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April 27, 2009 2:51 PM   Subscribe

Curbing impulses: what are some simple, in-the-moment tricks for interrupting reflexive behavior patterns and restoring self-control?

The behaviors I've got in mind are mostly pretty minor, related to your garden-variety procrastination, mild social anxiety, and bad conversational habits. Problem is, though, that after years of self-indulgent reinforcement, I do a lot of this stuff semi-automatically-- emotional impulse leads seamlessly to problem behavior, without any self-conscious decision point in between. At the time, I may have a passing sense of "oh shit, here we go again," but it's not like there's ever a moment where I deliberately choose to duck into the bathroom instead of chatting to the passing coworker, or to click into Firefox instead of getting started on that dreaded monthly budget.

All this means that I'm at kind of a loss as to how to deal with these bad habits-- I understand and am working to address the bigger issues behind all this, but in the short term, fixing my thought patterns doesn't do much for what are, essentially, thoughtless actions. What I need are some on-the-spot ways to interrupt the knee-jerk impulse/action coupling, so I can get hold of myself, think, You know, I really don't want to do this, and with luck gain time to force myself into what I (rationally) know to be the correct behavior.

Since we're talking about automatic or sub-conscious behaviors, I'd be especially interested in possible physical/bodily interventions (for instance, a counselor friend tells anger-management clients to curb violent impulses by sticking their hand in a bucket of ice water-- anything like that, but less damp and messy?). Really, though, I'd welcome creative self-discipline suggestions of all stripes. O self-mastered Mefites, how do you do it? Teach me your secrets!
posted by Bardolph to Health & Fitness (9 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I sometimes try and take just a minute to see if the benefits of what I'm about to say or due outweigh the negatives. By the time I've thought it over, the impulse usually passes.

That being said, I usually find that the positives or negatives don't really matter and that I've spent far too long internally discussing something that wasn't really important to begin with.

In other words, often what you're worried about doing or not doing isn't really worth worrying about. At least that's what I've found.

Good luck!
posted by elder18 at 3:16 PM on April 27, 2009

Dawn Staley (UVA and WNBA and now USC coach) used to wear a rubber band on her right wrist. If she turned the ball over, she snapped it--hard.
posted by Carol Anne at 3:26 PM on April 27, 2009 [3 favorites]

I had a friend who also used the rubber band around the wrist. For her it was whenever she was in a social setting and could feel an anxiety attack coming on. She found it did help her with mild attacks as she was able to refocus on something other than the feeling of panic coming over her.

Good Luck!
posted by Weaslegirl at 4:05 PM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

You asked for creative suggestions, well here is my technique that helps me exactly with this self-control stuff : Act like you're a character that you're controlling in a video game. You're just controlling this character that is going around this big world.

Now, remind yourself of this whenever you lose your sense of control. Boom, now everything is freakin' easy to do. You're just controlling this character just like you would control Solid Snake, Lara Croft, Sam Fisher, etc. Think over the ramifications of this, and tell me this is not super liberating.

See, when you're playing Metal Gear Solid, for example, you never really get totally sucked into that world and start worrying about Snake's monthly budget or his mild social anxiety or his traumatic issues. There is not enough depth there. You tend to remember that you're in a game world, that you have certain control over this character, and that you've got mission objectives you need to do... you need to navigate this game world and stop a bad guy with nuclear robots or something, and you do it as skillfully and as cleverly as you can. No big deal.

Now, think of Life as a very, VERY detailed game. It's absolutely jam-packed with extremely intricate and realistic features. There are so many things that you can get sucked up into, because they're just so engrossing, that it's quite easy to forget that you are playing a game and that you are still in control. But if you can step back, and remember, boom, "I'm in control here", now you are free to follow whatever part of the game you choose, control your character how you wish, and complete your mission objectives.
posted by Theloupgarou at 5:19 PM on April 27, 2009 [18 favorites]

The continual conscious awareness of yourself in the present moment that you're hoping for is called mindfulness and is the immediate goal of Buddhist meditation, so you might start there.
posted by nicwolff at 5:34 PM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

For a while, every time I caught myself badmouthing someone, I immediately switched my watch to the other arm. It made a difference. Taking off a watch is annoying and people kind of notice, so you learn fast not to do it any more.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 6:19 PM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

It is tough to stop things that you engage in before you think of it. The rubber band advice is helpful-- if the event becomes associated with pain, your brain will stop doing it automatically. The other things I do when I have a bad habit I'm working on is...

(1) only work on one thing at a time. Don't try to knock out 4 habits at once. Just focus on being cognizant of one activity and remind yourself daily of what you are doing. Especially think of it every time you are headed to a temptation zone (maybe a sticky note that secretly reminds you to not be antisocial as you leave your office?)

(2) stop as soon as you realize what you've done. Like pseudo, I have a problem with gossiping. When I catch myself doing it, I immediately stop talking or redirect my comments in the least socially awkward manner possible.

A combo of 1+2 for a month or so often helps me decrease the frequency of these slip ups. Don't beat yourself up too much. It took a lot of conditioning to automatize those responses, so take some time to untrain yourself.
posted by parkerjackson at 6:38 PM on April 27, 2009

N-thing the rubber band thing. I used it to stop biting my nails - started by snapping it whenever I noticed a nail missing, but it worked well enough that I started noticing earlier and earlier, catching myself during the act. Eventually I was snapping the band before I'd even moved my hand near my mouth. It took about 3 or 4 weeks to break the habit, and I'd occassionally put the rubber band on again if I noticed I was slipping.

ParkerJackson is right about only tackling one thing at a time though. It really will work faster that way.

For the less physical habits, make sure you've got a plan for what you want to do instead of the behaviour you're trying to change. That way, when you catch yourself in the act you've got an alternative or halfway point between the actions you want/don't want.
posted by harriet vane at 4:12 AM on April 28, 2009

Nthing for the 8th time or so the rubber band. I used this solution when I was dealing with a broken heart a few years ago and it was miraculous. I was sick of missing the ex, sick of the self pity, and I had no idea how to control the self-indulgent (and self-destructive) thoughts. So I placed a regular hairband around my wrist and each time I noticed myself thinking about/missing my ex--I snapped it HARD. It really worked.

After a few months I took the rubber band off my wrist assuming I was fine because I hadn't thought about him in a while, and lo and behold all those destructive thought patterns popped right back up... I wish I'd kept it on longer!

I would caution that I think the rubber band trick really only works if you're trying to stop one behavior. It won't work if you're snapping your wrist for everything you do that irritates you. Choose one discrete thing to work on at a time and it's a lot easier to self-correct.

Best of luck!
posted by ohyouknow at 10:55 AM on April 28, 2009

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