Drawing upon hidden reserves of willpower

Look at how happy this couple is. Running doesn't cost them any willpower because it just makes them sooooo happy. Jerks.
Look at how happy this couple is. Running doesn’t cost them any willpower because it just makes them sooooo happy. Jerks.

The Willpower Instinct is a book that just keeps on giving. There’s a section in the book about we have finite reserves of willpower. The more of it we expend, the less of it we have. However, the book also theorizes that our body maintains a hidden reservoir of willpower. Like, it tells us that we don’t have any more, even though we secretly do. In just the same way, our body tells us that we’re tired, even though we could stay awake longer, and that we’re hungry, even though we could go without eating.

This was a fascinating metaphor to me. On the one hand, it’s obvious: we can do more than we think we can. But, on the other hand, I’m used to trusting the signals that my body gives me. It hadn’t occurred to me that there’s a kind of error built in there.

Anyway, this yielded a practical advantage today. You see, I try (as much as possible) to not drink coffee or take any caffeine that’s stronger than tea. However, for some reason, I was very tired this morning, and just had that feeling like I couldn’t face the day without it. Normally, in this situation, I’d cave and drink it and then overdo it and not be able to sleep tonight and feel miserable for the next few days.* However, today I figured that I had some hidden reserves of willpower in me, so I actually managed to just sort of power through the whole day and do everything I needed to do (including write this blog post).


*I call it the five-day coffee cycle: on day one I’m so tired that I drink so much caffeine that I can’t sleep; on day two I’m even more tired and drink more caffeine and still can’t sleep; on day three I’m so tired that even though I drink a huge amount of caffeine, I’m able to manage some sleep; on day four I manage to get enough sleep that by day five I’m not tired at all and end up sleeping very poorly that night (leading me to being extremely tired on the next day, which is when the cycle restarts). This just goes on and on until I finally stop drinking coffee again.

I’d define a compulsion as an act which your brain chemistry compelled you to do, but then did not reward you for

You get it? Because dopamine makes you, like, want stuff...
You get it? Because dopamine makes you, like, want stuff…

Still pondering The Willpower Instinct. For me, the most revelatory chapter was the one on how when we want something, we assume it’ll make us happy (or at least bring us pleasure), even though that’s often not the case. In this chapter, the author explains that dopamine is the brain chemical that mediates how much we want something, however it has nothing to do with how much we enjoy it. Thus, when we do things, we’re trying to stimulate the release of dopamine in our brain…but that release does not correspond to a feeling of pleasure. The only subjective emotion that we experience is a cessation of wanting.

Now, I sort of already knew that, but I had mostly heard about it in the context of smoking cigarettes. I know from personal experience that the magnitude of the compulsion to smoke is in no way mirrored by the pleasure that a cigarette brings. I wanted to smoke much more than I actually enjoyed the act of smoking.

However, dopamine is also the culprit in lots of compulsive behaviors. For instance, internet browsing–the compulsion to click on another link or open another tab or go to another webpage or check your email one more time–is all based on this desire: this implicit promise that if we do these things, then there’s a chance of pleasure. But, actually, the compulsion is far greater than the desire. The maximum joy I’m going to get from reading an article on the web is much less than the need that I feel to go and find one to click on.

There’s also a corollary to this, which is that some things bring us pleasure but only carry a very weak desire. For instance, now that I’ve started regularly exercising, I can finally attest: exercising does make you happy. It’s a remarkably good and robust feeling. I know that after I exercise I’m going to feel much better–oftentimes for a good 3-6 hours–than I did before it. Nonetheless, I still feel very little desire to exercise.

It’s just a quirk of our neurochemistry. Possibly there’s something evolutionary involved here. Maybe our brain gains some evolutionary advantage tofromrewarding us for exertion, but little evolutionary advantage from encouraging us to engage in unnecessary exertion? I don’t know.

But this information has had pretty profound implications for my world view. You see, I had always more-or-less seen life as a trade-off between momentary pleasure and attaining lasting goals (like being productive and maintaining my health). I think this comes from drinking. For me, drinking heavily was really fun. When I stopped drinking, I lost that pleasure. And this is a pretty classic framework that influences lots of human beings: the idea that life is a choice between sense-pleasure and a deeper, more spiritual sense of joy.

But I think I was ignoring the fact that lots of things aren’t really like drinking. I do (or did) so many things that don’t really bring me much pleasure. Watching the day’s seventh episode of Law and Order isn’t pleasurable. Browsing the internet for three hours isn’t pleasurable. Checking my email twenty times a day isn’t pleasurable. Buying a gadget isn’t really pleasurable (or, actually, browsing for new gadgets is pleasurable…actually spending money on them is not that pleasurable).

But I was constrained by my worldview. I assumed that because I wanted to do these things, then there must be some value in them.

Now I feel very liberated.

This has mainly made itself clear to me in my attitude while I am reading. Normally, when I am reading, I feel a constant desire to interrupt myself and look something up on Wikipedia or check my email or see what happened on Facebook. And I not-infrequently give in to these desires. When I do, I assume (in some unconscious way) that Facebook was just more interesting to me than the book was.

But that’s not true at all. Reading is actually far more pleasurable than browsing the internet, but it doesn’t carry a strong compulsion in the way that Facebook does. I think that’s because reading isn’t fast and colorful and unpredictable. Anyway, now I’ve learned to recognize that compulsion for what it is and to tell myself, “No. The Facebook actually isn’t a more pleasurable activity than reading Our Mutual Friend.”

And that feels really good. The world makes much more sense now.

Going to shift my week so that it starts on Friday morning

This woman is a Stanford professor, and the book contains many sly little jokes about Stanford undergrads. It was very nostalgia-making.

Okay, so I recently read this book, The Willpower Instinct, and it really brought up a number of interesting points on how to make yourself do things that are (in the short term) somewhat unpleasant. For me, this includes lots of stuff: usually I’d rather read than write, and I’d rather browse the internet than read, and I’d rather eat chocolate than salad, and I’d rather sleep late than go to the gym.

In order to combat these impulses, I’ve learned to rely on planning and goal-setting. I tell myself that I’ll read for X number of hours in a week and write for Y number of hours and go the gym on Z number of days.

Like most sensible people, I begin my benchmark week on Monday morning and I end it on Sunday night. This is because I have more free time on the weekend and I want to be able to pick up the slack of the weekdays get out of control and I can’t quite make my targets.

However, I realized that the existence of this slack is fostering bad habits in me and it’s the reason why I sometimes fail to meet my goals. Because the truth is that the weekdays are actually much more predictable than the weekends: I know where I’ll be and what I’ll need to do. The weekends aren’t like that: it’s not uncommon for something to come up–some opportunity that necessitates changing all my plans. But when that happens, I actually have zero slack, because by the time I get to Friday morning, I’ve already effectively “spent” the weekend. I know that if I don’t write for 3 hours on Saturday and 3 hours on Sunday and go to the gym on both days and read this amount, then I won’t meet my goals.

But, on the other hand, if I begin the week on Friday morning, then I have much more freedom. If I have a freeish weekend, then I can work as much as I’m able, and then I’ll have more slack during the week. On the other hand, if I end up doing things during the weekend, then I know exactly where I need to fit things into my weekday schedule in order to meet my targets.

The key here is that I am going to move away from a system where I am mortgaging the end of the week and towards a system where I am saving up for it. If I begin the week with the weekend, then I know that I am never going to have more time during this week than I do right now. And if I don’t use that time wisely, then I’m going to pay for it later. Whereas if I continue like I have been (where I end with the weekend) then the weight is totally different. All week, I have the looming specter of an upcoming crunch time that may or may not actually happen.

It’s actually pretty brilliant. I fully expect this system to take the world by storm. Calendars everywhere are going to be revised.