Decision Time

If not now, when?

– Moses Maimonides

Now that you have had the opportunity to thoroughly research your values and the motivations that influence you, it is time to decide upon a course of action. Note that the word “decide” is derived from the root “cide,” which means “to kill,” as in sui-cide, homi-cide, insecti-cide. For example, if you decide to quit drinking alcohol, it is understood that you mean to kill, once and for all, the option to drink alcohol, and thereby lock out the possibility of defecting from that decision. The implicit commitment to adhere to the rules you set and not defect whenever you feel like it is equally applicable if you decide upon moderation rather than abstinence.

Deconstructing Motivational Conflict

In my office Hasselbring claims that he really does want to be a good dad more than he wants to drink. He is disheartened and confused by his repeated failure to act in accord with this claim, which he swears is the truth. The fact that he acts contrary to this truth is taken by his wife as proof that he is lying. As a dispassionate clinician I interpret the disconnect between H's claim that he wants to be a good husband and dad and his actual behavior not as a lie designed to decieve his wife, but as an indication that he has been taken in by the Soul Illusion.

Consider the moment when he makes the "good dad" claim and the moment when he violates it. The former is made in my office, typically after discussing his values and what he considers meaningful. At such times he is motivated to act in accord with and even to sacrifice for these abstract sources of motivation. Since effective motivation is state-dependent, when H is in a high-risk situation  — far from my office and the abstract discussions we have there  —  local sources of motivation are more influential. Because H's motivation is fluid — sometimes he wants to drink, sometimes he wants to be the good dad who always value his children's interests above his pleasure seeking — he makes the Decision for the purpose of freezing his fluid, state-dependent motivation.

The experience of conflict is a reminder of your decision

If H had not made the Decision he would not experience much conflict. As soon as he experienced the desire to drink, he would drink, hence would experience little conflict. The conflict shows up as resistance to following the path of least resistance. Likewise, your conflict between adhering to your Decision and yielding to the impulse to defect is the measure of your will.

A by-product of deconstructing the conflict between Core Motivation and Incentive Motivation is that learning to recognize it gives you the opportunity to initiate a willful response. The thought experiment below is designed to increase your familiarity with the elements of the conflict. The key to this exercise is to experience the conflict from two perspectives: the associative perspective [how it feels to the entity experiencing the conflict] and dissociative perspective [how it looks to the rational observer]. Because you are engaging your Rational Processing System now, as you read this abstract text, the first part of the exercise will probably be easy for you. H's situation is pretty straightforward, and paths to a more gratifying life are obvious from the dispassionate perspective. The second will likely be more difficult for you now: Use your imagination to approximate the state-dependent distortions of a hedonistic, short-sighted creature who is experiencing the stress or temptation that characterize one of your high-risk situations.

Thought Experiment: Conflicts look different than they feel

If you were H's therapist or coach, how would you recommend that H conceptualize the conflict between his Core Motivation and his desire for the immediate payoff of drinking alcohol?


What would you recommend?

If you could imagine being H during such a conflict, how would you experience the desire to drink [Incentive Motivation]? The desire to do right by his family [Core Motivation]?

Can you detect a difference in the way the conflict is experienced and the likely outcome when the rational mind is in the driver's seat and when the puppy is calling the shots?

Make Your Decision

Making a decision is the essential precursor to intentional action. Thinking through and writing out your motivation for making the Decision, and what you are deciding to do, helps structure the complex process of turning abstract intention into real-time action. A Treatment Plan format along with a Sample is provided to help you develop a hard copy of your intentions and plans to achieve them. At this point you can complete the first 2 sections: A statement of your core motivation and your decision about your relationship with the addictive incentive.


  • State the decision as a positive intention [I will do Y] rather than as a negative intention [I will not do X].

  • The core of a commitment is the implicit no exceptions clause: “I agree to permit no exceptions to the contingencies stated here, regardless of how reasonable a momentary lapse may seem at the time.”  While self-forgiveness for a lapse is an important skill to develop, understand this: Once you make a commitment you must adhere to it exactly as stated [even when it seems trivial or unimportant]. You cannot permit a single exception!   [For more on the paradox of rigidly adhering to your rules, yet being flexible and forgiving, see The Enlightened Path].

  • Since you cannot permit any exceptions to your decision, start small. For example, instead of swearing off alcohol forever, start with sobriety sampling, e.g., I will be abstinent for one month. [For some problem drinkers 1 month is a manageable period, for others a month may be too long for a first commitment].  Start with a commitment that is small enough to be manageable, and you are certain you could do if you sacrificed a little.  Each victory enhances your willpower, increasing your ability to tale on larger challenges. [Tip: proceed a little more slowly than you think you need to].  

Note: typically, there is a window of opportunity to make your decision. You cannot stay here without a decision for too long. At some point you will have to make your decision and act! So, if at all possible do it now! If you fail to "strike while the iron is hot" and move forward into the action, there is a danger that you will drift back into contemplation and fail to take action. If you are not yet able to make your decision, it may help to read ahead about the Action Stage or review the Contemplation Stage again.

The Action Stage > >

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