Dr Steve Levinson believes there's something wrong with your brain. I don't want to be rude, but I'm inclined to agree. Just look at yourself: you keep saying you want to do certain things - stop smoking, lose weight, be a more considerate spouse, a more patient parent, a better listener, or just lighten up and appreciate life more - and you really do want to do them. But you never follow through.
Instead, you seek more advice, from friends, experts or dubious newspaper columns, but all you ever get from them is endless new lists of what you need to do. In fact, though, you usually already know perfectly well what you need to do (to be more patient, lose your temper less; to stop smoking, just stop). So why don't you actually do it? And what are the chances that the answer to this timeless problem lies in Levinson's invention - a grey, vibrating plastic box, about 4cm square, one of which I've been walking around with in my pocket for the past fortnight?
"There's a basic flaw in the way the human mind is designed," argues Levinson, a clinical psychologist based in Minnesota. "People get very excited about making improvements. They say, 'I've learned something that's going to change my life! All I need to do is A, B and C!' Then, two weeks later, they're not doing anything." Nor does it make much difference if the situation's critical: half of all victims of non-fatal heart attacks (people who nearly died, for God's sake!) fail to stick to their doctors' diet and exercise advice. Our brains have evolved to prioritise moment-to-moment claims on our attention, which is crucial if you're being attacked by a wild animal, but also helps explain why you get bogged down in urgent tasks no one will care about a year from now.
Levinson calls his grey box, the MotivAider, a "gentle tap on the shoulder"- a way to push back into present awareness the things you care about most. It vibrates at whatever time interval you choose and, when you feel it, you're supposed mentally to recite a reminder selected in advance. It might be an instruction ("Take a deep breath", "Focus on what's important"), or it might encapsulate your motivations: "If you smoke and you've got a daughter named Susan, you might just say 'Susan' as the reason for wanting to quit," Levinson says. (The boxes are available at motivaider.com, though he cheerily concedes you might be able to get your mobile to do something similar.)
I ordered one with my eyebrow in a raised position: I wasn't keen on being electronically pestered all day. "Take a deep breath" didn't prevent at least one fractious argument. Others, though ("Focus", "Drink some water"), proved weirdly brilliant, not at all hassling, and even worked, it seemed, when I stopped consciously feeling all the vibrations. The only exceptions were the days I left it at home because I was in a hurry, preoccupied with urgent matters - which pretty much proves the point.