Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Framing Effect (Wording your goals to give you more Motivation)

Credit to Editor B of Flickr

I have been reading a lot on behavioral economics recently and came across the following exercise in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Which offer do you find more attractive?

  1. Accepting a gamble that offers 10% chance to win $95 and a 90% chance to lose $5?
  2. Paying $5 to participate in a lottery that offers a 10% chance to win $100 and a 90% chance to win nothing.

If you are like most people, then you chose the second option. But did you notice that both choices are the same? I will give you a minute to calculate that for yourself.

What causes the disparity in choices distribution is the way each option was worded. In the first option, the word “gamble” brings up mental pictures of “risk” and “loss” while the second one “lottery” brings up images of “potential gains” and “potential winnings.” This is called the framing effect, which says that people react differently to a particular choice depending on whether it is presented as a loss or as a gain.

The idea of framing also can be applied to goal setting. For example, a smoker who sets a goal to quit has many ways of framing his goal, below are two examples:

  • I am giving up cigarettes
  • I am protecting my health

Most people will prefer to think of protecting their health as a gain while giving up cigarettes as a loss of freedom to smoke even though both are the same.

I like to use the framing effect to my advantage whenever possible. When I wake up in the morning, my goal is not to workout, but to “reduce flabs and get more abs.” Both are equivalent statements, but when I think about what I am doing, I would prefer to think about the latter, because I have attached a benefit (gain) to my goals whereas working out just brings mental pictures of going to the gym to run for me (losing time from doing something else).

The way you frame your goals matters. If you think of your goals as gains, you are more motivated to seek the benefits, but if you look at your goal as loses in time, resources, etc. then you are less likely to complete them.


Look back at your goals, are they framed the most positive way possible?

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The Planning Fallacy (Setting a Realistic Deadline for Goals)

Credit to robstephaustralia of Flickr

Hurricane Sandy is coming to town in a few hours, so Yale has canceled classes for today and tomorrow [I am writing this article as of Monday October 29th]. When we received the email last night, I could imagine what was going on in my peers (as well as my) head: another day to sleep in and catch-up/get ahead on work. Across campus, to-do lists were created, textbooks were bookmarked, and alarms were set. I am half-way through my day and have only completed about ¼ of my list. I am a victim of the planning fallacy.

The planning fallacy is a habit of people of underestimating how long they will need to complete a task, even when they have completed similar tasks in the past. The term was first proposed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two researchers who pioneered behavioral economics (my field of study).

The planning fallacy can be found in anything from book publication to school work to assembling a chair. To gain a better understanding of the planning fallacy, I have included the results from the following two studies from Wikipedia (citation from original studies are included below):

In a 1994 study, 37 psychology students were asked to estimate how long it would take to finish their senior theses. The average estimate was 33.9 days. They also estimated how long it would take “if everything went as well as it possibly could” (averaging 27.4 days) and “if everything went as poorly as it possibly could” (averaging 48.6 days).

The average actual completion time was 55.5 days, with only about 30% of the students completing their thesis in the amount of time they predicted.

Another study asked students to estimate when they would complete their personal academic projects. Specifically, the researchers asked for estimated times by which the students thought it was 50%, 75%, and 99% probable their personal projects would be done.

  • 13% of subjects finished their project by the time they had assigned a 50% probability level;
  • 19% finished by the time assigned a 75% probability level;
  • 45% finished by the time of their 99% probability level.

As you can see, we tend of overestimate our abilities to complete a goal and underestimate the time it will actually take.

Remember this as you set deadlines for your goals.


With your next to-do list, estimate how much time you will need to complete each item. Time how long each task took you. How close were you to your predicted time?

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The above studies are cited below:

  • Buehler, Roger; Dale Griffin, Michael Ross (1995). “It’s about time: Optimistic predictions in work and love”. European Review of Social Psychology (American Psychological Association) 6: 1–32.
  • Buehler, Roger; Dale Griffin, Michael Ross (1994). “Exploring the “planning fallacy”: Why people underestimate their task completion times”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (American Psychological Association) 67 (3): 366–381.


Knowing when to stop (Keeping Good Form)

Credit to fuzzcat of Flickr

The lesson today is learning to keep “good form”. The term “good form” comes from running, where keeping good form helps you run faster, decreases stress on your body, and reduces risk of injury.

But what if your goal is not running? Every goal has its own version of “good form.” For students this could be studying after a good night’s sleep, for writer writing after breakfast, or for professors having material ready beforehand.

When you are in “good form” you are more alert and actively engaged in your goals. It is not how many hours you spend on your goals, but how well you spend those hours. Quality should be taken over quanitity.

To maximize progress on your goals, you need to find a time of the day or place where you can work at your optimal. Some people like to call this being in the “zone.” But there is a difference between being in “the zone” and when you are forcing yourself to continue. When you force yourself to continue, beyond the point where you should stop, you are prone to mistakes and risk losing progress you have already made. For example, in studying a foreign language, learning more words than you can remember, leads to you forget what you are trying to learn (just ask anyone who crams for an exam).

Working towards goals should be fun not a chore to be crossed off your list. The limit to how much you should spend on a goal will depend on the nature of what you’re doing and your personal limits, but you should make it a priority to find out where your limits are.

No matter how well rested you are, how balanced your meal, and how focused your mindset, at a certain point your form will be compromised. I could practice magic from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed again, but without breaks I will begin to lose “good form”; I will begin slouching over (not good for stage presence), perform my tricks faster or slower than normal (not good presentation), and feel pain and stress in my fingers (not good for practicing the next day).

As Tony Horton, creator of P90X, says at the beginning of each workout, “Don’t sacrifice form.”


When working on your goals remember not to sacrifice form.

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Being “Below-Average” (Comparing Yourself to Others)

The dreaded college midterm season has just ended, and as 5,000 other Yale students and I begin to get our grades back one of three things will occur: we will either be happy, indifferent, or disappointed.

I am blessed to say that for all my first set of midterms, I’ve been happy with my grades, but this week I received one that was not so good. I studied, attended review session, and spoke to the professor; I did everything I would normally do before an exam, but this time my process didn’t work. I was one standard deviation below the mean and beyond disappointment.

Now that I have had about a week to objectively think back, I see where my distress came from. It wasn’t my grade that prompted my frustration, a grade is only a number after all, but the chart that listed the distribution of grades of my classmates. I was in the bottom 25 percentile. I was troubled by being labeled sub-average. We like to hear that we are “above-average” but no one likes to hear they are “below-average.”

If you’ve ever compared your social, academic, work, or love life to someone else’s, you know the frustration, envy, and self-defeating feeling that comes afterwards. But if we know this feeling is damaging to our personal health why can’t we just stop?

Not comparing ourselves to others is a hard task. We are social creatures, thus comparing ourselves to others is a natural process. Instead of seeing who has the biggest horns, teeth, or territory we compare to see who has a higher income, better GPA, or more Twitter followers.

After my initial frustration passed, I could see that I was unfairly comparing myself to others in my class, who might have spent more hours studying, visited the professor’s office hours more often, and wanted to pass the exam more greatly than I did.

We unnecessarily put ourselves down when we compare ourselves to others. We emphasis our weaknesses and bury our strengths. The way to start overcoming this is to remember that you have skills and talents that are above-average as well. There are things the other person has or can do better than you, but there are so also things you have or can do that he cannot.

Each summer in high school, I intern at a local real estate firm. My first day interning, I was intimidated by the people I was working with, who were 2-4 times my age. But then my real estate supervisor told me something, “Although the people here have more experience than you, you also have more experience than them at other things like speaking Vietnamese and using the internet. Some of the agents are still figuring out how to turn on Internet Explorer.”


This week, when you find yourself negatively comparing yourself to someone else, list something that you can do at least equally as well as the person you are comparing yourself to.

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Paycheck to Paycheck

Credit to Images_of_Money

Wendy works a 40-hour a week job. Each morning she gets up and works from 9-to-5, before going home. At the end of every 2 weeks, Wendy is happy to receive her paycheck, but is upset when she arrives home to see a pile of bills. She knows her new paycheck will go into paying off her accumulated expenses; sometimes she even has to take out a loan to make ends meet. Wendy realizes that she is in a bad spot; most of her income goes to paying expenditures and any potential savings is mere wishful thinking.

It is after dinner time and Chris has an assignment that is due tomorrow morning. Though Chris has known about this assignment for weeks in advance, he has been busy handling other assignments. Chris works overtime, maybe even borrowing from sleep to make sure his assignment is turn in on time and not face a penalty and risk his grade more than he already has. While Chris was dealing with the first assignment, another one (which he also knew about) draws closer to its due date. The next day, Chris repeats the previous night but this time with his new assignment. As assignments pile up, Chris feels more and more trapped in a vicious cycle.

You will most likely recognize the above scenario Wendy is in as working “paycheck-to-paycheck,” when most to all of a person’s income goes to paying for expenses and not for accumulating additional wealth. But can you tell Chris is in the same situation? If you don’t see it, go back and reread the second scenario and replace “assignment” with “bill”, “sleep” with “loans”, and “grade” as “potential savings”.

When income comes into your bank account just to flow out to pay for expenditures, the result is that your assets and savings never grow. The same can be said for time.

One common problem people have when setting goals is not having enough time to work on their goals because they are busy handling other matters in their lives. I call this working “paycheck-to-paycheck” even if there is no money involved.

To make time to complete your goals, you need to have create space in your schedule to do them. To escape the “paycheck-to-paycheck” mentality, you need to see where you have leaks in your time. With expenses items such as food, housing, and energy are not worth cutting. As such, when it comes to time there are obligations you cannot cut: taking care of a child/sibling, sleeping, meal time, etc. You will look to look to your more unnecessary commitments. The best way to do this is to see where you are inefficient with your time, eliminating time wasters (such as time on Facebook), and making you have all your material before you work.

Being wise with your time is similar to being wise with your money. By eliminating bad time habits, you are doing the equivalent of cutting unnecessary expenses.


Pick a time this week to sit down and tentatively plan your ideal upcoming week (at least 7 days in advance).

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Featured Friday: Stop For a Minute (Juan Cerda)

This week’s featured writer is Juan Cerda. Juan asks the question, “Why are you doing what you’re doing?” Juan knows this question personally having explored and changed his major multiple times before finding his true passion: history, which might or might not change.

Juan Cerda


Complacency. The mere whisper of this word sends shivers down the spines of the most driven workaholic and the most reputable overachiever. People associate complacency with laziness, inefficiency, stupidity, and stagnation. To become complacent with your situation is, in the idiosyncrasies of the Protestant work ethic and capitalism, to invite ruin upon yourself.

Modern goal-setting strategies shun complacency. Having more goals- working out more, becoming the world’s next billionaire, scoring higher on exams – means pushing aside those things that you have already achieved. It means that you are never going to stop to appreciate the aspirations you have already fulfilled because you have more to do, more to accomplish. It means that you will pursue goals for their own sake, never stopping to think why you are even pursuing them in the first place. Complacency, for all intents and purposes, has no value.

But won’t you, dear reader, just stop for a minute and think about why you do the things you do? Why do you work for more money when you already have enough to eke out a comfortable living? Why do you study more when you have already passed your classes? Why have goals in the first place?

So why do we have goals? Abraham Maslow, a prominent psychologist, was interested in what motivates people to behave in certain ways.  He devised the Hierarchy of Needs to account for every type of motivation. Starting from the bottom level ascending upward, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs consists of physiological needs, safety needs, social needs, self-esteem needs, and self-actualization needs. Each need within Maslow’s pyramid can be replaced by another need, such as food for friendship or money for artistic fulfillment; strictly speaking, no need is more “necessary” than another need. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs shows that any motivation is justifiable as long as it advances a person’s happiness.

Complacency is thus equivalent to settling on one or more of Maslow’s Hierarchy levels. If you feel satisfied with surviving in the wild, then you are motivated purely by physiological needs, and moving up the hierarchy is irrelevant unless it makes you happier. The principle of happiness can be applied to goal-setting. Many people, for example, discover that when they achieve a goal, they do not feel any happier than they did before; they were never motivated to pursue it in the first place. Winning for winning’s sake, eating for eating’s sake, and working for working’s sake yield nothing when you already have what you want and what you need. When you reach the point of satisfaction, making more goals is redundant.

Instead of making more pointless goals, you should settle on a handful of goals that will make you happy. Ask yourself why you want to achieve these pursuits. If the pains of fulfilling your goals outweigh the satisfaction obtained from achieving your aspirations, then abandon them and pursue other things. It is okay to be complacent once you have fulfilled them. After all, complacency may lead nowhere, but at least it keeps you somewhere. A quote from my favorite novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, conveys this idea the best:

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther … And one fine morning-So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Juan is a sophomore at Yale. You can contact him at


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My blog is updated daily.

Are you happy with the path you are on?

Credit to Paul. B of Flickr

When I was in middle school, it never occurred to me that I should get to know girls whom I had common interests with and not just the ones whom I thought they were cute or because I liked the way they flipped their hair. I had tunnel-vision and at the end of my tunnel was the attractive, popular girl sitting at lunch with all the cool kids. The problem was I didn’t fit in, and I needed to fit in to get my crushes to notice I existed.

I went out of my way to buy clothes I didn’t like wearing, gelled my hair in a way that was unnatural, and listened to music I had no interest in. All to impress my crushes. I figure, “the end result will be worth it.” I would date a cute girl and be popular. I did everything to impress my crushes. I never asked myself the question, “but then what?”

The bad news? The answer to my question: “but then what” would have been to keep up my act and be what she wanted me to be until we end up realizing we had nothing in common.

The good news? My crushes turned me down early on so I never had to deal with the bad news.

I was doing something to impress someone else and I was not happy with myself. I mentioned the concept of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in a post earlier, which says that if you do something based on the end result but not because you enjoy doing it, when your external reward is achieved or is taken away from you, you aren’t much happier than if you had not gone out of your way.

You probably know someone who exhibits the traits I had when I was trying to attract the attention of my crushes.

I like to use the example of the pre-medical track. Most of my friends came to college determined to go to medical school. But then during freshmen year, a few of them realize they have no interest in the medical field. Some pre-meds notice their disinterest early on, drop the track, and pursue other areas to study. They are much happier.

Others are not so lucky. They are trapped. They hope that eventually they will grow to enjoy what they are doing. For some they will discover something they enjoy or study, but for others this will not be the case. After fulfilling pre-med requirements, they go to medical school. After medical school,  they begin residency. After residency, they won’t want to work in the medical field because they still do not enjoy it.

If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, why are you doing it? Sometimes it is better to just stop and ask “do I enjoy what I am doing?”, before you go on.

Tomorrow’s Feature Writer is my suitemate Juan Cerda, who asks the question, “Why?” He will talk about setting goals that excite you.


Ask yourself, what are you aiming to achieve in your goals?

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My blog is updated daily.

Inspiring Stories: Gac Filipaj (Janitor and Ivy League Honor Graduate)

Some of my high school teachers said I was the best student they have ever had, but that is because they never taught Gac Filipaj:

Gac Filipaj works during the day as a full-time janitor at Columbia University and, at night, as a student. He did this non-stop for 12 years while supporting his family in Montenegro. He graduated last May with honors.

There are three lessons from Filipaj I want you to note:

  • Age is only a number. You are never too young nor too old to set goals.

Filipaj was 40 when he started his college education and it took him until he was 52, far more than twice the age of his fellow graduates, to finish. Despite the age difference, Filipaj never used age as an excuse to not chase after his dreams.

  • If you want to have time to do something, then set a time for it.

For Filipaj, the degree comes after years of studying late into the night in his Bronx apartment, where he’d open his books after a 2:30-11 p.m. shift as a “heavy cleaner” — his job title. Before exam time or to finish a paper, he’d pull all-nighters, then go to class in the morning and then to work.

One of the recurring ideas on my blog is to make time to accomplish your goals. You make time to shower and eat, you can make time to start on your goals. Don’t worry about having too much on your plate; figure it out as you go and, as a result, you will have a better command of your time and your priorities.

  • All it matter is that you cross the finish line

Filipaj took 12 years, that’s 3 times as long, as the average student to finish his degree, but the value of his accomplishment was not diminished. When goals seem big and out of reach, break it into steps. You just need to pick a starting spot and start. Bodybuilders don’t wake up one morning with ripped bodies; the process is gradual.


Simply read the above article about Gac Filipaj.

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My blog is updated daily.

The Mental Reset (What to do when you are Unmotivated from a Bad Day)

Credit to Images_of_Money of Flickr

Sometimes, your day just doesn’t go as planned. You sleep past your alarm, you receive a parking ticket, get into an argument with your best friend, etc. and the unfortunately events linger on your mind and you start to lose your motivation to do other activities. Most people call this having a bad day.

I am not immune and also have my share of below-average days, when things don’t seem to go right or a series of small mishaps creates a snowball effect.

Recently, I went to bed forgetting to set my alarm. As a result I slept past my wake-up time. No harm done as I just cut my workout short. After breakfast, I went outside to unlock my bike and found that my bike lock was jammed (the inner-lock had rusted). I spent 20 minutes playing with my key before giving up. No harm done, I decided to walk to class (at this point giving me just enough time to make it to the other side of campus). Walking to class, it started pouring. No harm done, I keep an umbrella in my backpack. When I reached into my bag, I remembered I had lent out my umbrella. I ended up walking to class wet and was 10-minutes late (on a day we were having a test). I was able to finish my test but I found myself mentally 10-minutes behind trying to catch up. After class, I walked back to my dorm, watched a YouTube video and picked my own lock (yes, YouTube can teach you to break locks). I broke my lock just in time for my next class. By the time I biked to the other side of campus and locked my bike with my spare (always keep two locks!), I realized that I left my binder of classwork and notes back at my dorm. At this point, I concluded I was a mess. During class, I kept notes on scrap paper, but as with my morning class, my mind was elsewhere.

I mention my below-average day not to vent about how unlucky I was, but to point out three facts.

First, I caused my bad day.

  • I forgot to set my alarm.
  • I knew my lock was rusting and decided to put off buying a replacement.
  • I could have stopped playing with my lock and just walked to class earlier.
  • I neglected to check my backpack before leaving to make sure I had my binder and umbrella.

Second, my initial setback (the alarm) caused me to act in haste the rest of the day to “play catch-up”.

  • Waking up late, I tried to “save” time by grabbing my stuff and leaving (forgetting to check for my binder and umbrella).
  • I should have just called campus maintenance to cut my lock instead of wasting time, but being behind, I didn’t want to wait for campus maintenance to come (I wanted to, again, “save” time).

Third, I should have just stopped and collected myself.

  • Each setback I made, led me to act more hastily and more prone to mistakes.

When class ended, I biked back to my dorm. I had more things to do that day, and at the rate I was going, I was going to have a miserable afternoon and evening. I had 10 minutes before I needed to be elsewhere, so I decided to do something I and most other students rarely do: I did nothing.

I closed my eyes and just relaxed, mediating in silence and blocking out all the distractions from the morning. The first half of my day was a mess, but I didn’t have to let my afternoon and evening be repeats. I gave myself a “mental reset.”

I learned this idea from playing and watching poker. In poker, when players lose big hands or a series of hands, (a bad beat), they begin to get frustrated and play not on logic but on emotion, leading them to misplay future hands and falling further on tilt. The best thing for a player to do, before they lose more money, is to stop and collect themselves. This won’t completely solve the problem but it is much better than staying on tilt.

After my mental reset, the second part of my day actually turned out to be one of the best experiences I’ve had at Yale.


Next time you have a bad day, stop and take a minute to reassess your situation. Take a break from what you are doing, close your eyes and think, anything to regain your composure. “Reset” yourself.

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My blog is updated daily.

Observational Learning (How YouTube made me a Public Speaking Champion)

Me delivering closing remarks.
Photo by Heather Middleton

The following are some of my favorite speeches:

  • President Barack Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention (Here)
  • Steve Job’s 2005 Commencement Address to Stanford (Here)
  • Conan O’Brien’s 2011 Dartmouth College Commencement Address (Here)
  • Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture (Here)

I watch these videos not only because they are inspiring, but also because I learn how to become a better communicators from these great orators. From Obama, I learned where to pause for emphasis; from Steve Job, how to turn a simple story into a moving tale; from O’Brien, how to build rapport with my listeners; and from Randy Pausch, how to involve my audience.

I started public speaking at the age of 15 as a way to overcome my shyness, gain more self-confidence, and make new friends. For hours on end, I read books such as Presentations for Dummies and How to Win Friends & Influence People, watched YouTube videos of my favorite speeches, and practiced my speech in front of the mirror. In ten months, I started as shy freshman to a confident communicator travelling to Orlando to compete at a national public speaking competition after winning 1st place at the state competition.

I couldn’t have done it without all my great mentors. It was important for me to learn from others because I learned from listening to speeches as much as presenting my own material. Observational learning does not just apply to public speaking. I do this for all my goals. I watch great magicians perform, Yugioh players duel one another, and leaders lead teams. When Noelle, our featured writer last week, was sitting on the bench she took in everything around her and learned from other Field Hockey players.

With goals, it is important to realize there are people whom we can learn from. Football players do this by watching hours of footage, writers do this by reading great works by others, and you can do this by identifying the “teachers” in your field.


With each of your goals, identify people whom you can learn from.

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My blog is updated daily.