I am a hardcore procrastinator. I tend to make all of these big crazy goals and then push them aside … but every once in a while, I actually do manage to break or form new habits. A recent success is running. Although I tried many times throughout college to run on a regular basis, I was never able to stick with it – until now. But why? How was I able to develop this new habit while other things I’d like to start doing (like blogging) keep falling by the wayside?
I recently had an insight into all of this. I often read a blog called The Happiness Project, written by Gretchen Rubin (who also has a book of the same name). She had a post a while back that I just can’t stop thinking about (and that I highly recommend reading), where she divides people who want to break habits into “moderators” and “abstainers.” If you’re a moderator, you will stay on track more easily and feel less constrained if you let yourself indulge occasionally; if you’re an abstainer, it’s all-or-nothing – let yourself slip even a little bit and you won’t be able to stop yourself from going too far.
I liked this idea, but I was having trouble putting myself into one category or the other. In some ways, I’m a fan of moderation (I only run 3 days a week, rather than 6 or 7). In other ways, I’m an abstainer (I never buy chips while grocery shopping because I know I’m capable of knocking out half a bag in one sitting). I wasn’t sure if I agreed with the theory, until I came across the following comment from a fellow reader:
“I suppose it’s about removing the decision, or rather, making the decision for myself in advance and then being able to forget about it.”
That’s it! The important part isn’t whether you cut back or you give something up completely, it’s deciding ahead of time what your actions will be in a given situation. I think that’s what helped me stick to a running schedule; rather than say “I’ll run a few times per week,” I scheduled in each workout in advance on my calendar.
I think this sounds like a pretty good theory, but I always like to have some research to back things up. Unfortunately, my searches have been mostly unfruitful. (It doesn’t mean that no studies in this area exist; it just means I can’t find them. It doesn’t help that I have a hard time knowing what to search for – “habit reversal”? “Preemptive decision making”?)
One study that does seem to be somewhat related to this idea showed that thinking things through ahead of time made people more likely to take action. A couple months ago, NPR profiled an experiment that looked at “get out the vote” strategies in political campaigns. Potential voters received a standard phone call asking them to vote (if you’re registered to vote, you probably know what I’m talking about … or you will come November!). This strategy did not make it any more likely that people would cast a ballot. However, another group of people who were called and encouraged to form a plan for voting day were more likely to follow through. This last group of voters, according to the study, were asked “what time they would vote, where they would be coming from, and what they would be doing beforehand.” This forced people to consider what their surroundings might be when it came time to vote, and prodded them to start thinking of an election day plan.
This study looked at trying to get people to do a specific action on a specific day. When we’re talking about habits, it might be a little different because we’re talking about doing something over and over again, for a longer period of time. The two aren’t directly related, but it at least gives us some evidence that thinking about and planning for a desired action ahead of time might help us to follow through.
So, now I’m inspired! In order to help myself get into a blogging habit, I’ll go ahead and say: I’m going to post something every Wednesday and Sunday. I’m hoping that making this decision in advance and planning for writing time on those days will help me actually get it done … check back to find out if that’s the case!