This was a pretty short read, a bit boring at times, and some of the content was anecdotal, but still useful to know. The author has given many talks on willpower and helped students get their bad habits under the control, so this book is a list of things that help with self discipline.
First off, it is important to know that the brain is extremely plastic, gray matter can grow as you exercise different regions of the brain: the physical layout of the brain changes as willpower does (mainly in the pre-frontal cortex region of the brain).
The brain wants dopamine, somewhat like a drug, anything that spikes dopamine production in the brain, can be addictive. The brain looks for dopamine as a reward in any daily activity (from social media to food).
The pleasure center of the brain is linked to the dopamine release center. However, this is actually a seeking behavior: a loop that never ends.
The pleasure center, releases pleasure, dopamine does not. The dopamine center creates the illusion that an activity will be pleasurable, but it never actually is, since the brain always wants more dopamine. We are driven to chase dopamine at all costs: online time-wasters, video games, social media etc.
Dopamine causes us to chase an activity regardless of what pleasure this will actually generate in the future. A study at movie theaters, found that selling stale popcorn had no effect on sales. People didn’t care that the popcorn was stale. The dopamine center was active due to the smell and people still ended up buying.
Marketing departments are aware of this. For example, scents at stores can cause us to want to shop, or can evoke unconscious feelings in us that make us spend more.
An other example to illustrate how dopamine works, is a study on women that found that they experience pleasure as well as anxiety from chocolate at the same time. This is perfect example of how dopamine tricks us, and keeps us in a loop of chasing something, that may never actually generate pleasure.
When doing something ask yourself ‘is the experience satisfying’ or is this an illusion of satisfaction that will never actually generate happiness.
There are many of these, that can influence willpower greatly:
- Air quality
- The breath. Slowing it down helps, when the brain is over-active. For example when facing anxiety, feeling and slowing down the breath consciously is a useful technique.
- Physical exercise is probably the most beneficial. We might think that physical exercise can drain willpower but it actually restores it.
- Sleep deprivation is the worst, it can not only drain but it also diverts energy away from the body and the brain.
- Chronic stress is another detractor, diverting energy away from basic bodily functions, like digestion and the brain.
- Not only personal, but national stress. Studies show that stress can spread across the news i.e watching the news and following what’s going on. (like 9/11, and politics)
Fight/Flight vs. Pause/Respond
The opposite of the fight or flight response, is the pause and respond. This is extremely useful when faced with anxiety, or any willpower intensive decision. Pause and respond, is to be present and exercise the pre-frontal cortex.
Watching the breath helps dissolve anxiety or even any cravings, we can visualize the breath dissolving away the bad emotions.
The Pre-frontal Cortex
Willpower is found in the pre-frontal cortex. This region of the brain is a very energy draining system. Other energy draining activities can reduce willpower (except for exercise). Hence, willpower is limited short term, but can be exercised to grow over time.
Limiting ones options can be a useful technique when one’s willpower is limited (i.e eliminating bad food from one’s reach).
Many studies show that fatigue is deceptive, the brain interprets any small reduction in the body’s energy as fatigue. It has been proven that many athletes can fight this. What the brain perceives as a small dip in energy, is actually just a dip, and the body can keep going for many hours. A dip in energy does not mean energy is depleted.
Many athletes feel a strong urge to stop, but can fight it and remain engaged in their activity for many hours. There is a small window where fighting the brain’s urge to give up can cause long term benefits, after the energy dip stabilizes.
It is important when dealing with willpower, not to indulge in negative self talk, as that can lead to a downward spiral and cause the brain to divert more energy away from the pre-frontal cortex.
When feeling good, one tends to ignore willpower. Having these emotions/images can cause someone to not act with willpower, as they give themselves a break to indulge when they are feeling good. For example, people end up eating more calories on days that they work out.
Framing things as morally correct or the ‘right thing to do’ never works, it is much better to have goals and work towards them than to think that one must do the right thing.
Long Term vs Short Term
There is long term and short term gratifications, and usually the two are at odds, we must not only look at the short term consequences of decisions, and willpower actions, but also the long term (or secondary consequences). The brain is not efficient to look at future long term consequences unless you have trained it to do so.
One way to trick the brain with long term consequences is to behave predictively. If you have the same cigarette at the same time everyday, you are more likely to quit as your brain will believe that your cigarette addiction will repeat in the future. Otherwise, if your smoke habits are unpredictable to the brain, the brain tricks to thinking this is not an addiction.
Reducing the variability of actions causes the brain to predict future behavior and convince you that your actions will repeat in the future. if you vary your actions it you are more likely to believe that your actions are not harmful.
The brain is really bad at predicting the future self, and how will act in the future, or who the future self will be. We mistakenly see the future self as a different person that can achieve what we cannot achieve, we are unrealistic with the future self.
There are other biases that make us over-indulge or act not accordance to our goals. For example, people who shop green, are more likely to see that as virtuous and give themselves a break when they don’t act according to their goals, perfect example of this is working out and eating more.
Moral licensing, paying for carbon tax, makes people hurt the environment more, as they see the tax, as an allowance to care less about how their actions effect the environment.
The brain has an operator and a monitor system that may or may not work in parallel. The monitor, monitors what is happening in the environment, and the operator takes action. When we don’t have enough energy or are feeling tired the monitor can cause us to loop on the wrong object. In turn, the operator can fixate on our weakness causing us to indulge in food, cigarettes etc. when we see them, instead of having the operator steer us away from what the monitor is perceiving.
We trust things by the ease with which they come to mind.
Power of acceptance: do not see it as a struggle against the lower self, don’t start a war and see have anger towards your willpower goal, simply see it as a small child and work with it.
False Hope Syndrome
This is over-confidence or the false belief that doing something will be easy. We lack the self consciousness to notice how difficult our actions will be. It may help to visualize succeeding in a willpower activity and taking action. However, we need to be held accountable and call on support from others, instead of having the false belief that we can achieve what we set out to do.
Stress leads to cravings, and prompts the fight/flight response in humans. When we’re feeling down, or scared, we cling to food, or over spending.
Self criticizing never works, it is much better to treat the self as a small child that you want to help and train rather than an entity that you will fight and work against.
The Social brain
It is important to be conscious of our goals, with who you we surround ourselves with, with kind of opportunities we are presented with during the day, with how we feel. These are all impacting our self control, behaviors are a lot under society’s control and our environment, we may not be consciously in control a lot of the time. It is important to see this effect of society on our goals, and how our goals and who we surround ourselves with can effect our actions, and try to change the environment- we can catch willpower weaknesses from others.
Social closeness matters more than geographic closeness, the people we resonate with are more likely to influence our actions (in a good and bad way). People we respect and treat as similar to us, are more likely to influence our actions. It is important to look for and surround ourselves with people we aspire to be like etc. Even if we can’t meet them in person, even reading can be helpful.