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You Don’t Need a Promise, You Need a Plan

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I sleep better when I don’t eat snacks after dinner, especially junky carbohydrates, so last week when I visited a friend’s house I made a specific resolution to decline all such snacks.

Sure enough, as though the scene was a moral fable I had written myself, I was at one point handed an open bag of Doritos. I then watched myself pull out a handful of chips and start eating them, while making a resolution for next time.

Later, when the Doritos were reduced to crumbly fragments barely worth fishing out of the bag, I reflected on what had gone wrong, and remembered something I discovered years ago about resolutions but forget constantly.

If aliens were to visit earth and observe us living our lives, perhaps what would baffle them most about our species is not our struggle to co-operate with each other, but our struggle to co-operate with our own selves. You’d think a sentient organism should at a minimum be able adhere to its own decisions — to leave in time to catch the early bus, to do the lunch dishes right after lunch, to refrain from eating the entire sleeve of Oreos, especially after making explicit vows to do precisely those things because they make perfect sense.

For whatever evolutionary reasons, part of the game of being human is to wrangle ourselves into acting out the choices we’ve already determined are the right ones, and the resolution is our first-order tool for doing that. You make a promise to yourself – whatever that means exactly — that you will indeed do the thing you worry you won’t do. I will start the term paper the day after it’s assigned. I will not read the comments beneath news articles. I will wave away the Doritos bowl when it comes around.

There may be people for whom these sorts of bare resolutions do work reliably, and I assume these people become astronauts, pro athletes, and heads of state. For the rest of us, the resolution is a comically ineffective tool for changing course.

Resolutions are kind of pathetic if you think about how they’re supposed to work. We fear that we won’t act wisely when the time comes, often because we’ve just let ourselves down, so we simply assure ourselves that we will act wisely next time, and we mean it. This is more a gesture of hope than anything — that a moment of gathered resolve and earnest vows now will somehow cause us to possess the necessary wisdom and discipline later, in some future moment of truth when that promise is tested. The resolution is an attempt to control our future selves from the present, by simple decree.

However, the Future Self has its own feelings and concerns, and it will conduct itself as it sees fit. If we have any direct control over whether we keep a given self-promise, it is only in that sole Moment of Truth, when the choice is finally made for real – the moment the crinkly blue Oreo package is being slid over to you, or the moment you begin to contemplate postponing today’s run. Resolve can only be exercised there, in the Moment of Truth itself. If it’s not present then, it doesn’t matter how much of it you had earlier.

That’s good news, because it makes the challenge a lot smaller. Since the resolve only needs to be applied at and around that one decisive moment, you can focus on being ready for that moment. You don’t have to depend on willing yourself to become a permanently better and stronger person as of January 1st or Monday morning or this very minute.

Instead of harnessing your guilt and frustration to create a spontaneous personal transformation, you can play a different game, one which can actually be won: learning to recognize the approach of the Moment of Truth, and executing a simple plan to take Action B at that moment rather than the usual Action A.

Action A is the reflexive, habitual response – to grab the chips, to argue with the internet trolls – and it might always be the easiest thing in the world. But if you know you’re in the Moment of Truth, and you have an alternative move prepared, that alternative move can be pretty easy too – to say “No thanks” and go get a glass of water, or to click the browser tab closed and stand up.

This simple strategy of replacing a reflexive action with a more conscious and empowering one, is the way human beings train for any skill or activity. For example:

In rock climbing: When you want to pull with your arms, try pushing with your legs.

In chess: When you see a good move and you want to make it, try looking for a better one first.

In meditation: When you feel discomfort and you want to get rid of it, try allowing it to be there.

That’s what all training amounts to, as far as I can tell — conditioning ourselves to take a more effective action at a certain moment than the impulsive one we start out doing.

Imagine if, in the above examples, your improvement strategy was to will yourself to exert more arm strength, to think up only the best chess moves the first time, or to eliminate all discomfort while you meditate. You’d never get anywhere in these pursuits, no matter how many vows you made.

Come to think of it, when I look back on my personal triumphs, I’m not sure any of them were precipitated by an earnest moral appeal to myself to become better. They were all a matter of discovering a better way to respond to a recurring problem.

And it always feels funny at first. Action B – the new, more effective way of responding to a particular moment — always starts out feeling unintuitive, and Action A starts out feeling so compelling it’s hard not to do it. But each instance of doing B over A reverses this difference a bit. The game is in recognizing the signs that the Moment of Truth is approaching, and knowing the new move you’re going to make when it arrives.

My snacks-related moment of truth returned the other night, and my new move was to decline the chips, stand up, and go get myself a glass of water. It was easy to pull off this move because I had it ready.

Best of all, making this move (or not making it, had I forgotten) had nothing to do with becoming a better person. It wasn’t a victory of the angel on my shoulder over the devil on the other—it was only the difference in having a plan instead of a vow.

***

Photo by Manki Kim

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Tim March 17, 2022 at 11:20 pm

Thanks for this. This reminds me of something I worked on in therapy — to sit with discomfort and not immediately reach for “option A”. It can be hard to recognize all the times we take the path of least resistance. But once I started to recognize them, it became easier to do the better thing (do my work instead of checking Instagram, for example). I think just recognizing that you’re about to make a “bad” choice makes it easier to stand up to yourself and make a different one.

David Cain March 18, 2022 at 9:29 am

It does quickly become easier, once you nail down what A and B are, and you start to do B sometimes. B has its own immediate reward too, which is that feeling that you’re doing right by yourself for once.

Nethra March 18, 2022 at 2:41 am

Timely article for me. I’m trying to get a buy in from my own system around having to return to the physical office (something I hate and consider unnecessary, but management won’t listen) and I encounter enormous resistance because of the million such tiny decisions I need to make every minute in an open office. ADHD doesn’t help either. I’m trying to convert these decisions into tiny meditations – I follow Shinzen’s mindfulness framework and it allows for “microhits”. I like my job but hate the BS red tape that comes with it. Hopefully, I can use it to get enlightened along the way.

Geeman March 18, 2022 at 3:23 am

Gosh! That’s exactly how I feel very similar situation. I must investigate Shinzen’s mindfulness framework – microhits!
All the best to you!

David Cain March 18, 2022 at 9:32 am

There is a free course on Shinzen’s methods at unifiedmindfulness.com. I am a big fan of his approach.

David Cain March 18, 2022 at 9:31 am

Your strategy makes sense to me! That’s one of the great things about mindfulness practices — when you’re not sure what to do with an unpleasant situation, you can make a practice of it. Shinzen’s microhits are perfect for this.

Geeman March 18, 2022 at 3:18 am

“having a plan instead of a vow”
Words to live by! I always thought it would be fantastic if our minds could, at will, run like code. If this happens then do that else do the other etc. The trick seems to be to keep rewriting that code with daily or weekly intentions. The intentions can evaporate like disappearing ink after some time as they encounter the power of Doritos or great wine!
Thanks David for this timely reminder. Initiate plan renewal!

David Cain March 18, 2022 at 9:34 am

I try to do this too — program things so that they work out predictably. Unfortunately we are too complex and dynamic to understand ourselves like code, but when you zoom in to a particular “case statement” that comes up repeatedly, it can work on that level.

Paul March 18, 2022 at 3:21 am

This article leaves me with a double feeling. It seems to give me a way out of a dilemma we all face, but thinking of a glass of water when we crave something like a salty snack in the evening seems as futile as the resolution you mention earlier. Don’t get me wrong, it is always better to have a backup plan when we are tempted to snacks or junk food. In my case plan B often turns against me and makes the craving even bigger.. Still, these human habits are so familiar that most of us fall for them without much thought. I do like your comparison with the angel and devil on your shoulder which is as old as an old Disney cartoon.

David Cain March 18, 2022 at 9:37 am

The particular action B that works for you in a given situation will have to be discovered. The glass of water was just an example that seems to have worked in my case with this one thing. If the challenge is that the craving becomes even bigger, you may need a different action B, or identify a different moment of truth to act on. Regardless of how complex we are, all of our behaviors are preceded by certain conditions, and we can change those conditions by reworking certain reflexes. If you can’t rework one moment, rework another.

Nina March 18, 2022 at 10:19 am

I wonder if it would help to make part of action B the conscious appreciation of / gratitude for action B. Like, don’t just gulp down the water and then go back to craving chips; savor the water, look at the reflections, feel it in your mouth, etc. Be attuned to water’s awesomeness that you can trick yourself into believing it was your action A all along. After all, it’s not supposed to feel empowering, not like a punishment!

But yes, if the action B holds no appeal whatsoever, I imagine it needs to be rethought…

Nina March 18, 2022 at 10:20 am

…Wow, lots of typos in that message. Corrected version:

I wonder if it would help to make part of action B the conscious appreciation of / gratitude for action B. Like, don’t just gulp down the water and then go back to craving chips; savor the water, look at the reflections, feel it in your mouth, etc. Be so attuned to water’s awesomeness that you can trick yourself into believing it was your action A all along. After all, it’s supposed to feel empowering, not like a punishment!

But yes, if action B holds no appeal whatsoever, I imagine it needs to be rethought…

Ben March 18, 2022 at 4:24 am

You touched on this, but I do believe we make better decisions when we remove the moral element from the equation. It seems unintuitive, but by taking the weight and guilt out of these sorts of decisions it becomes easier to make good ones and feels less bad when we make bad decisions.

I think the idea of what we “should” be doing is a big part of what is splitting us into this absurd situation where we fail to co-operate with ourselves. I agree that it’s not a great idea to hold ourselves to these ideals and promises, but rather to practice intentionally making decisions in each moment.

David Cain March 18, 2022 at 9:40 am

I’m sure there are places where bringing in the moral element does work for some people, but for me seems to only create a kind of straining that doesn’t move anything, like trying to pull a rebar out of concrete.

Pras March 18, 2022 at 6:23 am

Having a Plan B looks like it would work when presented
with a simple choice to eat an oreo or not,
grab a beer or skip it etc, but what about the cases when
making the right choice involves significantly more effort
like watching TV VS. working out.
I wonder if this would work or do we need to think about it
differently.

Liz March 18, 2022 at 6:55 am

Maybe I am more food driven than you, but I think the choice to just skip some snack you crave requires a ton of effort! :)
In the case of working out, I think the plan is even more vital. You might need a more elaborate plan, like “I will run 20 miles a week” or “I will run 3 miles on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday.” Social pressure works too, like meeting up with a friend or joining a fitness class.

David Cain March 18, 2022 at 9:45 am

Complex situations need to be boiled down to (or maybe zoomed-in to) a particular moment where you have the power to do a slightly different thing that sends you on a different path. This is always a small thing, and its purpose is to change the subsequent cascade of events so that you don’t get caught in the same trap again. We don’t have unlimited ability to strongarm ourselves into doing anything at all –trying to get yourself to do fifty pushups instead of turning on the TV might be too ambitious, but turning an audiobook at the moment you’re about to turn on the TV might work well. You have to experiment, but it is always going to be a *small* move at a particular moment.

Belladonna March 19, 2022 at 12:33 pm

This! Surely I can do small moves! My problem is, I seem to be perpetually trapped in a cascade of bad habits. Sometimes I try to identify just one to change; other times I make a giant list and try to bully myself into changing EVERYTHING, because life is short and I’m rapidly running out of it.

I read your post with interest because it felt helpful, but I didn’t really understand how to apply it to myself until I saw this comment. So … when I go to sit in front of the TV for “just one episode” after a long day, I can take the book I’m currently reading with me. Then, when the cliffhanger comes, and I’m falling asleep and desperate to get horizontal but also just too dang zoned out to move … maybe my one small move could be to pick up the book (I LOVE reading myself to sleep) and carry it to the bedroom.

It seems silly. I mean the book is always next to the bed. But maybe picking it up instead of using the remote to click through will be the small move that makes a difference. Thank you!

Maryellen March 18, 2022 at 7:50 am

Taking the moral judgement out of eating or not eating the Dorito or the Oreo is much healthier, physically and mentally, than looking at food as “temptation” or “guilty pleasure” and thinking that we need strength of character to eat differently.

If I don’t have a plan, when the Doritos moment of truth comes, the alternatives can be framed as “eat or not eat.” One possible Plan B is “eat or pass along.” But this Plan B doesn’t take me out of the situation. If the alternatives are “eat or not eat” versus “eat or stand up and get a glass of water,” my Plan B takes me out of the situation. It seems to me that the more different Plan B is from Plan A — the more it takes me out of the situation — the more effective it will be.

David Cain March 18, 2022 at 9:47 am

Yes, totally. We often end up thinking of these situations as “Do the thing I want to do, or restrain myself from doing the thing I want to do.” We could reframe it as “Do the thing I want to do that makes me feel bad after, or do another thing I want to do that makes me feel good after.” That reframing can happen automatically if you just pick an Action B and see what happens.

Rama March 20, 2022 at 12:04 pm

This works!

Specifically: I have been trying to put 20% less food on my plate (based on advice I read somewhere) and when I am done with the food on the plate, there’s a “battle” between getting a second helping vs sticking to my plan of not eating any more.

Previously, I had tried starting a 5-min timer on my phone and not eating till the timer goes off. That sometimes worked (since I don’t feel all that hungry after a 5-min break) but mostly didn’t.

After reading your post, I switched tactics and now as soon as I am done with the plate, I simply get up and put my plate in the sink/dishwasher.

I think the “killer tactic” here is the “getting up” and it seems to work. Very similar to “get your butt on the cushion” advice you previously offered to sustain a meditation practice.

Thanks!

Nancy March 18, 2022 at 8:57 am

I needed to read this today. Thank you.

Kathy March 18, 2022 at 9:18 am

Creative thinking! I have been beating myself up as of late due to having done the very thing I said I would not do. I am going to try your method along with remembering my decision to quit the actions I really don’t like and see how it works. Thanks again for giving me inspiration to try, try again!

KG March 18, 2022 at 10:29 am

Excellent post as always and reminded me of your tips in your post on changing habits. Your recommendation to fill the void created by not doing something, with something better/different…i.e., “I will not mindlessly scroll on Instagram first thing in the morning” with “I will replace my scrolling with a walk or a book or something else”. That is what I took out of it and it really works. Same here. I won’t eat Doritos but instead will have water. Great advice vs white knuckling through the plan.

Steven March 18, 2022 at 11:31 am

This has given me yet another “aha” moment – thank you!
I like to reinforce positive behavior in myself for continued motivation as well as to share what works. Regarding one aspect of temptation, I trace the decision to the purchase of the chips or sweets or beer or whatever I’d like to minimize. I visualize myself in the store perusing the isle with the thought that I’ll consume the item in moderation as an infrequent reward or treat. To deflect that rationalization I insert: “Why not see what’s in the produce department that might be even better?” Perhaps it’s a variation of out-of-sight-out-of-mind, or as I like to think, setting myself up for success vs. failure. In any case, it seems to work for me.
Thanks again for the accountability, motivation, and encouragement! As a work in progress, I need all the help I can get.

Abhranil Das March 18, 2022 at 12:14 pm

Hey David, Abhranil (Neel) here.
What your post reminds me of very clearly is an aspect that I’m currently quite aware of where I need to change my default reaction.
When I get into a situation of emotional conflict, a lot of times I start to get triggered and get escalated into anger very quickly. In those moments, even a few breaths without doing or saying anything can totally open up a lot of space and opportunity for things to go in a much wiser direction. But it starts to feel like the space of possibilities closes very fast around me, and I become a puppet on a string, acting out angry words and gestures. It is going to be a hard road for me to try to go for option B at those moments, but I think it also has enormous potential to improve my life if I can do that.
As always, thanks for your posts, and take care.

Tara March 18, 2022 at 1:07 pm

I am trying to change some of my destructive habits for constructive ones, and for sure willpower is not the answer. It may work temporarily, but eventually I give in to the temptation. I have to make it physically difficult for me to do the negative habit – don’t buy foods I shouldn’t eat, don’t go into stores that I tend to buy too much in, delete an app off my phone that tempts me to waste time. My willpower is useless, unless the motivation is very intense, and my bad habits have too much instant pleasure built into them, even if they make me feel worse in the long run.

Woollyprimate March 18, 2022 at 7:44 pm

This is brilliant! I needed to read this today. Your blog is just chock full of such good insight.

There’s a similar thing in the positive dog-training arena. If your dog is doing something you don’t like, you don’t just yell at it or punish it and assume it will stop doing that specific behavior. You teach it an alternative behavior. If it jumps on guests, you train it to sit and stay when guests enter the house, for example. My dog would bolt out the door (both house and car) and I realized she could get hurt if I were parked on a busy street. So, I taught her to “wait” until she was given the signal to leave the house/car. It took me two afternoons, and it has paid dividends! It’s also funny to watch her quiver at the threshold while I’m holding the screen door wide open.

Why we think we’ll suddenly do the right thing “next time” when we’ve done the wrong thing the previous 583,449 times is beyond me. Great advice. If I can train my dog, I can train myself, LOL.

Koren March 18, 2022 at 9:09 pm

Love this post! I am currently doing Noom (weight loss app) and I’ve done a similar thing. When I’m feeling ravenous and finding myself in the fridge or cupboard looking to grab literally ANYTHING to eat, I’ve automatically started going over to the sink and filling a kettle to make a pot of tea. Usually that takes the edge off and gives me more time to either think up something better to eat or fill up on tea and go to bed. Noom has lots of little hacks like that, but you explain things so much better, and get at the root of the hack

Barry Caulfield March 20, 2022 at 10:13 am

Hi Dave:
Vows also work.
Eighteen months ago I vowed to lose 100 lbs. It worked.
Your skinny friend-
Barry

Ruud March 24, 2022 at 4:21 am

Interestingly, I read this blog post and then found another at Mike Cohn’s site: https://www.mountaingoatsoftware.com/blog/how-implementation-intentions-help-my-sprints
Same subject, within ten minutes. The universe is trying to tell me something.

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