Willpower Project 7 of 11: Putting the Future on Sale

And another two weeks have passed without a post. It turns out moving keeps one pretty busy, but we’ve sold the house, moved into the apartment, and schedules can be reestablished. The willpower project is back on track.

I’ve tried to remain mindful of my willpower-based decisions throughout the moving process, however it became quite difficult as getting boxes packed and moved dominated my active willpower reserves, leaving little for healthy eating choices or exercise, let alone finding time to write. (Eating was particularly impacted as we were in kitchen limbo for a while with cooking supplies packed and no food in the house, causing me to eat out all meals except breakfast for about a week.) With those concerns in mind, I’m pretty happy with how I made out through the process. I was able to draw on willpower reserves to make sure that boxes got packed, and then subsequently unpacked.

In addition to being mindful of my willpower decisions, I made my choices easier by leveraging the idea of reducing variability. I did this by intentionally limiting my options for lunch. I allowed myself to get either a salad from Whole Foods or chicken and stir-fried veggies from Uwajimaya (a local Asian grocery). Other possibilities were simply out of the question. I combined this with the idea of the green willpower fill-up (see chapter 2) because I can walk from my office to Uwajimaya in a reasonable amount of time and I took advantage of this when the weather was cooperative. This definitely helped me stay on track with my long term health goals, despite the stress of moving.

In my professional life I was able to use McGonigal’s process for countering cycles of self-guilt. April and May are a stressful time in public education, particularly with teachers on non-continuing contracts as this is the time of year when they hear whether or not they will be retained. When things are looking unclear for my teachers many of them hyper-analyze their decisions and deeply internalize any failures, quickly progressing into a cycle of self-guilt and possible avoidance. McGonigal’s process outlined in chapter 6 allows me to help teachers see that they are not alone in their struggles and there are concrete actions they can take to increase the likelihood of being retained. This helps teachers take an active role in their retention and avoid feelings of helplessness.

Chapter 7: Putting the Future on Sale

In Chapter 7 McGonigal explores issues of instant gratification and how delaying gratification can be used as a technique to make more choices in line with long term goals. In simplest terms, our impulsive selves put a very high premium on immediacy and when rewards are delayed we perceive them as being less valuable. The terms is known as delay discounting and McGonigal explains it in economic terms, saying that in a particular study people “deprived themselves of what they really wanted for the fleeting satisfaction of a quick fix.” (p. 158) In order to combat this tendency McGOnigal outlines four experiments:

  1. Wait 10 Minutes
  2. Lower Your Discount Rate
  3. Precommit
  4. Meet Your Future Self

Wait 10 minutes is simply that. See a temptation? Wait 10 minutes and see if you still want it. If you do, knock yourself out. If not, don’t pick it.

Lowering the discount rate is somewhat more complex and it is predicated on the idea that we are better at internally justifying the first reward we thinking about. This means that if you think about the immediate reward first you tend to think about the choice as losing the immediate reward. “I’ll lose the hour watching TV if I look for jobs.” We can lower the discount rate by switching the order of thinking by replacing the previous statement by saying “is it worth trading an opportunity to apply for my dream job for one hour of video games?” By switching the focus of our self-talk we can remind ourselves of our long term goal and take advantage of our brain’s method of internal justification.

McGonigal uses the historical example of Hernàn Cortès burning his ships to illustrate the most extreme example of precommitment. It’s taking action that sabotages the impulsive self. In this case, by burning is ships, Cortès prevented the temptation of heading home before he’d achieved success. We don’t all have to burn our ships. There are more subtle ways to precommit to our long term goals. If you’re struggling with shopping, leave the credit card at home and take a specific amount of cash. If you’re trying to eat healthier, pack your lunch the night before so that it’s easier to grab it in the morning. If you’re trying to change your clothing choices, lay out the clothes the night before so that you don’t have to choose when you’re in a rush. All of these options are based in motivating oneself toward future goals by increasing the cost of choosing against the goals. In the first scenario, if you really want to use that credit card while you’re shopping you will have to head home and then back to the store, at which point you have significantly delayed the reward.

Meeting your future self is intended to help concretize the future, something that McGonigal keeps coming back to. This was extensively covered in her talk that I attended, and I’ve been using this technique regularly with my teachers by having them write letters from their future selves or by vividly imagining a future transformative movement. These techniques have been incredibly helpful and I’ve seen my teachers build significant motivation toward improving their practice.

I read this chapter about a week ago and I’ve been thinking about these ideas a lot. The small amount of willpower it takes to delay gratification by five to ten minutes is extremely powerful in helping me to making the choices that align with my long term goals. It doesn’t take much to reduce the discount rate and de-prioritize instant gratification. This chapter is a perfect example of how very small adjustments can make a big difference in a person’s life.

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