We all dream of achieving goals and basking in the glory after having achieved them. That world class product that sells like hot cakes, that Olympic athlete body, that dream holiday and so on. However, just rewind to the days which are spent in trying to work towards the goal and we will see days that are spent toiling, doing things that are boring and routine on a day-to-day basis, such as writing the product spec, writing 10 pages a day for a book draft, going to the gym to do 100 reps, eating only non-sugar, proteins, veggies and fruits. It requires a lot of focus and discipline to keep ourselves on track. Occasionally our minds will give in to the temptation of distractions. Ideally we would want to arrest the temptation and not follow the distraction. However the mind works in funny and contradictory ways and will instead find a convenient justification for the distraction, such that it fits within our goal rules! The book Switch by Dan and Chip Heath describes the potential for such contradictory behaviour as a ‘wiggle space’.
What are wiggle spaces
Let us say that you have promised yourself a liquid-only diet for the next 20 days in order to try and lose weight. Let us say that you succeed in following through for a week. On the eighth day, you feel so ravenous that you cannot take the water & fruit juice diet anymore. So you take some rice, a few spices and some butter in a bowl, blend them using a mixer, add a little bit of water and out comes a rich tasty fluid. Is it compatible with your diet plan? Not really, the rice has all the carbs that you are trying to cut out and the butter has an infusion of fats. Are you really going to have this recipe? You bet. Because, you have allowed yourself to have a ‘liquid diet’. Your mind will in fact zero in on justifications such as, “I promised myself to have a liquid diet. Liquid diets digest faster than solid diets and what I am having right now will be digested and processed in no time and the carbs and the fats will be burned as I work through the day.”! Factually untrue, but sadly the mind has found peace and the undesired behaviour has been justified and executed. The rule, ‘Have only liquid diet’ is inadequate and is prone to such above mentioned contradictory behaviour. There is a way for us to wiggle through the rule and find behaviour that may be temporarily justified and gratifying, but have consequences in the long run.
How to make rules with no space to wiggle
One of the first steps you can take to prevent wiggles is to sit down and plan beforehand on how you specific a rule can be made in order to make it wiggle free. E.g. ‘I will write 10 pages of this book draft everyday’ is prone to so many wiggles. You may write in an extra-large font size to fill up 10 pages quickly or may use extra line spacing between lines or too much spacing between paragraphs. You may get extra creative and use A5 paper instead of A4 to cut down the page size by half. The idea is to get specific beforehand to trap your brain before it goes justification-hunting. E.g. the rule, ‘I will write 10 pages on A4 size paper. Line spacing and font-size will be taken care of by my publisher and I will just use no spacing. If I type, the font size will be 12pt. If writing on paper, I will use ruled paper only. Diagrams will be at most 10 lines high.’ As you can see, the above rule has cut down possibilities for your brain to find loopholes and many of your excuses have been taken care of.
However, 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 comfortable and not undergoing the emotions of the moment, where the hot state is when your mind is battling with emotions to execute the behaviour that you promised yourself in the cold state. For instance, almost all of us are guilty of hitting the snooze button. We set alarms in a cold state previous night, when we are still reasonably awake and visualise ourselves as getting up easily when the alarm rings. But in the morning, our emotions overwhelm our brain and the combination of the feel of a comfortable bed and drowsiness dictate our snooze behaviour. It is difficult for the brain in the cold state to design wiggle-free rules and we must use the past experiences and failures of our hot state to make better rules, such as keeping the alarm clock at a distance from the bed so that we have to get off the bed and switch off the alarm.
We can also use peer support. While we are setting goals and rules, we can reach out to people who have sought out similar goals and rules 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 our 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 we cannot wiggle to use any carbs. Similarly, 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 routine and the uncool stuff and that our brain will try to avoid these and worse, try to make us feel better with justifications. But the better we plan our rules and get ruthless at implementing them, the brain will find less and less space to wiggle and more focus and time will be spent on getting us closer to our goals.