I, Robot: The Secret To Starting And Sticking With A Habit

How to overrule your counterproductive emotions.

Posted Jun 28, 2019

It suddenly struck Javier Diaz that he’d become BFFs with his couch.

Diaz, a Los Angeles-based IT specialist, loves live music and going to concerts, but at the end of a long work day, his couch cushions would be all, “C’mon...take a load off, bro! You know you wanna.”

Of course, part of this was the hellscape that is LA commuter traffic, at exactly the time he’d be heading across town to a music venue. (If there’s a golden hour to get around by car in this town, it’s 3 a.m.)

But Diaz reflected on how amazing it always felt once he was at a concert, immersed in the music and surrounded by other people loving it, too. With that in mind, he made a resolution: He decided to go to hear music nightly—a free concert every night—for an entire summer.

And he did exactly that.

(He did make a few allowances—nights off for events with friends and when there were no concerts being held).

At summer’s end, he made a 90-minute video montage of the concerts he’d attended -- 55 altogether. “The video was never the plan,” Diaz says, “but it certainly was a testament to my getting off my butt and getting into my life.”

 Javier Diaz
Javier Diaz (left, white shirt) enjoying a free concert with friends.
Source: Javier Diaz

Diaz, in making himself go to those concerts—refusing to let his feelings be in charge of his behavior—was doing what I call “roboting” in my “science-help" book, "Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence."

A robot doesn’t get a say in whether it does a job or not. It’s like your blender. You push the buttons, and it just goes to it on your veggies or whatever.

We humans, on the other hand, have emotions. And they can be whiny, demotivating little brats, mucking up our best intentions: “Nooooo... I don’t wanna...!”

The thing is, we can overrule our counterproductive emotions. This starts with understanding the science on willpower.

Research on willpower by evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban and his colleagues overturned the widely believed notion that willpower is energy that gets used up, like orange juice or gas for a car, as you exercise self-control. In fact, willpower actually seems to be reinvigorated by giving your mind a sign that you aren’t engaged in some futile pursuit. As I wrote about the Kurban team’s work in “Unf*ckology”:

They observed that in a number of studies, subjects’ willpower actually got reset (as in, they had more of it for the next task) when they were given a “reward,” like a small gift. So, Kurzban and his colleagues explain, when subjects don’t have the willpower to carry on with the next disagreeable chore, “it’s not ‘willpower’ that’s exhausted—it’s that the ratio of costs to reward is too high to justify continuing.”

In other words, in order for your mind to front you more energy, it seems to look for signs you’re doing that’s something sufficiently rewarding

Interestingly, it seems you can trick your mind into giving you more willpower by giving yourself what reads as a reward, like a snack or a nap.

The thing is, you can also take your feelings out of the equation altogether: Ignore entirely your mind’s attempts to stiff you in the energy-to-do-stuff department.

Yes, I’m suggesting you do the robot-ing thing Diaz did in making himself just go out the door and head off to all those concerts.

I use the robot-ing method all the time: I do 10 pushups every time I make a cup of coffee (about five times a day), and in the late afternoon, I do 10 killer sets of High-Intensity Interval Training on an exercise bike. I do this no matter what—which is to say, I might feel like something the dog threw up, and I’d still do my sets.

To do likewise—to do what needs to be done in your own life—just decide to take your emotions out of the equation: out of the decision to get on the bike or whatever.

Just get on. And then get your feet moving. Like it or not. And then do it the next day and the next.

Consider: If someone were holding you at gunpoint, you wouldn’t be all, “Sorry, dude. I can’t get on the bike.” You’d be on it and peddling like the scary neighbor lady in the Wizard of Oz.

Your new motto? JUST DO IT.

References

Kurzban, R., Duckworth, A., Kable, J. W., & Myers, J. (2013). An opportunity cost model of subjective effort and task performance. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 36(6), 661-679.