Self-Control: Your Behaviors on Automation

by @deanyeong | Sign up to weekly newsletter here

I was fascinating by today’s technology. We can automate nearly everything.

For example, this article (of course I wrote it myself without automation), I wrote it few days back before the publishing date, then I format and schedule to publish it on a specific date and time, and schedule again to send it as a newsletter to you (if only you’re on it) on a specific date and time (Every Monday, 7:05 a.m. Eastern Time) too.

But for the first welcome email I sent to you, that is an automated email. What else? We automate businesses, we automate manufacturing, we automate processes, we automate our work, and we automate our professional and personal life too.

Simply put, automation is a set of rules that reduce our effort to constantly doing the work, at least reduce the need for regular decision making.

WordPress Theme Building

I spent big portion of my time in the past two weeks building a new WordPress theme for my own blog. Sorry if you’re not familiar with it, but there is a reason why I’m talking about it here.

And that’s the reason I wrote this too. There is a line of PHP codes we use frequently in the process of theme building:

If have posts, show posts; else, show “sorry, there is no post here”

Of course, this is not the exact line of codes, but this is what it basically means. If the page has any post, show the post, if there is none, show the message. This automates the whole process of blogging and plays a huge role that forms WordPress (and of course this blog).

And it makes me wonder, what if we use a similar rule for our mind? To make our habits stick, harness our self-control, and get more things done.

The If-Then Statement

In life, we have multiple goals that we wanted to achieve.

  • To lose weight and get fit.
  • To complete reading or writing a book
  • To finish a huge design project

All of them require us to put in a certain amount of (usually huge) effort and time to work on them deliberately. And often, we didn’t stick with it, at least not long enough for us to see a desirable outcome. Then most people will start blaming external incidents that challenged them from getting things done, or worst, blaming themselves.

Rather blaming your lack of discipline, self-control, or willpower, build series of rules using the if-then statement for your behaviors:

If X, then Y.

From one study, they found that 91% of people who used if-then planning stuck to an exercise program opposed to 39% who didn’t. But it’s not just for fitness, it works for every change you are looking to incorporate into your life.

The technique is simple, choose an event and then choose an action to take after the event. For example:

  • When I get off from bed, I meditate.
  • When I get off from work, I hit the gym.
  • When I finish this reading, I start writing.

The if-then statement works because it implants a trigger into our subconscious mind to carry out the following actions without much decision making required. And there are a few techniques I found to make the if-then statement works even better.

1)  Make the first action (the if) as simple as possible. One of the biggest challenges in achieving anything significant is that often, we never start. The same works here. To make the if-then statement works, you need to make your if simple and small, nearly effortless. The best to suggest is use your existing routine or habit as the trigger if you have no simpler action to build on.

2)  Celebrate when you completed the then. Allow yourself to feel good in the process. Celebrate when you have completed your planned action regardless how small it is. Associate it with positive emotions will help you to crave more of it in the future.

3)  When you start to think, stop, and start doing. Even when we have our if-then statement laid out, we will still spend a time to decide about it sometimes, especially when the behavior is new, or somewhat unpleasant. But the core of the if-then statement is about automation and getting rid of decision-making. So, stop thinking whether your should do it or not do it, how to do it better, what if there are mistakes. Start doing it instead.

“In life, employing If-Then implementation plans has helped adults and children control their own behavior more successfully than they had imagined possible.

If we have these well-rehearsed plans in place, the self-control response will become automatically triggered by the stimulus to which it is connected. (‘If I approach the fridge, then I will not open the door’; ‘If I see a bar, then I will cross to the other side of the street’; ‘If my alarm goes off at 7 a.m., then I will go to the gym’).

The more often we rehearse and practice implementation plans, the more automatic they become, taking the effort out of effortful control.”

— Walter Mischel from The Marshmallow Test

Haress Self-control with Backup Plan

One of the best techniques to make a new behavior stick is by stacking them on an existing habit. With that mean, your previous action becomes the trigger for your next action (new behavior). That’s the core of the if-then technique.

The if-then statement is not only used to strengthen the new behaviors or actions but can also be used to break our bad habits and act as a backup plan if we miss our newly planned routine.

  • If I eat that cheesecake, then I will need to run for 10 km.
  • If I miss my reading routine in the morning, then I will do it in the evening.
  • If I can’t call mom in the morning today, I will do it immediately after work.

Most people failed to nurture a new behavior because they don’t know what to do after they missed it and fall out from the plan. Rather blaming the responsibility on the external events that you can’t control, plan ahead. Build an if-then plan to strengthen your self-control.

Yet, there is one thing we should always remember: we aren’t machine or a piece of programs. Loosen up sometimes.

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