This is something really interesting I’ve discovered recently that seems like it might generalize across impulsive and binge-prone behaviors.
I have a history of binging Internet video (especially YouTube) and computer games. Once I start engaging in one of these behaviors, it can quickly stop being about the enjoyment and more about avoiding the growing anxiety regarding my lack of self-control and my impending lack of sleep. I know I’ll feel terrible once I stop, so I keep going. A vicious cycle results.
I’d tried using do-less Beeminder goals in the past, but they really didn’t work. I’d find myself resenting the goals and paying the money to continue my binge and for the privilege of scheduling the goals to be archived.
Recently I decided to take another shot at the do-less goals, but with one small change for a totally unrelated reason:
I’d decide before engaging in the behavior how long I’d spend, and then set a timer for that amount of time.
The reason for this change was not because I thought it would have a large impact on my behavior, but rather because I’m terrible at remembering my count-up timers. Thus using count-down timers adds an alarm which reminds me the timer is still going, and I can either stop or create a new timer if I wish to keep going. (Thanks to @phi for the inspiration for this change!)
What I’ve found, however, is just the simple rule that I decide beforehand how much time I’ll spend on an activity has a huge effect on my behavior from the very start:
- The decision adds a small amount of friction which forces me to be conscious about what I’m deciding to do.
- I find the decision results in me being much more discerning in what types of things I watch or play. (Do I really want to spend 30 minutes playing a game I don’t even like?)
- Many times, when the only motivation for doing the activity is escape or cravings, having to make this decision requires enough effort that I don’t end up engaging in the activity at all.
I really did not expect that this tiny rule would have such a big impact. Have any of you experienced something similar? What are your theories as to why this has such a large effect?