It turns out that we as humans can be lousy predictors of what will make us feel good. George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University calls this the "Intrapersonal Empathy Gap." When we don't know others as well as we think we do, there's a gap in our inTERpersonal empathy. But we don't even know our future selves as well as we think we do--hence the inTRApersonal empathy gap.
When you're in hot pursuit of an opportunity to act out, if feels like you're sneaking your future self a delightful, forbidden gift. "Look what I'm working really hard to get for you!" Once you've acted out, you sneer at your past self and say, "How could you imagine I'd want more of that crap in my life?!"
Try out this exercise. It can help provide you with alternative activities at those moments when you're vulnerable to acting out. It will also illustrate some of the gaps in your empathy for your future self. Hopefully it will make you more willing in the future to try constructive activities that don't seem very appealing in the heat of the moment.
In the middle of a page, make a list of possible activities you could turn to when you're at risk of relapsing. Then, in a column to the left, rate each activity from 1-10 according to how satisfying you think the activity will be. For example, here's Paul's list:
6 Browse news websites
7 Listen to music
7 Talk with coworkers
5 Work hard
7 Lunch with family
8 Play football on Wii
7 Volunteer at church
8 Sub for Santa
7 Caroling with neighbors
7 Lunch with coworkers
8 Browse entertainment websites
4 Go running
Then create a right hand column where you can rate actual satisfaction from 1-10. Throughout the coming week or two, right after you engage in each of the activities, rate how satisfied you feel. Here is the completed assignment Paul showed me two weeks later:
Satisfaction Activity Satisfaction
6 Browse news websites 2 (ugh!)
7 Listen to music 9
7 Talk with coworkers 8
5 Work hard 8
7 Lunch with family 9
8 Play football on Wii 6
7 Volunteer at church 8
8 Sub for Santa 10
1 Caroling with neighbors 9
7 Lunch with coworkers 8
8 Browse entertainment websites 2
4 Go running 7
Notice the gaps--some of the huge!--between how satisfying Paul thought these activities would be and how much he actually enjoyed them.
It has made him rethink all the time he spends online and playing video games. And has made him more willing to try things that sound challenging (working hard) or even miserable (Caroling with a group of neighbor families)
Try out this exercise for yourself. And stop ingesting poisonous activities--they make your future self sick every time!