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Willpower review

16 December 2012

I just finished reading the book Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. The book showed the results from the experiments that the authors have done over the years as phycologists to understand the workings of willpower. There were a few insightful learnings from the book. Pyschologists have typically found 2 traits among people with “positive outcomes” in life, and those are intelligence and self-control. As far as we currently know, we cannot increase our intelligence, but self-control is something we do have the power to shape. Therefore it is of great interest to me to study and understand the ways we can control our willpower and self-control.

It is a common misconception that stress causes negative emotions such as anger,irritability, and grumpiness, but what stress really does is deplete willpower, which in turn diminishes our ability to control those emotions.

Many people think that we have different resources for self-control, such as one for work, one for dieting, etc. But according to the evidence from Baumeister, all of our willpower comes from the same pool irregardless of the difficulty or importance of the task at hand. Even such mundane tasks as choosing the clothing you wear every morning. This could be why Steve Jobs wore the exact same outfit everyday, to reduce the cognitive load on his brain so that he could concentrate on more important things. Our supply of willpower is limited, so we must “choose our battles” wisely. And the exertion of willpower is what matters, not the outcome because when exerting willpower we are still using it irregardless of whether or not we failed in our task. So if you are going to exert willpower over something and ultimately fail,you’ve still depleted some of your willpower because you struggled.

The book has divided willpower into a few broad categories. The first is the control of thoughts. Random thoughts such as music playing in our heads or trying to ignore thoughts that could impede the task at hand. Another category is the control of emotions, such as trying to escape bad moods. This kind of willpower is typically very difficult, but of immense interest to me because I have also been studying meditation and the ability to not let emotion take control of your thoughts. I believe the first 2 categories are basically the same thing because our emotions are the roots of all our thinking. The thoughts we have typically come from the emotions that we feel. The third category can be classified as impulse control, where people try to avoid temptations like alcohol or smoking. Finally there is performance control, which is about focusing your energy on the task at hand with the right combination of speed and accuracy. In general, in regards to all of these kinds of willpower, you should only focus on one of these task at a time and not time try to multitask. Doing so will just make you more tired and have less willpower.

The result of conflicting goals in unhappiness instead of action. Conflicting goals could be the want to spend more time with family and also have the goal to work on a difficult and time consuming project at work. Another example is the goal of holding your temper when you get angry, but also having the goal to stand up for yourself when you feel wronged. Some of the Baumeister’s findings showed that there were 3 main consequences from having conflicting goals. First,excessive worrying because more time is spent contemplating and ruminating on how to deal with the demands. Second, less work gets done because of the rumination. Third, heal suffers, both in physically and mentally.

Decision fatigue can severely effect the way we make decisions. If your willpower has been depleted and you need to make decisions, you will typically settle for the recommended or easiest cognitive option. So if you are tired, try to avoid making important decisions. I’ve also seen this effect spoken about in other contexts, for example as a way to get people to spend more money by exhausting them with too many options, and then finally give them the single expensive option to choose.

Being self-aware can have a large influence on self-control. In multiple experiments, just looking into a mirror while doing certain tasks allowed for people to do more of the “right thing” as opposed to people who were in the same experiment, but had no mirror. In the context of our daily lives, if we want to change or improve certain habits, the mere act of monitoring or tracking our results have a large impact in achieving a goal. For example, if you are wasting too much time surfing the internet, install rescuetime so you can see how time is used. If you spend too much money, you could install mint.com and have it monitor your spending habits. Just the mere act of you consciously measuring your progress as frequently as possible will have positive effects on you achieving that goal. There are some interesting insights about people who reflect on their progress. People who reflect on what they have already achieved have very high satisfaction with their current work and tasks, but people who reflected on what they had not achieved yet, typically did end up reaching their goals and then go on to do more difficult and challenging tasks. For contentment, apparently it pays to look at how far you’ve come. For ambition and motivation, focus instead on the road ahead.

Willpower is often thought of in heroic terms, where people accomplish valiant efforts, but in reality, the better way is to continuously train your willpower so that you do more with less effort in the long run. The book spoke in several places about this. If you are able to create a habit, then eventually it will happen automatically. In the future you do not need to exert willpower when the task appears again. For example, if you are trying to become a good writer but you have a hard time writing, then you can start by writing a small amount everyday.

Delayed gratifications (also called positive procrastination) is a technique mentioned in the book. If you have a craving for something, you can tell yourself that after you finish a different task, then you will allow yourself to have what you crave. What often happens is that at the time of completing the other task, you don’t even want what you initially craved. It takes willpower to turn something down, but apparently it’s less stressful on the mind to say later rather than never.

Another set of interesting studies showed that in the US, people with high self-control consistently report less stress in their lives. They use their self-control not to get through crises, but to avoid them. Such as giving your self enough time to finish a project, take care of a car before it breaks down, stay away from buffets. In essence, playing offense instead of defense. Precommitment is the ultimate offensive strategy. Buy junk food in small packages or keep them out of the kitchen altogether instead of having the food constantly by your side tempting you.

The book spoke about the planning fallacy, where typically when people plan out the time it takes for them to do something, it ends up taking a lot longer than expected, with less benefits then originally perceived. We typically underestimate how long things actually take to complete. This fallacy is true only when estimating the time and benefits for your own projects, not for observing other people’s projects. I personally see this happen all the time because in software engineering, we often need to estimate the time required to complete a project, but it rarely finishes on time. One way to try to avoid this problem is to have others review your plans. Here is how Aaron Patzer avoided the problem at mint.com: “We simply ask our managers and other workers to set their top goals for the week,” Patzer says. “You can’t have more than three goals, and it’s fine if you have less than three. Each week we go over what we did last week and whether we met those goals or not, and then each person sets the top three goals for this week. If you only get goals one and two done, but not three, that’s fine, but you can’t go off working on other goals until you’ve done the top three. That’s it—that’s how we manage. It’s simple, but it forces you to prioritize, and it’s rigorous.”

The nothing alternative is a strategy discussed in the book, I have not tried it, but it sounds very interesting. Basically if you have a task you need to complete, such as writing a novel, you set aside some time everyday where you can either work on the novel, or do absolutely nothing. You don’t have to write during that time, but you do not allow yourself to do anything else. I plan to experiment with this nothing alternative strategy in the future. This “Nothing Alternative” strategy is an example of a bright-line rule, which is mentioned in the book several times. Bright line rules are boundaries that you set around your goal that are very clear and actionable. If the boundary is not clear,then it is very easy to break the rule. For example, I wanted to reduce the amount of time I waste on the internet, so I made a very clear boundary of avoiding all internet sites that are not related to my work and studies. I don’t visit random news sites, social networks, and other time wasters. I do occasionally mindlessly surf, but when I do, I immediately note for the day that I have “failed”.

Ultimately, it was an interesting book, I heard about the book from a friend in regards to cognition and consciousness. In those regards, I don’t think I learned anything, but hopefully I have a better framework to make more progress on my goal to build an artificial intelligence.