Willpower Project 2 of 11: The Willpower Instinct

This is part 2 of my Willpower Project, tracking my thoughts and processing through Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct. Head to part 1 in order to start at the beginning.

Week 1 Reflection: Observation First

It’s been a week of meditation and monitoring my willpower-based decisions and I’ve definitely seen some change. I find myself more aware of the conflict between my long-term goals and my impulses. This includes my desire to blaze through the entire book instead of taking the one chapter at a time approach McGonigal suggests. (Willpower challenges come in all shapes and sizes.)

I suspect that a certain amount of the change I’m experiencing is due to an observer effect in which the act of observation influences the behavior of the observed subject. In this case I am both subject and observer, so it is, to a certain extent, impossible to avoid. Unlike a scientific study though, I am not concerned about this impact. My results are not invalidated by an observer effect. The goal of this project is to change my behavior improve my awareness of how I use my willpower. If observation alone acts to positively influence my use of willpower, that is a promising finding: an extremely low cost intervention can create positive change. The observer effect helps me achieve my intended outcome.

Throughout this week I’ve been much more aware of the conflict between my long-term want to write more consistently and my immediate impulses to play video games or watch TV. I also noticed an additional conflict: the conflict between activities I want to do and activities that I need to do. The primary conflict for my willpower challenge is how to use my unscheduled time, should it be used for writing, or some other activity? This is impacted by other “need to do” activities like making dinner, work, or running errands, and by more carefully observing the situations in which I choose some activity other than writing, I’ve been able to be mindful of how much of the conflict is about myself as a person, about my choices, versus a somewhat more external time limit. This observation is important because it allows me to remove judgement with regards to choosing to write. I can be more objective. If I didn’t write because I chose to idly browse Facebook, that is importantly different from not writing because I spent more time than usual making a nice dinner. They may have the same end result of less writing, but means are extremely different and important to consider.

The meditation was easier than I expected. The section in chapter one that encourages objective reflection, as opposed to a commitment to perfect meditation, was extremely helpful for this. Mindful objectivity allowed me to notice my meditation without being evaluative. I had the permission to be bad at meditation which helped me do it more often.

I’ve gradually increased the time from five minutes on the first day to eight minutes at the end of week one and I plan to keep increasing through the second week. I can’t say for certain if it’s due to meditation specifically, or a more general mindfulness, but I have definitely seen an increase in my self-awareness in this first week, but as I wrote above, I don’t need a scientifically verifiable and replicable study. If I’m doing something that helps, that’s good enough.

This week has already helped me with my willpower challenge (a few times I’ve made the choice to write instead of another acidity) and this mindfulness has extended into other areas and I’ve noticed myself being more mindful of food choices, my driving habits, and how I’m spending money. The progress I’ve made during the first week is definitely encouraging me to maintain these behaviors and try the experiments in chapter 2.

Chapter 2: The Willpower Instinct: Your Body Was Born to Resist Cheesecake

This chapter covers the physiology of our response to perceived threat and draws the distinction between the impulsive fight or flight response, and the willpower-leveraged pause and plan response. Most of the chapter aligned strongly with what I heard in McGonigal’s workshop, and it was helpful to see it reiterated with a bit more explanation and strong scientific citations. Through the chapter McGonigal continues her empowering message that as human beings, we are in control of how we respond to situations. The size and power of our prefrontal cortex makes us uniquely equipped to distinguish between external threats (like a raging bear) and internal threats (like the desire to buy a flashy new pair of shoes).

This distinction resonated powerfully with me. It’s very easy to externalize threats and respond with fight or flight, and this is very important when the threat is truly external, like a bear. The whole point of fight or flight is actually our body’s ability to repurpose our energy system before we think at all. This response, however, is completely ineffective on internal threats.

It turns out that the flashy pair of new shoes are not the threat. My desire to purchase the shoes are the threat. (In this case a threat to my long term goal of reducing impulsive purchases as opposed to a threat to my life.) By seeing the threat as internal as opposed to external, I can much more effectively activate my willpower to resist that threat. The energy is not directed properly at my desire as opposed to the shoes themselves. This need to distinguish internal and external threats requires the kind of self awareness that I activated during the first week, and I’ve already seen improved ability to determine the locus of a threat and respond accordingly. I’m definitely not perfect, but I’m noticing a lot more than I had previously.

The other extremely important component of chapter 2 is the link between willpower and our physical health, and this is evident in the willpower experiments. In week two McGonigal tasks her reader to activate intentional breathing, spend time outside, get more exercise, sleep more, and intentionally engage in relaxation. I’m pretty good about some of these already. Thanks to my wife’s insistence I usually get seven or more hours of sleep every night, which is on the good side of McGonigal’s scientifically-backed six hour minimum for proper willpower function. I also exercise regularly and I don’t plan in making changes to that regimen any time soon. The other willpower experiments are less present in my life currently.

The other components: intentional breathing, getting outside, and active relaxation are going to be my focus for week two. The intentional breathing is intended to be used in acute situations as a way to actively shift from fight or flight into the pause and plan response. I’m going to try be mindful of my physiological response to perceived threat in order to activate an intentional pause and plan response through controlled breathing. This week I’m going to be away at the South by Southwest Edu conference in Austin, so I will have to walk more than I usually do at home, this should help facilitate including five minutes of outdoor physical activity. I will need to be more intentional about this time when I return home. Lastly I am excited to spend time in active relaxation. McGonigal’s process for this is very straightforward, somewhere in the grey area between meditation and sleep.

Even only one week into the project I am feeling much more in control and aware. Additionally, by understanding willpower as a physiological and growable component of my life, I’ve been able to remove some of the guilt associated with losing a willpower challenge. Reconfiguring my understanding of willpower is making me more willing to attempt activities that challenge my willpower. I look forward to reflecting on a second week.

  1. Andy McCormick said:

    Acknowledging the power of conscious reflection is a marvelous awareness.

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