Tuesday, December 3, 2013

12 Saboteurs of Restraint

Forbes' list began with 19. I've reduced it to the 12 with some consolidation and a trimming of the repetitive. 

Ever tried? Ever failed? No Matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.

Cognitive Therapy | Fox Valley Institute, Nape...

–Samuel Beckett

Willpower is an essential ingredient in achieving, overcoming, and becoming — so why does it so often fail us?  Below I offer 19 science-based reasons why will and will alone isn’t enough, with suggestions peppered in along the way about what we can do about it.

1. Too much will, too little balance – Willpower is a game of balance, and balance is a game of sustainability. The fitness industry knows this acutely well. Every new year, fitness centers experience an explosion of new memberships around January 1st.Walk into any gym the first couple of weeks of the new year and you’ll see it happening — people are everywhere, as if the concept of “fitness” was just discovered. But as the days and weeks pass, those numbers lessen. A couple of months into the year and the crowds even out. Pretty soon getting on the lat pull-down machine doesn’t require standing in line. We’re all prone to thinking willpower is “all or nothing” (one of the many cognitive distortions we regularly indulge) and easily forget that without building balance into our plan, even the most ferocious explosion of will is not sustainable.  

2 A) Dreaded restraint bias – Insidiously, our brains are prone to overestimating our willpower at the very points at which we’re most liable to take a fall. Whenever you think you’ve “mastered” a temptation, compulsion or condition, check yourself. If you once again begin exposing yourself to the object of your weakness—be it junk food, smoking, gambling or other—research and anecdotal experience predicts a backslide.

  B) Self-control runs low – We begin our day with energy reserves and enhanced focus, but as the day wears on and that energy runs lower, so does our self-control. Research suggests that people least likely to cheat during the day are most likely to cheat at night. Just because your will feels indomitable at noon doesn’t mean it will be at midnight. Keep your eye on the fuel gauge and don’t overestimate your late-day resolve.

3. Cognitive load saps resources – Part of what saps our energy is how much fuel our brain consumes to get us through the day — around 25% of the body’s circulating blood glucose. The more mental stress we face, the more fuel is needed. That’s less energy devoted to self-control when you need it most. For most of us, our cognitive load is only going one way: up. ...

4. Damned independence – To say that no one is an island is a vast understatement. We may think of ourselves as independent, but we’ve evolved to be socially interdependent. The one man or one woman juggernaut of will is a compelling popular myth that makes for a good action movie, but it’s completely wrong anywhere else. If you think going it alone is a good idea, be ready to fail alone as well. ...

5. Looked so good on paper – Margaret Thatcher, the iconic iron lady, famously said, “Plan your work for today and every day, then work your plan.” And that’s good advice, but it should be balanced with an observation from Mike Tyson, the iconic iron jaw breaker, who said “Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.” Just because a plan or mission looks perfect doesn’t mean it will work, it simply means that you’ve determined that you think it’ll work. Our brains value stability and certainty over instability and uncertainty, so a plan in free fall failure is an uncomfortable thing to accept – hence the need for internal change management. You can’t will a plan to success, but you can exercise will to adjust your course as needed.

6. Sleep deprivation handicaps best efforts – You may have a strong will, a tremendous plan and great ideas, but if you’re not getting enough quality sleep,  it’ll all be for naught.  Research has shown that shorting yourself on sleep has the effect of burning out your cerebral circuits. In a very real sense, our brains overheat without enough sleep. The outcome is slower processing power, less mental energy and hair trigger irritability when things don’t go well – not a prescription for willpower success.

7. Underestimation of food’s (and other chemicals’) effects — If you’re engaging willpower to break free from certain foods, or anything else that’s ingested, you’re wise to recognize the power of your adversary and not forget it.  The reason is hard to swallow: your brain is complicit in your failures.  The reason why these things are so hard to drop is that your brain’s reward center wants them–it wants the dopamine release they trigger–and it’s not going stop wanting it without a degree of hardship most of us underestimate. Knowing the reasons why your brain won’t let go helps direct your efforts, and helps you understand why you will experience failure, probably more than once, before succeeding.

8) The belief deficit – We spoke earlier about the brain as an energy hog (#4), but in another sense it’s an energy miser. If you don’t really believe you can achieve something—anything—you are triggering an internal feedback loop that tells your brain to not allocate resources. Bottom line: if you don’t believe you can do it, you won’t do it. Granted, simply believing that you can do something is absolutely no guarantee that you can; belief is a requisite condition for achievement, not an exhaustive one. If you want your brain to put mojo in your resolve, you’d better believe that what you are doing is worthwhile.

9. We adapt to the consequences of quitting – Paul Bear Bryant, the storied football coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide, once said, “The first time you quit, it’s hard. The second time, it gets easier. The third time, you don’t even have to think about it.” If the Bear had studied cognitive psychology, he’d have known that his wisdom isn’t only colloquially satisfying, but scientifically valid. The reason is that we adapt to the sensation of quitting much as we do anything else, and the more we adapt, the less of the sensation we experience. Whatever external consequences of quitting we may face, the one that stings the most is feeling that internal sensation. For willpower to work, it’s important that quitting doesn’t lose its sting.

10. Lack of feedback promotes apathy – Another reason to keep a few trusted others looped into your plans is that you’ll receive feedback on how you’re doing – if you seek it out. If, on the other hand, you choose to exercise your will in a vacuum, you’ll lose on multiple fronts: lack of perspective, lack of accountability and an ever-increasing sense of apathy about why you’re even trying.  Research also shows that if you wisely seek feedback,the faster you get it, the better, because delayed feedback undermines performance. Get it fast and take it straight. ...

11. Seduction of the chase obscures the goal – We intuitively know that the hunt—the biochemically fueled drive of our reward-seeking brains—is frequently more satisfying than getting whatever we’ve been hunting. The problem is that it’s easy to lose sight of why we’re doing what we’re doing, and instead become lost in the ephemeral fog of the chase. When you no longer understand (or recall) why you’re on the path you started down, your willpower is derailed — direction is lost and not easily regained.  Staying focused is essential for willpower to get you to the there you were targeting. ...

12. Moral licensing is a get out of jail free card – All of us live on a see saw. If we do something morally questionable, we feel a sense of balance restored if we then do something morally laudable. Psychologists call this “moral licensing,”and it’s endemic to our species. More to the point, it’s a will-defeating dynamic, because we can so easily “adjust” our standards to avoid the necessity of having to exercise will. All of us would benefit from taking a hard look at our see saw, and whether we’re see sawing ourselves away from the ideal self we’re “willing” to become.