how to be less impulsive
August 12, 2010 1:18 PM   Subscribe

Personal development filter: I’d like to be less impulsive, any tips?

In my everyday existence I’m quite an impulsive person; all the time I find myself doing things without having thought through whether I really do or don’t want to do the activity. They’re often small short —and in isolation, harmless— activities, but I do them so frequently that they add up to a large burden on my time. I know in retrospect that on most occasions if I had taken a moment to consider the impulse before acting on it that I wouldn’t have acted on it.

I wouldn’t say there’s any compulsion involved with these impulses because when I do eventually become aware of what I’m doing I can often stop myself doing it and go back to my previous task without experiencing much or any anxiety. I don’t feel any need to do these activities – I just find myself doing them.

The sort of things I ‘find myself’ doing are: checking websites/emails, making cups of tea or coffee, cleaning or laundry, tidying, small errands like posting letters or buying milk from the shops, napping, light exercise (like going for a walk), daydreaming, watching TV or masturbating. (I only do that last one at home.)

I’m only impulsive with small activities; I’ve never acted impulsively on large scale or over an extended period. I’ve never bought a puppy on a whim, got a tattoo without thinking if I want one or not nor quit my job because I didn’t feel like doing it anymore; the impulse to do these sort of things has always fizzled out long before I’ve made it to the pet shop/tattoo parlour/boss’ office.

Over the course of every day, week and month, the result of acting on all these impulses that I know I would’ve have chosen not to act on if I’d only had the opportunity to choose is large amounts of time spent not doing what I want to do. I feel like my subconscious is sabotaging my conscious’ efforts at achieving my goals. I feel like if I could learn to reign myself in, then I would be a happier, healthier and more productive person.

Is this a realistic ambition? Have any of you been impulsive like me in the past and managed to make the change? I don’t want a personality transplant and I’m neither asking nor expecting to be able to turn off all impulsive feelings, but stopping maybe just a third of these thoughtless impulses before they go anywhere would make a big difference to my life.

customary personal info: I'm male, 27, live in the UK, am on no medication and have been like this for as long as I can remember.
posted by davidjohnfox to Health & Fitness (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
One thing that helps is setting a realistic short-term goal for productivity. No email, no walks, no making a cup of tea for X number of minutes, or until Z task is completed. There are websites and programs that can help you track the time--but you really do need to track it. Set an alarm if you need to. As you train yourself, you'll find you can go longer and longer periods--so X may be 20 minutes without distracting yourself today, but next week, it could be 40 minutes. It really helps. Good luck!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 1:25 PM on August 12, 2010

For me, a lot of my impulsiveness can be curbed by removing the temptation; if I'm worried about browsing the web when I need to be writing, I'll turn off my internet connection. If you find yourself making coffee without thinking about it, add in a step that will force your attention, like put the coffee pot in a closet or something. Anything that takes you off autopilot long enough for you to get back on task.

Which leads to part two; train yourself to stay on task. Try to start to recognize when you are getting distracted and force yourself (count to 10 or something) to get back to what you are doing.

This sort of thing as more or less worked for me, but that's because I discovered that a lot of my impulsiveness came from being easily distracted. Once I got that under control, the rest sort of came together.
posted by quin at 1:27 PM on August 12, 2010

I think you might be overthinking this particular plate of beans -- those all sound like perfectly normal distractions that a lot of people have.

If what you want is to be more focused and efficient with your time, there're lots of different ways to curb that. You can set a timer and force yourself not to take a break until it goes off; you can start to set up a rewards system for yourself, where you only get to do X when you've finished with Y; you can leave your flat and go to the library or a cafe to work so you aren't distracted by chores at your place. I'm sure there've been a ton of concentration-aid threads on AskMeFi over the years.

But if you don't have a particular task that these "impulses" are distracting you from? I wouldn't worry about it, as it's perfectly normal and not a problem unless it's keeping you from getting things done.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 1:29 PM on August 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Pick a particular impulse that you'd like to work on - like, say, checking your email. Start out with an awareness campaign, trying to notice every time you do this behavior. Then set a reasonable goal for yourself -- "today I will only check my email 4 times," or even "I will only check my email once in the next two hours" -- whatever seems like a good step based on how often this is currently happening. When you meet a goal, set another one. Every time you do this, you will be building the skills of self awareness and self control. You can apply these skills to other parts of your life. Okay!
posted by cubby at 1:41 PM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

What you're describing, and the poor impulse control that comes with it, suggest maybe ADD or ADHD to my biased mind. I'm not saying you have it or even that you probably have it, but it couldn't hurt to talk to a shrink and see what they say.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 2:33 PM on August 12, 2010

Response by poster: I realize these distractions are all normal - I sort of said that in the OP.

My awareness of the impulses is certainly heightened when I have a particular task to do, but I know from reflection that they slow me down in most tasks. And while taking longer to do the shopping because I spent time picking out a fresh cream cake that I later I put back when I remembered I was going away the next day and wasn't going to be able to eat it is harmless on its own, when it means that I don't have time when I get home to do something else that I had wanted to do then it does start to cause problems.

The problem with reward systems or training myself to delay acting on the impulse until the timer goes off is that these are impulses, so I want to do them now, not when the timer tells me to. And when the timer goes, I won't want to do the distractions, because like I said, when I have the chance to think it over I often choose not to do these things.

So yes in a broad sense I'm looking to develop self-discipline, but what I'm really after is more subtle than that: I want to develop a 'pause for thought' between the urge and the doing, because if I could learn to disconnect the urge-to-do and the act-of-doing then I feel like I wouldn't need egg timers and gold stars because I'd just choose not to follow the distractions.

My mind will wonder and I will have impulsive thoughts; I'm totally comfortable with that. What I want is more conscious control.
posted by davidjohnfox at 2:54 PM on August 12, 2010

I think what would help is to set up your day by tasks: when you say to yourself "x thing needs to be done," stop, write it down, and explain to yourself what the task concretely involves. Focus on those steps and avoid anything unrelated. If possible, turn off anything unrelated. If you need to use the computer, but not the internet, disconnect from it, for example.

To-do lists in general can be an excellent focus. Top priority things get done right away, and you only have to focus for a short, specific task to start out with. This should be less daunting and easier for a wandering mind to cope with.

Another problem might be the goals themselves. You might have fears or concerns related to these goals that make procrastination via distraction more appealing, and looking at those could help you get to the bottom of it and develop more discipline. Though that's probably a stretch to say, given small errands like doing the groceries are probably not fear laden. :)

Sticky notes are fun, though. You mentioned you have repeat habits; put notes on objects you tend to gravitate toward impulsively, like the TV or on your coffee pot, telling yourself to stop and think.
posted by vienaragis at 5:32 PM on August 12, 2010

Have you maybe considered mindfulness meditation? I ask because a major point of this type of meditation is to reduce "mindless," auto-pilot actions and thoughts, and to cultivate more awareness of what you're thinking and what you're doing, separating impulse and action in the way you were talking about.

It is a very practical, non-woo-woo type of meditation. I'm by no means an expert, but the basic idea is something like:

1. Find a place to sit quietly, maybe 10 minutes or so to start.
2. Pick some sensation to focus on, like your breathing, or sounds, or sensations in the body.
3. Whenever you notice that you're getting distracted, make a mental note (like "that's thinking" or "that's planning" or "that's worrying") and bring the attention back to what you're directly experiencing -- the breath, cars in the distance, the feeling of the carpet, etc.
4. Try to keep a non-judgmental attitude: when you notice you've been thinking about having a cup of tea for the last five minutes (and be prepared for this to happen a lot!), don't be upset. It's natural to get distracted, and anyway chastising yourself is just more thinking. Just keep bringing your attention back to the thing you're focusing on, whenever you notice that it has wandered.
5. That's it!

There's been a lot written about mindfulness by people who know much more about it than I do, so I won't clutter the airwaves too much further. As an example, here's one site from UCSD, which also has audio guided meditations and a bibliography.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:48 PM on August 12, 2010

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