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This is part four of my series on Kelly McGonigal’s book The Willpower Instinct. If you’re interested in starting from the beginning, head back to part one.

Last Week:
The previous chapter was all about fatigue and for a reason that I can’t quite determine, it feels like a complete blur. The experiments for the week were to eat in ways that moderate blood sugar levels (low glycemic), to monitor the ups and downs of willpower, and to set a specific willpower challenge. I was consistent on the first two experiments, but the willpower challenge was a pretty big flop.

My regular diet is something of a paleo approximation. I generally don’t eat grains, beans, or dairy, but I’m not 100% rigid. I’ll eat rice about once per week, and I’ll eat some dessert and have a drink or two every so often. In general, however, my diet is full of meat and vegetables and it’s a diet that is effective as moderating blood sugar levels. Because of this I did not make any significant changes to my diet. Despite the lack of significant change, I was able to observe that when I got particularly hungry my willpower was noticeably lower. In particular, I found myself driving to lunch after a long morning, and it was extremely difficult to contain my frustration with other drivers or red lights, when I am typically pretty calm. My day hadn’t been particularly difficult up to that point so it stands to reason that the lower willpower was linked to a lack of food and dropping blood sugar. I also noticed that when I make a choice to indulge in food it easily snowballs into many indulgences, but I think this is more of an example of the “What the Hell Effect” Coming in Chapter 6.

When it came to monitoring my willpower levels throughout the week I chose an ad hoc approach as opposed to writing down every willpower swing up or down. The first thing I noticed is that on mornings when I meditated to start my day I had a substantial increase in willpower throughout the morning. This made the whole day easier as I didn’t have to fight all morning, and it left me with a greater reserve of willpower right before lunch and into the afternoon, when my willpower was typically at its lowest. Additionally I found an enormous boost to my willpower in the hours directly after exercise, as long as the workout did not completely exhaust me. Throughout the week I had strong training workouts, and came home feeling refreshed, whereas on Saturday I competed in Crossfit Open workout 14.3 and I was well and truly fatigued for the remainder of the day.

In addition to specific times of day, or after certain activities, I noticed that physical location, and the presence of others impacted my willpower and my ability to make choices aligned with my long-term goals. Calm public places, coffee shops for instance, gave me a boost to my willpower, while being at home made me more inclined to act impulsively. I hypothesize that this is due to an increased presence of temptation at home. The presence of a television is particularly distracting to me, and it’s even hard for me to carry a one on one conversation when a TV is playing at a restaurant. The presence of others that are actively engaged in similar activities definitely helped my willpower as I am able to feed off their positive energy. During the open workout the presence of many other people helped me complete substantially more lifts than if I had completed the workout on my own. Additionally the presence of other people in the act of writing encourages me to stay focused on my own writing. When others are engaged in impulsive behavior I feel their actions pull at my willpower and each second of focused work in their presence becomes a willpower challenge.

My willpower challenge to maintain improved spine position while sitting was a complete flop. There were so many other things that were on my mind that I just didn’t keep track of my posture. Every now and then I caught myself, but I was much more mindful of monitoring my willpower levels throughout the day and this fell to the side.

Chapter 4: License to Sin: Why Being Good Gives Us Permission to Be Bad

In this chapter McGonigal introduces the reader to the concept of moral licensing. In short this is when people use their good behavior in order to grant themselves permission for bad behavior. The entire chapter made me think about papal indulgences, when one could buy forgiveness for sins from the church, even before sinning. It’s probably the history nerd in me, but I was shocked that McGonigal did not make the connection explicit.

The entire issue of moral licensing hinges on the idea that our willpower decisions are moral decisions. This immediately connected with me and I saw myself in many of the examples. The concept is also predicated on the idea that we see ourselves as somehow flawed in our impulsive state and that we want to be “good enough” as opposed to morally impeccable. Essentially, by using self-control (good) I get the reward of returning to my natural, impulsive state (bad). The concept plays out as follows: My long term goal is to be more healthy, therefore I engage my willpower and hit the gym. (I don’t want to do this, but it’s good for me, so this self-control makes me a good person. I earn some good points.) Because I earned enough good points, I can now spend them on something indulgent. This could be linked to my challenge (I get to eat some junk food), but does not need to be (I buy myself a present). The most classic example that by forcing myself to eat my vegetables I earn the right to indulge in dessert. I trade a good action for a bad action.

There are many problems with this, as McGonigal illustrates extensively throughout the chapter, but the one that really hit home for me was the distinction that these choices are made using emotion as a way of knowing, as opposed to reason. The distinction does not reduce the validity of the decision (she does not dismiss emotion,) but it properly situates the decision as an emotional, or impulsive decision that occurs in the midbrain, as opposed to a willpower based decision that takes place in the prefrontal cortex. Choices made through moral licensing act against our long-term goals and actively hinder us from becoming the self we want to be. These choices act most directly against our “I want” power. Knowledge of this distinction allows use to take control and the easiest way to take control is to revoke our moral license.

The most effective way to revoke one’s moral license is not to engage in guilt or shaming for impulsive decisions, but to simply remove the morality of willpower choices. My choice to eat or not eat a sugary treat does not make me a good or bad person. It is simply a conflict of willpower and impulse, of short-term and long-term priorities. When we remove the morality we do not gain virtue by making choices that align with our long-term goals, and therefore we’ve earned no indulgences. (I am also predicting that McGonigal will use moral licensing later on in the book as leverage for self-compassion.) Our emotions are activated as a way of knowing because we assign a value to our actions. Revoking the moral license and making my choices devoid of any sense of moral worth is the first experiment for the week.

The second experiment is to view actions as habitual, or leading to habit. In other words, to reduce the variability of each day. The rationale behind this is that if we see our actions as something that we engage in every day we are more likely to make choices that align with our long-term goals. If the choice is between saving money every day, or buying a pair of shoes every day, I am much more likely to save my money than if I can self-justify that I’ll buy the shoes “just this one time.” By viewing our choices as commitment to choosing that action habitually we remove the “cognitive crutch that tomorrow will be different.” This second experiment has made an immediate impact on me. Even on the first day, when choosing to pack or buy a lunch, I thought that I would rather be a person who brings a lunch each day, than a person who buys a lunch each day, and as such I made the choice to bring some unappealing (yet perfectly edible) leftovers because the choice aligns more closely with my long-term health goals.

With these experiments in mind, I am choosing to write because I want to be the kind of person who writes habitually. This is aligned to my long-term goals. At the same time, however, I gain no moral currency by do the writing, therefore I have no license to choose actions that work against my long-term goals.

I cook a lot.  We usually eat at home at least six night as week, and my wife and I both take a lunch to work nearly every day.  At least ninety percent of the time it’s me doing the cooking.  I like it.  It’s gratifying to create your own fuel and the positive reactions of others when you’ve done a good job are priceless.

While I cook a lot I’m not great with recipes.  I’ve been accused of being anti-measurement before.  Definitely guilty.  If it’s something I’ve really never made before I might follow the recipe the first time.  Even then I usually adjust spices and amounts of ingredients on the fly, completely deaf to any words of protest, much to my wife’s chagrin.

I still like cookbooks though.  They’re great for inspiration and most of the time I’ll spend a lot of time looking at the pictures.  Most of the time though I’ll cook one or two recipes out of them, and then they sit on the shelf.  Looking good, but little more than eye candy and the occasional reference.  That was before Well Fed came in the mail.

Well Fed is primarily a book of recipes that strictly follow the paleo diet with a strong focus on broadening peoples’ global recipe repertoire.  Melissa intentionally visits a breadth of regions with her food, crisscrossing the globe as she sees fit to put out delicious, easily made, recipes that are also really healthy.

Since we purchased the book in January I’ve made more recipes out of this single book than any of our other cookbooks.  (Even more than Joy of Cooking or the Ad Hoc at Home book, which I seriously love.)  Each recipe has been great and worth following, but more than the individual (fantastic) recipes Melissa guides her reader to restructure their cooking to be more efficient.

The Weekly Cookup concept is so logical and simple that I felt like an idiot for not having already thought of it, particularly my background cooking in professional kitchens.  The short version is one day a week cook and prep a whole bunch of food, and then leisurely enjoy the fruits of your labor all week by easily reheating and re-blending your tasty ingredients into full meals.

The whole concept is tied to running your home kitchen like a restaurant kitchen.  If you prep your ingredients the actual cooking is faster.  Need a quick weeknight meal?  Take your pre-chopped cabbage, onions, and zucchini, throw them in a pan with some spices and a pre-cooked protein and enjoy awesome dinner in about fifteen minutes.

Even if you’re not going to eat paleo full time this book is worth it.  The pages on setting up your kitchen and the weekly cookup are worth the cover price alone.

Normally I’d be completely satisfied just getting a couple good recipes from a book, but unlike most of the cookbooks we have (Relegated to a reference at best.) I’ve been using the book so much I thought it best rebuild the book as a binder with plastic pages to increase its durability and protect it from my abusive cooking style.

We took a few days off.  A few days off from eating healthy, a few days off from teaching, and a few days off from training.  It was good.  My wife and I both needed the time to unwind, sleep until we woke up naturally, and catch up on being relaxed human beings.

Our favorite, repeatable, vacation spot is the Napa Valley.  We’ve been there a few times and all you really need is a long weekend to make it worthwhile.  Fantastic wine, great people, and some of the best food in the world.  Top that off with mid-seventies and sun (in February) and it was a fantastic way to spend my birthday weekend.

The exercise side of things pretty much consisted of a couple walks and a good amount of lacrosse ball mobility work.  One day we made a small attempt at a bodyweight workout, but it didn’t really amount to much.  Our goal was relaxation and that was very successful.  All in all we had some great new wine, some great old wine, and ate at some brilliant new restaurants thanks to Dave Cruz of Ad Hoc.  Richard Reddington is my new culinary hero for his tasting menu at Redd while Oenotri and the Fatted Calf are locked in a fight to the death for the trophy of best cured meat.

The break was good.  It was great to actually read a whole book, (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Review coming soon.) and I can’t say enough positive things about being out in the sun in shorts and a t-shirt in February.  I was ready to come home though.  We were feeling the side-affects of some non-paleo options (bread and wine) and my energy level was clearly indicating the need for a return to the gym.

Sunday morning:  gym and groceries. 

I opted for a “Deck of Cards” workout.  Easy to plan, doesn’t require a whole lot of thought during the workout.  I figured that with the couple days off I could up the intensity from my last “Deck of Cards” by swapping push-ups for burpees, and changing the jokers to be a few muscle ups.  I didn’t count on drawing nothing but hearts and spades for the first fifteen cards or so.  That meant by the time I started drawing diamonds it was pretty much all pull-ups all the time.  When I hit the jokers (within five cards of each other) my arms were simply too shot for the muscle ups.   Definitely harder than my last one, and longer as well.  I always seem to forget that pull-ups get a heck of a lot harder when your core is fatigued from sit-ups.

Grocery store was piles of protein and veggies for a Sunday cookup.  Getting the week on track food-wise makes everything that much easier.  All the planning and thinking of eating gets sorted in a single day, and I feel good dedicating some time to just cooking.  Continued thanks to Melissa Joulwan for changing how I think about cooking at home.

Here’s to a good week of teaching nineteenth century economic theory, eating healthy food, and lifting heavy things.

WOD:  (Harder than expected.)
Diamonds:  Pull-ups
Hearts: Burpees
Spades: Full ROM Sit-ups
Clubs: Goblet Squats (24kg)
Jokers: 5 muscle ups (fail)
27:18

Cookup:  (Tastier than expected.)
2# grilled chicken (garlic, salt, pepper)
2# browned ground beef (onion, garlic, salt, pepper)
3# Czech Meatballs (subbed the pork for beef)
Mashed Cauliflower
Faux ratatouille (stewed tomato, zucchini,  eggplant, onions, and garlic)
Piles of prepped veggies.  (Cucumber, carrots, celery, bell peppers, cabbage, salad greens)

 The Torn ACLs:  Can’t Say No To Friday