Jul 14, 2010

Willpower as a Limited Resource

Willpower is often necessary to make positive changes in our lives. Any choice that runs counter to habit requires an injection of willpower.

Willpower is a finite resource that can easily be squandered. To get an idea of how little willpower we actually have at our disposal, consider that we are unaware or poorly aware of most of the processes going on in our body and psyche at any given moment. Our consciousness is only capable of processing a small bit of information at a time, whereas our unconscious mechanisms deal with enormous streams of information and produce rapid reflexes over which we have little or no control.

Exercising willpower requires holding in one's consciousness an additional thought over a substantial stretch of time. Generally, it is a thought that the mind frequently returns to and dwells upon, trying to "reprogram" a certain behavior or thought pattern that may or may not be fully accessible to consciousness.

Everyday tasks take up the lion's share of our consciousness, and only a small percentage seems to be consistently available for intentional self-improvement. I doubt the percentage varies much, if at all, from type to type. However, the kinds of things that people apply their willpower to may be type related.

For instance, extraverts seem more adept at applying willpower to change their external circumstances, while introverts are better at adjusting their reactions to things. Obviously both elements are critical in self-improvement, but an extravert seems to need an introvert to help him change his behavior and attitudes, while an introvert needs an extravert to help him change his life circumstances.

Some people might be somewhat more prone to self-improvement than others. This could be due either to greater self-awareness (more mechanisms accessible to consciousness) or to a greater propensity to exercise willpower upon the things they have become aware of. Such people tend to become spiritual teachers, in the loosest sense of the term.

Furthermore, during different periods of life people are prone to apply different levels of willpower. One may spend months engrossed in work, schooling, hobbies, or addictions and then suddenly begin an ambitious self-improvement campaign that uses a great deal of conscious resources.

What are the best ways to utilize one's limited willpower?

First of all, willpower is best used for small-scale incremental change, not for abrupt and drastic change. The latter is almost always reactionary and almost always fails. Pretty much any habit developed through willpower eventually becomes unconscious. That is one of the keys to self-improvement and to skill acquisition in general.

Consider that almost all crash diets are unsuccessful, as are most attempts to quit smoking. Most new gym memberships remain unused, and most New Year's resolutions forgotten.

Most often, behavioral changes are successful because they build upon a foundation of habits developed incrementally through the application of conscious effort.

A crash diet requires spending a large portion of one's time exercising willpower and conscious effort over a period of days, weeks, or months. Neither the diet itself nor the level of effort are sustainable in the long run. Any dietary habits gained are typically not applicable to normal life, and after a few weeks or months the mind is eager to stop thinking about food for a while.

A better way is to focus on developing, one by one, eating and lifestyle habits that you wish to maintain for the rest of your life. If there is a substantial amount of weight to lose, you may focus on trying to lose "one more pound" than on thinking about the entire 30 pounds you wish to lose by a certain date.

Rather than trying to change your entire diet abruptly, just introduce a change or two at a time, adding new elements once you feel the previous changes have turned into habit and no longer require conscious thought and effort.

Furthermore, the ability to "lose one more pound" is a useful skill you can use to maintain your ideal weight for the rest of your life, never allowing yourself to stray more than a few pounds in either direction. In contrast, crash dieting is not a useful skill unless it is unsuccessful, meaning that it's pointless (even harmful, according to dietologists).

The concept of incremental change is fundamental to skill acquisition. For instance, if you are trying to learn a foreign language and pick random words out of the dictionary to memorize, your success will be very minimal. If, however, you focus on learning words that you recognize from hearing or reading many times, your success will be rapid. In the latter case, you are focusing your consciousness on the "natural next step" in your language acquisition process.

A sure sign of an imperfect approach to skill acquisition is recurring frustration. This means you are reaching for material that is too far above your current skill level and too unrelated to your existing body of knowledge. Likewise in self-improvement. Failure in one's personal goals is often (but not always) the result of aiming for goals that would require too many life changes in too little time to achieve.

Another way to get the most out of your limited willpower is to gather objective information about the area of your life you are trying to change.

For people who know little about nutrition and health, crash dieting and crash exercise regimens may be the only method they can think of to improve their situation. Reading authoritative sources on the subject and talking to people who are obviously successful and talk freely about their lifestyles are excellent ways to learn about more effective and enjoyable ways of improving your health.

In many cases, the people who hold the answers to our problems are all around us, but we fail to ask them and acquire their know-how. One of the great benefits of the Internet is the opportunity to find all out about just about any "problem" and even discuss it anonymously with others, thus bypassing feelings of inadequacy that normally keep people from discussing their personal goals and issues with others.

A final strategy to maximize the efficacy of finite willpower is to focus on changing factors that contribute to the behavior rather than trying only to change the behavior itself. This was discussed in a previous post on asceticism.

For instance, instead of trying to to drink less, stop going to parties (it requires a lot less willpower). Instead of trying to get more exercise, sell your car (walking is the foundation of fitness). Instead of trying to eat less, adopt a diet of unprocessed foods (you will find it very hard to overeat on them). Instead of trying to get out more, cancel your home Internet subscription (give up your pseudo-socializing activities). Instead of trying to spend less money, cancel your credit card subscriptions and switch to a cash-only policy (it'll be a lot harder for you to make spur-of-the-moment purchases).

All of these changes involve creating a basic structure that makes it much easier to develop the behavior you want. In each example listed above, less overall effort is required to establish the structure and maintain it than to apply willpower directly to the behavior itself over a long period of time.

You just have to sell your car once, whereas getting more exercise while having a car requires expending precious willpower day after day over several months. Keeping a diet of unprocessed foods requires exercising self-control only when buying food, whereas eating less requires exercising it every time you eat.


Using these three strategies -- making small incremental changes, educating yourself, and focusing on contributing factors -- will help you make the most of your very limited willpower resources.

1 comment:

Vlad Romanenko said...

Rick, this is super useful, I like how universal and simple the idea is, will try to use it in various applications!