More on Willpower

I had a realization yesterday during a particularly difficult writing sessions that the decision fatigue effect (making decisions is exhausting, which is why willpower can be difficult) may have something to do with why writing can be so tiring. It’s a constant string of decisions — what happens next, what should the characters do? When you have one of those “gift” books where there are no decisions to be made because it just seems to flow, writing is easier and less tiring. That’s when I can whip out thousands of words in a day. But when I’m constantly making decisions and figuring things out, it’s utterly exhausting. Plotting can help with that if you can separate the decision process from the writing process so the decisions are all made before you start to write, but there are some books that defy plotting. The one I’m working on now is like that. I have an entire spiral notebook filled with plot outlines, character arcs, etc., and none of it is doing me any good once I get to writing. At every turning point, I have to stop and think, and now I’m having to figure out if the choice I made five chapters ago is the right one. No wonder I’m exhausted. This also explains why writers need snacks and why my page count M&Ms or cherries work — making decisions depletes glucose in the brain. You need fuel to be able to keep making decisions.

Another thing that I found interesting in that book I was discussing yesterday (Willpower) is that deferral actually works the same way in the mind as indulging. Saying “not now, but later” provides a kind of satisfaction that means you may not even want it later. They tested this by having subjects watch a short film with a bowl of M&Ms nearby. Different groups of subjects were told either to imagine they’d decided to eat as much as they wanted, to imagine they’d decided not to eat them at all, or to imagine that they weren’t going to eat any now but would eat some later. Both the “no” and the “later” groups ate fewer M&Ms while watching the film. Then participants were given a survey to fill out that was supposedly about the laboratory they were in (it didn’t seem like part of the study — they’d already answered questions about the film. This was more of a “how did we do?” thing) and told that they were the last participant of the day, so here are the leftover M&Ms if you want them while you fill out the survey. The “later” people ate fewer than the “no” people or the “yes” people, and then in a follow-up survey, they reported that they were less interested in eating M&Ms. Saying “maybe later” provided the same sense of satisfaction as giving in, and the anticipation of the future pleasure counted as pleasure.

I’m curious whether they did any comparison between the high self-control people and high impulse people in this. I know that I frequently enjoy anticipation more than the actual thing. That’s how I am with shopping. When I see some non-necessary thing that I like, I generally don’t buy it right away. I’ll say “maybe later.” Then I may find some enjoyment in thinking about the “later,” but usually even the interest in the thing passes. I’ve learned that it’s often more fun to think about the possibility of having the thing than to actually buy the thing. Generally, the thing itself isn’t as fun in reality as it was in thinking about it, then I don’t have the money I spent on the thing and I have a thing I have to deal with that I don’t have space for. I can see where this might be a point of clashing in relationships. I know people who get frustrated with me when I mention seeing something I want and I don’t buy it, and they don’t get that me not buying it isn’t actually something I experience as self-denial, while I would get frustrated with someone who bought everything on a whim rather than thinking about long-term goals. There’s room there for a lot of fighting.

Though it can be taken too far. I’ve planned a lot of vacations I’ve never taken. I do get a lot of pleasure out of the planning, but it doesn’t really substitute for actually going somewhere sometimes.

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