Sunday, November 8, 2009

Avoid the "Automatic Lose"

Followup to: How to Follow Through: The Emerging Science of Self-Control

Self-control is about behaving closer to your 'ideal self', and taking the actions that you would, upon reflection, like to take. As shorthand, I will categorize success at matching the actions of your 'ideal self' as winning.

The theory is silent concerning what your ideal self should be; that is a decision you have to make for yourself. Theoretically, you can decide that your ideal self eats chocolate all day and gets kicked out for not bothering to pay the rent, but most of us prefer, under many circumstances, to exercise self-control. More reasonably, your ideal self may very well read every xkcd as soon as it comes out (while it's still optimally topical), but bar you from reading the not-quite-as-funny smbc until your weekly task list is done. In this case, we won't characterize reading xkcd right away as 'losing' if it is something that you genuinely, on reflection, consistently want to do.

Let me categorize aspects of your daily life into three categories, and illustrate each with an example.

1. Automatic Win. Example: you are a former smoker, have no easy way of getting cigarettes, and have gotten into the habit of not smoking; as a consequence, you do not spend much of your time thinking about smoking.


  • You win (that is, you behave the way your 'ideal self' would)
  • You do not suffer short-term Ego Depletion
  • You do not exercise your willpower
2. Deliberation. Example: you are a smoker who has recently quit, and you have cigarettes available. You are tempted to smoke.

  • You have a chance of winning, but also a chance of losing
  • You suffer short-term Ego Depletion
  • You exercise your willpower; sufficiently exercising your willpower is believed to increase your medium-term willpower reserves
3. Automatic Lose. Example: you are a smoker who is not currently consciously trying to restrain his level of smoking.

  • You lose (that is, you do not behave the way your 'ideal self' would)
  • You do not suffer short-term Ego Depletion
  • You do not exercise your willpower
We see that category 1, the Automatic Win, dominates (always gives a better outcome than) category 3, the Automatic Lose. So moving a part of your daily habits from category 3 to category 1 seems clearly beneficial.

Category 1 has two strong advantages over category 2: first of all, you don't suffer short-term Ego Depletion, and secondly, you don't risk losing. The only downside is the loss of an opportunity to exercise and strengthen your medium-term willpower. For now, I would tentatively advise preferring category 1 to category 2.

Some examples of behaviors that you can try to improve and, if they are in category 3, move into categories 1 or 2:
  • Eating too few vegetables
  • Exercising too little
  • Working too few hours (or too many hours, depending on what you value)
  • Disengaging from your work
  • Failing to get up the first time the alarm goes off
  • Checking for a new xkcd, even though you already checked for one when you were at the start of this article
We close with a simple summary:



What are some examples of how you can move 3s into 1s?

Rolf Nelson

They tend to be specific to your goals, what habits you currently have, and what your environment currently is. Hypothetical examples: someone who never keeps junk food in his home, or never buys video games, or doesn't own a TV.

Nathan Labenz

I have a really loud, annoying alarm, and I sit it across the room from my bed. There is no choice but to get up and turn the damn thing off.

I'll be looking for other opportunities.


You keep on using xkcd as an example of a potential lose, but provide links to it every time - you're moving it from a 1 to a 2 for us!

But I really just wanted to say I'm enjoying your articles tremendously. Thanks.