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If you’ve got this big idea on your to-do list like “Do Taxes,” well, you can’t really do taxes in one step. What David Allen and GTD did was try to break everything down to a doable to-do list. I’ve started using it, and I have to say that I do have a pretty clear inbox, and it does free you up to write that way. And Drew said that the day that he got to zero [in his] inbox was just this moment of bliss. You can’t believe what it’s like to have nothing to do. It’s not that everything is done, but everything is on a list to be planned, and you don’t have to worry about it at that moment.
reason: Let’s talk a little bit about self-control, or lack thereof, for debt and deficit spending by Congress. Obviously, the focus on the next election cycle is generally blamed, but is there a broader parallel between the individuals who have trouble staying out of debt in their own lives and what’s happening on the national scale right now with this ever-expanding debt and deficit?
Tierney: Starting with the New Deal there’s always been this idea that someone is going to take care of you, that I’m not ultimately responsible for my old age, that there’s social injustice, and we’re all our brother’s keepers. Which is a very nice idea, except who’s going to pay for it? People in their personal lives at least realize—I think this is one of the disconnects now with the Tea Party—people in their personal lives know very well that you can’t keep spending money you don’t have. And they’ve seen in their personal lives what happens when you buy a house that is now underwater. You’re in trouble. So they look at the government and say, “You guys can’t keep doing this either.”
reason: You have a great line where you say that the people with the best self-control are the people who take themselves out of situations of temptation. You say of Ulysses lashing himself to the mast, that someone with real self-control would have just taken a different route home, which I really liked. Can you talk about how that works? And how we can sort out cause and effect? If you don’t set yourself up for temptation, you’re awfully good at resisting it.
Tierney: There are a couple of strategies. The Ulysses story is a good one because that’s a classic example of what’s called precommitment. He ties himself to the mast, the sailors have plugged their ears so they can’t hear the Sirens [and be tempted to jump into the sea to their deaths]. Now that’s one form of precommitment. But an even more extreme form of precommitment—and an easier one—would be just don’t even sail by the Sirens in the first place.
That’s what they found in deeper studies recently when they ask people how they’re exercising self-control and when they follow people, the people who have the best self-control use it least because they set up habits. So instead of waking up every day and thinking, “Am I going to jog this morning or not,” they just set up appointments with friends, so they don’t have to make a decision to do it. There’s no energy, and your friend is helping to enforce [your goal]; you’re outsourcing the self-control. So they’re conserving self-control that way. They don’t bring the junk food into the home. There have been some simple studies, some great studies showing that simply putting candy in a drawer at your desk saves you from eating it, vs. putting it out on the desk itself. If you put in on a book shelf across the room, that also helps you. Anything you can do not to stare at something, not to be faced with those temptations. Because just resisting that chocolate all day long at your desk, that depletes you, and at some point you’re going to give in, or you’ll do something stupid at work, or you’ll get mad at your family.
reason: Talk about the evolution of the obsession with self-esteem and how it related to self-control. How did the self-esteem movement come about in the first place? Why was it picked up in public schools? And what went wrong?
Tierney: The self-esteem movement came out of this finding that there was a correlation between self-esteem and success. It was such an appealing idea that if you only improved people’s self-esteem it would then make them more successful, because people who had self-esteem were successful. So people love this idea. It seemed to apply, and it was much easier to do that than to do hard work. It’s much easier to kind of sit around in a circle telling each other how much they like each other and their greatest strengths.
Roy Baumeister, my co-author, was one of the leaders in that because it seemed very promising. Then when they actually started doing serious studies tracking people, they found that success predicted self-esteem; self-esteem did not predict success. You had self-esteem because you succeeded. But this went on for a long time anyway. And it really did hurt schooling, I think. There was all this concentration on feeling good. There have been these [studies] where U.S. math students perform pretty badly, but they felt great about themselves. That just doesn’t really work very well in the workplace.
reason: What are the implications of your book for drug policy, if any?
Tierney: We need to strengthen the DEA [laughter].
reason: No, really. If people are so simple that just taking the candy off your desk and putting it on a shelf is effective, why isn’t that an argument for saying, “Let’s just control supply where we can. Let’s make it a little bit harder to buy pot. Let’s make it a little bit harder to buy heroin.” Won’t that reduce use?
Tierney: I don’t have to tell reason readers that that’s been a miserable failure, that it’s easier than ever to get these drugs. And the fact is that we just cannot escape temptation. You can legislate casinos, but people can gamble online anytime they want. Temptations are always there.
That’s the reason, in the book, that we don’t really think much about government solutions. Because these things cross borders. Temptations are everywhere. You have to somehow find ways yourself. There is certainly room for social support, and that’s an important thing. Twelve-step groups work in part because of social support. People who go to churches—I’m not religious myself, but you can’t deny the evidence that people who are religious have much better self-control, and they get that because of these rules.
We have a chapter talking about Eric Clapton and Mary Carr, how they beat alcoholism. Mary Carr was this not-at-all religious person who became religious as she quit drinking, and she found this idea of a higher power helped her. There’s a thing that’s called bright-line rules. You somehow reach a point when it comes to stopping smoking or something where you’re just not going to do it anymore, and you know that your future self is not going to do it. When I quit smoking I did Nicorettes, and I know what that struggle is like. That’s what somebody on drugs has to do; you have to reach that decision. There are ways you can do it with a self-help group, with a religious group, or some kind of personal change. But the government can’t make you stop using drugs. They can’t really take them away from you; only you can do that yourself.