Mar 24, 2015


An ongoing conflict in my life occurs between my rational decision-maker self and my impulsive reward-seeker self (I am walking along the well-trod paths of psychology, I know, but I'm going to state these two selves without further definition or reference and move forward).

My rational decision-maker self faces the future. Planning is one of his primary tools – an arsenal of budgets, agendas, to-do's.

My impulsive reward-seeker self lives in the present. He plies urges, quiet suggestions, fast action.

The rational and the impulsive selves often want conflicting things. Me (ego-me, true-me) most often sides with the rational, and as a spectator in this fight cheers him on.

Unfortunately for rational decision-maker self, most decisions are executed in the present, domain of impulse. The crucial moment comes in the transition from future to present, thought to action, plan to implementation. Impulsive reward-seeker self often wins out in this moment through brute force and tempting imagery. So goes the battle, so goes the war.

Happily for us reasonable folk, impulsive reward-seeker self is wholly focused on the objects of his desires. He doesn't survey the whole picture, doesn't consider unusual routes of approach. He can be caught unawares.

One of rational self's best stratagems is choosing the battlefield on which the fight will take place. By arranging the time and place of the crucial moment, rational self can gain a decisive advantage. Impulsive self still fights valiantly, but finds himself charging uphill, stumbling across trenches, falling into pits, and is thus smartly dispatched.

I've found this idea to be flexible and effective – focus more on shaping your decision-making environment, and less on willfully making good decisions in the moment. Impulsive self has the upper hand in any given moment, and willpower is exhaustible and takes awhile to recoup. Willing yourself through one choice may contribute to poorer decisions made at later junctures. Investing effort in designing decision-making environments that work in your favor conserves in-the-moment willpower and helps rational decision-maker self have easy wins.

I want to shift now to a practical application of this pleasant proposal. I sometimes spend money impulsively, often on food that impulsive self assures me will be delicious (he is rarely wrong). Unfortunately, this delicious food is also usually expensive, and the cumulative purchases eventually derail my carefully planned budget.

Note that I am operating in an environment:

  • of effectively unlimited purchasing power (thanks to generous credit limits).
  • that lacks benchmarks to link in-the-moment spending to long-term (monthly) spending plans.

I will try to alter this environment by:

  • no longer carrying credit cards in my wallet.
  • giving myself a weekly allowance of $50 (cash) to spend as I please. Within the bound of my allowance, I am absolutely forbidden from feeling bad about any purchase. Above the bound, I am out of money, and thus out of luck.

In terms of food, I am counting grocery shopping as outside of the allowance (a separate budget item), and restaurant purchases as inside the allowance. This is because I often make restaurant purchases impulsively, and have never gone grocery shopping on impulse.

Also within the bound of the allowance are things like:

  • café coffee
  • ice cream, pastries, and other sweet things
  • random things I buy on Amazon
  • books
  • concerts

Pre-registration: I expect this procedure to result in lower spending on restaurant food and miscellaneous impulse buys. I expect myself to diverge from the scheme within a couple of months, then soon repent, reaffirm, and return (possibly with tweaks). I expect this scheme to mildly reduce the amount of worry I spend on money matters, but not by much. I do not expect this scheme to reduce spending in other areas, and it might result in a slight uptick in grocery store spending.

[rereads: 1, edits: added "smartly", added "Investing effort in designing decision-making environments that work in your favor conserves in-the-moment willpower and helps rational decision-maker self have easy wins."]