We’ve all been there before. You lie awake at night, feeling extremely motivated about your next day, planning everything you want to get done. You’re feeling so ready to tackle tomorrow that you imagine finally clearing out and organizing your closet, finishing that project at work early, and running all the errands you need for the week. Tomorrow, you tell yourself, is going to be extremely productive.
Then tomorrow comes, you do none of these things, and you can’t help but feel disappointed with yourself.
Most can relate to this experience, but few understand why it happens. Learning why exposes a concept that helps describe why we struggle with finding the motivation and energy to complete the tasks and goals we set out for ourselves. Learn this feature of your psychology and you can remove a substantial barrier between who you are, and who you want to be.
The Hot/Cold Empathy Gap
The hot/cold empathy gap is a cognitive bias we all have. Falling asleep at night, we envision our future self, and imagine this person as someone separate from the ‘you’ that is existing in the present moment. You are anxious about all the things going on in your life, and without knowing it, you ease this anxiety by loading up this hypothetical ‘future you’ with an unrealistic burden, imagining that this person will handle it just fine.
The thing is, this future you is not a real person. Often they only contain the attributes of you that you like, with none of the flaws. The endless list of items on your to-do list cause anxiety, and engaging in the fantasy of being able to tackle them all in a single day provides relief from it.
Engaging in this process is fantasy. As you fall asleep, the pictures in your head of you accomplishing these tasks are in a way just as much a dream as the ones you experience when asleep. Like a character in a movie, you create a fictional ‘perfect you’, and watch as this person solves the troubles in your life, providing you the relaxation you need to get to sleep!
Of course, then we wake up. We find that we are still the same old us that we were the night before, decidedly less perfect than we thought we’d be. The ‘best you’ you’ve imagined doesn’t have to with discomfort, exhaustion, or struggle of any kind when facing the day, so of course they could put in hours and hours productivity. You, on the other hand, have to deal with a whole host of realities this fictional you does not, and accomplish significantly less.
We often feel dejected and ashamed with our daily performance when we don’t measure up to our fantasy selves, but this is a major error in thinking. Not only does it prevent us with feeling happy with the work we perform, but it puts major limitations on our self-improvement. Understanding our bias to think this way exposes us to another path, a way of thinking that not only helps us feel proud of the productive work we do perform each day, but also helps us accomplish more of it!
Align your thoughts with reality, and you’ll find it far easier to thrive within it. Find out how with Capital Choice Counselling.
Closing The Gap
On one side, we’ve got our real self. On the other side, we have our ideal selves.
Naturally, we want to bring these two sides together so that our real self can be our perfect self, but the ways that we traditionally try to do so can be ineffective. We put together our massive to-do lists, thinking our perfect self can take care of it, and find that our real self generally cannot. This experience is disheartening. Placing an unrealistic expectation on ourselves sets us up for failure, and failure only increases our impression of the distance between our dreams and our reality.
The key is to take a different approach.
Instead of committing to the hard labour required to build a bridge between who you are and who you want to be, it is possible to reflect on the nature of your situation and come to the realization that the distance between ‘who you are’ and ‘who you want to be’ is not nearly as far as you think.
Lower Your Expectations
When you make your nightly to-do list, imagine ‘what if I only had 2-3 hours to be productive tomorrow? Which items on your list truly take priority, and which can be postponed or put away entirely?
This list is now your to-do list.
To ensure those other items don’t get neglected, consider also keeping a separate, lower priority lists. A ‘when I have time’ or ‘secondary’ list for tasks that do not require high-priority attention. Every day, commit only to completing the high-priority tasks allotted for that 2-3 hours. If these tasks take longer, then by all means take more time to complete them. If they are completed quicker, work away at backburner tasks until at least your 2-3 productive hours are finished. If you’ve finished and still have the energy and motivation to complete tasks, then by all means do so!
Too often we place unrealistic expectations on ourselves in the interests of maximizing our productivity, producing the counter-productive effect of limiting what we’re capable of.
At night, we make a list for a super-human, thinking that we’ll be that person when we wake up. Naturally we wake up the same person we were last night, see the list we made, and are daunted. Starting the day with the realization that there is simply no way we can accomplish our goals leaves us disheartened, dejected, and robs us of the vigor and energy we need to be productive through the day. Our massive list is made in the interests of maximum productivity, but it ends up reducing what we’re capable of doing.
Adjusting our expectations of what is reasonably possible not only makes our to-do lists easier to accomplish, but energizes us to tackle more than we would have otherwise!
Consider instead waking up to a day where you have only a few tasks. You consider your to-do list, and are no longer intimidated. If you attack them with vigor, you can complete them in 2-3 hours, having the rest of the day to work at other things, or simply enjoy some of the peace-of-mind your to-do list exists for in the first place!
Experience a Fulfilling Reality
Just how realistic is your ideal self?
You imagine this person effortlessly tackling every problem in your life, capable of going from 0-60 in no time at all, extracting 100% productivity from every moment. We hold this idea because we believe it will motivate us to become all that we are capable of being, we it has the opposite effect. The intimidation we feel by unrealistic expectations produces a realization of our limitations, and robs us from enjoying the fruits of even the most productive days.
Adjust your expectations on yourself when you make the days to-do list. Drop the belief the day will be handled by a perfect person, and replacing it with the belief that tomorrow will be handled by a real person. Real people rest, need leisure, and need a lot time to get things done. They make mistakes and often fail.
3 honest hours of productive work and a little time on secondary tasks may seem like you’re underselling your potential, but it produces exactly the opposite. Your ideal self approaches life like a sprint. Your life is a marathon. Three hours of productive work a day, every day, is more effective than a life spent beating yourself up and consistently binge-working as deadlines loom.
Trying to bring our real selves to our ideal selves is a cognitive error. Like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up a hill and having it fall back down, we set ourselves up for failure at the start of every day by holding unrealistic expectations about what is possible. Instead, it’s possible to bring our ideal selves towards reality.
Our ideas about who we can be help to motivate us. Like a carrot on a stick, we focus on our goal and it serves to move us towards it. Place the carrot constantly out of reach, and repeated failure chips away at our beliefs about what we are capable of. When we adopt goals that are reasonably attainable, we retain the challenge that spurs our forward motion and personal growth, while also rewarding positive action. When we achieve these attainable goals, we are allowed enjoy the fruit of our labour, and feel the pride and impression self-worth that comes with a job well done.