Can This Simple Skill Make You Less Impulsive?
Are You Impulsive?
When you think of the word impulsive, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? If you’re like many people, you think of children, and that would be an accurate representation of the word. But impulsiveness affects our lives as adults more than we realize, and certainly more than we like to admit.
Impulsiveness is a tendency to react rather than respond, a hallmark of child behavior. When you react, you act out your brain’s instinctive, reflexive response to whatever situation you are confronted with. As children mature, however, they slowly learn how to control those impulses and respond to people and situations in ways that are acceptable to society.
Your two brains
As a human being, you have what’s referred to as an executive portion of your brain. It gives you the ability to resist the urge to satisfy your instinctive, short-term desires in favor of long-term benefits. You even have the ability to do things that benefit other people, even if that something negatively affects you. However, the only way you can do that is to be aware that you are reacting, and instead consciously decide how to act.
Your primitive brain wants to keep you safe and only do things that make you feel good. Unfortunately, those impulsive behaviors often conflict with your long-term goals. You eat a candy bar, watch TV or smoke a cigarette because your primitive brain tells you, even if only subconsciously, that those things will make you feel good, and help you relieve the stress of everyday life.
The challenge in overcoming these impulsive behaviors is learning to recognize when they are happening. More often that not, those behaviors happen without you consciously thinking about them. Human beings are “bundles of habits”, operating on autopilot more than we realize. When you live your life moving from one impulse to the next, it can feel like you are always sabotaging yourself, taking one step forward only to take two steps back. This feeling is a sure way to crush whatever motivation you had to establish a good habit or make a positive change in your life.
Mindfulness makes you less impulsive
One simple but very effective way to improve your impulsiveness is to develop your mindfulness. Mindfulness is commonly referred to as “being present” or “living in the moment”. But in my opinion, that description doesn’t do a good job of communicating what mindfulness is.
If you were to ask people who are not familiar with the concept of mindfulness whether they are consciously aware of their thoughts and actions, they would probably say yes. Logically, then, they would probably consider themselves to spend most of their time “in the moment”. In other words, to them, “being present” is more about not being distracted or thinking about unrelated things when you are having a conversation with someone. And while that's certainly a part of mindfulness, it's not the whole picture.
Aside from reining in your distracted thoughts, mindfulness gives you what I think of as a bird’s-eye view of yourself. You can also think of it like there’s another version of you standing over your shoulder all the time, listening to and watching you like you’re a different person. This view allows you to think about the thoughts you are having, while you’re having them.
Myths of meditation
The primary way of developing your mindfulness is through mindfulness meditation. If you are unfamiliar or have a negative association with the word meditation, I will simply say that there is a lot of misinformation floating around in our culture on this topic. Mindfulness meditation is not the mystical, incense-burning, crystal-healing practice that many people associate with it. It is a practice that has not only thousands of years of human practice and experience behind it, but also has decades of scientific research that illustrate its positive effects.
At its core, mindfulness meditation is simply a method for training your mind to be aware of its thoughts. You do that by focusing your mind on something (usually your breath, although it can be anything) and then, every time you notice your mind has wandered away, you gently pull it back.
That’s it. By doing this practice over and over (and over), you teach your mind to develop that bird’s-eye view.
If you want to learn more about mindfulness and meditation, there are a lot of good websites with information on the topic. Mindful.org is a good place to start. There are also many good apps that offer both guided and unguided meditation, several of which are either completely free or offer a free version. I have personally tried Headspace, Calm and Omvana. I have no affiliation with any of those companies, just sharing what I have tried.
I’m not going to delve into the benefits of mindfulness and meditation in this video, because I plan to cover those topics in more depth at another time. I simply want to point out that mindfulness allows you recognize when your thoughts are just an impulsive reaction to something in your environment. Armed with that knowledge, you can then decide how to respond to the situation. And when you choose your response, you at least have a fighting chance of doing so in a way that is more in line with your long-term goals, and that supports rather than sabotages your motivation.
Update: More research continues to show the impact that meditation has, not only on your cognitive function, for example the ability to focus, but on the strength of your "response inhibition". This ability allows you to resist your natural impulses in favor of behaviors that are more in line with your long-term goals (like healthy eating, exercising, saving money, etc).