Friday, February 15, 2013

Fail, Feed, Focus, and Forgive- Lessons from The Willpower Instinct

Over the weekend I finished The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More Of It by Kelly McGonigal.  (I previously wrote briefly about this book in discussing effective New Year's Resolutions here). 

McGonigal defines willpower as the ability to do what matters most, even when it is difficult.  That definition is reminiscent of Bobby Knight's definition of discipline:  "Doing what you have to do.  Doing it well.  And doing it all the time."). 

One reason doing what matters most is difficult is simply the way our brains are wired.  Bringing to mind some of the analysis in Thinking Fast and Slow (mentioned here), parts of our brain spring into action in response to perceived threats or in order to make sure we get enough to eat.  (If you are about to be eaten by a saber-toothed tiger, it pays to have all your faculties devoted to escaping that fate).

However, when those instincts take over, the deliberative area of our brain - the prefrontal cortex- shuts down.  And when the prefrontal cortex is "disabled" so too is the capacity to exercise self control. Our brains have not evolved to distinguish between real and perceived threats and needs, so a host of stimuli (the smell of popcorn, a loud noise, etc.) essentially cripple the ability to exercise willpower.  One specific example:  even though it is painfully obvious that we have more than enough to eat, our brains still respond to food as if we don't know where and when we'll get our next meal.

Accordingly, McGonigal offers practical ways to train yourself to mitigate the harmful fight-or-flight grip of the amygdala and the siren song of the sleeve of Chips Ahoy, and instead move toward the "pause and plan" realm of the prefrontal cortex.    

Five specific points really stood out:

1) To Succeed at Self-Control, You Need to Know How you Fail.  In order to get more of what you want, you have to identify what is keeping you from getting it.  How do you become aware of how you fail?  Become more mindful of your choices and your actions.  And one sure-fire way to increase mindfulness is to meditate, because it gives you a glimpse of what distracts you (and how you fail).  And for all of you who hesitate to engage in this practice because of its Eastern (and I don't mean the Pee Dee) connotations, I offer Professor McGonigal's succinct, practical, and wholly secular explanation of why it is good for you:  meditation increases blood flow to your prefrontal cortex, channeling more resources to "pause and plan."  Another way of putting it: "Recognize, Refrain, Relax, Resolve."

2) Feed Your Brain.  I have written before about the effects of glucose on willpower, and The Willpower Instinct examines why your brain may get tired even though you might have the energy to walk around the block:  if your brain detects that your energy reserves are dwindling, it will limit resources to the brain that are useful for self-control.  In other words, if your brain senses that you are "trending tired," it may go into reserve mode and "budget" energy.  And so you need to give your brain the fuel to help you exercise willpower.

3)  Consider Why You Really Want It.  I have asked here before "Whose Song Are You Singing?" in order to point out that our reasons for doing and being often have very little to do with who we are and what we really want.  McGonigal puts it this way:  "If you're trying to change a behavior to please someone else or to be the right kind of person, see if there is another 'want' that holds more power for you."  One example that resonated with me is the approach of "wanting to enjoy parenting" as opposed to "wanting to be a better parent."

4) It's the Goal, Not the "Good".  Similar to Number 3, if you keep score based on the number of "good" acts you accomplish, (as opposed to whether certain behavior serves your goals), then you are more likely to experience a "halo effect" and allow yourself some "goal liberation" or the license to do something "bad" as a treat. (The indiscretions of numerous public figures would appear to underscore this phenomenon).

 5) Take It Easy On Yourself: Guilt Doesn't Work.    Just as doing or feeling good may backfire, so too will using shame, guilt, and regret as a motivator.  Your brain wants to protect your mood as much as it does your life.  And if you are distressed by guilt, then you fall right back into seeking rewards (i.e. feeling better) instead of acting in service of your goals.  Instead of beating yourself up, follow some of the advice given in If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him:  "Learn to forgive yourself, again and again and again and again."