IN 1898, A psychologist named Edward Thorndike conducted an experiment that would lay the foundation for our understanding of how habits form and the rules that guide our behavior.1 Thorndike was interested in studying the behavior of animals, and he started by working with cats. He would place each cat inside a device known as a puzzle box. The box was designed so that the cat could escape through a door “by some simple act, such as pulling at a loop of cord, pressing a lever, or stepping on a platform.”
The biggest danger posed by procrastination is that it undermines individual confidence. But there’s another danger closely linked to this: Procrastination also prevents teamwork. These two dangers, if not eliminated by The 80% Approach, constantly reinforce each other, making it more and more difficult to increase either individual confidence or teamwork. You can see this in perpetually poor sectors of a society, where a great number of people have long histories of deprivation and failure. An individual growing up in this environment finds it difficult to improve his or her life. First of all, personal confidence is lacking, but, second, and perhaps most important, teamwork with others is also lacking. Individual improvement in any area of life always depends on teamwork with other self-improving individuals. In impoverished environments, therefore, individuals procrastinate about taking any action to improve themselves, and they also procrastinate about doing those things that would improve their teamwork with others. So everyone stays poor and depressed.
The human brain is capable of extraordinary creativity and inventiveness. Our lives today provide us with overwhelming proof of a history of great breakthroughs and progress in all fields of endeavor. All of these achievements were generated by unique ideas of countless intelligent men and women. At the same time, the power of the human brain can work against itself in ways that leave many people feeling chronically guilty and dissatisfied—in spite of living in a world of great achievements. With seemingly everything in the world to be optimistic about, many people are frustrated and non-productive throughout much of their lives. What accounts for this paralysis of thinking and action when so many opportunities for personal confidence and productivity are available?
Suppose you’re a fan of the Philadelphia Eagles and you’re watching a football game with a friend who, sadly, grew up in New York City and is a rabid fan of the Giants. You don’t really understand why you ever became friends, but after spending a semester in the same dorm room you start liking him, even though you think he’s football-challenged.
THE OTHER SIDE of this tragedy develops when we fail to realize that some things really are disappearing doors, and need our immediate attention. We may work more hours at our jobs, for instance, without realizing that the childhood of our sons and daughters is slipping away. Sometimes these doors close too slowly for us to see them vanishing. One of my friends told me, for instance, that the single best year of his marriage was when he was living in New York, his wife was living in Boston, and they met only on weekends.
In 210 BC, a Chinese commander named Xiang Yu led his troops across the Yangtze River to attack the army of the Qin (Ch’in) dynasty. Pausing on the banks of the river for the night, his troops awakened in the morning to find, to their horror, that their ships were burning. They hurried to their feet to fight off their attackers, but soon discovered that it was Xiang Yu himself who had set their ships on fire, and that he had also ordered all the cooking pots crushed. Xiang Yu explained to his troops that without the pots and the ships, they had no other choice but to fight their way to victory or perish. That did not earn Xiang Yu a place on the Chinese army’s list of favorite commanders, but it did have a tremendous focusing effect on his troops: grabbing their lances and bows, they charged ferociously against the enemy and won nine consecutive battles, completely obliterating the main-force units of the Qin dynasty. Xiang Yu’s story is remarkable because it is completely antithetical to normal human behavior.
You are at your mother-in-law’s house for Thanksgiving Dinner, and what a sumptuous spread she has put on the table for you! The turkey is roasted to a golden brown; the stuffing is homemade and exactly the way you like it. Your kids are delighted: the sweet potatoes are crowned with marshmallows. And your wife is flattered: her favorite recipe for pumpkin pie has been chosen for dessert. The festivities continue into the late afternoon. You loosen your belt and sip a glass of wine. Gazing fondly across the table at your mother-in-law, you rise to your feet and pull out your wallet. “Mom, for all the love you’ve put into this, how much do I owe you?” you say sincerely. As silence descends on the gathering, you wave a handful of bills. “Do you think three hundred dollars will do it? No, wait, I should give you four hundred!” This is not a picture that Norman Rockwell would have painted. A glass of wine falls over; your mother-in-law stands up red-faced; your sister-in-law shoots you an angry look; and your niece bursts into tears. Next year’s Thanksgiving celebration, it seems, may be a frozen dinner in front of the television set.