writing life

Willpower

I read a lot of books about things like productivity and time management, mostly because I have no adult supervision, so I need all the help I can get. I’m my own boss, so there’s no one monitoring when I go to work, what I do during the workday, when I stop work, or how productive I am. I have even less structure when I’m writing for independent publication and there’s no publisher deadline. That means I need to figure out ways to keep myself honest and make the most of my time. There’s also an element of fascination and curiosity. I love psychology and figuring myself (and other people) out. My life makes for a good experimental environment because I have total control over just about everything. I decide when to sleep and wake up, when and what to eat, when and how to work. That allows me to try the various advice I read about in a way that I couldn’t if I had to worry about a job, spouse, kids, or even pets.

My latest read was a book called Willpower, by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. It’s all about how willpower works and how to use it. They cite the now-famous study in which preschoolers were given a marshmallow and told that if they didn’t eat it before the researcher returned to the room, they’d get another marshmallow. They were studying self-control in children, but then later followed up with the kids when the daughter of one of the researchers, who’d been part of the preschool class used as a study group, mentioned running into her former classmates in college. They were curious to see what became of the kids, and it turned out that the greatest predictor of future success wasn’t intelligence or even socioeconomic background. The kids who held out for the second marshmallow were overwhelmingly more successful — better grades, went further in school, got better jobs, were better liked — than the kids who ate the marshmallow. The kids who ate the marshmallow were more likely to have dropped out of school or gone to prison. This held true even when they adjusted for race and class. I guess I’m interested in this kind of thing because I was the sort of kid who not only would have held out for the second marshmallow, but I’d have then held onto both marshmallows, saving them for some future special occasion. I would say that I’m not particularly successful, but then again, I am making a living in a career where most people who try it don’t end up making a living, so maybe we’re grading on a curve.

Anyway, the book offered a few takeaways that I found interesting and potentially useful for people who are trying to manage their lives more effectively. One key thing about willpower/self-control is that it’s essentially a decision — you’re deciding to take one action (usually a less immediately pleasant one) over another action (usually one with short-term benefits). It functions in the brain like any other decision you make — what to wear, what to do, what to buy, etc. We only have a limited amount of stamina for decisions, and once it’s depleted, it’s difficult to make decisions at all. By the end of any decision-making process, we’re likely to just not care and go with whatever the default is, and there’s lower willpower after that. Because of this effect, if you’re trying to change something in your life that takes willpower to do, it’s more effective to focus on one thing. You don’t have the stamina to make that many decisions on an ongoing basis. That’s why New Year’s resolutions usually fail: that long list of things you’re going to improve requires more willpower than you’ve got. You’re better off picking one thing and focusing on that.

The cool thing is that once you focus on that one thing, other things tend to fall into place without you really trying. They found in a study that when participants worked on one change in their lives from any category (physical fitness, financial planning, study habits), they also ended up eating better, smoking and drinking less, exercising more (even when physical fitness wasn’t the thing they were working on), and generally getting their lives in order without making any conscious effort to do those things. I’ve found that this summer. Because I’m rehabbing my bad knee and am in physical therapy, I have to exercise daily. I’m highly motivated to do this because I’ve been in pain and not able to do things, so I want to get better and know that doing my exercises will help. There’s also a financial motivation, as my medical bills will be lower the sooner I’m released from therapy, and doing the exercises daily will make me get well faster. And I’m getting monitored on my progress by the physical therapist, so I’m held accountable. That has made it relatively easy for me to make myself exercise every day. I’ve found that the rest of my life has fallen into place. I’m going to bed earlier and getting up earlier, feeling well-rested. I’m eating better. I’m doing a lot more writing. I’m making progress on organizing my house.

The other helpful thing is that after you do a behavior that requires willpower for a month or so, it becomes a habit, and doing it regularly no longer requires willpower. Then you can move on to some other thing you want to focus on. So, instead of making a list of resolutions, pick one thing to focus on. When that becomes a habit, move on to the next thing.

Accountability and monitoring really help in sticking to something. For writers, they suggest keeping track of the number of words written and amount of time spent writing (which I do). Planning also helps because it separates the decision from the action, which means it takes less willpower. I’ve found that to be very effective for me. I make a schedule for my day in the morning, and I find it’s a lot easier to say “it’s time to clean house” or “it’s time to write” because it’s in my schedule than it is to have a big open amount of time and then have to decide how to fill it when I’m in the moment, especially later in the day, when I’m tired. One fine tuning I’ve made to my schedule this week is to schedule my breaks. I used to just block off afternoons for writing, but I found that when I took a break during that time, it was sometimes hard to get back to work. So, instead of just blocking off the afternoon, I block off distinct writing sessions with distinct breaks, and I even plan what the main activity for each break will be. Then it’s a lot easier to get back to work. I’m not deciding it’s time to get back because the decision has already been made.

Anything you can do in advance to make the decision less taxing can help. If you’re dieting, don’t have tempting food in the house and you don’t have to decide not to eat it. Measure out portions ahead of time so you don’t have to decide how to eat or when to stop eating. Lay out your exercise clothes ahead of time so you don’t get sidetracked by deciding which t-shirt and shorts to wear. That’s something else I’ve been doing, scheduling time to set up my writing area. That way, all those little procrastination behaviors don’t happen during the designated writing time. The glass of water, computer, notebooks, etc., are all already there when it’s time to get to work. It used to be that the first half hour of my writing block was filled with the equivalent of the toddler demanding a story, a glass of water, and a closet monster inspection to delay bedtime. Now I have that block scheduled for preparation, and I find that I’m actually starting writing sooner.

It’s interesting reading if you want to work on managing your life, and might even be good character fodder.

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