Why Willpower is Insufficient

If you’re trying to get work done, and but have a bad habit of checking Facebook every ten minutes, you might be tempted to think, “Oh well, I just won’t do that tomorrow.”

However, the “I just won’t do that” mindset is often ineffective because it relies solely on willpower.

Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, describes the nature of willpower:

You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.

Your will, in other words, is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires.

So willpower is not a viable long-term solution to improving our lives. So what is? The answer is: Forming habits that are conducive to our goals.

How do we do this?

Shawn Achor outlines two helpful techniques in his book, The Happiness Advantage: How a Positive Brain Fuels Success in Work and Life:

1. Put Beneficial Habits on the Path of Least Resistance

When trying to form a new habit, there is a certain amount of inertia that we have to overcome in order to get the ball rolling. Achor calls this “activation energy”  He says that in to make habits stick, we need to reduce the amount of activation energy it requires.

He provides an example from his own life. Achor wanted to practice guitar every night after work. However, after several weeks he had played only a few days.

Frustrated, Achor decided to try a new strategy, he put his guitar in the center of the living room instead of his closet. The difference was minimal, it saved him only about 20 seconds, but he found this reduction in required activation energy was enough to make him follow through with regularly playing his guitar.

Later in the chapter, he describes how he eliminated his habit of excessively watching TV.  Achor took the batteries out of his remote and put them in a drawer twenty seconds away. Sure enough, this small barrier to watching TV was enough to make him spend his leisure time in a more rewarding way.

I love these two stories because they demonstrate that improving our lives doesn’t necessarily require major changes, but rather if we can make good habits a little easier, and bad habits a little harder, our lives much better in the long run.

In my own life, I’ve installed a Chrome extension called BlockSite that blocks distracting websites. It takes under five seconds to disable it, but that is usually enough to keep me from getting distracted by YouTube.

Also, the block screen is hilarious:
block screen

2. Be Consistently Legalistic.

According to Achor, habits usually take around three weeks to form. During this period, sticking with the potential habit no matter what is essential to forming it:

At work, settings rules to reduce the volume of choice can be incredibly effective. For example, if we set rules to only check our e-mail once per hour, or to only have one coffee break per morning, we are less likley to succumb in the moment, which helps these rules to become habits we stick to by default.

After the habit is ingrained, then we can relax the legalism, but until then we should make it a rule never to deviate from the habit-setting course.


Negativity Bias and Possible Solutions

Negativity bias is the phenomena whereby our brains are naturally predisposed to focus on, remember and be affected by negative experiences, far more than positive experiences.

Negativity bias was probably essential in helping our ancestors survive the stone age. Remembering where predators lurked (a negative fact) was far more crucial to survival than remembering the location of berries (a positive fact). You could find other food, but being attacked by a sabretooth tiger was probably fatal.

In the present, however, Psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson calls negativity bias, “a kind of universal learning disability.” He describes some of the effects of negativity bias in his book Resilient:

  1. [The human brain] Scans for bad news out in the world and inside the body and mind.

  2. Focuses tightly on it, losing sight of the big picture

  3. Overreacts to it

  4. Fast-tracks the experience into emotional, somatic and social memory

  5. Becomes sensitized through repeated doses of the stress hormone cortisol, so it becomes even more reactive to negative experiences – which bathe the brain in even more cortisol, creating a vicious cycle

With a little introspection, most of us can probably recognize negativity bias in our daily lives. Have you ever experienced an unkind word that stuck with you all day? Contrast that with the pleasant things you probably experienced on that same day: a warm shower, tasty food, conversations with friends, or reading a good book. At the end of the day, do any of these experiences stand out as much as one unpleasant conversation? Probably not.

Negativity bias is an innate trait, so we can’t get rid of it, but we can mitigate its effects. Dr. Hanson emphasizes the principle of neuroplasticity, which is the idea that: “the brain is continually remodeling itself as you learn from your experiences.” No matter what bad habits or negative experiences you carry around with you, they don’t have to define your neurological makeup, because your brain is continually adapting.

This is good news because it means that as you practice, experience and emphasize certain types of behavior, your brain adapts and conforms. Thus, if you practice being positive, your brain will become more positive too.

This may sound good in the abstract, but what does this process look like in the specifics? Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage and one of the leading figures in the field of positive psychology suggests these seven actions that can help us infuse more positivity into our lives:

  1. Meditate

  2. Find something to look forward to

  3. Practice Purposeful Acts of Kindness

  4. Infuse Positivity into Surroundings – like pictures of loved ones or a favorite houseplant

  5. Exercise

  6. Spend money on activities, not things

  7. Exercise a signature strength – a skill you have cultivated over time

I have found all of these suggestions helpful. Daily journaling is another practice that has been especially beneficial, as it focuses my attention on positive experiences that I have throughout the day.