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How Making Rules Can Improve Willpower

Strategies and goals


A recent article on the Psychology Today site by psychologist Kelly McGonigal, “The Self-Control Costs of Moral Flexibility,” talks about research that seems to show that it’s easier to make good choices when we make a rule of them. For instance, it’s easier to choose to do the dishes after dinner if you’ve made a pact with yourself to always do the dishes after dinner.

In the article, McGonigal says “What’s the best strategy, then, for making moral decisions or sticking to a behavior change? Take a principled stance that sets automatic restrictions on your behavior. Weighing the risks and benefits in each situation may seem like the more logical approach, but it’s more effective for most people to commit broadly and then not reflect on each opportunity.”

So creating rules to follow can be powerful, but there are pitfalls: using rules too much or without thinking it through carefully can cause them to fail or even backfire.

First, keep in mind that we have a limited amount of focus, attention, and effort to spare, and that learning to follow rules (even if they’re terrific rules that we’re coming up with on our own) requires all of these resources. If we try to add on a bunch of rules at once–or even two at once–we may be dooming ourselves to failure. As with new goals, it’s often most effective to get used to new rules one at a time.

Second, watch out for unintended consequences. If you make a rule to eat only at specific times throughout the day, are you piling on extra food at the end of each of those meal or snacktimes because of a fear of going hungry? If you decide to study every weeknight at 7:00, does that mean you’ll pass up a golden opportunity to study at another time because you “don’t have to?” Of course, one way to deal with these problems is to try the rules out, then evaluate how they’re working once or twice a week to see if you might be “gaming” them. Don’t try to reevaluate the rule when it’s time to follow it: by doing that you’d be second-guessing yourself at every step and giving up the whole “no struggle” advantage of rules.

Finally, only make rules for things you want to be doing pretty much all the time. Don’t make a rule that you will sit down for ten minutes at the beginning of every workday to review what you accomplished the day before if you know that at least a couple of times a week, there will be more urgent, important things to attend to as soon as you walk in the door. But this kind of rule problem, too, can be fixed with a little bit of reflection once or twice a week to see how you’re doing.

The idea of making rules about your own behavior may be offputting; if so, it may be more productive to think about taking, as McGonigal puts it, a “principled stance.” Regardless, use this technique to make use of your good thinking now to make good choices in advance and free yourself from some unnecessary indecision.

Photo by Monoglot.

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