Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Decisions on Queue

Last week, I finished reading the book Switch:  How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.  I found it engaging, and laced with nuggets of change strategy rooted in research findings and narratives of changes big and small.  I imagine I will be mining this resource for some time to come.

One particularly intriguing approach the Heaths explore is the use of "action triggers."  Peter Gollwitzer, New York University psychologist, has been investigating the use of action triggers, or more academically, "implementation intentions," to improve "self-regulation."  Self-regulation is what procrastinators, diet abandoners, and those falling off various other wagons have difficulty with.

The idea is this, as Dr. Gollwitzer lays it out on his website:
People can delegate the initiation of goal-directed behavior to environmental stimuli by forming so-called implementation intentions (if-then plans of the format: If situation x is encountered, then I will perform behavior y!). We observed that forming implementation intentions facilitates detecting, attending to, and recalling the critical situation. Moreover, in the presence of the critical situation the initiation of the specified goal-directed behavior is immediate, efficient, and does not need a conscious intent.

Dr. Gollwitzer and his team are also looking at
. . .whether action control via implementation intentions saves a person’s self-regulatory resources. . . . [and] whether implementation intentions protect a person’s thoughts and actions from unwanted influences of disruptive self-states (such as a good or bad mood, self-definitional incompleteness, feelings of anger or sadness).
What this amounts to, as Chip and Dan Heath tell us, is preloading decisions by deciding to perform the desired action in the presence of a predetermined prompt.  Quoting Gollwitzer, they observe that this kind of predeciding allows people to"pass the control of their behavior on to the environment."  In one study, the use of action triggers roughly tripled the chance of success in achieving difficult goals--from 22% to 62%. gives an example of how this might work in practice:

Creating an “implementation intention” provides a framework for how and when you will use the new behavior. For instance, “Whenever I go to my favorite restaurant and order the chicken, I will ask to have it grilled, without butter.” The idea is as follows: Whenever “X” happens, I will do “Y.” If you're conscious of what you want and why you want it, you'll have a better chance of moving in that direction. Another example: “When I get up at 6:30 a.m., I will get ready for work, and at 7 a.m. I will put on my shoes, [putting your shoes on and/or 7 a.m. on the clock could be the trigger – the behavior you already do] and head to the kitchen to make breakfast. I will have cereal or egg whites. I will not skip meals this week.”

Applying what I have learned, I decide to use the daily opportunity of eating breakfast to prompt meditating, which I am having difficulty fitting in to my schedule.  But here's where the theory breaks down, because it seems that there is really no predictable daily routine in my life these days.  I too frequently rush out the door to a meeting, an appointment, or scheduled work, immediately after--and sometimes even before--eating breakfast.  And since driving while meditating strikes me as at least unwise if not prosecutable (DWM?), I am going to need a contingency trigger, for when the first trigger isn't practicable.  So, on the days when I can't meditate after breakfast, I will use lunch to trigger meditating.  And the backup to my backup?  Dinner, naturally.  And if all else fails, bedtime.

Hmmm. . . . No wonder I am having a hard time getting around to meditation.  And no wonder I feel the need.  

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