“Why is it that a child sometimes does the opposite of what he is told? Why would a person sometimes dislike receiving a favor? Why is propaganda frequently ineffective in persuading people? And why would the grass in the adjacent pasture ever appear greener?"
— J. W. Brehm, A Theory of Psychological Reactance
Propounded in 1966, Psychological Reactance is our instinctive reaction to any external dictat, rule, or regulation that tends to curb our freedoms.
For instance, you may have observed that if you ask a kid visiting your house to, say, not fiddle with that precious flower vase kept on the side table, the kid will now be more inclined to fiddle with it!
That’s also why a lot of us do not like salespeople annoying us in a showroom or why almost all of us are averse to being sold to altogether. The moment a salesperson approaches you in a mall, many of us start feeling claustrophobic. We feel our freedom shrinking down to the set of preferences we can articulate to the salesperson. And we'd rather take our own sweet time to figure out what we really want to buy.
Being persuaded to buy a specific product in the grocery store, being forced to pay fees for services we do not want, being prohibited from using a mobile phone in school, or being instructed to perform work for the boss are all examples of threats to the freedom to act as desired.
And reactance is our way of rebelling whenever we experience a threat or loss of our freedoms. We act in a way that serves to restore that freedom.
Also, it is important to note that for reactance, the freedom to choose a behaviour must exist in the first place. People who don't experience a particular freedom, or have no meaningful choice in the matter, don't experience reactance, since their independence isn't threatened.
If you know that you can’t afford to not do something — that doing otherwise isn’t an option at all — then there is no reactance. It is only when you know that a choice is available, but you are being forced not to take it, that you experience reactance.
This is why we tend to push all our work toward the deadline.
It's an unconscious attempt to limit our freedoms and push ourselves in a corner in order to make ourselves to do something.
We call it "procrastination."
But in reality, deadlines just leave ourselves no choice but to do the work. We have an obligation, either to our team, or to ourselves, or both.
Now, if you understand this, think about why your to-do lists never manage to make you do the tasks listed. This is especially the case with creative folks, who are naturally more prone to rebellion than others.
In fact, I’ve had people tell me that putting something on their to-do list is a good way for them to NOT do it.
We all want to feel in charge of our lives. Productivity tools may feel like prisons, especially if the cost to choosing not to follow them isn’t high.
So, how do you counter your tendency for reactance?
The most straightforward answer is to enjoy what you do, to love your work. But that isn't a helpful solution for a lot of us who still haven't found work that we truly find enriching and meaningful. So, forget it.
For now, try doing two things:
- Increase the cost of not doing things on your to-do list
- Increase friction of doing other things outside of your to-do lists (transaction costs, remember?)
You basically have to design your systems in a way that breaking them would be too much work, so you might as well just follow them instead.
For example, sitting in office, by default imposes more productivity, because you don’t have a bed around to laze around. There aren’t many distractions.
Having someone you deeply respect as an accountability partner can also help. You do not want to disappoint them, so this can be a great motivator.
I've also heard a lot of people keeping their working space free from all clutter during focus hours — things that could potentially steal their attention — like smartphones.
In the absence of enjoyment, there are no immediate good solutions for psychological reactance, only useful hacks. But just being aware and conscious of it when it is taking place can often make a huge difference.
You tame the rebel within you by noticing when that rebellion is taking place.