In my earlier posts in this series, I wrote about the idea that willpower is less a muscle we can strengthen, and more a limited resource that we need to spend wisely. If we spend our day doing taxes (difficult), we’ll have less energy at the end of the day to resist sweet desserts or other temptations.
We all “leak” willpower to some extent, wasting our daily supply of mental fortitude on battles like staying awake when we’re sleepy, resisting food cravings, making ourselves do work we don’t want to do, enduring annoying people, etc. If we take proactive steps to either change our lives or establish new habits, these “leaks” go away and we’re left with more willpower to work on whatever we really want to work on (making art, earning money, fixing stuff, improving the lives of others — whatever our “life’s work” happens to be).
I’ve always been interested in finding “the easy way” to do something (I’m lazy, but also interested in efficiency). From my own experiments and observations, I’ve discovered a few “shortcuts” or “hacks” that conserve my willpower:
1) To get enough sleep on a regular basis, reduce artificial (blue wavelength) light at night so that I get sleepy earlier (instead of trying to go to bed when I’m not sleepy).
2) To reduce body fat without struggling or counting calories, cut out most “exorphin” foods that lead to food cravings and overeating.
3) Confront annoying behavior instantaneously instead of suppressing feelings and/or waiting to have “a big talk.”
4) Work on whatever I’m in the mood to work on so that I’m not “grinding it out.”
I don’t want to imply that I live some kind of strict puritanical life. Last weekend I was drinking champagne at noon and eating sugar-powdered profitjes. But exceptions and cheats aside, I’m happier having put some work in to modulate my habits and conserve willpower. And I have more mental energy to apply to making music, writing, and coding.
Paul Graham wrote a great essay recently — The Acceleration of Addictiveness. He uses the metaphor of “social antibodies.” From the essay:
Societies eventually develop antibodies to addictive new things. I’ve seen that happen with cigarettes. When cigarettes first appeared, they spread the way an infectious disease spreads through a previously isolated population. Smoking rapidly became a (statistically) normal thing. There were ashtrays everywhere. We had ashtrays in our house when I was a kid, even though neither of my parents smoked. You had to for guests.
As knowledge spread about the dangers of smoking, customs changed. In the last 20 years, smoking has been transformed from something that seemed totally normal into a rather seedy habit: from something movie stars did in publicity shots to something small huddles of addicts do outside the doors of office buildings. A lot of the change was due to legislation, of course, but the legislation couldn’t have happened if customs hadn’t already changed.
Graham goes on to point out that most people are addicted to the internet, and there are no social antibodies. That’s why everybody is looking at their phone during lunch, and reaching for their iPad as soon as they wake up. This poor guy drove off of a cliff shortly after tweeting a picture of his dog. It hasn’t yet been established that typing and driving aren’t things you do at the same time. To future generations, this kind of behavior will (hopefully) seem bizarre and idiotic (in the same way that lighting up a Marlboro right after your salad course would be weird these days, but was just fine in the 70’s).
Anyway, Graham’s social antibodies metaphor inspired the term “thought vaccine.” A thought vaccine is something you think of that easily “blocks” a behavior that you (or at least the superego part of you) doesn’t want to engage in. A famous athlete — I can’t remember who — resisted extramarital temptation by asking himself “Is she worth half my money?” (obviously no pre-nup there). Briefly thinking about the possibility of a wallet-crushing divorce helped him avoid having an affair. It sounds like an obvious strategy, but I think it’s underutilized by most people.
People trying to eat more healthful foods are sometimes encouraged to imagine their “desired body” to counterbalance the temptation of eating chocolate cake (or whatever). It’s the same idea — using your imagination to “vaccinate” yourself against an undesired behavior. Whether it’s a potential reward (washboard abs) or an undesired consequence (messy, expensive divorce), the visualization functions as an antibody to temptation. As soon as the “infection” occurs (perception of tempting stimuli), the thought vaccine kicks in and knocks it out immediately.
If you’ve “been there, done that” then maybe the thought vaccine develops automatically. It’s easy for me to eat a healthful diet (more-or-less paleo), and take my vitamin D pills, because the alternative is asthma, which I suffered from for years. In other areas where I don’t have direct experience, I just use my imagination. My young daughter sometimes has rambling stories that are a little boring to listen to — in the moment the New York Times might seem more interesting. But the thought of her growing up with a “checked out dad” scares me — if I think about that that possibility it makes the choice to engage with her very easy. And of course when I do give her my full attention, I find her stories more interesting.
This kind of self-trickery is just one form of meta-cognition, or metaprogramming. The idea isn’t to quash all base impulses or constantly stay on the “straight and narrow” (I certainly haven’t) — it’s more to pick your battles (with yourself). Establishing habits is easier than expending willpower at every turn. Using a quick thought vaccine is easier than having a protracted “should I or shouldn’t I?” debate with yourself.
There are other ways to trick yourself and develop “effortless willpower.” In the famous “marshmallow study” the kids that had high self-control often used certain “tricks” to resist temptation. They would think of something else (or do something else) instead of staring at the treat longingly. Distraction. These same tricks could be taught to the low self-control kids, who could use them just as effectively.
A CATALOG OF METACOGNITIVE SKILLS
Developing meta-cognitive skills is really the same thing as spirituality, or what Ken Wilber would call “developing higher stages of consciousness.” With practice, we can learn to “act internally” to change our state of mind, and eventually our life circumstances. Some categories of metacognitive skills might include:
- Trickery (“thought vaccines,” intentional self-distraction, developing effortless willpower)
- Mind control (meditation, learning to concentrate, achieving “Flow,” quieting the mind, capturing thoughts “at their source”)
- Open heart (choosing forgiveness, kindness, and compassion, emotional honesty, allowing feelings of wonder and awe)
- Inner strength (cheerful confidence in the face of adversity, indomitable fortitude of spirit)
- Deep focus (seeing the “big picture” while not losing sight of details, reconciling mortality and the size of the universe with paying your parking tickets, nullification of stress via conscious contextualization)
- Manifesting (articulating desire and vision, converting imagination into reality)
- Service (devoting life and self to a “higher cause” — whatever has deep personal meaning and is greater than narrow self-interest)
There is plenty to write about here and I’ll expand on at least a few of these ideas in future posts. All of these areas are “works in progress” in my own life and writing about them helps my own personal development.