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Play the Tape Forward

Jun 25, 2013 // By Marcus Brotherton

Okay, you’re visual. Good.
Think of one behavior that’s harmful for you …
·        Maybe you like to lie around on the couch all day swilling chips and soda.
·        Or maybe you feel a pull to down the whole bottle of whiskey?
·        Or maybe you’re at risk to waste time with stupid Internet images.
Here’s the big question: How do you safeguard your life and avoid a harmful behavior?
Years ago I edited several books for an organization that championed weight loss, and I first learned an excellent technique for overcoming harmful habits.
The technique is called Play the Tape Forward, and it’s so good it applies to plenty of areas of life other than weight loss.
Here’s how the technique works: If you’re faced with an option to go down a harmful road, instead of giving in to the harmful behavior, imagine how choosing that destructive option will play out over time.
Look past the temporary pleasure of the moment, and consider where that particular behavior will lead.
When you visualize the predictable results of an impulsive behavior, instead of focusing on the momentary “high,” you stop long enough to look past the transitory good feelings and focus on the not-so-pleasant end result.
When you “play the tape forward,” you see the remorse, inevitable harm, damaged relationships, or lack of self-respect that result from falling into harmful behavior.
The technique hearkens back to the days when we used cassette tapes instead of mp3s, or actual video cassettes instead of electronic formats. Similar to the formats today, you can fast forward a song or video to a place “in the future.”
For example:
Play the tape forward … and see your car overturned in the ditch as a result of road rage.
Play the tape forward … and see the doctor sadly shaking his head at the numbers of your high blood pressure.
Play the tape forward … and see the horrific conversation you have with your wife when an affair is discovered.
Here’s the better scenario: Once you’ve considered the negative consequences of a behavior, then play a different tape forward. A tape where you succeed. 
Picture instead you resisting a harmful direction, and imagine how good you’ll feel by choosing the better road.
See yourself holding your head high.
See yourself truly feeling good.
See your closest relationships solid and healthy.
Playing the tape forward is a powerful tool when combating the immediate-gratification mentality that too many men succumb to.
Give the technique a try the next time you want to avoid a destructive behavior.
Question: Have you ever used the “Play it forward” technique? If so, what resulted? If not, what other ways do you avoid harm?
  • I really don’t have destructive behaviors that are physical other than drinking too much soda.

    I have a habit of impulse buying which does effect my disposable income to do other things during the month. I think I can use this play it forward to help myself visualize the consequences.


  • I don’t really have any truly harmful behavior that I try to avoid. Maybe a potentially dangerous situation where I decide not to take a chance as I imagine how stupid I would feel trying to explain my judgment if something harmful resulted.

    But, I often use the playing it forward method when I’m running. If I’m debating whether to run that last mile, I think about how the me of the future will feel. I usually conclude I will feel better later if I stick it out now. It’s definitely a helpful mind game in situations that involve delayed gratification.

  • @ Greg, thanks for your thoughts and interaction.

    @ Kaylee, good point. The technique can be used in a positive way too, to spur action forward. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    Marcus: This is one of my favorite areas of life as a former teacher, now counselor, and family routines. Today, at the grocery store, I met a lady who said my name and I had not seen her in 30 years. She was in a Psych class for pre Rn and is now retired. She hugged me and said that I presented some quotes and motivation that she used throughout her prep for RN and after as a RN. This was a surprise but greatly appreciated. One of the reasons I am a very light drinker of alcohol is that I never wanted to end up arrested or worse happenings and felt it was important to have mental control of decisions. I have never been close to a .o4 in my life. This is an area that students k-12 + college and into adult careers can learn and follow. Lou Holtz wrote several great books on motivation and positive thinking + some humor.

    I thought of Buck Compton when UCLA won the College World Series for the first time. First thought upon reading the final score.

    Gary Sedgwick

  • @ Gary, good thoughts. Thanks.

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the bestselling author or coauthor of more than 25 books. Welcome to my blog. Thoreau pointed out how too many people lead lives of quiet desperation. Their lives are bland and meaningless, or they make choices that trap them in despair and darkness. By contrast, I want to help people lead lives of excellence. Meet here regularly for powerful stories and insight into how to live and lead well.