Turning Impulses into Conscious Choices

There’s something I’ve recently rediscovered as I’m on month nine of dieting that’s also a part of how I handle depression and how I deal with being a creator in general: the first step in learning to change behavior is to turn impulses into conscious choices. (Maybe not the first step, but it’s pretty early in.)

I want that third taco, but I don’t need it. I can always treat myself tomorrow.

What does that mean? When it comes to dieting, for me it means seeing old moments where I’d just go into the fridge and get something to eat without really thinking about it were more like acting on impulse. Because I wasn’t really thinking about what I was doing—no doubt distracted by other stuff—I wasn’t inserting into my behavior a moment of deliberately stopping to make a choice. For the last nine months, I have, to decent success as I’ve lost around 30 pounds. I don’t always choose the “good” option, but I still make it a choice rather than eat on autopilot. I do the same thing when it comes to depression, though that’s far more difficult, because at my more self-hateful and lethargic, making decisions is anathema to existence. But I keep the struggle going of inserting decision points to disrupt impulses.

I’ve been sitting on the couch for the last four hours. I really should walk around outside for 15 minutes. The couch won’t go anywhere.

What does that mean for creating? Well, frequently the act of not creating when we could is more impulse than choice. Sitting down to watch TV or mess around on Facebook are easy impulses to fall into. It’s even easier with non-interrupting streams like social media or a full season of a show on Netflix. Letting the next episode load or watching the feed refresh is so simple to just keep doing because there’s no significant effort on your part to do so.

Today, I will get up and write. More concretely, I’ll write after breakfast before doing anything else.

As creators, we need to develop the skill of turning our impulses to not create into conscious choices. In that process, I’ve found that my enjoyment of things increases, because I’m making a conscious choice to watch an episode (or three) of a show I like, and not simply following an impulse to fill a void.

Right now, I’ll sit down in this chair and write 250 words instead of check Twitter.

This is by no means easy! I say this is the first step, not the last. Once you get to turning moments of impulses into moments where you make conscious choices, there’s more to talk about regarding willpower, creative energy,bargaining with yourself, guilt, relaxation and sleep, burnout, jumping from project to project, and so much more. But I firmly believe it starts at this core.

I was just about to look at G+. I can do that after doing another Pomodoro.

– Ryan


5 Responses to Turning Impulses into Conscious Choices

  1. Kit says:

    This reminds me of the realization I had a bit ago that attention and focus are distinct things—attention is a reflex, focus is a choice. By separating them, I can avoid unwillingly turning the reflexive attention into unthinking focus. Put another way, this is my anti-clickbait strategy: “that grabbed my attention, but will I choose to focus on it?”

  2. Carl Klutzke says:

    Establishing rituals is a helpful way of conserving willpower, because they can help you avoid the impulses and you don’t even need to make conscious choices. We focus a lot on avoiding bad habits but we forget that we can also establish _good_ habits. I can recommend Switch and The Power of Full Engagement for more on this topic.

  3. Quentin Hudspeth says:

    Thanks Ryan,
    I’m finding this post quite inspirational. I’ve lately been trying unsuccessfully to break out of bad, destructive health and productivity habits. I realize I’ve been subconsciously approaching my change in the way you’ve described, but have been largely unsuccessful. You’ve sneaked me into consciously evaluating my “method”. Now, instead of thinking “I need to do this”, I can approach it with the more proactive “I choose to do this”.

    Thanks for the group therapy session.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Hey! Been a bit since I’ve seen your name on these sheet. :)

      Yeah, I hear you. I have so many unsuccessful attempts at dealing with poor health and depression. And even this isn’t a silver bullet, because it can turn passive activities into ones that (to use some parlance) cost spoons to even think about. It’s a balancing act, but still one that I hope helps.

      Be well,

      – Ryan

  4. T.R. Knight says:

    I am a caregiver for my wife and father to busy twin daughters. I understand that urge at the end of my day or on a weekend to just sit in my la-z-boy rocker watching a few youtube videos or playing more rounds of Star Realms. This is especially true if I have had a stressful time during my day job and really just want to ignore the world for a while. It takes that conscious decision to get up to exercise, to proofread another chapter, or to do more research. The challenge is to voluntarily choose to override our involuntary impulses. Thanks for sharing these personal challenges and how you motivate yourself.