A plan to modify my own behavior

2012-01-21 (Saturday) § 3 Comments

I have all kinds of plans for productive use of my free time. A lot of the time I crap out and instead spend the time doing things that are fun but leave me no closer to the goals I had intended to approach. (I have a feeling I’m like the majority of humanity in this respect.) “Just do it” has so far been a losing strategy for beating this problem.

I’m convinced at the moment, from having read The Illusion of Conscious Will by psychology professor Daniel M. Wegner and Descartes’ Error by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, that conscious thinking drives almost none of our behavior. Unconscious processes and emotional outcomes of those processes are running the show. If I want to change my behavior, I have to target those, not my conscious thoughts.  I’ve also been focusing more on certain elements of human behavior: namely, what antecedent phenomena correlate with specific behaviors. Or to put it more simply, what happens first every time you do X.

So I’ve been comparing my behavior at work with my behavior at home and looking for emotional correlates. At work I get things done promptly, reliably and thoroughly. At home I get distracted, put things off for hours, and sometimes leave things undone altogether. I spent some time examining the feelings I have when I do these behaviors and I found one thing that correlated neatly with the behaviors that I do reliably: shame. Or more accurately, the expectation of shame. If I make mistakes or don’t get back to people quickly at work, I look like an asshole. I imagine my coworkers seeing me as generally less awesome. People are more reluctant to take my word for things and I get fewer compliments about the quality of my work. That stings. I’m highly motivated to avoid it. On the other hand, if I don’t spend my time at home as I planned to spend it, there are no emotional consequences. At least none that really sting in close enough correlation to specific acts or failures to act.

So one idea would be to set up a way to attach shame to any failure to follow through on the plans I set for myself. A therapist who I saw once a couple of months ago suggested that I try something like this. Promise that I’ll post something substantive to this blog every Friday. Then I’ll know that if I don’t, my reliability in the eyes of others will be diminished. That’s an emotional sting. The problem is that I won’t necessarily get much feedback either way. Another is that there isn’t a convenient way to attach that motivator to any possible plan I might set for myself.

Shame isn’t the only emotion that motivates me. There are lots of others. I picked one that makes it easy to rig up an artificial motivation system: the fear of overspending. I’m naturally frugal. I instinctively weigh every monetary expenditure against the value to me of its likely results and its level of significance compared to my current income and savings. This is a convenient hook to hang a behavior modification scheme on because it’s easy to move money around.  Much easier than generating shame on cue. So the first part of the scheme is to fine myself a painful amount of money for each day that I fail to follow the plan I’ve set for myself in advance. More later on where that money goes.

Another key part of the scheme is the consequences are delivered in a way that I can’t avoid. My then-self, under the influence of distractions and a recoiling from immediate obligation, will seize any opportunity to avoid the consequences set up by my now-self. So I have to block the exits. It’s like the story of Odysseus and the Sirens. (I stole this comparison from Dan Ariely in Predictably Irrational.) Odysseus knows that once he hears the Sirens singing, he’ll be seized with an irresistable desire to jump overboard. But he has no such desire now. So he sets up a scheme whereby now-Odysseus can restrain later-Odysseus. His method is literal: he has his crew bind him to the mast with ropes. My method is to remove agency from my then-self to someone else. A friend of mine (who has agreed to participate) will be responsible for deducting any applicable fines from a fund I’ll set up for the purpose. He will donate the fine money TO THE REPUBLICAN PARTY! Oh god, I really don’t want that to happen! This will add a lot of extra sting.

I’ll report to my friend each day whether I kept strictly to my plan for the day or not. Fortunately, the idea of telling a bald-faced lie, especially to a friend, is emotionally repugnant to me. All I have to do is close off any ambiguities to make it impossible to dissemble without lying.

I added a carrot as well as a stick: If I go six consecutive months without a single fine, I’ll let myself buy a tablet computer. That puts up a big emotional obstacle between 0 and 1 crap-outs.

There are a few other details to the scheme, but these are the essential ones. I think it’ll work. We’ll see.


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§ 3 Responses to A plan to modify my own behavior

  • Stephen says:

    I’ve found that keeping detailed lists of tasks necessary to accomplish a given goal has been useful, for avoiding distraction, as a brainstorming tool, and a mechanism for externalizing motivation – I don’t want the list to shame me!

    Best of luck with your goals – although I’ve generally found that strong community structure enables me to spend much less energy on individual willpower, and more on what I actually hope to do, if that makes sense. The trick is finding the right community (don’t get sucked into a cult).

  • Kelly says:

    You have a great consequence manipulation set up. Are you taking data and graphing it? Data-taking as a self-monitoring strategy sometimes by itself results in the desired behavior change.

    To “get things done promptly, reliably and thoroughly” is the behavior you want to increase at home, but what things in particular? It might help to operationally define just one or two behaviors to increase at a time. To “get distracted, put things off for hours, and sometimes leave things undone altogether” is the behavior you want to decrease at home. It might help to write down just one or two specific antecedent stimuli that distract you and the specific behaviors that you want to decrease. When you “put things off,” that’s an abstraction corresponding with some behaviors, like sitting around, browsing YouTube, or some other specific competing behaviors, i.e., behaviors that compete with the behaviors you want to increase.

    Some antecedent manipulations I tried when I wanted to get only A’s and A+’s on tests were all I needed in one of my behavior mod plans. I wanted to increase the future frequency of memorizing 100% of my study guides at least 1 day before the test day. My antecedent manipulations were to keep my computer off during study guide time and write a note on my OkCupid profile that I would not be messaging anyone until the end of the semester, which decreased the likelihood that I would engage in my most frequent competing behaviors (browsing YouTube and OkC). I recorded my test scores and saw that the antecedent intervention and self-monitoring were enough for me to get those A’s and finally an A+. Maybe you’ve already tried antecedent manipulations without success, but doing them with consequence manipulations might work better than either alone and could reduce excessive anxiety that might come from your punishment procedure.

    I take it you’ve specified the dollar amount that constitutes a “painful” amount of money. It also sounds like maybe you are already setting one specific plan for yourself each day. So how’s it going? Is the Republican Party richer today because of you? Are you any poorer? I hope not!

    • paginavorus says:

      Yep, $30 is the daily fine. I haven’t graphed any data because there’s only one variable I care about.

      The way it works is, I have a plan for certain amounts of time I’m going spend during a given evening doing certain things. For instance, 31 minutes doing music theory exercises, 49 minutes calculus, etc. I run a stopwatch to measure that time. I’m allowed to go off and do something else in the middle (like Facebook, making dinner, whatever) but as soon as I break exclusive focus on the designated activity, I have to stop the stopwatch. One agenda item that’s key is a designated time when I have to be in bed with the computer turned off. That sets a definite limit for how much time I have to put in the required minutes on specific activities, so I can’t indefinitely procrastinate and count on being able to stay up late and get it done. I know that the later I wait to get my designated activities done, the greater the risk of running out of time.

      The single variable I measure is whether I completely stuck to the agenda or not. If I planned 31 minutes of music theory exercises and only did 30, that’s a fail. If I planned to be in bed by 9:45 and I don’t get there until 9:46, that’s a fail. Either of those secures $30 of my money for the GOP. The point of this strictness is to eliminate ambiguities that my then-self would use to dodge the consequence.

      There’s an additional carrot as well as the six-month reward. As soon as I’m done with all my agenda items, the rest of the time until I need to go to bed is free to do whatever I please, no obligations. I can spend it all watching youtube if I want. In practice, with about an hour and a half of agenda activities, this remaining time has generally been about an hour each evening. Another benefit of this remaining-time policy is that it reduces the motivational pressure to crap out on my agenda, because I know if I get it done soon enough, I’ll have a chunk of time that’s effectively designated for exactly the activities that I would have done instead of the agenda if I had crapped out. I guess it implicitly works like your “FIRST x, THEN y” method.

      A second pressure-release valve is that I have at least two rest day a week, no agenda.

      I think the key features of this system are:
      1) A consequence that’s emotionally salient to me at the moment when I’m tempted to crap out.
      2) Elimination of ambiguities so I can’t avoid the consequence without completing my agenda. The conditions under which the consequence (I owe $30 to the GOP) happens are clearly defined and measured.
      3) Provision for every possible behavior and outcome. Not just “I must not fail to do X”, but “If I fail to do X, Y happens.” This is a key difference from the way I used to try to get things done at home, by writing up a to-do list and lecturing myself to get it done. Also, not just “I need to stay focused on music theory exercises” but “If I get distracted from music theory exercises, I have to stop the stopwatch.”

      I’ve had 11 agenda days, and so far 100% success. I haven’t done any antecedent manipulations yet. They haven’t seemed necessary. I think the remaining-time policy is sufficient to reduce my anxiety about the punishment contingency. Not sure if it would work for other people, but it’s worked for me so far.

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