Becoming a diligent person (part two)

Photo by jayneandd

In the first part of this post, I laid some basic groundwork for approaching diligence. I emphasized that you have a choice to be diligent or not each time you consider procrastinating, and that your moment-to-moment actions now will affect how you behave in the future. In this part of the post, I’ll list three common impediments to diligent goal-accomplishment and some ways to overcome each obstacle.

1. Not enough time or energy

Photo by Keith Williamson

You will always have busywork

If you’re like most people, your everyday schedule is packed. This will probably be true until you retire. If you put something off because you don’t have enough time, what you’re really saying is that that something is not a priority. That can be okay—you will have more success in what you do if you don’t take on too many projects. But make sure you’re ready to give up a project completely if you don’t have room for it—you shouldn’t regret never learning the piano if you are spending your time in a more valuable way. However, if you’re not actively pursuing a side project already, chances are you have some spare time lying around.

2. One-time exceptions

Once you’ve decided that a project is worth your time right now, you may be inclined to make one-time exceptions (“I just had a test today,” “I stayed up late last night,” “I’m feeling under the weather”). These are the worst enemies for your goal, and they are exceptionally easy to fall prey to. If you’ve decided that a project is worth your time, then I would be extremely critical of any one-time exception excuses. If you allow even one of these, it opens the door for future excuses, and before you know it, you never go to the gym anymore or you realize it’s been two months since you’ve picked up your new book.

One-time excuses will kill your goals

One-time excuses will kill your goals
(Photo by Amy West)

How do you solve this problem? Aside from making a no-exceptions policy, one way to motivate yourself to work towards your goal even when you’re not feeling 100% energized and ready to work (itself a rare occurrence) is to leverage several of your desires to make a firmer commitment. Say you want to get into a regular exercise routine. You might do this because you want to be a healthy person. But you also probably want to be the kind of person who exercises—someone who can motivate themselves to follow some regular workout schedule. Here, you’re using your desire to be healthy and your desire to be diligent to bully yourself into sticking to your schedule. If you can make a firmer commitment to your goal, you will be more resilient against one-time exceptions.

3. Discounting the value of future goals

People tend to perceive rewards in the present as more valuable than rewards in the future, even when the present reward has a lower actual value. This is a phenomenon known as hyperbolic discounting, and it partly explains why you might go on Facebook now instead of beginning your paper or why you might stay in bed and snooze your alarm instead of getting up on time. Discounting is closely related to one-time exceptions and can be overcome in a similar way. Since people have a natural tendency to give less weight to future consequences, it is important to consciously remind yourself of the future impact of your present actions.

Hyperbolic Discounting

Hyperbolic Discounting (Hyperbolic refers to the shape of your apparent utility curve as time passes--when you are close to realizing a reward, the apparent utility increases rapidly.)

Suppose you have a final paper due in a month. You know it would be bad for your health and your grades if you begin your paper a few days before it is due. However, due to discounting, those consequences are dulled at the moment, paling in comparison to the small entertainment value of playing Draw Something right now. To compensate for this discounting, you can remind yourself of the specific impact your actions in the present will have on your future. If you procrastinate now, you will be really stressed at the end of the semester. If you get a bad grade, you will probably be very unhappy with yourself and you’ll have a slightly harder time getting job opportunities in the future. Are you really willing to risk that outcome just to go on Facebook for a few minutes?


It’s hard to be diligent, and that’s partly because of human nature. Hopefully, by being aware of the specific psychological weaknesses that humans have, you can make a conscious effort to resist them and ultimately succeed in achieving your goals.


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