Browsing the archives for the choices tag.
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How Getting a Little Distance Can Help Willpower

The human mind

Maybe you’ve had the experience–I know I have–of doing something that at the time seems overwhelmingly important or irresistable but that later just seems … stupid. Or at least unnecessary and a bad idea. It doesn’t matter whether it’s spending a whole afternoon at work searching for an e-mail that will prove a point you’re trying to make, or heading out to the couch with a spoon and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s that will never be seen or heard from again, or staying up all night watching the Gilligan’s Island marathon instead of studying: our judgment of what to do in the moment often doesn’t agreewith what we’ll later decide we would like to have done.

So if we want to try to bring those two perspectives closer–that is, to be more comfortable doing things we’ll still approve of later–one key skill is getting a little distance. I’ll be more specific: when I say “distance,” I’m talking about three separate things: awareness, perspective, and mental separation.

Awareness
Being aware of–mindful of–what’s going on in our own brains is not automatic. It’s entirely possible–even easy–to think about something without paying much attention to the fact that we’re thinking about it. Thinking about thinking (“metacognition”) is a conscious process that we do more of when we encourage the habit and less of if we don’t make an effort.

Without noticing what we’re thinking about, we’re fairly powerless to change our thoughts. But when we pay attention to what our minds are doing, we have options: we can refocus attention elsewhere, think through consequences, distract ourselves, surrender ourselves, or take other steps to be more practical, consistent, serene, constructive, or however else we want to be in those moments.

Perspective
Perspective is the difference between “I’m going to die if I don’t get those shoes” and “I’d enjoy those shoes, but I’d rather spend the $200 on groceries.” Lack of perspective makes things that will detract from our happiness more attractive and makes things that will make us happier down the road seem dull and un-hip.

One way to get perspective is to think about all of the consequences of an action, not just the appealing ones. Another one, which helps me sometimes, is self-mockery. Mentally (or even out loud, if you can’t be heard or don’t mind) saying “Oh yes, I’m going to be in absolute torture every moment of my life if I don’t get an iPad!” (for instance) wakes up our critical thinking and often yields a “wait–I really don’t want that” effect.

Mental separation
Mental separation is the process of changing focus to another subject or another aspect of the current subject. If I’m being tempted to procrastinate on important work by reading a novel instead, mental separation means leaving off thinking about the novel for the moment and instead focusing on something more constructive, like what it will be like to present the project I’m working on to an appreciative audience, or how much I love my paycheck. As long as our focus remains unchanged, it’s difficult to change our minds about what we want to do, although perspective can help. When we let go of a slightly obsessive line of thought in favor of some other subject, the dangerous line of thought ceases to have nearly as much sway over us, and in fact it would take work to get back into that same way of thinking. (See “How to Multitask, and When Not To” for information about how changing what we’re thinking about requires us to reorganize our brains.)

Getting a little distance from overly eager thoughts about underly good things is an important component of being able to exercise willpower. Willpower is making good choices, and our choices are driven in large part by how we feel about the options. Switching to a healthier kind of thinking makes healthier options seem more appealing, and with no more effort than that move, we can improve our chances of going down the paths we really want to follow.

Photo by loungerie

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Two Years Without Coffee: How to Resist Temptation

Self-motivation examples

A little over a year ago I posted “Going a Year Without Coffee,” in which I talk about how my physiology seems to encounter a lot more trouble with caffeine than most people even though I really enjoy coffee. So while I had largely steered away from coffee for some time, it wasn’t until two years ago that I stopped drinking it at all (and stopped having chocolate, tea, and other sources of caffeine along with it).

And while I’m sure I’ll have coffee again from time to time in the future, last week marked two years without, and I thought it might be worth sharing the tactics I use to steer clear, because they’re the same kind of tactics a person can use to avoid other kinds of temptation.

Changing What We Desire
The ideal thing would be to simply not want whatever it is we’re trying to avoid. Surprisingly, this turns out to be a practical approach. Many of us are used to thinking of our desires as being out of our control, that if we’re being drawn to some french fries or to someone who’s a bad influence or to an irresponsible drink, we have the choice of fighting or giving in (or often, both). Yet there’s a different, much more powerful choice available to us: using thinking to redirect our desires.

The Wrong Kind of Attention
When I start thinking about having a cup of coffee, I’m generally thinking about one of two things: how enjoyable the coffee itself is or how I would like to feel more energy. In both cases, my conscious mental processes are directed toward things that will make the idea of having coffee more appealing. On reflection, it seems obvious that if I’m thinking about how much I like the taste of coffee or how energetic I might feel if I had some that I’d be much more likely to actually have some.

It’s easy to imagine that everything we know about a choice feeds into how we make that choice, but in reality, the things we consciously focus on play a much bigger role than everything else, which is one reason we might know exactly the same things from one day to the next but choose to work hard or eat smart the first day yet procrastinate or eat junk the second.

Thinking That Makes Good Choices More Appealing
So my usual habit when I start thinking about a cup of coffee is to jot down a few thoughts about what will happen if I do have some. One of the first things I usually think of is the grinding, day-long headache I’ll get sooner or later from the caffeine. While this isn’t my body’s only negative reaction to the stuff, and while it’s always delayed at least a couple of days, it’s a miserable time.

Not surprisingly, the more I think “coffee=terrible, day-long headache,” the less appealing that cup of coffee gets. This effect builds as I remember that while coffee gives me energy, it also makes it easier to feel jumpy or anxious. Having energy isn’t much good if I’m not in a good enough mood to use it well. As I carefully think over what the real results of my actions will be, the temptation looks progressively more shabby and unappealing.

Having a Little Time Makes All the Difference
The problem with this approach is that it takes time and attention. However, it doesn’t take a lot of time and attention, and if we have enough time and attention to be tempted by something, we probably have enough time and attention to reflect on what will happen if we let ourselves be sucked in by that temptation. It only takes a few minutes, and while it works best if you can write or talk about the things that will make you less attracted to that choice, even just careful thought can bring you there. The worst thing is to be tied up so thoroughly with something else that it’s difficult or unworkable to focus on good choices for a few minutes instead, although planning can help get us through these times (see “How Preparation Enables Stronger Willpower“).

Ultimately, not making a bad choice is easiest if we help ourselves dislike that choice. Focusing on the reasons the choice is bad in the first place help change our perspective so that we stop wanting things we don’t really want for more than momentary pleasure (see “The difference between pleasure and happiness“). To put it another way, the best way to resist temptation is to let ourselves be tempted instead by the things that will truly make us happy.

Photo by Beatriz AG

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How to Make Habits Form More Quickly

Habits

While it always takes time for a habit to form, if we want to encourage one to take hold, here are some key things we can do:

  1. Do it more often. Each repetition of a behavior helps to strengthen the neural connections that can make that behavior automatic.
  2. Skip the excuses and exceptions. While nobody’s perfect, it’s important to keep in mind that any time we skip a day or decide to let things slide because of “special circumstances” sets things backward and delays the formation of a habit. (See “How Not to Make Excuses“)
  3. Plan in advance. Sometimes we don’t have a lot of attention to spare to think about a goal at the times when we need to make key choices. By planning ahead when we do have a few moments to think, we can have the right choices mapped out for us and increase our chances of making them.
  4. Think, visualize, discuss, daydream. The more time we put into thinking about our goals and imagining the payoffs, the easier it is to tap into motivation when we need it. Use a daily commute, time waiting for appointments, time in the shower, and even conversations with friends to spend more brain time on your goal.
  5. Simplify. The more we make our desired behaviors simple to manage, the more likely we are to be successful managing them. Use tools, regular events, well-thought-out systems, and repeatable behaviors to stay on track.
  6. Find the appeal. It’s much easier to keep to a course of action when it’s something we think of ourselves as enjoying instead of something we think of as a chore or limitation.  Focus as much as possible on the things that make a behavior appealing, and be willing to try to find some enjoyment even in circumstances you’re used to thinking of as unpleasant, like feeling hungry or getting organized.

Photo by Maia C

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Control, Direct Influence, and Indirect Influence

Handling negative emotions

Social circles of influence

In previous articles in this series, we took a look at Dealing With Problems That Can’t Be Fixed, asking When Is It Time to Make a Change?, and when it is that the best solution is Fixing a Problem By Leaving. In today’s article, we’ll look at the kinds of power we have to make changes happen.

Control
When we are able to make changes, it’s important to understand how much impact we can personally have. The most direct situation is control, when we can change something by acting alone. Most of the articles on this site are about situations where we can have some control, like organization, fitness, building new habits, and how we relate to other people. This category includes things that feel out of control, but where the real choices are within us. For instance, I was overweight for many years and didn’t feel in control of that situation. As I learned how to manage my own body better, though, I began to lose weight, and eventually lost more than 60 pounds. Although I wasn’t willing or able to take charge of the situation for a long time, the control still lay entirely with me.

Influence
Many of the situations we tend to worry about aren’t directly under our control, however, for instance how our friends and partners treat us, whether or not we receive promotions or contracts, or how much help we get from others. Problems with situations like this can often come up in our minds as should statements, such as “I shouldn’t have to do this without help!” or “I deserved that raise!” or “It’s not fair that it’s raining the weekend we were supposed to go camping!” (A note: “should statements” don’t necessarily contain the word “should”. A should statement is any thought or declaration declaring a need for someone or something else to do or not do something.) Should statements are a common example of a broken idea, a type of thinking that creates unnecessary trouble. To regard situations where we have influence only and not control in a healthy and constructive way, it’s important to come to terms with the possibility that things may not turn out the way we want them to.

Direct influence
Situations where we have influence come in two flavors: direct influence and indirect influence. Direct influence means that we can take specific steps to try to get the thing done. For instance, a person who wants a raise can usually go to his or her boss and request one, and someone who wants to be treated better by another person can confront that person.

Indirect influence
Indirect influence means that we can only take actions that encourage the results we want, but can’t control them or even push for a decision. Some examples of indirect influence are practicing more in order to have a better chance of winning a talent contest or writing letters to a representative to encourage a particular vote.

Social influence diagram by Bruce Dupree, via Anne Adrian.

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Good Intentions Are Fine, But They’re Not the Same as Commitment

States of mind

Over time I’ve noticed a clear difference between the goals I consistently follow through on and the ones I don’t: commitment. I might have the same intention to repot my long-suffering ficus as I do to wash the dishes, for instance, but my dishes get washed while my ficus languishes uncomplainingly (though if potted plants could talk, I imagine I’d get quite an earful). The difference is that I’ve faced the question of living in a house full of filthy dishes and decided absolutely that I don’t want to do it, while I haven’t made the same commitment to my ficus.

Here’s what I mean by committing to something instead of just intending to do it:

  • If I’m committed to something, I’m willing to hold off on other things in order to get it done. Many of us have a lot more we’d like to do in a day than 24 hours can actually hold, so if we don’t make a special effort not to try to do everything, then the things that are most important to us can be lost in the shuffle.
  • If I’m committed to something that isn’t a habit yet, I’ll think about it practically every day and find time to work on it regularly–not just in big pushes every once in a while.
  • Being committed to a goal means that I’ve decided to look for ways to do more toward that goal rather than excuses to not do it. For instance, if I’m committed to exercising, then when I go on vacation I’ll think “What are some special opportunities I’ll have to exercise?” and not “Well, this is going to totally disrupt my exercise routine–I guess I’ll just start up again when I get back.”
  • Being committed means that I’ll want to pay attention when it’s time to make choices about my goal. If an opportunity to make a choice comes up, I’ll want to take the extra time to be mindful of what’s going on and to use all of the abilities at my disposal to make a good choice.
  • If I’m committed to building a habit, then that means I’ve decided ahead of time that I’m OK working on that habit virtually every day for a couple of months or longer. Factors like how complicated the behavior is and whether I’ll be doing it in about same environment every day can make the period of time longer or shorter until the habit develops. (See How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?)
  • Finally, a commitment means that I’m willing to at least some of the time to prioritize my goal over things like relaxation, entertainment, and less important tasks (even if those less important tasks are right in my face and insisting on being done right away). I don’t have to give up all enjoyment, but I do have to get comfortable with the idea that pursuing my goal may not always be convenient.

These thoughts and practices aren’t all that complicated, but it’s easy to come up with an intention and not think through what it would really mean to commit to it. Pursuing a goal takes time, effort, and attention. Yes following through in this way with a well-chosen goal can make an enormous difference in our happiness, self-confidence, and success.

Photo by darkmatter

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Do Bad Choices Make Us Unhappy, or Does Unhappiness Drive Us to Bad Choices?

Uncategorized

As an extreme example, consider a heroin addict: taking heroin will make this person feel really good–for a little while. Then, when the drug wears off, the addict is left to face whatever problems the heroin was meant to be an escape from, plus whatever problems shooting up has caused–like getting arrested or using the rent to buy drugs, for instance. The bad choice of taking the drug causes bad situations that make the addict unhappy, so that taking more of the drug is that much more appealing, as a way to escape the unhappiness.

I most often use the phrase “feedback loop” to refer to the helpful kind of feedback, like journaling several times a week while working toward a goal. This kind of feedback loop provides a way to look at progress and trouble over the past few days and try out corrections that themselves will be looked at during the next feedback loop (which is what makes it a loop). But there are different kinds of feedback loops that can work against us, like the addict, his troubles, and his needle.

All which is to say that bad choices and unhappiness work together to cause more bad choices and unhappiness. Weirdly enough, this is good news, because it means that if either the behavior or the unhappiness is interrupted, both the behavior and the unhappiness can be lessened.

Getting back to our drug addict (who in a very general sense is in the same kind of bad feedback loop as someone who overeats or doesn’t do the dishes regularly or avoids calling back clients when something goes wrong), this means that anything that makes life a little more bearable can make it a little easier to think about getting off the drug, and that getting off the drug (after withdrawal is over and the consequences are faced) automatically starts making life a little more bearable in some ways.

Most of us have it much easier than the drug addict: if I start doing a better job of sorting my mail as it comes in, for instance, I’ll immediately start feeling a little better about my organization, unless the problem had gotten so bad that I needed to go through the shock of finding out what was in my mail first. And if I start feeling a little better about things, it will be easier to try organizing the mail more reliably.

In the end, both parts of the cycle usually need work. After all, addictions don’t usually go away by themselves, nor do addicts tend to stay out of trouble long if staying out of trouble means they’re miserable all the time. But by attacking either of the parts alone to begin with–whichever is the easiest to affect–we can get an initial boost that will make following through that much easier.

Photo by nicolas

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Is Willpower Just a Matter of Caring Enough?

States of mind

Some people give the following advice about willpower:

“You have to care about what you want to achieve, a lot. If you care a lot, it’s in the bag. If you don’t, you might as well give up.”

Since I think this is lousy advice, I’m not going to mention where it came from, but I do want to say why it’s lousy advice.

Why caring alone isn’t enough
First of all, a person can care desperately about something and still not be able to make it happen. For example, Melissa might feel completely oppressed by her messy and cluttered house every day and want nothing more than to clean it up. However, she won’t be able to do that if she doesn’t believe she’s capable of making the change, if she doesn’t know how to start, if she can’t organize her efforts, if she strongly wants something else that’s in conflict with the clean-up effort, or if every time she thinks about cleaning up she gets distracted, blocked, or hung up on emotional issues.

Why not caring doesn’t necessarily prevent self-motivation
Similarly, if she has systematically forced herself to ignore her house for years and doesn’t really care very much, but she still knows on some level how good for her it would be to have a clean, happy home–for instance, if she’s in love with someone who wouldn’t be able to overlook the mess–then she can still create the self-motivation to clean up, and even to come up with organizational ideas, deflect distractions, overcome obstacles, and get past emotional issues.

Caring as a source of motivation
Of course, caring deeply about something is nonetheless a powerful source of motivation, and if there aren’t other things in your way, it can sometimes be plenty by itself. For example, one summer when I was in college, I met a French exchange student who spoke hardly any English. She was very pretty, and I immediately decided I wanted to be able to speak to her in French. I probably learned more French in those two weeks than I have in all the rest of my life put together. I knew I could do it, having already become conversant in Spanish; I didn’t feel any emotional conflicts with learning French; I knew how to go about studying the language; I had the books … in other words, caring pushed me forward, and there didn’t happen to be anything major in the way. Under these kinds of circumstances, caring makes a real difference.

How to become motivated even when you have mixed feelings
Let’s say I’m in a situation where I recognize that something is very important–starting an exercise regime, for instance, or completing some difficult repairs on my house–but I don’t really care about it on a gut level. How can I motivate myself?

First of all, it helps for me to connect to the benefits. If possible, I’ll want to visualize and spend time thinking about the results I’m seeking–the increased value of my house when I sell it and what I could do with that money or the boost in energy I would get from exercising, for instance. These kinds of exercises help me care more, which as we’ve established isn’t strictly necessary, but which will help make things easier.

Second, I have to be willing to prioritize the thing I’m trying to achieve above every other kind of self-motivation. We are really only capable of working on one major life change at a time: this is one of the reasons people so often fail at changing their habits, because they try to fix everything at once, which means changing many kinds of habits. But changing habits requires a lot of focus and attention–too much to allow attention to be divided among a lot of different goals. So while changing in more than one major way at once is possible, it’s extremely difficult and usually fails. So if Melissa wants to declutter her house, she’s better off not trying to start a weight loss regime or a novel at the same time.

Motivation creating caring
The flip side of this is that our attention, our consciousness and awareness and focus, is so useful and valuable that if we direct it energetically at any one thing, we have a very good chance of achieving that thing if it can be achieved at all. If Melissa spends a lot of time thinking about how she’ll clean up her house, and reads books on decluttering, and talks with friends about the problem, and learns some of the strategies on this site to deal with the difficult emotions that can come up in that kind of process, then even if cleaning up her house starts out as something that doesn’t really mean much to her, it becomes something that she gets better and better at and cares more and more about.

Because it’s really the other way around: caring doesn’t cause us to make changes in our lives as reliably as making changes in our lives causes us to care. The more thought and effort I put into accomplishing a goal, the more I begin to identify with that goal, most of the time. As much as what we care about makes us who we are, in fact who we are changes throughout our lives, and caring about different things, shifting our own priorities, is a lot of what makes that change happen.

Photo by Storm Crypt

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What’s Drawing You Forward?

States of mind

Being motivated generally means being drawn toward something. Even running away from a ravenous smilodon is motivated in a way by a desperate desire to keep on living (though when we get down to the reptile brain like that–eating, sleeping, procreating–the rules are a little different, and a little more fundamental, than when we’re trying to motivate ourselves to complete a term paper or clean out the garage).

The question is, what are you being drawn toward? You don’t necessarily need an end goal, and in fact most kinds of personal improvement have to do with acquiring habits you’ll want to keep for the future, habits you’ll want to keep for a lifetime rather than just use to get to a finish line. The best way to complete one novel is to become the kind of person who writes a lot; the best way to lose weight and stay fit is to become the kind of person who eats well and loves to exercise; and so on.

So we’re not looking for some kind of end state or finish line: instead, we’re looking for a vision of the future, some point along the line when you’ve accomplished some of the things you would most like to accomplish. What does that vision look like?

The reason this vision for the future is important is because we tend to align ourselves with imagined situations, an effect called “mood congruity.” If I vividly imagine a cold, drizzly, depressing day, I’ll tend to feel more depressed. If I vividly imagine a ravenous smilodon, I’ll tend to feel afraid. And if I picture myself in a house that is perfectly organized, I’ll tend to get excited about organizing my house. Our mental imagery affects our current mood and even our desires. That’s why thinking about playing video games instead of studying is a bad way to prevent yourself from playing video games instead of studying: the more we picture something, the more we tend to make choices that are affected by the image.

One last note about drawing ourselves forward: while visions of a good future can help make us enthusiastic about making good choices in the present, the future in question doesn’t have to be a distant one. For instance, if I want to clean the garage, it can be very effective to imagine myself just a couple of hours in the future with a small part of the garage completely taken care of, even if the garage as a whole is going to take me weeks to sort out. Or I might imagine what it will be like to show my spouse that newly-clean corner of the garage, or to think about what I’ll do in a couple of weeks with the money I make selling unneeded things I dig out of the garage on Craigslist. In fact, sometimes the little, short-term payoffs are the most motivating.

So short-term or long, what’s drawing you forward?

Photo by rogiro

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Relax, Goals, Choice, Tactics

Strategies and goals

 

For a month and a half now I’ve been pursuing My “Use ’em If You Got ’em” Challenge–basically, to get better and better at using the tools I already understand just when I need them, even at the seemingly worst times. It’s been challenging all right, but also educational, and I feel as though I’m slowly getting the hang of it. Of course it’s frustrating too, because when I don’t do a good job at using my self-motivation tools, because of my research I usually know exactly what I’m doing wrong. But Knowing Isn’t Enough: I’ve been needing to get in the habit of using self-motivation tactics as difficult situation arrives, and while it’s a very beneficial habit, it doesn’t come naturally!

And since it’s a difficult task, it’s been important for me to break it down to the simplest terms I can think of. The terms I’ve come up with make up the title of this post: relax, goals, choice, tactics. When I follow this approach, I have a very good chance of doing well. When I don’t, I’m more likely to rely on old, bad habits.

Before I talk about what each of the steps means, I need to mention the thing that makes any of them possible: mindfulness. I can only use my in-the-moment willpower tactics when I am consciously aware that I’m in a situation where I might make a bad choice. These really aren’t hard to recognize–I always feel a little doubtful, at least, when they come up. What’s hard is learning to wave a red flag at myself in those situations and say “Hey, pay attention to this! Think about what you’re doing!” Yet the more I do it, the easier it gets.

On to the four steps:

Relax: This is essential, and it’s so useful to me that most of the time it’s the only step I need. I find that when I’m in a situation where I’m in danger of making a bad choice, I tend to feel worked up about the problem–one part of me is ready to dig in and insist I make the bad choice, whereas another part of me is gearing up for a ferocious battle. Relaxing means letting go of both of these points of view and taking a few deep breaths. Is the question of whether I watch a movie or work on that project really life-or-death? No, it’s just an opportunity. I do my best to let go of my concerns and not take myself so seriously. Suddenly, making a good choice is no longer a struggle: it’s just one potential path I can take.

Goals: Once I’ve stepped away from the situation a little and let go of the tension, I have room to reflect for a moment on my goals. If I want to lose weight, get more work done, be more cool-headed in difficult conversations, be more organized, or whatever it may be, I can reflect on my vision for myself and remind myself why those goals are important. By thinking about my goals instead of about the bad choice I was considering, I become much more able to focus on good choices.

Choice: In that state of mind, I can choose what I want to do–even if I’m not prepared to do it yet. I can take a moment to visualize my behavior and consciously pick one of those paths. Being relaxed and having my goals in mind, the good choices tend to be much easier at this point, and the bad choices less tempting.

Tactics: If a good choice is not easy to make at this stage–although honestly, it generally is if I go this far in the process–then I can start looking at my available tactics. For instance, if I’m trying not to eat something, I can use any of my 24 Ways to Stop Feeling Hungry. If I’m trying to start a project that’s difficult for me, I can use any one of the 7 Tricks for Starting in on an Unappealing Task. There are dozens of tactics for supporting a good choice on this site, and having even a few available to choose from–whether on a printed list or a memorized or on a bookmarked page I can bring up on my computer–usually gives me enough leverage to make the good choice I want to make.

Relax – goals – choice – tactics is a bit of an advanced technique, but if you’re interested in cultivating good choices, it’s  a habit well worth cultivating. As for me, we’ll see how I do as I get better and better at using my four-step method.

Photo by  sytoha / Syed Touhid Hassan

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How Not to Make Excuses

States of mind

An experiment in excuses
For most of my life I’ve been running an experiment between two categories of things in my life: the “excuses are OK” group and “no excuses” group. It’s only recently that I noticed I was running this experiment, though, and so the years and years of results are only now starting to come in handy.

Let me give some examples of choices that have been in each group. By the way, though I talk a lot about eating well in this post, the points about excuses and exceptions apply just as well to forming any other kind of habit.

“Excuses are OK” group

  • Eating foods that I’d be better off not eating
  • Going to bed at a reasonable hour
  • Keeping track of incoming mail

“No Excuses” group

  • Parenting
  • Vegetarianism (for the 22 years I decided to do that)
  • Going to work

So I might do well for a stretch at making good eating choices, then hit a day when I was traveling and didn’t have many options, so I’d say to myself “Oh well, it’s really hard to eat well on a day like today–I’ll just eat whatever.”

But on that same trip I would not say “Oh well, it’s really hard to eat vegetarian on a day like today–I’ll just get a hamburger.”

My results
Knowing what I know these days about self-motivation, it shouldn’t surprise me that the “no excuses” group of activities were much more successful than the “excuses OK” group. For instance, when I started making a rule of eating only at specific times of day, it became much easier to make better eating choices. I went 22 years without knowingly eating any red meat, seafood, or poultry–even that time back in my 20’s when I was out of money and extremely hungry while traveling and someone offered me a hamburger. By contrast, it’s rare that I’ve gone 22 days without overeating (though all the days I have eaten well count for something, as I eventually lost 60 pounds and have been in great shape for quite a while now).

To look at it another way, and in terms of a real experiment, one study on habit formation found that those participants who kept up the behavior they wanted to make into a habit with no more than one exception over the course of months were much more successful at forming durable habits than those who made two or more exceptions.

The secret of excuses and exceptions
The thing about excuses and exceptions is that if we’re trying to build habits, there’s no good reason for excuses short of total catastrophe. Any time we don’t stick with the behavior we’re trying to build up–that is, any time we make exceptions–we lose some of the habitual behavior we’re trying to build. There may be days when eating well is inconvenient, boring, or annoying, but if I use inconvenience, boredom, and annoyance as excuses, then they’ll wreck my attempts to build a habit over time.

That’s not to say that making one excuse is the end of the world, but it is true that taking excuses as a serious problem and not an acceptable norm will help us develop the habits we want to create.

Easier said than done–but possible!
“That’s really nice,” you might say, “but it doesn’t help me for you to just tell me to behave the way I’d like to all the time. Not behaving the way I want to is the problem in the first place!” And that would be a reasonable thing to mention. Fortunately, there is a practical takeaway here: excuses are red flags and should be treated as such. There’s no such thing as a good excuse when trying to build a habit, there are only catastrophic interruptions. If a friend of yours is in the hospital and you end up throwing your good eating habits out the window from stress and limited choices, that’s fine; it’s not the end of the world–but it is a catastrophic interruption, and it means you’re damaging a good habit you’re working on for something more important. But good friends are more important than good food, and that’s a reasonable choice if you really need to focus on your friend.

On the other hand, what if you just interrupt a good habit because you’re in a bad mood or happen to be in a restaurant that serves something you like? Many of us immediately reach for the excuse box.

But if we recognize excuses and exceptions as danger signs, we can stop ourselves and say “My goal here is to build a habit, not to come up with excuses to screw that up.” Using this kind of awareness, making rules, taking responsibility, surrendering excuses, and making use of any useful tactics we can learn (like this list of 24 Ways to Stop Feeling Hungry), we can move ourselves out of the “Excuses OK” group and into the group that’s really kicking experimental butt.

Photo by ariel.chico

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