Most people have never heard of a Forcing Function, because it’s not commonly thought of as a self-help principle.
However of the 1001 reasons you might want more willpower, my claim to you is that almost always willpower is the wrong tool for the job.
On some of these occasions a Forcing Function will do much better.
But what is a Forcing Function anyway?
If you have ever gone to get money from an ATM you will probably have had the experience of sticking in your card, entering all the details, reaching for the money… and then realizing the money wasn’t going to come until you had first taken out your card.
This is a Forcing Function.
When ATMs first became popular, one of the biggest frustrations for users was accidentally leaving their card in the machine. The banks didn’t like it either. Each morning their staff were handling these upset customers who had “been in a hurry and stupidly forgotten to take my card out.”
Banks tried putting bigger signs on their ATMs, with arrows pointing at the place you were meant to pick up your card. They installed beeping reminders into the machines. They changed the display message to tell people to take their card. They still had problems.
In the end they solved it with a Forcing Function.
They changed the sequence so that you don’t get what you came for ie the money, until you have done all the incidental bits, including take your card.
Of course this doesn’t entirely stop people from forgetting their card. They can always put it down on the machine and leave it there, or drop it, or reinsert the card and walk away, but all these are much less likely to happen.
People want their card. They just need to be reminded about it. They don’t need to have more will power, or spend more time beating up on themselves for being stupid or lazy or worse.
The system can just be changed, so human beings can stay the same.
This is allowed!
Self help can be about changing the world around you, not just changing yourself.
Let me give you an example from my counseling practice.
I had a woman complaining that she was struggling to keep a diary. She only wanted to write a few lines and check the inspirational quote for the following day. She enjoyed doing it, she just seemed to “fall off the wagon”, and forget.
She wanted more willpower.
I said she could use a Forcing Function instead.
If she put her diary on her pillow then she would only be able to go to sleep at night by picking up the diary.
It wouldn’t mean she had to read it or write in it, but she enjoyed doing that part of it so she probably would.
She was much more pleased.
But then she thought it through a bit more and got all down in the mouth again.
“But how will I remember to put the diary on my pillow in the first place? It will sit on my bedside table, ignored just like it is now. I need will power again!”
My answer was to add another forcing function.
I told her to put the diary on the floor right where her feet would land when she got out of bed in the morning.
If she forgot the diary she would step on it when she got up in the morning and be reminded to move it onto the pillow then.
She preferred that to my other suggestion.
My other suggestion was to get her to put up signs all around the house saying in big letters “You stupid idiot. You’ve forgotten something. Why do you always forget such simple things…”
But since she’d already tried something very similar for herself, she thought she’d go along with being “forced” instead.
Strange name. Vital self help skill.
Find a place for it today in your life, and you can report back your experiences with it on this blog.
-Dr Martin Russell