Pattern Interrupts Don’t Actually Work. Here’s What Does.

I try only to adopt techniques and tips to stop laziness and procrastination that have a proven, scientific backing. There are clinical studies backing the concept of decision fatigue, for instance.

But, there’s one technique that I have used which comes from a school of thought that has been debunked and discredited by scientists: Neuro Linguistic Programming, or NLP. The technique is pattern interrupts.

It’s based off the often-cited, but not actually verifiable “fact” that 95% of our thoughts on any given day are repetitive. According to NLP, by interrupting your routine by snapping a rubber band on your wrist, taking a cold shower, listening to loud music, etc., you open your mind to new pathways.

NLP also contains such far-fetched ideas as “covert hypnosis

So if you identify that you have a pattern like thinking about going to the gym, making an excuse, and staying home, you can use a “pattern interrupt.” By splashing cold water on your face, you can break your habitual chain of thoughts (think of going to gym > come up with an excuse > stay home) and be less likely to skip the gym.

I myself have a frame by my desk with text or an image that I switch out periodically. Right now it says “True freedom is impossible without a mind made free by discipline.” Sometimes when I find myself dicking around on reddit or social media, catching the quote out of the corner of my eye reminds me to work on my goals. In other words, it interrupts my lazy pattern.

I switch out the image/quote because I find that it becomes less effective if I get used to seeing it, and it just becomes another part of the background environment of my apartment that my brain largely glosses over.

Pattern interrupts are also advocated by self-help granddaddy Tony Robbins, who says if you’re feeling depressed, to stand up and shout “Thank God! My feet don’t stink today!” or something equally far from the ordinary. Again, the idea being to interrupt your habitual train of thought and set you on a new trajectory.

Of the previous three examples of pattern-interrupts, thirty-five years of peer-reviewed research says: bullshit. There’s no empirical evidence whatsoever in support of the foundations of NLP, or for any of its techniques.

So why does it work for me (and theoretically followers of NLP and some of Tony Robbins’ millions of followers)?

The answer lies in implementation intention, which can be simplified as “if-then thinking.” Studies have shown that pre-setting responses to certain stimuli is far more effective than intention alone in accomplishing a goal.

In 2009, psychologists performed a study to test implementation intention’s effectiveness in self-regulation:

The two studies required that disgust (in Study 1) and fear (in Study 2) eliciting stimuli were viewed by participants subject to three different self-regulation instructions:

The first group were given the simple goal intention to not experience fright or disgust, and were told to believe “I will not get frightened.”

The second group were given the first goal intention, with an additional implementation intention, and were told to believe “And if I see a spider, I will stay calm and relaxed.”

The third group were given no-self-regulation as the control group and did not receive any instruction prior to the event.

Only the second group reported reduced levels of disgust and anxiety upon seeing a spider. Implementation intention also proved to be effective in task-oriented goals and fitness goals.

In the case of the picture or quote I have by my desk, I set up a workflow in my brain:

  • If: I see the frame
  • Then: Evaluate my current activity
  • If: Current activity =/= productive
  • Then: Change activity

So I thought I was practicing pattern interruption when I was really practicing implementation intention. Similarly, splashing cold water on your face to prevent you from skipping the gym doesn’t work (if it does) because you’re interrupting a pattern, it works because you’re creating a pattern:

  • If: I feel like skipping the gym
  • Then: Splash water on face
  • Then: Reconsider going to the gym

The Takeaway

It’s easy to fall back into our old lazy habits. The key isn’t to simply shock yourself out of your pattern — you have to have a plan for how you change your behavior.

You have to choose some stimuli and also choose how you will react to it.

I have a friend who was training to be a firefighter. Like me, he had a hard time with setting goals ahead of time. If he put things on his to-do list for tomorrow, his brain would already be preparing to make excuses or procrastinate.

The key is to surprise yourself. My friend went onto his google calendar and set a bunch of events on random days over the following couple of months to work on his goals. He was setting an if-then thought flow: if I see the event on my calendar, then I will work on my goals.

Then, when he got the notification on his phone, he would have a much stronger compulsion to study fire code or work on his fitness.

You can do something similar right now. It will take less than two minutes. Think of a goal you have, or a project you’re working on. Then, go to futureme.org and schedule a bunch of emails to yourself. The email should be specific and instructive: “Write a blog post,” “Do 50 pushups.” Make sure to tell yourself: “When I receive this email, I will follow its instructions.” Hopefully, you will have forgotten about it and the email will come as a surprise, and you’ll be motivated to follow through.

If you end up using this tip, forward me a copy of the email! It’s interesting to see what people write to themselves.

Most futureme.org emails are sent many years into the future. For our purposes, months in advance is better.

Originally published at Lazy but Motivated.