Thinking Toys #7 — Action Echoes

Think ahead to the next few days and find an upcoming situation where you expect to face temptation. Specifically, an urge that often leads to involuntary action that you don’t like. Something where it feels like in the long-run you’d be better off if you could avoid succumbing. You can think of this as something you “want” but don’t “like”. Common examples include alcohol and tobacco abuse, eating sweets, or getting into arguments.

Rather than seeing this temptation as a one-off event, view it as repeating over and over into the future. Imagine the decision you make this next time also deciding how you act in similar future situations. Your actions echo into the future.

With this lens, eating a cookie at the coffee shop is no longer an exceptional event. Instead, you nudge your future selves to eat a cookie at every coffee shop you visit for the rest of your life. Hundreds or thousands of cookies! See if you can picture them piling up in front of you and then getting sucked into your body. Performing this exercise in advance makes it easier to act as you like. It also helps to run through the practice right before exposing yourself to a trigger.

This may seem a bit manipulative. “This is an exception, succumbing to this one urge isn’t going to dictate the future!” I argue that, actually, it does! Our actions are mostly dictated by our habits and every act serves to establish those habits. Another way to look at it is as a chess game. Every “bad” move has consequences later in the game. Sure, you can sometimes find ways to dig yourself out of a hole. But it’s helpful to realize that every move you make contributes to your eventual position. Being aware of this dynamic allows you to intervene in it more skillfully.

Reframing a decision as a bundle of future repeated actions gives a more accurate view. You are better able to trade-off future costs and benefits rather than just what’s immediately in front of you. Perhaps you decide it’s OK to indulge under certain conditions. That’s great! The goal is not to entirely avoid urges but to reframe them in a way that best accounts for their consequences.

The final piece is becoming aware that The Future is Real! This day, or any one decision, is far from your last. You will be around years from now! Any single temptation is not unique! The actions you take now will establish patterns that determine your future. By developing the habit of seeing your actions echo far into the future, that future starts to feel more real. And the more seriously you take the future, the easier it is to feel long-term consequences.

This mechanism and the underlying theory draws heavily from Ainslie’s work. He lays out the details in Breakdown of Will, which I highly recommend. You can find a nice overview here.

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