DRMacIver's Notebook

Separating Impulse from Action

Separating Impulse from Action

Here’s a trick I figured out yesterday. It solves quite a specific problem that I have, but you might have similar problems, and even if not I think it demonstrates some useful general principles that could be applied in other circumstances.

The problem is this: I buy too many books.

It’s not a disaster because I also read a lot of books, but I buy books at a higher rate than I read them, and I often buy books that I later decide that actually I’m not realistically going to read.

The problem is basically that when I encounter an interesting book whose ideas I would like inside my brain, I often impulsively buy it.

Some of this is a problem of impulse control, for sure, and I could definitely fix it by being better at impulse control, but currently I’m trying to be less good at impulse control, so that seems counterproductive.

An additional complication is that the correct amount of books for me to be buying is not zero. I could just blanket ban myself from buying books. I would experience it as unpleasant, but it’s manageable, but that would not result in my buying the right number of books. I do read a lot of books (typically between one and three a week, not counting fiction which are a separate category because I read them as ebooks), and I like having new books around, and I can definitely afford to spend a certain amount of money on books.

The additional complicating factor is that my bookshelves serve as a kind of… thoughts I want to have later? They’re a TODO list for reading, and my experience is that I will lose track of digital TODO lists for reading - they will get too large, and I will forget about them and leave them to rot (I am even worse at digital care work than physical).

So, I:

  1. Have a constant impulse to buy books, and suppressing it will be unpleasant.
  2. Do actually want to buy a non-zero amount of books.
  3. Need a way to keep track of the books I may want to buy later.

Anyway, there’s an easy solution, and it’s kinda stupid that it’s taken me this long to realise it.

The solution that satisfies all of these is to have:

  1. a default Amazon list of books I wanted to buy.
  2. a scheduled task every Sunday to buy a book.

Now when I want to impulse buy a book I instead just click the add to list button instead of the buy now button. Then, every Sunday, I go through the list and decide which of these books is the one I want to buy the most right now. In the course of doing so, I remove any books from the list that I’m definitely sure I won’t want to buy later.

This solution is actually very good, because it:

In addition I think it will significantly increase the quality of the books I do buy, because each book I buy will be a measured choice between alternatives where invest some effort in ensuring that my book this week will be a good one. I don’t intend to avoid all error and I of course can’t ensure I always pick the best one, but I’m pretty sure that investing about twenty minutes of thought into the question will result in me improving on impulse decisions.