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To Make Better Choices, Create a Protocol

Strategies and goals

Willpower as a series of choices
The real challenge of willpower often comes down to making good choices–a lot of them. One of the best ways to make a good choice is to come to a decision before you actually need to act: for instance, making firm plans to start cleaning out the closet at 3:00pm (ideally with an alarm or reminder in place) instead of coming to an opportunity to start and deciding between that and watching TV; or planning and packing meals for the day rather than choosing something to eat after you’re already hungry.

But for the choices that come up without planning, there are many other tools we can use. As opportunities or temptations come up, we can take time to envision accomplishing a current goal (visualization), focus on immediate positive benefits of a good choice, look for broken ideas, use distraction to steer away from a temptation, or focus on the mechanical steps of  acting well (for instance, see my post called “Just Don’t It“)–to name a few techniques.

Seizing the moment
What’s tricky about this is that bringing these tactics to mind takes special focus and a little time, commodities that are often in short supply when there’s an immediate choice to be made. If we wait to figure out what we can do about the situation, often by the time we are recollecting how to detect broken ideas or have come up with a good visualization to use, the opportunity has passed, the doughnut is already being eaten, or the procrastination has already begun.

The solution to this is to develop a protocol, a set of steps to follow every time you possibly can when a choice comes up that requires willpower.

How to create a protocol for choices
A protocol is short list of pithy reminders about willpower tactics: 3 to 4 items is good. It should contain the techniques you think have the best chance of getting you on track on short notice, summarized in a way you can memorize and bring to mind immediately when a situation comes up.

Once you think of your protocol, don’t hesitate: apply the first technique. If that gets you to the good choice you want to make you’re all set, but if it doesn’t seem to be working, switch to the second technique. No single technique is likely to work all the time, which is why having several already thought out is so powerful. Having too many, though, begins to get difficult to remember and hard to apply. Your protocol can swap out elements over time, but try not to overload it.

It can help to include both high-power techniques that require some time and attention and quick-draw techniques that you can apply immediately, since you want to have the big guns available but may not always have the time to deploy them.

Some examples
Protocol elements should be stated in a positive, encouraging, brief way. They should always be directed to plug into your motivation and long-term happiness and never to inspire guilt or to try to force yourself to do something you know you don’t want to do. Rather, these elements should redirect your thinking so that your actual desires in the moment change to make you want to pursue the best choice. There are many such techniques on this site. Here are a few examples. The terms in quotes are the kind of thing you might memorize, while the rest is just explanation. Your protocol elements might be much more specific to your goal than these general examples.

  • “What am I thinking?” – Search for broken ideas and repair them: see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair
  • “Just go ahead” – Focus on the mechanical steps of doing the thing you want to do. If the task at hand is making a telephone call you’ve been avoiding, go through the moment-to-moment tasks of looking up the telephone number and dialing each digit instead of trying to get up enthusiasm. If it’s to stop eating, focus on moving your dishes to the sink, closing food containers, putting things away, washing up, walking into the next room, etc.
  • “Picture finishing it” – Use visualization to get some immediate happiness out of a long-term goal.
  • “Write it out” – Use a feedback loop to reorient yourself.

There are many more techniques you could use in a protocol, and I’ll see if I can’t get together a reference page of them to help. In the mean time, try browsing the complete post listing for this site, where you’ll find articles on a wide variety of willpower tools.

Photo by blythe83

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How About a Little Later? Would a Little Later Work?

Strategies and goals

Breaking habits isn’t easy: it takes a lot of disruption to make a behavior we’re used to stop coming out automatically. Changing a behavior means coming up with many ways over time to stop ourselves from doing what comes naturally, by habit. For this purpose, the more tactics we have available to disrupt those undesired habits, the better–and one of those tactics, strangely enough, is a bit like procrastination. You could also call it “delayed gratification,” but regardless, the technique is to push things off a little further in time. For instance, if a person is hard at work at a home business and is tempted to stop working for a while to check Facebook, something they’re trying not to do doing working hours, one option is to say “How about I check Facebook a little later?” Chances are the idea of checking Facebook came up during a particularly boring or unappealing moment in work, and if things get more interesting as the work progresses, then not checking Facebook might be easier when the promised time comes than it was when it was first put off.

And if it isn’t easier to avoid when the delayed time comes, it can often be put off again. Enough delaying, and it might not happen at all, or else be saved to an appropriate moment–just as with someone who’s trying to stick to a healthier eating pattern putting off a snack until it’s meal time, when the snack is no longer necessary.

This is not a very sophisticated or especially powerful technique, but like the Just Don’t It technique, it can be pulled out at odd moments to interfere with a bad habit a person is trying to break. Even if ultimately the delays don’t prevent the undesired behavior, at least there has been some interruption of the normal state of things, which is an accomplishment and a bit of progress. And at their best, delaying tactics can be one of a set of tools that together can be employed to completely extinguish an undesired habit over time.

Photo by Stuart`Dootson

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How Do Tactics Change As We Learn New Habits?

Strategies and goals


In cleaning up my office recently, I found several notes to take down from older phases in my health and weight loss process. Over the last few years I’ve lost more than 50 pounds (so far), put on a good deal of muscle, and improved my general fitness and energy levels–but it has taken a lot of effort, and it surprised me to realize how many different approaches I had needed over even just the last couple of years.

And when I look the notes over, I realize they were all good tactics. It’s not that I kept trying things and failing, but really the opposite: I would struggle with a set of goals for a while, eventually make them part of my automatic behavior, and then turn my attention to the next step for me, whatever that was at the time. The notes I pulled down today were tucked in places around my desk where I was guaranteed to see them several times a day. They were each at different times a small part of my self-motivation, and when I needed to quickly remind myself exactly what I was working on at the moment, they were always there.

Generation 1
The oldest note I still had up covered six principles that helped me minimize some of my bad eating habits and improve my nutrition and health in general. They’re not so much universal wisdom as the specific things I personally needed to concentrate on. (These were just for eating: exercise was always pretty much a simple matter of “get active, and stay active!”) My note (paraphrased a little) said:

1. Plan food choices instead of choosing while you’re hungry
2. Know how many calories are in something before eating it
3. Eat only from servings*
4. Fruits and vegetables are good choices for snacks and fillers
5. Eat at regular times
6. Write down everything you eat

* For instance, instead of eating from a box of crackers, I would serve myself some crackers on a plate.

Generation 2
As these things became deeply-ingrained habits, I stopped looking at that list, and eventually I created another, this one of things I could do to not eat if I felt hungry (except for fruits and vegetables, which for me personally are always a good idea). They were things like eating a fruit or vegetable, getting involved in something absorbing, drinking tea, etc. They helped solidify my habit of eating only at particular times.

Generation 3
As that grew to be old hat and both good eating and exercise grew to be pretty ingrained habits for me, I added a new goal, task management. Now my reminder note had to do with always knowing what the next thing I wanted to do was, focusing on making good choices every time a choice was presented to me (regardless of the subject), and going out of my way to find enthusiasm for the most important items on my task list.

A Continuing Cycle of New Tactics
What I hope you’ll glean from all this isn’t so much the specifics of my reminders to myself over time as a picture of self-motivation as an ongoing process of acquiring habits. You identify some behaviors you want to change, remind yourself of them every day, and then as they become habits, you set your sights a little higher or make your goal a little larger. For this new vision, you figure out what behaviors you need to change. One goal gives way to the next, and if things go well, you gradually acquire more and more of the habits you really want to have, and lose more and more of the behaviors you don’t want.

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