An air of inevitability

4:45pm: Matt, no more. No more drinking. No more smoking. No more partying. No more staying out late and sleeping in. No more time wasting. No more fucking around. It’s time you grew up. It’s time you changed.

5:25pm: Ring ring. Ring ring. “Ahhh shit… Hello?”
“Matt! What ya doing? We’re heading down the pub. You game?”
“Nah, not tonight. I’ve got to be up early and…”
“What are you on about? Don’t be a pussy. I’ll see you there.”
“I can’t tonight. I’ve got to…”
“Dude. First one’s on me. You can stay in tomorrow night.”
“Ahh, alright. I’ll see you in thirty.” Hangs up. “Shit.”

Self-sabotage is when we do what we know isn’t best for us. It’s when we continue smoking even though we know it’s slowly killing us. It’s when we continue neglecting a relationship and blaming the other person for its decay, even though we know it’s us that’s not pulling our weight. It is when we continue to choose to do what is wrong and easy, instead of what is right and hard.

Self-sabotage works because it makes it very difficult to choose what is best for us, and consequently, makes it very easy to choose that which harms us. If I continue to hang out with drug-taking friends, it’s very hard for me to get over my own addiction. Self-sabotage gives an air of inevitability to sub-optimal decisions and actions.

But what if we flipped it? What if we tried to create the same inevitability, but in favour of the decisions and actions that would most benefit us?

Let’s take a desired outcome: I want to be healthier and stronger. I’m going to move towards this goal by going to the gym four times a week.

Now, to sabotage that goal I could do the following:

– Have a pay-as-you-go membership at the gym. I only pay when I actually go.
– Go there with no plan, deciding on the fly what I will do each day.
– Choose to track no metric or indicators of progress.
– Go to the gym at peak times, when it’s most busy, and therefore most annoying and intimidating.
– Choose a gym that is far away, inconvenient to get to, and expensive. 

There are other things I could do to sabotage that goal, but with just the strategies above it seems pretty inevitable that I’m not going to create long-term change. That I’m going to fail.

But what could I do to make my success, rather than my failure, inevitable? I could:

– Set up a monthly membership, so I’m paying for it even if I don’t go.
– Find a training plan in a book or online and follow it exactly.
– Decide upon two key metrics that are tied to my desired outcome. Bodyweight and a one-rep max in a certain exercise. A weekly photo and a timed two mile run. Whatever.
– Head to the gym in the early mornings or afternoons when it’s quiet and I feel most comfortable.
– Sign up to a gym that is within walking distance.
– Get a training partner and go to the gym at the same time as them.

If I do all those things, does my success seem more likely, more inevitable? I think it does.

Self-sabotage makes it very hard to do what we most need to do. But the fundamental idea that enables it—skewing an environment to favour a certain behaviour—can be turned around. Yes, we can structure our environment to inhibit good decisions and actions. But we can also tailor our environment to make the taking of good decisions and actions a near-certainty.