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.