Sunday, October 23, 2011

Willpower - A Mind Game Against Yourself

A few weeks ago, somebody said that procrastination is his worst habit that he wants to fix, and almost everybody in the gathering showed some sign of consent. I believe I have much more self control than I had when I worked in the bureaucracy, but I still yearn for more control. When I get up at six in the morning and start stretching to get myself prepared for the morning yoga, oh man, I feel like I am dying! It is always a mind game against yourself, like the cartoon cliche of an angel and a demon whispering in your ears. But think about it: the resourceful, creative, and persuasive one is the demon. He comes up with all kinds of highly plausible excuses to make you bail yourself out of the temporary toil. By contrast, the angel is totally simplistic and blunt. Most of the time, at least for me, the angel’s winning argument is that you will regret if you skip it.

In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, a so-called “What the Hell” phenomenon is introduced. Deiters who already went over their daily calorie limit simply do not care any more for the rest of the day, because, what the hell, they are already foiled for the day. It is a very simple, but very powerful, excuse presented by the demon, to which our angel buddy does not have an effective couter-argument. Regardless you eat more or not, you will regret the same, because you already went over the line.

Here’s another interesting experiment. Two groups of students were kept hungry before coming to the experiment. One group of students were allowed to eat the chocolate cookies as much as they wanted. The other group was allowed only to eat raw, uncooked radishes, from a tray that contained both chocolate cookies and raw radishes. Many of the students in the latter group agonized over the presence of the cookies. Some looked at the cookies for a long time, before eating the radish. Some smelled at the cookies. Then, the two groups of students were tested to see how long they persist trying to solve an insolvable puzzle. The radish students, who already exhausted their willpower over the temptation of chocolate cookies, gave up the puzzle much sooner than the other group. Indeed, willpower is depleted as we use it. And I believe that this is the single biggest take-away from this book. We all know by our own experiences that we are most productive in the morning. Also, we often run really low on our tolerance level when we come home after a long tough day at the office.

However, this great learning is quite disappointing. We use limited amount of willpower throughout the day, slowly being depleted till we become helpless. Does this mean that I must not exercise in the morning, if I face a big, willpower-draining task during the day? Not surprisingly, the authors say that willpower muscle can be enhanced through exercise like any other muscle. However, what they suggest do not sound too much convincing. (The arguments were so weak that I do not remember any exercise they recommended!)

I should say, however, that this book is a kind of sensation because I have seen so many articles and postings about this book. Furthermore, if we ever forget about everything this book tells us, perhaps we can remember one thing, which will help us in many different situations:

Do not test yourself to the extreme. You will ruin everything and regret.


  1. About ten years ago I came up with this theory: when one cannot fix a bad habit, he must like it more than he hates it.
    So, there is no habitually repeated action. You just like keeping doing it over and over. Just admit you like it, or think through why you really hate it. Once you know your liking part is considerably bigger, there is no willpower needed to fix it.

    And that is why I cannot reduce my bally size... or should I say, I chose not to. :)

  2. Geez, K for Kenneth. Good to hear from you! I just hope your boss will not joke on your "bally." (Actually, that is the shoe brand I love.)

    I hope you see you often here :)
    Thanks for the comment!