Lists and lying

I accidentally harnessed the power of lists to diminish my gaming habit. When Steam has a sale and I see a bunch of games I’d like to play, I buy maybe one and put the rest on the ol’ wishlist. We all know how wishlists work: It’s a list of things you want but don’t have. And yet, something else happened, more subtle and powerful than that simple definition could suggest.

When I see a game that I think is terrific, I want to acknowledge it as such. The obvious way to acknowledge (and enjoy) is to spend time and money on it. But spending time and money… costs time and money! I want to agree that the thing is worth time and money, but I don’t want to actually pay the cost. Putting the thing on a wishlist is, superficially, to make a promise that you will eventually get to it, but it is an empty promise.

  • I recognize this is good and I want to enjoy it (but not now)
  • I’ll do it when I have time (and I don’t fill it with something else)
  • I’ll read it when I’m done with my current book (unless something else comes up)
  • I’ll buy it when there’s a sale with a big discount (unless I want a different game)

I was able to put a bunch of games on my wishlist and never actually play them. By merely making a vague promise of playing them someday, I greatly reduced my desire to actually play them! Self-improvement via lying to yourself!

I’ve also experienced the same phenomenon at the grocery store. I’ve often craved candy, but merely walking down the aisle and looking at all the options satisfied me. I think that by acknowledging the part of me that wants candy, I was able to act on the other part of me that wants to avoid it.

To use an information science word, I satisficed my desire to eat candy and play video games, either by acknowledging that those things are good in some ways, or by acknowledging that I have those desires. I’m not sure which.

But this phenomenon cuts both ways. Lists of goals have been very helpful to me, but they have also be harmful. I literally remember the day when I stopped reading like I used to: it was the day I bought two books. It was no longer “I am reading this book,” but rather, “I will read this book someday.” The former mental model precipitated ongoing present action; the latter made a weightless promise of eventual future action. The promise of future action kept me from making the effort to take present action. The attitude of “I’ll get to it… but I don’t want to decide when” exerted a negative force on my will to actually read that book.

I suppose this phenomenon can be either good or bad because humans have conflicting desires. I am a complicated person and I don’t really know how my desires work, but typing this out helped me think about it more. I theorize that if I were more conscious of how it works, I could use this phenomenon like a tool to exert greater control over my desires. I’ll have to think about it more.