Moving Beyond Blame

I’m up at 2am again, shaking my head at myself for my weakness. A litany of my own shortcomings rolls through my mind. Why can’t I wake up at 5am, meditate, exercise, and get started on my todo list in order of priority? I quickly run through the character flaws that make me this way. I am blaming myself for not living up to the ideal I have in mind.

To blame someone is to shift responsibility to another party. While I was blaming my character defects for making me anything other than perfect, I wasn’t acknowledging my role in changing the situation. Blaming my character and personal history was a way of shifting responsibility onto elements beyond my control – my history, my personality, perhaps my genetics.

It’s all bullshit, of course.

Even if we agree that our character limits our abilities, there is still the possibility to move beyond simply blaming ourselves. Obviously, our environment affects our ability to succeed, but equally obvious is that we have the ability to affect our environment. And humankind has a bevy of tools with which we can vastly change our environment with little effort.

We can go beyond blaming ourselves for our weaknesses and move toward counteracting them by designing our environment to make choices for us. What, don’t believe that the environment makes choices for us? It was raining yesterday, so I wore a coat. Stores place candy at the checkout lanes to force you to make impulse purchases. Colors affect purchasing decisions. But we can use these same environmental triggers to create the behavior that we want in ourselves.

Some runners place their clothes on the floor in the path before they go to sleep so that they see it in the mornings. A common tactic to stop spending is to have a friend hide your credit card. Even automatic notifications via your favorite web app are an example of moving decision-making from our own squishy, largely fallible brains to the outside world, which is, by and large, more reliable.

I know that I am highly motivated in social activities, exercise, and food. So instead of saying, “I can’t wake up at 5am. I must be a night person,” my plan should be to to find an early morning running buddy to have breakfast with. My social contract to run with him or her should outweigh my sloth. Meanwhile, I can put my todo list somewhere where I’ll see it and be able to interact with it all the time. Finally, implementing Seinfeld’s don’t-break-the-chain productivity system is as easy as setting up a calendar with iDoneThis.

We can design the environment around us to trigger better decisions. This way, we can acknowledge our shortcomings…and do something about it.

What triggers do you use?