Over the last week I read "The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It". I liked this book more than I thought I would.

I was expecting a run-of-the-mill productivity book, but ended up liking this more than "Indistractible", "The Power of Discipline", and even "Grit". In each chapter, an area is examined though various lenses: science, behaviour, data, anecdotes, personal challenges, and a summary. All in all, it's interesting, useful, and immensely readable. In that regard it actually brought to my mind one of my favourite books: Mindset, by Carol Dweck.

Some quick notes on what stood out for me in a particular:

  • When the mind is preoccupied, impulses – and not long-term goals – guide choices. And our minds are only becoming more and more tuned to being preoccupied.
  • There are different types of willpower that work for different situations. In some cases it's "I will" but in others it's "I won't". But where you can strengthen their resolve is with "I want" – developing a strong visual goal of what you will achieve through these decisions.
  • There are two selves: our current self, stressed under the chaos of our day-to-day, and our "future" self, which is not. When considering oneself, we often project our "future" self, which results in taking on everything we'd like to believe we can handle in an "ideal state".
  • The "current" self under stress requires nurturing and care similar to what we would provide to a child, or a dear friend. The challenge is that we might more often feel like the self who is at the mercy of our stresses and impulses, rather than a rational self pursuing an aspirational goal. Precommitment is a strategy of limiting our options, tuning our environment to help a future stressed-out self make better choices.
  • There are many ways that the brain will self-sabotage. By simply committing to a goal we increase the chance of sabotaging ourself. Our brain gets a boost of dopamine from making the commitment, and we mistakenly interpret that as having earned a break. This is called the "false hope" syndrome, and it's especially sneaky because it masquerades as self-control.
  • A similarly sneaky phenomenon is the value judgement our brains like to make on "good" or "bad" behaviours. The brain is quick to start rationalizing why we deserve the next dopamine hit. In the case of good behaviour, it's that "we've earned it". In the case of bad behaviour it's the "what-the-hell effect": when the brain justifies that the damage has already been done, so a little more won't make much difference. The secret is that any attempt to rationalize via a valuation is a losing proposition. Learn to identify when this valuation takes place, and walk it back to first principles of "I want". There's good days and bad days are inconsequential.
  • Dopamine release actually increases stress, rather than relieving it, contrary to the perceived promise. When the reward center of the brain releases dopamine, it also sends a message to the brain's stress center. In this area of the brain, dopamine triggers the release of stress hormones.
  • When feeling an urge, the body is looking for relief in the form of a hit of dopamine that won't actually provide relief. The goal to feel "good" trumps the goal of self-control. For real relief, go with something that doesn't release a hit of dopamine, but is still something you enjoy and identify with. For me, I've identified short reading breaks, a meditation break (tip: try to slow your breathing to 4 breaths per minute), some simple exercise or engaging with a creative hobby like playing around on the guitar.
  • Use urges as triggers to check in with your body and develop a sense of awareness. Feel the urge and sit with it. You can choose to cave to it (you often will, and in many cases should), but first try sitting with it for 10 seconds. And then, consider sitting with it for 10 more seconds. While waiting, take stock with what's happening in your body. Check in with your breathing, your pulse, your posture. Check in with where tension resides in your shoulders, your face, your jaw, your eyes.
  • To eliminate habits that you feel are so engrained they might be impossible to tackle, start with a ten-minute delay rule to start strengthening your self-control. Stacking ten minutes on ten minutes quickly will cause you to reexamine your assumptions about what you are capable of.
  • Practice your ability to "surf the wave". Similar to real surfing, this takes significant practice, but there are constant opportunities to practice throughout the day. When noticing an urge (to eat a piece of candy, to fidget, to check on reddit or twitter), try surfing it out instead. Waves can be surfed out entirely; it might just take a minute when you're getting the hang of it. I love this metaphor: getting good at navigating the crashing waves.
  • The data resulting from "surfing the wave" experiments is staggering. Life-long smokers who were only challenged to "surf the wave" and not challenged to stop or reduce their smoking, saw a significantly lowered amount of smoking over the next couple of months. It seems like just becoming aware of the control one has over when we choose to cave to an urge was empowerment enough to give folks the self-control they needed to achieve their goals.