the web and social networks, and in this way these activities don’t expand beyond the time I want to allocate to them. Fourth, I try to think about the opportunity cost of time more explicitly and every time I agree to do something; I try to think about what I am giving up for this, and if this is indeed the way I want to spend my time. Fifth, I accept the fact that I will never be able to do all the things I would love to do. And finally, together with Jacob and Yoav, we founded Timeful to help all of us (but mostly me) to take control over our time and end up doing the things we want and need to do.
You travel a lot. How do you deal with life on the road?
Indeed I travel a lot (most of the year), and when I am on the road it is difficult to eat well, exercise, and keep in touch with my family. To deal with these problems I created a contract that describes what I can and can’t eat and how much I need to exercise each week. I made this contract with my cousin, and we also included a list of punishments if I fail. Twice a week I keep her informed on how I am living up to our agreement and together the specificity of the contract and the accountability has helped me a lot.
To deal with the connection with home, I made an Apple script that automatically takes a picture of me, attaches it to an email, and adds the following text (computing the duration based on the current time):
Love you very very much!
We have been married for…
16.1 Years, or…
193 Months, or…
839.7 Weeks, or…
5,878 Days, or…
141,072 Hours, or…
8,464,320 Minutes, or…
Looking forward to many more years, Months, Weeks, Days, Hours, Minutes, and Seconds.
This simple, one click approach, helps me send a picture and quick love note, even when I am tired and out of energy.
When doing academic research, are there any tools that you find to be indispensable?
The minds of my collaborators.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?
I am not sure about better than everyone else, but I am always asking myself why I, and why the people around me, behave the way we do. I basically always think about everything that is happening around me in terms of research.
What do you listen to while you work?
For the vast majority of tasks I prefer silence.
What are you currently reading?
Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut, which has some amazing insights to help us think about economics, and financial crises.
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
I think that I am both, but in different situations. When I am giving a talk, and I have the stage, I feel I am in control, I know what I want to say and I suspect that I am an extrovert in these situations. But, when I am meeting lots of people that I don’t know, I feel shy and I am much more of an introvert.
What’s your sleep routine like?
I basically don’t have exact hours and I work until I am ready to sleep. When I travel I have a hard time falling asleep, but I found that listening to audio books — particularly ones that are being read in a British accent — help me fall asleep very quickly.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _________ answer these same questions.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
When I was a Ph.D. student and I was considering where I wanted to take a position as an assistant professor, Ziv Carmon, who was one of my advisors, suggested that I should pick the university that would make me the most different person from who I was at the time. He explained that it was not that he did not appreciate who I was, but that I should think about my next step as an opportunity to learn and develop further. Since then I have taken this advice many times, and I often think about my next steps, not in terms of what would be the simplest to do next, but what would teach me the most and what would make me a better person.
Is there anything else you’d like to add that might be interesting to readers/fans?
You mean my mother?
More seriously, I believe in design. One of the major lessons from social science is that we make decisions based on the environment that we are in. This means that given a particular environment, we have less free will than we would hope, but it also means that if we take design seriously, we can design the world in a way that is more compatible with our skills, and more likely to lead to better decisions. Every day I see many examples of human stupidity, but I have hope because our free will is in the design of the world we live in, and if we understand human nature better, and use this as a guiding principle for design, we can do much, much better.
We’ve asked a handful of heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Every week we’ll feature a new guest and the gadgets, apps, tips and tricks that keep them going. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.