A couple of years ago we published a book called “The Victory Project: Six Steps to Peak Potential in which we discussed, amongst other things, steps that all of us can take to improve our ability to focus, to concentrate and to be super-productive. Now Nandan Nilekani and Tanuj Bhojwani have written an entertaining book on the same subject titled “The Art of Bitfulness” in which they argue: “The design of how a choice is presented affects the choice itself. The consequences of the design are simple to understand when there is a form asking you to opt in or opt out. We make many more complex choices every day based on the information presented by our environment. If we are not mindful of our environment’s influence, we might be making the wrong decisions.
In the purely analogue environment of the past, there was friction that would enforce some boundaries between different parts of life. Before smartphones, one was much less likely to get caught up reading a magazine article at their desk instead of working. To do that, one would have to intentionally bring a magazine to work or go out and find one. These tasks impose a significant cognitive effort and deliberate break from routine. We are likely to have paused and realized that we could read that article later. With smartphones, your friend may forward you a link to an article, and you end up reading it before you even realize you’re doing it.”
To help office workers like us avoid the usual daily frenzy of emails, Zoom, social media, emails, phonecalls, Powerpoint, Excel, Zoom, etc, Nandan & Tarun recommend that we behave like the mythical Greek hero Ulysses i.e. “Splitting your personality is essentially a pre-commitment strategy. These are also known as ‘Ulysses pacts’ because of the use of this concept in Homer’s poem Odyssey. The hero Ulysses is sailing his way back home, but he must pass the Sirens. The Sirens were infamous for singing an irresistible song that led men to their deaths in the treacherous sea. Ulysses plugged the ears of his crew with wax. He instructed them to tie him to the mast and to stay the course no matter what he says in the future. Ulysses knew that his present self before being enthralled by the Sirens was a better decision-maker than his future self. He set up his environment accordingly.
In the digital world, you can lock yourself out of your social media accounts by logging out. Or simply give your phone to a loved one and ask them not to give it back to you till you finish some important task. Some pre-commitment strategies themselves are either high friction or not rigid enough to be useful. Splitting your personality lets you implement pre-commitments in a flexible manner.”

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