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Action Triggers: Getting Back on the Self-Control Wagon

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WagonWith every single bit of forward momentum, there will come a setback at some point.  It’s an inevitability that nothing good will continue uninterrupted forever.  This is the case with everything, human or otherwise, and is a fact of life that most unrealistic optimists don’t embrace early enough. 

If you think there won’t be speed bumps on the road ahead – if in fact, you don’t plan for them – when you hit one, the wheels are going to come flying off.  You’ll be done for.

When you look at self-control, or having the discipline to do the things you don’t necessarily want to do, there’s an expectation that it’s either on or off.  You’re either exercising self-control or you’re not; hot or cold, black or white, Reagan or Clinton.

The problem with this approach, as I wrote about in The Exercise and Science of Self-Control is that self-control is exhaustible.  Which means if you’re always on, you will eventually be off because your muscles, your self-control muscles, will become exhausted. 

If you know this, why not plan for it?

Lots of times these aren’t predictable dips in your self-control momentum.  They’re unplanned, unexpected, and unwelcome.  It’s the cinnamon roll instead of the gym, the Rocky marathon instead of Excel, the impromptu party instead of laundry and dishes, and so on.  It’s the feeling of failure – or just disappointment – that you weren’t able to hold true to the promise you made to yourself.

You spent all that time getting your self-control built up, just to have it come crashing down with a single mid-day cinnamon roll.

And if you’re anything like I am, once you break one or two promises to yourself, you might as well break them all.  For months on end.  It’s so easy… you’ve already proven that you’re not trustworthy.  That you aren’t strong enough to hold up your end of the bargain.  You’re weak and not worthy.  So why bother trying anymore?

It’s so much easier to let things go, to give up on maintaining that discipline, and to go back to mediocrity with the rest of “them”.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way.  Instead of forfeiting the game entirely, get your head straight to compete in the next inning.  It doesn’t have to be too tricky, it just has to be thoughtful.  You need to go in eyes wide open, knowing that you aren’t perfect.

Start with the assumption that setbacks will happen.  You don’t have to like them, but you need to have a strategy for dealing with them.  This sounds obvious but it took me 15 years of experimentation for me to finally figure out exactly what my strategy is, or that I needed one.  When you find yourself deviating from the path, figure out what it takes to get back on that path.

Sounds great, but what does a setback strategy look like exactly? 

It’s really not complex.  In fact, by the end of this post, you should have some basic tools to work with.  According to Heidi Grant Halvorson in her fantastic book Succeed: How We Reach Our Goals, “Planning when, where, and how you will take the actions needed to reach your goal is probably the single most effective thing you can do to increase your chances of success”.  Planning ahead is an imperative.

If This… Then That (“Action Triggers”)

For all you computer programmers out there, successful long-term self-control comes down to simple IF-THEN statements properly executed.  Just like any machine that interprets code, your brain will hit the conditional statement and say “if this… then that” and the response you insert will become automatic over time.  This is the core of your setback strategy.

It will become programmed.  You want it to become programmed. 

Similar to precommitment, a closely related concept, you’re preloading behavior in the deep subroutines of your mind.  This isn’t voodoo, this is possible and pretty simple to pull off – it’s backed by hard science – and it’s one of the best ways to keep from falling off that wagon, and for getting back on when you do.

IF-THEN statements or “instant habits” according to Peter Gollwitzer, one of the originators and primary researchers in this approach, “protect goals from tempting distractions, bad habits, or competing goals”. (If you want to learn more about research in this space, search for Peter Gollwitzer’s work or read about implementation intentions)

Chip and Dan Heath discuss in their book, Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard, how these “action triggers” almost tripled the chance of success–goal completion.

Here’s what you want to do:

  1. Start with four or five “If This… Then That” statements.  Examples could be, “if I go to a Thai restaurant, I will eat the chicken and vegetables, not curry and white rice” or “If I find myself tempted by bread, I will drink a full 16oz of water”.  Those are ‘proactive’ (true to the research) but they could be ‘reactive’ as well; “If I miss a day at the gym, I will go before breakfast the following day” or “If I wake-up late and miss my time to write, I will write at least 300 words during lunch”.  These help systematize getting back on track – you don’t have to think about it.
  2. Write them down and refer back to them until they feel automatic.  Memorize them until you act on them.  Make them a part of your daily programming.  Until they are, make sure you look at them daily – or when you feel yourself slipping – and start putting them into real action as soon as possible.
  3. Use these action triggers as part of your everyday self-talk.  If you’re able to change the way you talk to yourself, you can change the way you act.  These IF-THEN statements, once they’re a part of your self-talk, will keep you from falling victim to the “I suck!” type of self-talk and instead replace it with something constructive.
  4. If you find they’re not effective, change the wording up.  Research has shown that the right wording alone can result in way more success with triggers.  Try making them more specific, more personal, or just simpler!  Convert reactive triggers to proactive triggers if you need to.  It shouldn’t take a lot of words to get your point across; the wordier they are, the less likely you are to make it automatic.

There are big benefits to this type of upfront planning.  You’ll find your actions will be more structured instead of based purely on impulse, and you’ll keep that self-control muscle from becoming more tired than it should be.  This means your fall off the wagon won’t hurt as much, and you’ll be able to rebound more quickly!

By the way, this post is an example of minding the gaps.  I’m writing this on a train, working off of a “Next Posts” notebook in Evernote.  I didn’t know what I’d want to do on the train or what my options would be, but I figured I’d be writing something once onboard.  I knew I had a bunch of research queued up in Evernote and with the time I have, I’m cranking one out in the “gap” between Seattle and Portland!

Written by Mike Torres

March 12th, 2011 at 10:45 am

  • Fabriccio

    Hi!

    I feel completely  indetified when you say this: “And if you’re anything like I am, once you break one or two promises
    to yourself, you might as well break them all.  For months on end.  It’s
    so easy… you’ve already proven that you’re not trustworthy.  That you
    aren’t strong enough to hold up your end of the bargain.  You’re weak
    and not worthy.  So why bother trying anymore?

    It’s so much easier to let things go, to give up on maintaining
    that discipline, and to go back to mediocrity with the rest of “them”.”

    I read your blog since las year. I need a change in my life so your posts are and will be very useful to do it.
    Thanks for writing!

    Cheers from Ecuador (South America)

  • Hesam_tut

    I am thankful to all the time you spend writing and finalizing them, God bless you,
    Hesam, from Iran

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