Doing less by doing more

My caffeine free goal structure probably seems weird to most people. That’s because it’s based on a simple motivational trick which may be pretty counter-intuitive, but has worked extremely well for me.

That trick is this: Never set out to do less of something. Instead, set out to do more of something that excludes the thing you want to do less of.

I do this primarily with Beeminder goals, but I think it’s more generally applicable.

The reason for this is that setting out to do less of something works very badly for me psychologically: It feels like a punishment, or like I have to ask for permission to do something I want to do. This is basically guaranteed to make me resent the goal and want to avoid the whole thing. Additionally, it turns whatever I’m supposed to be doing less of into a scarce resource, which makes me slightly obsess over it.

Goals to do more of something on the other hand don’t have these problems. Instead of being punished, I’m being rewarded, and the thing I’m wanting to do less of isn’t scarce any more – I can have as much of it as I want once I’ve completed this challenge!

Intellectually I know that these end up with exactly the same result, but I’ve found that despite that this makes such a difference in practice.

It’s usually quite easy to reframe things this way too. The “days without” works well for a lot of things, or you can pick some beneficial activity that is mutually exclusive with the thing you want to avoid (e.g. instead of a “spend less time sitting” goal you could have a “spend more time walking” goal).

This may be unique to me, but it seems consistent with other people’s experiences and the psychology of it doesn’t seem especially peculiar to me. So if you’re struggling to do less of something, I’d recommend giving this a try.

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