How to ‘trick’ your brain into being more efficient

In today’s information overloaded world, it’s actually the smallest changes that can reap the biggest results, argue The Small BIG authors Steve J. Martin, Noah J. Goldstein and Robert B. Cialdini


How to ‘trick’ your brain into being more efficient

Using principles of persuasion science and studies by behavioural scientists, Steve J. Martin, one of the authors of The Small BIG, shows that by simply making a few small changes, you can boost your efficiency, overcome challenges and keep your motivation levels high.

Say goodbye to procrastination

In today’s digital world, there is immediacy to everything. Problems spring up that need to be dealt with right away, forcing other tasks with later deadlines to be pushed further and further down the to-do pile. People are often so focused on dealing with the immediate that they wrongly believe that once it has been dealt with, they will have more time to carry out the activities they put off.

But what people will often fail to recognise is that that task is just one of a hundred that will invariably take its place. This means you will be just as busy in the future as you are right now.

To combat this, set yourself deadlines for tasks that are far less generous than you normally would. One study showed that when redeeming gift vouchers, people whose voucher expired in three weeks were five times more likely to use it than people whose voucher expired in two months. So that report that needs to be in by November, see if you can set yourself a three-week deadline from now to get it done.  

On a more day-to-day level, create a weekly to-do list for yourself. A week is enough time to motivate your brain’s need for action and to create a sense of urgency but not so restrictive that you will end up feeling constrained and pressured.

Find motivation and see it through

Many of us find that we lose steam during tasks, and find it hard to stay motivated and complete it. So when motivating people to complete a task is it better to focus on the progress have already made or the effort remaining? To put it to the test, ask yourself which of the following standpoints sounds better?

A. You’re already 20 per cent through your run.

B. You’ve got 80 per cent of your run to go.

A. You’ve only 3 stamps left to go before your free meal.

B. You’re 7/10 stamps on your way to a free meal.

Chances are you choose the A options rather than B. Why? Well, according to researchers, people tend to be more motivated to complete tasks if they focus their attention on the smallest area, whether that’s progress made or the effort still remaining.

You can carry this through into your life by putting a Post-it note somewhere visible that highlights your smallest figure of achievement. You’re already 40 per cent to your weight loss goal or you’ve only got 20 per cent left to go on that work or study assignment.

Don’t get knocked out by a knock-back

If your attempts to stop procrastinating and get motivated fail, and the task or problem before you is just as puzzling as ever, take a step back. No, really… physically take a step back and put some physical distance between the issue and yourself. Scientific studies have shown that when undertaking a difficult task, leaning in made participant’s perception of difficulty go up, whereas leaning back made the perception of difficulty go down.

If you’re trying to arrange a schedule that just won’t fit, take a step back from the table and look at it from a few metres away. If next month’s household budget just won’t balance, put it on the mantelpiece and take a look from three paces back.

When it comes to thinking about solutions to problems, there is scientific evidence that points toward the benefits of consciously creating physical distance from the problem at hand.

Adapted from The Small BIG by Steve J. Martin, Noah J. Goldstein and Robert B. Cialdini (Profile Books, £11.99) which is out now

Photograph: plainpicture/amanaimages

More inspiration:

Read Do you have enough self-discipline? on LifeLabs