In the kitchen, a burning hot but fragile dish is dropped and someone catches it and therefore suffers a burn. They did not have time to think about whether this was a smart thing to do; they did it by reflex. But if they knew ahead of time that it was likely that a burning hot dish might fall and that if they caught it they would be burnt, then they can think about whether they want to catch the dish. And reflex or no – if they do not want the burn, they will not catch the plate. We can override many reflex actions but only if we do it ahead of the event that would trigger the reflex.
There are go/no-go situations where you have to commit to an particular action knowing that a very late signal may require you to stop the action in mid flow. Again is can only be done with fair warning. In order to do this the no-go signal has to be part of the planned program for the action.
Why is it so hard to count calories? Every time we are faced with food we have to exercise restraint, do a vague calculation and then use willpower to resist temptation. But if we have a severe allergy to a range of foods, we think about the effects of eating them. Very soon the dangerous foods become non-foods in our minds and we do not bother with them; they are not appetizing and tempting; practically no willpower at all is required to avoid them. It is actually easier to avoid certain foods all together then to cut down on consuming them. Again the key is rational thought about the consequence of actions BEFOREHAND.
Suppose it is important to be on good terms with someone you do not know very well. It would be a good idea to think for a little while about the consequences of what you might regret saying if you lose your temper or what the result might be of an inappropriate joke. Forearmed you can keep anger and humour in check. You are not going to see the dangers if you are unprepared when you begin to feel angry or when a very funny remark jumps up in your mind.
If I want to do something a particular way then I should make it a plan or a habit; then I am unlikely to do it any other way. But the plan or the habit has to be a rational, thought out one that is convincing to me. This is not magic or a shortcut, this is making good decisions ahead of time when I have the time and when I can see things in perceptive. But it is work all the same. It is part of what I call mind maintenance. If you try to make a pretend decision and ‘fool yourself’, it will not work. Decisions made ahead of time must be honestly and rationally made to be ready and useful when required.
Now I could rely on my willpower and my ability to make quick decisions when they are needed. I have known people who resist mind maintenance. They are proud of their willpower and look for situations to test it. When their willpower fails, as it always occasionally does, they feel that they have failed, punish themselves, and look for another test to prove that they have regained their great willpower. Willpower is a limited resource and we should be looking for ways of conserving it for emergencies not squandering it on silly mind game with ourselves.
Also there are people who resist mind maintenance because they take pleasure in spare of the moment decisions. It seems to validate their feeling that consciously made, quick decisions are proof of their free will. This is false – a decision is a decision. It can either be made by the brain or by magic. We cannot tell the difference by introspection. We have to infer how decisions are made from evidence. We can attempt to make them carefully or sloppily. I find it odd that there are people who risk sloppy decisions in order to feel, erroneously, that their decisions break the rules of the physical world. And what happens when we make a really bad decision, what springs into our minds is not that ‘oh well – that is what happens with free decisions’, it is ‘oh my – how am I going to avoid doing that again’. All the ‘if only I had…’ thoughts crowd the mind. So even if someone wants to believe in magically free decisions, they still should use that magic in a careful, rational way and make good decisions if they can and AHEAD OF TIME if possible.