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How to use the "I'm not going to ____" mind hack

I've been collecting mind hacks, by which I mean surprising little tricks or abilities of our minds that are based on psychological insights. That I'm fascinated by them isn't surprising - I spent 20 years doing AI programming (no I don't have a Lisp machine at home, but it would be cool...), and modern personal productivity methods like Getting Things Done are found on this one:
The mind can't let go of something without a sense of closure, via renegotiation, trusted external capture, or completion.
There's a great book about them called Mind Performance Hacks: Tips & Tools for Overclocking Your Brain [1], but I want to share one that's repeatedly whacked me on the head [2] recently:
The mind's fear response can be bypassed with "I'm not going to ____" (fill in the blank).
The best description I've found is in Mark Forster's book Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management [3]:
The easiest way for the rational brain to trick the reactive brain is to be subtle: convince it there is no threat by pretending to yourself that you are not going to do the task.

For example, suppose you need to get cracking on writing a complex report, but you've been having trouble with procrastination. Apply the hack by saying to yourself "I'm not really going to write that report now, but I'll just get out the file." This works because, using Forster's terminology, the irrational brain can be lied to by posing scenarios that seem less threatening. The thinking is that once you get moving on the small step (which your brain doesn't resist) momentum is much easier.

However, I think this is actually a combination of two hacks, the second being (from One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way):
Very small steps disarm the brain's fear response.
As Maurer puts it, "All changes, even the positive ones, are scary. Attempts to reach goals through radical or revolutionary means often fail because they heighten fear. But the small steps of Kaizen disarm the brain's fear response, stimulating rational thought and creative play." Whew!

The final connection to this hack comes from the world of Alexander Technique [4], which is based on the idea of the mind-body system being a Black box that resists direct control. Suppose you have shoulder pain when you use your right arm. To fix it, the natural inclination would be to force the shoulder or arm to work better. Good thinking but, guess what? Doesn't work. We didn't learn to control our bodies that way, and we can't change them that way either. We don't know what "better" is! It's kinda like Einstein's thought that "Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them." Instead we have to re-learn using our bodies.

It's a big topic, but one mind hack that's taught is - surprise! -
The mind/body's habitual response can be bypassed with "I'm not going to ____" (fill in the blank).
This is the inhibition portion of the inhibition-direction principle, and might work like this for the shoulder pain example: Before you lift your arm (in fact before you even think of lifting your arm) say to yourself "I'm not going to lift my arm." This works because it helps to reset your habitual use of the shoulder. Massively simplifying here, but it's pretty neat!

So how about you? Got any favorite productivity mind hacks?


In addition to the classic sites Lifehacker and lifehack.org, which both carry mind hack posts, check out Mind Hacks blog.


Reader Comments (8)

I don't think your post does justice to how profound your insights are in this post! This post is particularly relevant for entrepreneurial organizations where everything is on the line . . . and employees can get easily paralyzed because they're having to invent new stuff all the time rather than just follow methodical procedures that have already been invented and described. When you're in a creative, inventive business, being able to break down challenges into small steps is essential. Thanks!

July 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph Steig

Hey Joseph, thanks for the compliment. I read with interest your thoughts from the entrepreneurial perspective.

July 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

This article was a really great read. My wife and I often use the elephant metaphor - "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time." Sometimes the task is so daunting that it requires taking smaller bites.

Just this week, I realized that I wasn't doing the 60 seconds of stretching every 20 minutes of computer time that my chiropractor recommended. I have Break Reminder set up to force me to stop working, but I discovered when the reminder popped up, I wasn't doing the stretch for 60 seconds, and recently I wasn't doing the stretch at all. It occurred to me that I wasn't doing them because I really didn't want to hold the stretch for 60 seconds, so I changed the reminder to lock the screen for 20 seconds. I've been much more consistent since I made this change.

July 27, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBirch

Matthew, I'm going to try this out this weekend. We have family coming in town and I'm not going to ...stress more than is reasonable.

I think too that we get in auto-pilot with our stress responses, forgetting that stress can be managed and managed well. We just have to cultivate that lessening mechanism.

I think your "I'm not going to ___" habit is just that mechanism.

Thanks, Mike

July 28, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMike St. Pierre

Birch: Thanks for the comment, and for the elephant quote - it's a graphic one!

so I changed the reminder to lock the screen for 20 seconds This is a good Kaizen "small step" example - well done.

July 28, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Mike: I think too that we get in auto-pilot with our stress responses, forgetting that stress can be managed and managed well. I like your idea - great application. Let us know how it goes.

July 28, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I like the tick, but wonder if there are issues in building a "I'm not going to do it = I do it" behavioral script. It's a very good hack, but may be the fix is actually to feel the fear and do it anyway? Character versus technique?

July 31, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJamin

Jamin, thanks for your comment. I think the hack works because it addresses the subconscious and/or habitual portions of our minds, those that can't be worked directly.

July 31, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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