Being impulsive can lead to a host of challenges. Being impulsive at the grocery store can mean spending too much money, or buying junk food and sweets when you meant to buy healthy items. You might spontaneously spend the day shopping instead of studying, or playing video games when you meant to go to the gym. You can become less impulsive when you learn to use effective organizational tools. Focus your attention through specific interventions, and develop daily habits to improve your attention.
Write down your goals.
The first step in being less impulsive is to determine how you want to prioritize your time.Then, before acting impulsively, check and make sure your action reflects the values you’ve written down for yourself.
This might mean writing a master task list. It might mean creating a business plan. If you’re a student, you might want to create a study plan. The important thing is to record your current goals in order to measure them against your impulses.
You might think of this written record as a kind of container for your values, intentions, commitments, best practices for yourself, and tasks that support these goals.
You can use a notebook, a spreadsheet, or another method that works for you. The main thing is that the framework is accessible and functional.
Set aside time for regular review and planning.
In order to make the most of your organizational system, you’ll need to commit to reviewing how effective your system is in your life, as well as plan out any needed changes.
You might find you need to sit down once a week to consider your actions of the previous week. Did you follow your listed priorities? Note what went well, what you found challenging, and what you might do better.
You might find that you need to do this review more often until you find a system that works for you. Doing a brief daily review is recommended; you might also do a more extensive monthly review.
Follow a daily schedule.
If you have lots of unstructured time in your day, you’re more likely to fill it with impulsive acts. Try writing down a daily schedule for yourself, using 30 minute blocks of time. It’s okay if you spend more than one 30-minute block on a task, but don’t leave any blocks empty and unstructured.
If you don’t know how to plan ahead for certain activities, write in a series of choices for yourself. For instance, if you’re not sure yet whether a friend is coming over or not, write: “Friend or ______.”
Your daily schedule should include your social time and free time too. A schedule that doesn’t include any downtime will ultimately fail.
Write checklists for yourself.
If you’re the kind of person who’s prone to impulsively changing directions in the middle of a task, using checklists can help you stay focused. Checklists minimize opportunities to act impulsively by ensuring that nothing is forgotten, and that no unnecessary steps are added to a task.
Checklists have been proven to increase attention to the task even for medical professionals. Many surgeons are required to follow checklists when they perform surgery to help them stay on task.
Checklists can be used across multiple settings. Use a travel checklist to help you pack more efficiently; a shopping checklist to help you only purchase the intended items; a study checklist to make sure you attend to each part of the assignment.
Crossing items off a checklist can provide motivation to complete a task.
Color-code your calendar.
Keeping a calendar is essential for anyone who struggles with impulsivity. You’ll need to have access to daily, weekly, and monthly calendars in order to prioritize your attention. Using different colors for different categories of activity will help support your use of a calendar.
For example, a student might use red ink for upcoming tests, blue ink for long-term projects, black ink for daily schoolwork and green for fun or social activities.
A portable calendar, such as an app on your phone, will help you access your calendar across settings.
Look at pictures of nature.
Research studies show that people who look at photographs of natural world are less likely to make impulsive decisions afterwards. Photographs included pictures of mountains, forests, beaches, etc.
If you’re trying to become less impulsive, post a postcard or a photograph of your favorite natural environment near your desk or on your notebook.
Before making a decision, pause and reflect by looking at an image of the natural world. Your decision is then less likely to be impulsive.
Take a nap.
Napping helps decrease impulsivity in adults, according to a research study at the University of Michigan. The amount of nap time in the research study was a 60-minute, but you may not have to be asleep for the full 60 minutes in order to benefit from this approach.
Napping also appears to help people remain calmer and less frustrated as they work to complete a task. People who nap are more likely to remain focused on the activity until it’s finished.
The benefits of napping are not limited to those people who don’t receive the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night. All research subjects appeared to benefit from napping.
Make it harder to act impulsively.
Putting limits on yourself will help protect you from impulsive acts and decisions. For example, if you have trouble preventing yourself from blurting out everything you think, consider writing down all your comments and questions before saying them out loud. By taking the time to write them down, you may be able to avoid inappropriate impulsive remarks.
If you have difficulty overspending, leave your credit card at home when shopping, and pay with cash.
Putting items on hold for 24 hours will help prevent impulsive purchases, and give you a chance to decide whether you really need to buy the items.
Try a breathing exercise.
A UCLA research study showed that yoga-based breathing program called Sudarshan Kriya resulted in significant decrease of impulsive behaviors among teens. The breathing exercises include four basic types of breathing:
Ujjayi or “Victorious Breath”, which is a type of slow, intentional breathing where focus is on the breath touching the throat.
Bhastrika or “Bellows Breath,” in which breath is exhaled forcefully through nostrils, followed by a rapid inhale, at the rate of 30 breaths per minute.
Chanting “Om” 3 times in a row, which requires sustained, controlled expiration.
Breathing in a rhythmic pattern, whether slow, medium or fast.
Start a yoga practice.
Regular inclusion of basic yogic techniques have been shown to improve attention and decrease impulsivity. Schoolchildren who are taught to do daily sun salutations, and regulated breathing activities demonstrate better sustained attention.
The benefits increase when yoga is done in different settings. For instance, if you’re getting ready to go shopping, take a few moments before entering the store to do yogic breathing. At home, do a sun salutation before grabbing junk food to snack on.
Develop a daily exercise routine.
Exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, will help you be less impulsive in a number of ways. Exercise lifts your mood, and decreases feelings of stress and anxiety.
In addition, exercise keeps a person’s attention actively engaged. If you’re more likely to act impulsively out of boredom or frustration, you can put this energy to better use through exercise.
Research suggests that 40 minutes per day of aerobic activity improved executive functioning in overweight kids.
All ages will benefit from increased exercise.
Learn more about mindfulness practices.
Becoming aware of your feelings, and learning to connect your impulsiveness to your thoughts, emotions and urges will help you better control your actions. Mindfulness helps by allowing you some distance from your impulses, offering you the opportunity to choose to act upon your impulses or not.
When you notice an urge, articulate that urge mentally to yourself before acting on it. For example, “I am angry that my partner just said that, and I want to criticize her.” Follow this with a more constructive response, such as, “I can try to calm down.”
Mindfulness means to focus on what’s going on inside yourself, and it may take time to notice what’s going on in your body before you act impulsively rather than afterwards.
Talk to people you trust.
When your impulsivity is based in anxiety, you can help yourself by spending time with people you trust. Making sure to have people in your life with whom you can share things you’re concerned about may help ease your anxiety, and decrease your impulsiveness.
You might consider talking with a professional, such as a counselor, life coach, or a professional organizer, about your difficulties with impulsivity.
Just spending time talking with trusted friends can help address your anxiety, even if you’re not having a serious conversation.
Ask a friend to hold you accountable.
A friend can help you stay accountable to the goals you’ve set for yourself. Find a friend who is reliable and nonjudgmental, and share with her what your goal is for yourself. You can decide how you’d like to be held accountable for your goal.
For example, do you want your friend to call you to check on your progress? Or do you want to schedule regular meetings so that she can check in on your commitment to your goal?
You’ll also need to have a plan for what your friend might do to support you if you’re not staying focused on your goal, and acting impulsively instead.
You might offer to help your friend stay accountable for something she’s struggling with. This way, you’ll be accountability partners.
Understand how impulsivity functions in your life.
Sometimes being impulsive can have positive as well as negative effects. For example, if you have a hard time making decisions, you may find yourself making last minute decisions as a means of avoiding the anxiety you feel when trying to make a thoughtful decision.
If you’re experiencing benefits from acting impulsively, try to find more effective ways of achieving this benefit.
Remember that you can still be spontaneous even if you’re less impulsive. Being less impulsive doesn’t mean your life will be dull and conventional. It just means that you’ll be more in control of what you choose to spend your money, time, and attention on.
Engage in activities that will calm you down.
Calming activities vary person to person, but might include listening to guided meditations, calming music, or doing deep breathing exercises. Getting more relaxed can help you avoid acting impulsively.
Do a body scan to locate any areas of your body which are holding tension, then intentionally focus on relaxing these areas.
Set a timer for 5 minutes, and allow yourself to focus on your breath for this limited period of time. This short break will help you relax, and prevent any hasty reactive actions.
Consider cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, helps a person focus on connecting their thoughts and feelings with their behaviors. CBT is a common treatment for anxiety and impulse disorders, among others. The goal of CBT is to identify the thoughts that often result in impulsive activity.
Impulsive behavior is often the result of automatic thoughts, which are the thoughts that your mind produces as an immediate reaction to certain situations. These thoughts can be negative and may lead you to make poor decisions. CBT helps you to identify these automatic thought patterns and reframe them in new ways.
A therapist or behavioral specialist can help you explore the ways that CBT might work in your life!