An Impulse Control Method

I know you've been there.

You know you have a scheduled task. The time has come to do it. And yet, the little voice in your head says "I don't feel like it. Why don't we go do something different - like follow the bunny trail down these web pages?". And if you're like me, you'll often mindlessly listen to that voice of resistance, and go off and do the other thing. Often you'll actually be hip deep in a project and give in midstream to the impulse.

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Like many people, I get into this habit periodically. A couple of years ago I was advised by a very wise mindfulness coach to try a very simple method to regain control in the face of resistance: keep a pad by your side and every time the impulse voice whispers to you, put a tick mark on the pad whether or not you actually give in to it or not.

At first, the results can be horrifying. You'll be amazed at the number of times resistance rears its ugly head during an average day. But then, as you gain awareness, you'll find your impulse control improving because you've given yourself a chance to step back and calmly confront resistance. When you are aware of the impulse, you can ask yourself "Is this the best use of my time right now?"

By itself, it won't necessarily make you the Yoda of Productivity or the Master of Impulse Control, but I've found it helps. When I'm monitoring a particular impulse control issue, the tick marks slowly diminish as my awareness increases. I get better at making a conscious decision. Not perfect. But better.

This method is well attuned to impulse behaviors such as excessive multi-tasking where your daily productivity leaks away without you noticing. It's estimated that up to 40% of productivity is lost due to excessive task switching. The tick mark method nips that in the bud since you can make a conscious decision.

This method can also be applied to other behaviors. I've found useful to curb negative behaviors such as the urge to snack. It gives you the opportunity to ask "Do I really want to follow this impulse even though it's not good for me?"

I've expanded this concept into the creation of a formal impulse control checklist that I keep as a Excel print out on a clipboard within easy reach. The checklist covers all my main impulse control issues. I simply add a tick mark to next to the item as it comes up. I've found this awareness building tool to be extremely effective. When I use it, I have much better control. When I don't use it, I fall quickly back into less than optimal habits.

Writer's block and serious procrastination may have to be addressed with more potent cognitive tools. But I've found this simple awareness builder to be extremely helpful in moving toward mindfulness and away from mindlessness. I still may make the wrong decision, but at least it was a concious one.