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How Self-Control Works, and How to Boost Your Willpower by Better Understanding It [Self-Control]
If we were entirely logical, we'd be able to abandon our bad habits, curb temporary moments of insanity, and practice self-control. Our logic is paired with emotion, however, and sometimes our emotions motivate us to make poor decisions. That's where self-control comes in. Here's a deeper look into how self-control works, followed by several ways to more effectively exert your supply of self-control in order to make smarter decisions.
How Self-Control Works
Back when basic survival was difficult, practicing the kind of self-control we need today wasn't always necessary. We'd have to hunt for our food if we wanted to eat, and we'd eat what we could find in order to live. Eventually we figured out that this isn't the most efficient way to work and invented one of the biggest life hacks of all time: agriculture. Suddenly there was food when we needed it, and what was once a constant fight for survival became (relatively) simple. Readily-available food made it possible for a surplus of certain foods which made it possible to overeat. It took a long time for this to become a serious problem, but today we face a problem of excess consumption. Shifts such as this helped create a serious need for self-control in new aspects of our lives.

Of course we needed to learn to control ourselves before this point, as sex, wealth, and power are inherent desires, but the primary manifestations of these desires lead to immediate consequences. For example, if you go out and kill somebody to steal their property, you're likely going to make an enemy who will want to kill you (and potentially succeed in doing so). On the other hand, more contemporary desires don't have such immediate consequences (like being murdered), and so there isn't necessarily anything scary to keep us in check. For example, computers and other personal technology made all kinds of work much easier, but their side effects include tech addiction, shortened lifespans from too much sitting, and even a few pesky etiquette issues. As technology continues to satisfy our desires—for anything from food to information—we have to practice self-control in new and different ways. The problem is, this isn't easy to do.

So why is self control so difficult to produce? A lot of things contribute to self-control issues, and we'll get into them more below, but the main reason is that indulgence is much easier than the alternative. If you want to eat healthier, a meal you cook yourself and can control is often going to be the better option. That option requires work, however, and it's easier to make a phone call to order takeout. Is this the smarter option? Probably not, but the short-term effect of fatty takeout is the temporary satisfaction of enjoying your meal—potentially the same effect as cooking—and so the long-term effects of frequent indulgence is easy to ignore. We are terrible at predicting the future, and we like to make decisions that will make us feel good right now because that result is more urgent. If you don't enjoy doing something (like cooking), making yourself exert the energy required to cook is a lot harder and much more unpleasant than doing nothing. But this is obvious if you've ever tried to make yourself do something you didn't want to do. The primary problem is stopping yourself from making a bad decision based on immediate desire and also motivating yourself to make the smarter choice. It isn't easy, but it isn't impossible.

Practice, Practice, Practice
The simplest way to get better at anything is to practice. As a weekly exercise, pick something you do in excess and stop for a week. Stop watching television, don't eat out, or keep technology out of the bedroom so you can sleep better. While a week isn't going to kick any particular habit, it's pretty easy to stop anything for such a short period of time and making it through the week will give you the confidence that you can control yourself. After you've practiced for several weeks, try for longer. If you can make it a month, that's often enough time to actually change your behavior (which is where the name of the movie 28 Days comes from). Googler Matt Cutts suggests that you can more easily improve your life 30 days at a time. It's not a new concept but it can be a big help. Tell yourself you're going try to cut out a particular behavior for a month and reassess once that month is over. Knowing you don't have to stop can make a big difference, and by the time you get to the end of that month you may not care to go back at all.

Find Adequate Distractions

Photo by Hyperbole and a Half
As we've learned from the fairly well-known kid's marshmallow experiment, conducted by Walter Mischel, distracting yourself can be a good method of self-control. When temptation is in front of you, it's hard to say no. If you can distract yourself and avoid thinking about that temptation, however, it's often enough to keep you from making a bad choice. Simple distractions, such as sitting on your hands to physically restrict yourself or having a conversation to keep your mind occupied are both easy and effective. The idea is that the more your mind and body are tied up in other actions, the less bandwidth you'll have available to try and indulge in a particular vice. Simply put: restrict and distract yourself to avoid making poor choices.

Take Care of Yourself

Photo by Lisa Aslund
You have a limited supply of self-control and exhausting it can breed aggression. You don't want to deplete your reserves or you're going to become very unlikable. Keeping yourself healthy on a daily basis, however, can make a big difference. Like with anything, proper diet, exercise, and sleep make it easier to do what you need to do. If you can manage all of those things to the point of perfection, you're probably not reading this article. A more realistic trick is just having a snack. Keeping yourself nourished throughout the day—preferably with several smaller meals rather than a few big ones—is one of the easiest ways to keep an adequate reserve of self-control. You'll still have to exert that control—perhaps when choosing what to eat—but it's a fool's errand without adequate energy.

Fabricate Disadvantage
It's hard to become addicted to cigarettes if you can't get cigarettes. People without the financial means to purchase a vice like cigarettes can't participate in that vice. Additionally, people will more readily participate in a vice like smoking if the consequences are far off. If a single cigarette will kill you on the spot, and you know this, you'll avoid it like you'll avoid an electric fence. Putting yourself into extreme poverty or giving yourself a deadly nicotine allergy (if that's even possible) are extreme measures you'd never actually want to pursue as a means to quit smoking. Still, they do offer some helpful clues: difficulty and fear.

If you have difficulty obtaining a cigarette, you don't have to exert quite so much self-control. Often times this means keeping your cigarettes somewhere that's hard to access so getting them requires additional effort. Basically, if exercising a vice is significantly easier than practicing self-control, you need to find ways to make it harder to make the wrong choice.

Introduce Fear
Fear is also a great means of self-control. It's easier to adjust your diet or kick a habit if you truly believe it's going to kill you or cause immediate harm. If you have a peanut allergy, you don't eat peanuts, no matter how badly you want to, because you know the immediate consequences are pretty dire. In order to use fear as a self-control mechanism, you need to be able to make the consequences of a particular action feel immediate. For example, I have no trouble controlling my intake of alcohol and I don't have an interest in drugs because my family has a history of addiction. I've seen what it can do first-hand. Before I decide to drink or even take an over-the-counter drug I remember the consequences and it helps me avoid making bad choices. How you make the consequences feel immediate and influence your decisions is highly personal, but it should always be safe. You can eat donuts until you vomit so you'll never want to go near another donut again, but that's not really a harmless solution. What you can do is spend time with people who are the poster children for poor life choices and fearfully think of them next time you want to indulge.

(If you're curious about the science behind fear being an effective method for self-control, read this article.)

Practicing self-control isn't easy for anybody. It takes a lot of work, and you'll get better at it the more you practice. With the right strategies, like the ones mentioned here, you can avoid temptation when doing so is in your best interest. If you've got any other great strategies for controlling yourself, be sure to share them in the comments.

You can follow Adam Dachis, the author of this post, on Twitter and Facebook. If you'd like to contact him, Twitter is the most effective means of doing so.
Self-Control  Brain_hacks  Efficiency  Mind_Hacks  Motivation  Psychology  Top  willpower  from google
may 2011 by 9diov
The Cognitive Cost of Doing Things [Brain Hacks]
There's no such thing as a free lunch, and that goes for your brain, too. Every time you amass the willpower to do anything, it has mental costs. Writer and strategist Sebastian Marshall identifies a few of those cognitive costs to understand how to get more done while conserving as much of your mental reserve as possible.

What's the mental burden of trying to do something? What's it cost? What price are you going to pay if you try to do something out in the world?
I think that by figuring out what the usual costs to doing things are, we can reduce the costs and otherwise structure our lives so that it's easier to reach our goals.

When I sat down to identify cognitive costs, I found seven. There might be more. Let's get started:

Activation Energy – As covered in more detail in this post, starting an activity seems to take a larger of willpower and other resources than keeping going with it. Required activation energy can be adjusted over time – making something into a routine lowers the activation energy to do it. Things like having poorly defined next steps increases activation energy required to get started. This is a major hurdle for a lot of people in a lot of disciplines – just getting started.

Opportunity cost – We're all familiar with general opportunity cost. When you're doing one thing, you're not doing something else. You have limited time. But there also seems to be a cognitive cost to this – a natural second guessing of choices by taking one path and not another. This is the sort of thing covered by Barry Schwartz in his Paradox of Choice work (there's some faulty thought/omissions in PoC, but it's overall valuable). It's also why basically every significant military work ever has said you don't want to put the enemy in a position where their only way out is through you – Sun Tzu argued always leaving a way for the enemy to escape, which splits their focus and options. Hernan Cortes famously burned the boats behind him. When you're doing something, your mind is subtly aware and bothered by the other things you're not doing. This is a significant cost.

Inertia – Eliezer Yudkowskoy wrote that humans are "Adaptation-Executers, not Fitness-Maximizers." He was speaking in terms of large scale evolution, but this is also true of our day to day affairs. Whatever personal adaptations and routines we've gotten into, we tend to perpetuate. Usually people do not break these routines unless a drastic event happens. Very few people self-scrutinize and do drastic things without an external event happening.

The difference between activation energy and inertia is that you can want to do something, but be having a hard time getting started – that's activation energy. Whereas inertia suggests you'll keep doing what you've been doing, and largely turn your mind off. Breaking out of inertia takes serious energy and tends to make people uncomfortable. They usually only do it if something else makes them more uncomfortable (or, very rarely, when they get incredibly inspired).

Ego/willpower depletion – The Wikipedia article on ego depletion is pretty good. Basically, a lot of recent research shows that by doing something that takes significant willpower your "battery" of willpower gets drained some, and it becomes harder to do other high-will-required tasks. From Wikipedia: " In an illustrative experiment on ego depletion, participants who controlled themselves by trying not to laugh while watching a comedian did worse on a later task that required self-control compared to participants who did not have to control their laughter while watching the video." I'd strongly recommend you do some reading on this topic if you haven't – Roy Baumeister has written some excellent papers on it. The pattern holds pretty firm – when someone resists, say, eating a snack they want, it makes it harder for them to focus and persist doing rote work later.

Neurosis/fear/etc – Almost all humans are naturally more risk averse than gain-inclined. This seems to have been selected for evolutionarily. We also tend to become afraid far in excess of what we should for certain kinds of activities – especially ones that risk social embarrassment.

I never realized how strong these forces were until I tried to break free of them – whenever I got a strong negative reaction from someone to my writing, it made it considerably harder to write pieces that I thought would be popular later. Basic things like writing titles that would make a post spread, or polishing the first paragraph and last sentence – it's like my mind was weighing on the "con" side of pro/con that it would generate criticism, and it was… frightening's not quite the right word, but something like that.

Some tasks can be legitimately said to be "neurosis-inducing" – that means, you start getting more neurotic when you ponder and start doing them. Things that are almost guaranteed to generate criticism or risk rejection frequently do this. Anything that risks compromising a person's self image can be neurosis inducing too.

Altering of hormonal balance – A far too frequently ignored cost. A lot of activities will change your hormonal balance for the better or worse. Entering into conflict-like situations can and does increase adrenalin and cortisol and other stress hormones. Then you face adrenalin withdrawal and crash later. Of course, we basically are biochemistry, so significant changing of hormonal balance affects a lot of our body – immune system, respiration, digestion, etc. A lot of people are aware of this kind of peripherally, but there hasn't been much discussion about the hormonal-altering costs of a lot of activities.

Maintenance costs from the idea re-emerging in your thoughts – Another under-appreciated cognitive cost is maintenance costs in your thoughts from an idea recurring, especially when the full cycle isn't complete. In Getting Things Done, David Allen talks about how "open loops" are "anything that's not where it's supposed to be." These re-emerge in our thoughts periodically, often at inopportune times, consuming thought and energy. That's fine if the topic is exceedingly pleasant, but if it's not, it can wear you out. Completing an activity seems to reduce the maintenance cost (though not completely). An example would be not having filled your taxes out yet – it emerges in your thoughts at random times, derailing other thought. And it's usually not pleasant.

Taking on any project, initiative, business, or change can generate these maintenance costs from thoughts re-emerging.


I identified these seven as the mental/cognitive costs to trying to do something -

Activation Energy
Opportunity cost
Ego/willpower depletion
Altering of hormonal balance
Maintenance costs from the idea re-emerging in your thoughts

I think we can reduce some of these costs by planning our tasks, work lives, social lives, and environment intelligently. Others of them it's good to just be aware of so we know when we start to drag or are having a hard time.

Thoughts on other costs, or ways to reduce these are very welcome.
Brain_hacks  Cognitive_costs  Republished  Top  willpower  from google
may 2011 by 9diov

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