We dream of achieving goals and basking in their glory. The world-class product that sells like hot cakes, the Olympic athlete body, the dream holiday and so on. But the day-to-day routine such as writing the product spec, writing 10 pages a day for a book draft, the 100 reps of an exercise, the non-sugar diet with only vegetables are quite boring.
It requires a lot of discipline to keep ourselves on track. Occasionally our minds give in to temptations. To free our conscience, our minds make up stories to fit the lapses within our goal rules. The book Switch by Dan and Chip Heath describes the stories for such contradictory behaviour as ‘wiggle spaces’.
What are wiggle spaces?
You have promised yourself a liquid-only diet for the next 20 days. You succeed for a week. But on the eighth day, you feel so ravenous that you cannot tolerate the water & fruit juice diet anymore. You blend some rice, spices, butter and a little water in a mixer. A rich tasty fluid comes out.
Is it compatible with your diet plan? No. Rice has the carbs you are trying to cut out. Butter has an infusion of fats. Are you really going to have this recipe? Of course. You have allowed yourself a ‘liquid diet’ after all. Your mind will justify saying, “Any food in liquid form burns faster than solid ones. What I am having right now will be burnt in no time.” Factually untrue, but the mind finds peace in it. The undesired behaviour is justified and executed.
The rule, ‘Have only liquid diet’ is inadequate and prone to such contradictory behaviour. There is a way for us to wiggle through the rule and find behaviour that is justified and gratifying. But they have consequences in the long run.
How to make rules wiggle-free rules
The first step is to isolate possible wiggles in a rule. E.g. ‘I will write 10 pages for the book draft everyday’ is prone to so many wiggles. You may write in an extra-large font size to fill up 10 pages quickly. You may use extra line spacing or too much spacing between paragraphs. You may use A5 paper instead of A4 to cut the page size by half.
Here is a better rule. ‘I will write 10 pages on A4 size paper. Line spacing and font-size will be taken care of by my publisher. I won’t use any. The font size will be 12. If writing on paper, I will use ruled paper only. Diagrams will be at most 10 lines high.’ This rule cuts down loopholes drastically. Many of your excuses have been taken care of.
In his book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely has described that the mind has two states: cold and hot. The cold state is a detached and rational state, when you are not undergoing strong emotions. The hot state is when your mind is battling with emotions and you aren’t thinking straight.
For instance, nearly all of us are guilty of hitting the snooze button. We set alarms in a cold state the previous night when we are still brightly awake. In the cold state, we visualise ourselves as jumping out of bed when the alarm rings. But in the morning, emotions overwhelm our brain. The combination of a comfortable bed and our drowsiness prompt our snooze behaviour.
It is difficult for the brain in the cold state to design wiggle-free rules. We must use past experience and failures to make progressively better rules. To wake up, we can keep the alarm clock at a distance from the bed so that we have to get up to switch it off. The air conditioner can be scheduled to turn on the heat 30 minutes prior to our rising time so that our core temperature rises.
We can also use peer support. We can reach out to people who worked on similar goals and use their stories to help us set wiggle-free rules.
How to catch ourselves from wiggling
We all know exactly when we are wiggling. We know that beaten rice and butter is not exactly what we had in mind when we set our liquid diet rule. It helps to pause before we execute a wiggle. Taking a deep breath and contemplating on the advantage of long term benefits over short term gratification can help shake us back to the clean behaviour.
Using the support of near and dear ones can work wonders too. You can ask your spouse or your friend to catch you when you are wiggling. Social pressure makes us act in a more disciplined way, compared to trying to go at it alone.
We can set up our environment so that it allows us no possibility of wiggling. For instance, not purchasing any carb-based food when you are on a carb-free diet will ensure that it is impossible to wiggle. Switching off the phone and Internet connection an hour before bed-time will ensure that our ‘No Internet for an hour before bedtime’ rule holds strong.
It is known that the path to our goal is fraught with unrewarding routine and that our brain will try to avoid these. We will try to make our lapses feel better with justifications. But the better we plan our rules and the more ruthlessly we implement them, the brain will find less space to wiggle and be more focused on goals.