Post No.: 0618
Many of us wish we had more willpower. (Go away biscuits!) It’s about seeking our pleasure now versus our greater happiness or pleasure later.
Being a risk-taker or risk-averse, or trusting or distrusting of authority, has no correlation with one’s level of self-control or willpower. It’s not just a simple case of exercising raw self-control, willpower or self-motivation anyway because environmental factors, such as the temptations around us or the lack of facilities to help us do what we should preferably be doing, play a role too. Our willpower can be influenced by the willpower of those around us (e.g. if other people succumb to ordering dessert, so might we!)
Context is an environmental factor, hence we might say things when online that we wouldn’t when offline. When on holiday or away from home for leisure, we might relax too much because we’re mentally in ‘holiday mode’, thus off-guard and at more risk of accidents or being a victim of thefts or scams. We’re also less inhibited and may do things on holiday abroad that we wouldn’t do when back at our home country. Usual healthy routines can also go out of the window.
The ‘planning fallacy’, where we typically underestimate how long (and expensive) a complex task will take, is partly down to being over-optimistic. A related fallacy is that most people think they’re above average or above median in every desirable respect, hence over-optimism in self-assessments. (It’s as if people start by believing that they score in the 70th percentile (i.e. they’re in the top 30%) and then go a bit up/down from there; and if someone else is better than them then this person must score in around the 80th percentile while one remains at around the 70th percentile.) Even many of us who are aware of these biases still suffer from them!
Planning is still important. But if writing a simple ‘to do’ list of things that must be done doesn’t work for you – try writing a more detailed plan that states what time and for how long you will be doing specific tasks. This should also help you to avoid distractions – if you partition a section of time in your day when you’ll attend to certain tasks, like emails or social media, and only look at your emails and social media during these times and at no other times, then you won’t be constantly distracted by messages when your schedule says you should be doing something else.
Our preferences can change over time, as well as depend on our current mood or state, in such a way that a preference at one point in time can be inconsistent with a preference at another point in time. So before the New Year arrives, you might feel like wanting to get fit once January arrives – but once January arrives, you don’t feel like it anymore(!)
‘Ulysses contracts’ understand that you will be tempted to misbehave (oh yes you will!) hence they bind your current self to prevent your future self from misbehaving; like how Ulysses had the foresight to get his crew to bind him to the mast and promise to attack him if he broke free under the lure of Siren song. You can bind yourself by not purchasing sweets for the home, so that it’s impossible to eat them at home, for example. Arrange your environment to make it more favourable for you to succeed in your goals – put what you want to give up out of sight, far away, in a place that’s difficult to access, or just don’t bring it into the home or workplace at all, and certainly don’t stockpile them. In other words, take steps now to remove the temptation down the road. Expect temptation and plan for failures of willpower. Our decisions are shaped by what’s being currently brought to mind, such as any treats that are right in front of us, hence restricting our choices reduces temptation.
If a temptation is nearby, what we can do is try to distract ourselves from it, such as by not looking at it and keeping mentally busy on some other task. So if we cannot remove a seductive source from our immediate environment, we should try distraction to reduce our temptations. If we just rely on willpower alone, our resolve to resist tends to weaken over time. (Post No.: 0549 touched upon ‘ego depletion’ research; along with some caveats about its conclusions.)
It’s not easy but we can train ourselves to have better self-control, willpower and self-discipline the more we practise it. Self-control can be improved by learning to accept that we can’t always have what we want, and by learning that sacrifices or hard work today will mean a far greater personal reward in the future. This requires a change of current attitudes. We can do, or cease doing, things because we have an overriding reason to want to. Thus the first important step is wanting to change. Cognitive behavioural therapy can be used to get clients to break their maladaptive mental habits and form better ones. We can break our routines simply by using our non-dominant paws for a week. And when we train to increase our willpower, our willpower will be improved across all domains.
A lack of capability (e.g. not feeling able to do much exercise in one’s current fitness state), opportunity (e.g. access to a gym with a decent crèche for one’s kids) or motivation (e.g. fears of embarrassment if one goes to a gym) can prevent us from behaving the way we’d want. This means we firstly need to tackle the barriers that scupper our intentions.
When confronted with an undesirable behaviour, it’s generally more effective to remove the obstacles that inhibit us from performing the desired behaviour than to provide additional rationales for doing it. So instead of trying to build up your motivation some more – you often need to knock down the hurdles or barriers that hold you back first. Take the handbrake off before adding more gas. This might mean environmental obstacles such as tidying a spare room to use as a gym, or internal obstacles such as uncovering and recognising any root fears or embarrassments and tackling these first and directly. Nothing can ever truly compensate for a problem at the core because even if your words say one thing – your behaviour and results will always reflect what you really believe and feel.
We’re just too good at rationalising excuses! Hence why New Year’s resolutions seldom stick. We might say, “It’s too cold to exercise today”, “It’s Saturday so I’ll start at the beginning of a new week” or, “I’m too busy.”
Make your resolution a practical habit rather than a mere goal. Focus mainly on the day-to-day behaviours or actions i.e. the present tasks that need to be done to reach that goal (e.g. walking 30 minutes/day) rather than on that far-off or abstract goal (e.g. to get fitter). Will you still do it even when you’re feeling tired, stressed or simply unmotivated? We can also be too ambitious too soon and go hard too early, then quit, when we’d be better off doing something that’ll make us feel something we’ll want to feel for the indefinite future. So start really small, from something that doesn’t cause you any resistance (e.g. just 30 seconds of walking), then gradually build up the habit. Congratulate yourself with a fist pump or, “Yes!” every time you complete what you intended, and pay attention to the positive feelings that your new habit elicits within you. It’s about establishing new neural pathways in the brain that’ll eventually become automatic habits over time.
Faltering along the way is almost inevitable too so plan for how you’ll minimise or deal with these events. You could remove any unhealthy snacks from the home as above, do any amount of walking that is better than nothing no matter how small on these days, or simply accept a few ‘fail’ days per month. Beating yourself up for a poor result after putting in a lot of effort can be quite demoralising.
So take small wins as achievements too, and acknowledge your effort. It helps if you receive some kind of small reward most times you perform a desired behaviour, rather than only give yourself a big reward if and once you’ve achieved that distant and overarching goal. You could reward yourself with a movie every time you complete 5km of running instead of only rewarding yourself with a holiday after you’ve lost 3 stone. However, if these rewards aren’t intrinsic or closely related to the desired habit you want to build (e.g. listening to music you like whilst exercising) but extrinsic (e.g. having a cupcake after every time you exercise) then it can start to become more about seeking those rewards rather than building a desirable habit (so you might start to think that cupcakes are the real intended goal).
If you do something while you feel an emotion, that emotion can become associated with that action over time. So if you do something unpleasant while immediately doing something pleasant, it can make that unpleasant task more pleasant, and vice-versa. ‘Reward substitution’ is about motivating yourself to do something that’s immediately unpleasant but is for the benefit of the future, by doing something that’s pleasant immediately straight afterwards (e.g. watching something funny straight after taking your medicine). Reward substitution or extrinsic motivators may get us to do something we want to do for the wrong reasons – but at least we’re doing it.
The most ideal situation of all however is incorporating something into your habit that you’ll look forward to every time you do it (e.g. listening to a favourite podcast only when you’re jogging in the park, where you cannot wait to listen to the next episode the next time you go for a jog).
Get frequent feedback on the consequences of your actions (e.g. an app that periodically tells you how much you’ve saved since you’ve stopped smoking). We learn and adapt best when we receive instant, accurate and consistent feedback from our actions. (Well imagine trying to learn to drive if there was a noticeable delay between your steering input and the turning of the vehicle, or if sometimes you steered a little it turned a lot or turned left when you steered right(!)) To encourage people to care more about their consumption, real-time water meters displaying the accumulating running costs could be placed directly on every faucet? Electricity and gas ‘in home displays’ do this for energy nowadays. If they’re noticed, they’ll encourage more people to turn appliances off when they’re not being used.
Make promises and deadlines and make them publicly known. A deadline also needs a penalty if not met! So perhaps place a bet with someone. Maybe give someone €100 of your own money and say that they can keep it if you don’t complete a task on time (loss aversion), or that you’ll have to run down the streets butt naked if you don’t complete it on time (public humiliation)! This needs a tough, reliable person to hold you to those commitments though. Externally-imposed, evenly-spaced deadlines are most effective – our own self-imposed deadlines are usually all too bunched-up towards the ultimate deadline.
So if you have a personal project – break it down into small bite-sized chunks, each with their own deadlines. Try to space them out evenly, and impose stringent penalties if they’re not met; perhaps with the help of a strict friend. With creative works, make no guarantees about quality – this can all be improved later. The most difficult part is usually the start – so just get anything down.
And don’t think too big all of the time (e.g. think ‘if I can help just one person then it’ll be worth it’).
Woof! No biscuits were harmed in the making of this post. (Paw pump!)