Getting Yourself To Act How You Know You Should

Just because you know what you should do, doesn’t mean that you’re going to do it. You may know that it would be smart to lose weight, but aren’t on a diet. You may be convinced that when you’re feeling tired during the day you should do jumping jacks to boost your energy, but instead you lie down on the couch. You may know that using a formal decision making procedure is a good idea when you’re trying to make important decisions, yet you’ve never bother to use one.

So why don’t we always do what we know we should?

1. Habit. Have you ever tried to correct bad posture? At some point you’ll notice that your shoulders are hunched and you’ll make a correction, only to notice them hunched again two minutes later. Habits are behaviors that are done automatically. Frequently, we’re not aware of doing them as they occur, so our conscious mind doesn’t have the chance to stop them in action. Intellectually knowing what you should do won’t help if you aren’t consciously aware of what you’re doing while you’re doing it.

To permanently correct a bad habit, it often takes a large number of repetitions of a different behavior, in the context where you would normally engage in the habit. Eventually the old habit will be replaced with a new one. Ideally, you want it to be the case that the context automatically triggers the good habit.

Suppose that you are using an ineffective tennis swing. You would ideally practice a better swing a large number of times (starting without a ball, and then eventually doing it with a ball, and finally doing it while hitting back and forth with another player). Eventually, the correct motion would feel more natural than the incorrect one.

To give another example, suppose that you’d like to correct a habit of pronounce certain words incorrectly. Ideally, you would make a list of these words and the correction pronunciations, and practice saying each correctly a few times a day (to yourself, and then eventually in conversation) until the correct pronunciations no longer required thought.

An approach like this requires a lot of effort, and the willingness to put time into repetitive practice, but it can really pay off. Think about what habit you’d like to instill instead of the one you currently have. Now think about what you could practice to instill this new habit. For complex actions, the practice should be simple to start, and then grown in complexity as you master the basic components (e.g. practice your tennis swing without a ball before doing it with a ball). Finally, schedule time on your calendar to actually perform the practice. Note that one practice session very likely won’t be enough (you may need quite a lot of practice to overcome strongly ingrained habits).

Note that even if you don’t currently have a bad habit, it may be well worth it making an effort to install a good habit. Practice doing what you’d like yourself to do, in the context you’d like yourself to do it. Try to do this good behavior as consistently as possible, to make the new habit form faster.

2. Conflicting desires. You may want to lose weight, but you also want to eat that cupcake. To say you know you shouldn’t eat that cupcake, is to imply that overall, the weight loss is more valuable to you than the pleasure you’ll get from the cupcake. The problem is that when these two desires come into conflict at the moment while that cupcake is sitting in front of you, your desire for the pleasurable taste may win out. Since our desires shift due to context, it may well be the case that 5 minutes prior, when the cupcake hadn’t yet been placed in front of you yet, your desire to lose weight was in fact stronger than your desire to eat a tasty treat. But when you start to salivate at the sight of cupcake, your desires change in magnitude.

If conflicting desires cause you to do things that are not in your own long term interest, there are a few strategies you can try. First, you can try making your desire stronger for the good behavior. For instance, try vividly imagining yourself after having lost the weight and mentally basking in how good that will feel, and the benefits you will get from it. Immediately follow this visualization by a second one where you mentally contrast that desired state with how things currently stand. This second part is critical to help build motivation (rather than just basking in wishful thinking).

A second approach is to try to make your desire for the bad behavior weaker, for instance by imagining yourself gaining weight as you eat unhealthy food. The idea is to build a stronger association between your desire and the negative consequences associated with it, so that when the desire is triggered, the negative thought is triggered simultaneously, reducing your overall desire. One way to carry this out is to make a list of the negative consequences of the bad behavior, and then imagine each of these negative consequences occurring.

A third approach to dealing with conflicting desires is to try to arrange your environment so that your desires are unlikely to shift in a way that will yield behaviors that aren’t what you want. For instance, if you’re trying to lose weight, don’t keep unhealthy foods around your house, and don’t go to cupcake shops.

It’s worth noting, that sometimes we have conflicting desires that we aren’t consciously aware of. For instance, you might know that you should start searching for a job, but without having acknowledged it explicitly, be terribly afraid of rejection. Hence, you may find that you mysteriously become anxious every time you start looking at job postings, which leads you to procrastinate.

To better understand whether conflicting desires are involved in causing you to avoid what you know you should do, try the following exercise: Ask yourself “what are the benefits that I get out of NOT doing this good behavior?” Make a list of whatever you can think of. Doing this may make you realize that you have reasons for not acting that you weren’t even aware of. Now, make a list of the costs of not doing the desired behavior. Reflect on this list of costs and benefits, and reflect whether those benefits are really worth the costs.

3. Lack of motivation. Sometimes you’ll know intellectually that something would be a good idea to do, but for some reason feel an utter lack of motivation to actually do it. For instance, you may be aware that it is much more efficient from a learning perspective to take notes on articles and non-fiction books you read, and review those notes later (or better yet, make flashcards from them), than to merely read passively. But there’s a good chance that you don’t feel any significant motivation to actually take notes while you’re reading.

When lack of motivation strikes, it may help to perform a cost benefit analysis. Make a list of the benefits and costs of doing that action (compared to the baseline state of not doing it). Read this list over again. If the action really is worth doing, this list of reasons why you should do it may give you greater motivation.

You also might find it helpful to try to boost your desire through visualization (as in the conflicting desires case above). Visualize your future after you have done the desired behavior, and imagine the benefits that you are likely to get out of it. Now, remind yourself of how things currently stand, and mentally contrast this with the desired future.

4. Forgetting. You might know what is good for you, but simply forget to do it. For instance, for the last two months you may have been in desperate need of a haircut, but what with your busy life, you never think to make an appointment. Or maybe you made an appointment, but forgot to show up for it.

There are at least four strategies you can use to combat forgetfulness. First, write down whatever you want to remember, and put that note somewhere that you’ll be forced to notice it (e.g. stick it on your sock drawer).

Second, put the thing you need to remember in your calendar. So if you think to yourself that you need a haircut, but right now its after business hours, put a reminder in your calendar to book one tomorrow at 10am.

Third, for important things that you keep forgetting to do (especially major things that you really aren’t looking forward to doing), you can ask a friend to act as an enforcer. Tell them how important it is for you to do this thing, and when you want to have it done by. Ask for their help with making sure you get it done, giving them free reign to nag you as much as is necessary. This social pressure can be very effective for some people.

The fourth, and best strategy, is to (whenever possible) act immediately at the moment when you do remember what you should do. So when you happen to recall that you need a haircut, don’t assume that you’ll remember to make an appointment tomorrow, just pick up the phone immediately and book it. You’ll likely be better at getting yourself to act immediately if you start viewing your brain as a buggy machine, which occasionally forgets important things for long periods (I know mine does, at least). Taking this perspective means that when you remember something important that you should do, you can’t just assume that your brain will eventually take care of it. If you don’t act now, who knows when you’ll remember to do it again, if you ever even remember to act at all. So act now, to save yourself from your buggy brain later!

5. Lack of knowledge. Even if you know what you should do to improve your life, you may not know how to do it. For instance, you might want people to view you as being more confident, but have little idea how to get yourself to act in a more confident manner. If you keep telling yourself what you “should” do, but you don’t know the steps to carry it out, you’re unlikely to change your behavior for the better.

When you lack sufficient knowledge as to how to achieve a behavior, take steps to correct your lack of knowledge. Ask someone who knows more, or do some research online, or try breaking down the action by taking twenty minutes to write down the small, simple components that make up whatever you’re trying to do. Even very complex actions can usually be broken into simple steps, each of which is fairly straightforward. For instance, suppose you want to learn to write computer programs, but you don’t know the first thing about programming. You might break this task up as follows: Step 1. Talk to friends who are knowledgable about computer programming, and ask them what programming language you should learn based on your goals. Step 2. Install the required software on your computer in order to be able to write programs in the language that your friends suggested. Step 3. Google to find a few tutorials on the language. Run them by your knowledgable friends to see which tutorial they think looks best. Step 4. Complete one of these tutorials on the language. etc.


To get yourself to do what you know is good for you, the first step is to diagnose what is holding you back form acting. Are you trying to break a bad, sticky habit? In that case, you may need to devote time to practicing a better habit to replace it. Are you dealing with a case of conflicting desires? If so, use visualization to increase your desire for the good action and reduce your desire for the bad action, while you try to avoid contexts that cause your desires to flip in a way that is counterproductive. Are you feeling a lack of motivation to behave how you know you should? Write down a list of pros and cons for the good action, and try visualization to increase motivation. Do you keep forgetting to do the desired behavior? Put notes in places where you’ll be forced to see them, use your calendar to schedule when you’re going to do your helpful behaviors, and try to build a habit of acting immediately when you remember something important to do. Know what you want to do, but lack the knowledge how to do it? Ask those who know more than you do how to start, do some research, and try to break the task down into simple, easy steps.

Unfortunately, all of this advice is problematic: what if you don’t feel like taking the advice, or you do want to take it but will likely forget to do so? What if you have existing habits that will make taking this advice difficult? In other words, how do you get yourself to do what this article says you should? The solution is to set the stage right now for following this advice in the future. Namely, apply the advice of this article, right now, to get yourself to take this article’s advice in the future.
Perform the following steps (right now!) so that you can benefit later:

Step 1. Consider the following reasons for not acting. Which of these do you think is most likely to prevent you from acting on the advice from this article?

(1) Habit (you have existing habits that may stand in the way).
(2) Conflicting desires (you have desires that conflict with your desire to take this advice).
(3) Lack of motivation (you don’t feel motivation to do what this article says).
(4) Forgetting (you are likely to forget to follow the advice of this article).
(5) Lack of knowledge (you don’t know how to follow this article’s advice).

Step 2. Go and reread the section of this article corresponding to whatever you selected in Step 1.

Step 3. Schedule at least two different times on your calendar for when you are going to do what that section you reread suggests.

Step 4. Schedule a time on your calendar when you are going to reread this entire article.

Step 5. When the scheduled events come up on your calendar, actually do them!



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