Our Town: The art of self-discipline

Our Town: The art of self-discipline
How does one find the willpower to choose correctly? (photo by Tom Ferraro)

Many patients ask me: “How do I stop procrastinating?” The tendency for all humans to procrastinate, postpone, avoid, put off and forget what they know they ought to do is exceedingly common. And the result of procrastination is a failure to achieve their dreams.

Most of the things people procrastinate about include eating the proper diet, exercising on a regular basis, failing to make nerve-racking phone calls and delaying plans to travel to all the bucket list destinations you have longed to see.

There are many causes of procrastination. You might feel too tired to exercise or maybe you don’t have enough time. You may feel too anxious to make that phone call out of fear you may hear the word ‘no’. You may feel too weak-willed to resist that piece of cake, candy or bowl of ice cream.

The primary cause of procrastination is our ability to make up excuses on the spot. I once heard an expert on alcoholism say that the alcoholic can find many excuses to have a drink. It may be time to celebrate or because they are anxious or lonely and need some comfort in the form of Southern Comfort. It may be raining outside or maybe it’s sunny. Any old excuse will do.

If you look at all these conflicts you can describe them as a battle between will power and laziness, the right way vs. the wrong way, the choice between taking the hard path vs. the easy path. Everyone knows the easy path is comfortable and more fun, and the hard path is arduous, longer, scarier and more painful.

The problem with the easy path is it doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s the bridge to nowhere, to weight gain, to flabbiness and to failure. Whereas the hard path usually leads to better looks, better health, more money, more power and more pride. And the hard path is the road far less traveled.

Well, I bring you good news. There is a technique created by those who call themselves behavior modifiers that actually works very well in these matters of procrastination. Whether you are guilty of a sin of omission (not doing something you should do like exercising ) or a sin of commission (doing something you should not do like having ice cream ), there is a tool that works wonders and its called “Response Cost.”

I will explain how Response Cost works, but it’s important to understand why it works. It works because it removes the idea of will power, which apparently weakens as we age.

Response Cost is surprisingly simple. Let’s take the need to lose weight as an example. You have tried all the diets in the world and yet the weight does not come off and you give up on the diet. With the Response Cost technique you would list the foods you should not be eating. This almost invariably relates to sweets like ice cream, soda, cookies, cakes, donuts or candy. All the things that taste so good.

After the list is written down, you agree to penalize yourself a certain dollar amount that you will then have to give to your spouse or place in the poor box at church or synagogue if you eat any sweets that day. Usually $20 is a good number, but you may choose more or less. You then agree to do this for a minimum of 90 days. This can be written down so that you will recall the date and it’s good to put a bowl on the table with $20 visible as a good reminder of the deal.

The tool is effective for many reasons. It gives you freedom to eat the sweets if you want, but when confronted with the realization that it will cost you an extra $20 if you do, one tends to be able to resist the temptation pretty well. Will power does not come into the equation anymore, just cold hard cash.

You need to agree to the regiment for at least 90 days in order to begin to see the results. The new habit may then become functionally autonomous, but if not you can renew the contract for anther 90 days.

This can be done for behaviors that involve things you must not do like eating sweets, but it can also be done for things you need to do like making those phone calls, finishing the dissertation or novel or exercising each day. When you make those lists and contract to act each day, make sure you are reasonable. You are not going to be able to run 10 miles a day. Start with a 15-minute walk instead and increase the task over time. If you are a salesperson, you will not not be able to make 20 cold calls per day. Keep it reasonable.

Response Cost is a good technique for anyone who has suffered from the dreaded disease of procrastination, that common human trait that causes weight gain, flabby muscles, a small bank account and, worst of all, shame.

Dr. Tom Ferraro

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