The Universal Muscle : Willpower

I started thinking about this post after reading a guest article by Dan Ariely on Tim Ferriss' blog : Understanding the Dangers of “Ego-Depletion”. It tackles avoiding break downs under stress and  sustaining willpower. I'm very much a fan of Ariely's work but in many ways I completely disagree with his view here. Personal experience and research make this article feel like it lacks subtlety and depth. Willpower // Ego

The article can be easily summed up into the six rules Ariely lists to avoid breaking down under stress :

  1. Acknowledge the tension, don’t ignore it
  2. Call it what it is: ego-depletion (where we don’t have any more energy to make good decisions)
  3. Understand ego-depletion (a simple cognitive load can alter decisions)
  4. Include and consider the moral implications (when we become depleted, we’re not only more apt to make bad and /or dishonest choices, we’re also more likely to allow ourselves to be tempted to make them in the first place)
  5. Evade ego-depletion (Regardless of the indulgence, whether it’s a new pair of shoes, some “me time” where you turn off your phone, an ice cream sundae, or a night out—plan it ahead)
  6. Know thyself (Simply knowing you can become depleted, and moreover, knowing the kinds of decisions you might make as a result, makes you far better equipped to handle difficult situations when and as they arise)

Though far from being exhaustive, all these rules are fine by my standards, except one : Rule #5 which really is the most important rule since it's the practical solution to the whole problem. And in a word, Ariely tells his readers : Indulge. But with a twist of course : Plan it ahead. If the problem is ego-depletion, you could consider this an ego-replenishment. And in my opinion, this is the worst advice you can give, be it to a dieter, to an obsessive shopper or to a procrastinator facing willpower problems.

Diet-wise, Ariely gives the example of the Slow-Carb Diet, Tim Ferriss' 4 hour body diet, where followers diet for 6 days and indulge in anything they want on the 7 th day, in any quantity they want. I spent six months Slow-Carbing and to bring it down to the culprit in a sentence : If you have even a trace of an eating disorder, this is the best diet to accentuate it and turn it into a catastrophe. Besides this aspect (and the eat beans recommendation), the diet is OK. Plus, it's a great way to end up eating Paleo (personal experience) which is ... well, the subject of a whole post.

Now, the reason the word ego is used is because ego is indeed involved here.  In the comments, Dylan Watkins writes :

This is similar to a lecture a neuro-scientist was giving at my local Hacker Space. They did a study where you were split into two large groups and activitly participated in the discussion. Then they broke up into groups of two individuals. They were all taken aside individually and told one of two things.

  1. You did great, everyone wants to be with you but we just had to pair you with someone at random.
  2. You did not so great, everyone want to be with someone else but we just had to pair you with someone at random

They then places a plate of Chocolate Chips Cookies next to the pairs. The people who were told the 2) “no one likes you” statement ate a MUCH greater proportion of the cookies then the people who were told the 1) “everyone likes you”

Here's ego-depletion in full action for you. When you're sad and depressed, you're likely to break down. Just as when you're out of willpower, as Ariely writes, you're also likely to break down. So ego and willpower, though not one and the same, do have something in common : a neural pathway. A common path the brain follows in both situations leading a given individual  from trigger A to action B. And Ariely does a great job sequencing it in a not-so fictional internal dialogue :

“I’m starving! I should go home and make a salad and finish off that leftover grilled chicken” “But it’s been such a long day. I don’t feel like cooking” [Walks by popular spot for Chinese takeout] “Plus, beef lo mein sounds amazing right now” “Yes, yes it does, but you really need to finish those vegetables before they go bad, plus, they’ll be good with some Dijon vinaigrette!” “Not as good as those delicious noodles with all that tender beef.” “Hello, remember the no carbs resolution? And the eat vegetables every day one, too? You’ve been doing so well!” “Exactly, I’ve been so good! I can have this one treat…”

Ariely goes on to explain that this is when the battle is lost. And the reason why is because we use self-control. And self-control, or willpower, is limited. And this, right here, is the key to the whole problem and the root of a real solution : "we use our self-control every time we force ourselves to make the good, reasonable decision". And the solution then ? We shouldn't use self-control. Willpower is too unreliable a resource to be counted on. So what do I use ? A leash ? Good thinking :) but no. Let's call it Decision Automation.

Willpower = Muscle // Decisions = Reps

First of all, reps means repetitions. For the non-gym goers, that's the number of times you repeat a certain movement to train a certain muscle. For example, Mr. X squats 10 times with a bar loaded with 1.5 times his weight.

Slate magazine summed up Ariely's findings some time ago by writing : "The more decisions we take, the less these decisions are good". That's why it's practical to consider willpower a muscle which contractions result in decisions : the more contractions are made, the more fatigue, the less focus, the more difficult the contractions. But the analogy goes further :

  • Overloading : In the long term ( months), as HST (Hypertrophy Specific Training) makes clear, overloading is a must if you want to gain muscle. Subjecting muscles to a greater load leads to growth for a very simple reason : Evolution wise, our muscles are tools of survival. They're here to make sure we overcome obstacles so we can, one day, reproduce. Increasing weights by 10 pounds on a squat each week for example, is the equivalent of having to lift heavier animal carcasses to feed the growing tribe. Our muscles grow bigger to allow us to do just that. And same goes for willpower probably. If you've never been confronted with stressful decision making, you won't be able to handle more stressful decision making. So you start off small, at school, with project management for your next presentation. Then college confronts you with more empowering tasks. And work puts you face to face with even bigger challenges and more consequential decisions. Your willpower adapts.
  • Failure : In the short term (days), on a day to day basis, going to failure in the gym is important. Pushing your muscles to their ultimate might is actually the one thing that'll guaranty the triggering of their adaptive potential. Without failure, the muscles won't be primed to do so. They have no reason to. And the same goes for willpower. You need to use it all, push it to its boundaries to allow it to grow stronger. No moderation.

  • Cycling : But whatever the term, cycling is crucial. And here's where the medium term comes in. In the long term, do seek out bigger and heavier decision making loads and in the short term, do push yourself to the limits. But always make sure you deload. De-loading is a corner stone for any self-respecting bodybuilder. These are phases where you decrease your weights and give your muscles a break so that they can grow stronger later. And here's where increased productivity after a week-end and holidays start making sense. Your willpower, after being pushed to the limit is back and stronger than ever. Compare your willpower on a Friday night to the one you have on a Sunday night. Think. When are you more likely to binge, procrastinate, spend like a mad person ? Probably Friday afternoon. Less so on a Sunday after a relaxing week-end. In the short term, tricks such as the Pomodoro technique (work for 25 minutes, rest for 5 minutes) can also "sharpen your saw". And it's a perfect example of short term de-loading for your willpower.

  • Muscle groups : Also in the bodybuilding world, it is common currency that one shouldn't train the same muscle group two days in a row so as to allow it to rest. This is also a form of cycling of course. If only it was possible to use willpower every other day, I think we'd be living in a much more peaceful society. If you can get creative with breaks at work, do so. Work half a day, three days per week and take one day off. Make sure you're relaxing more frequently. If not, make you sure you don't go through two stressful days in a row.
  • Ideal number of reps : The debate is still on in the bodybuilding world as to which rep range is best for hypertrophy but consensus seems to be forming around the 8-12 rep range. Whatever the outcome however, this makes us think that for willpower too, there's probably a duration beyond which we lose optimal sharpness and focus. Is it 25 minutes as the Pomodoro technique advocates ? Is it 45 minutes as some other productivity gurus advise ? I believe personal experience is your best way to find out. Or better yet : "when you feel like it". If you're incredibly productive and have been so for the last hour and a half and feel you've got more left in the tank, should you stop and take a pause because Pomodoro or whoever else says so ? No. The moment you feel empty, or a bit short from that : Stop, take a break, wait till you feel energized. Then go back to the task at hand.
  • Feed the muscle : Post-workout meals are very important. They bring nutrients to muscles when these need them most. I think the bodybuilding community, at least, agrees on that, even if pre-workout meals still haven't reached consensus. One of the many goals of post-workout nutrition is glycogen replenishment. This last aspect is over-rated but for the purpose of our analogy, this means willpower needs to be fed after an effort too. Its glycogen store is relaxation. Resting, pausing is a way to feed willpower. But eating (food) is also important. And food choices matter. Brain foods are obviously best.

So when you look at it now, what is the problem and where does our use of willpower differ greatly from how we train our muscles ? I believe we're constantly over-training our willpower. We are over-taking decisions. Too much is too much. It feels like a 365/52/24/7. And it shouldn't be. Throughout evolution, we used to spare muscle effort for when we needed it most. It didn't yield any Mr Olympia or IFBB pros (bodybuilding champions) but we were still able to survive. What's been verified is that, whatever the muscle, it's a "use it or lose it" rule. But there's also a "use it when you need it most" silent rule. That's why, for all un-consequential decisions, we should be using : Decision automation. More on that in a second.

Willpower >< Muscle // You = System

I know I've been making the analogy for the last six paragraphs but I need to say : Willpower is not a muscle actually. Willpower is a concept. Likening it to a muscle is a convenient model. It is an imperfect one however. Willpower stems from your brain, surely, but just as everything in you it is related to the system you are. Everything you do affects everything you are. And the state of your body and mental health definitely and obviously affect your willpower. And that's why Dan Ariely is wrong, or at the very least, it's un-adapated :

Giving yourself a break, indulging in shopping, eating, procrastination to replenish willpower, after an ego-depletion, is absurd. Why ? Because willpower is not effort specific. It means that you don't use willpower only to stick to a diet or a decision you've made. You use it for Everything.  So cheating on your diet plan one day per week is useless in that respect. Willpower is a universal muscle that serves multiple functions in your life. Binge-eating one day per week is not solving the root of the problem, which is that this muscle is tired from too much decision making. Binge eating is simply soothing the ache.

Planned indulgences simply camouflage the symptoms. They don't solve the root of the problem.

When my willpower is depleted, all of my decisions suffer, including my work, my creativity, my diet, my workouts ... But if you're cool and relaxed in general, you won't feel any ego depletion. You'll feel focused all the time, whatever the task or the decision at hand. So what am I saying here ? Relax. That is the solution to the problem's roots. Don't "take a day off" from your diet. Sleep more, relax more (meditate, breathe in and out ...) and you won't feel deprived or craving for any kind of food. So instead of planning a cheat day and obsessing about it all week, find a way and a time to relax and stick to it.

The idea behind the "diet break" and the indulgence Ariely talks about is to fix a day a week to relieve your stress about diet restrictions and hence to automate that decision. Automating helps you relieve your brain from the weight of that decision. This is the same stance than the one underlying the idea we have a limited number of "creativity bullets" in any given day and that we should use these wisely. You don't want to be wasting creativity on planning your day or planning your dinner but rather on thinking up your next big venture. Hence, Decision automation. But the use case sucks M. Ariely. Planned indulgence as if a healthy diet was a miserable shore we need to break out of in a planned way is a miserable way to live. So instead of planning your cheat day and suffering through remorse afterwards, plan your relaxation days and strengthen the fuel source of your willpower. Turn the constant battle against your cravings into a constant win reaching of a better, more focused self. Nir Eyal (pictured above) has a video about the different behavior types, how standard methods such as "plan your indulgence ahead" are usually applied in the wrong context and how one size doesn't fit all :

[vimeo w=400&h=300]

Neural Pathways // Break & Build

Nir Eyal also writes about Internal Triggers and how they form. These are neural pathways and their formation has been well studied. It's a sequence of events that happens quasi-automatically in our brains leading from a certain trigger A to a certain action B. Neural pathways are the way we learn, these automatisms make our brains more able to recreate processes. It's hard to break a neural pathway just as it's hard to de-learn a language. One way to build a new one is by going off the beaten path. "When we repeat something and use that portion of the brain in a focused way, new neural pathways develop in our brains". This is neuro-plasticity at its best.

Now, breaking a neural pathway entails a deep understanding of what triggers it and the exact sequence it follows, just as Ariely advises you to. As noted above, Ego and Willpower share a common neural pathway or at least part of one. This makes me think a combination of loneliness / sadness (ego depletion) and willpower depletion (too much stress / decision making) is the perfect recipe to get off track. So track the pattern. Think. When do you binge eat ? When do you go on a shopping spree ? When is it that you spend two hours in a row on Facebook ? When do you spend 2 hours in a row checking e-mail ? When do you waste an hour trying to re-organize your inbox ? We all have a tiny bit of obsessive-compulsiveness in us that kills our productivity. Track it, Find it, Nail it. Identify trigger A and the road leading to action B. Then break the sequence. Make sure to have damns to stop it from developing.

Willpower on auto-pilot // Decision automation

Now, Decision Automation on the other hand means building a new neural pathway. Or put simply : creating a new habit. And here practical examples work best. The real value of a post, surprisingly enough, sometimes, comes from commenters. Some time they've been through much more iterations, trial and error, than the authors. Trevor Lohrbeer and Derek's comments hence combine to form this list. To increase decision-making hit points :

  • Make Fewer Decisions : The fewer decisions you make, the slower you’ll hit decision fatigue. Avoid making unnecessary decisions, especially right before a major decision. In other words, automate as much decisions as you can. 3 ways to accomplish that :
    • Use Decision Rules : Avoid detailed analysis for every decision. Use rules of thumb or rules you’ve defined in advance to make your decision. No more thinking. Have rules such as : "I'll check e-mail and look at my phone at 11am, I'm working before". Period !
    • Limit Your Choices : The more elements you need to evaluate during a decision, the more taxing it becomes. Keep your options simple and reduce them whenever possible. Examples include what you're going to eat. Don't plan that (expect for the week-end maybe) ! Think of how much time you're wasting thinking about that compared to when it's already planned in advance. Have two, three foods ready at home or a favorite meal at the restaurant. Done !
    • Create Habits : Habits allow you to automate a decision so you avoid spending energy on it. Make your decision once, then create a habit to avoid making it repeatedly. Focus on making the desired behavior a habit so it becomes “automatic” and doesn’t generate as much decision making stress. Old habit : On your way home after a party, you stop near the greasiest food making machine in the universe and eat up on the merchandise. New habit : Now that you see the pattern (you drink, you drive, you stop by the machine), you decide to stop drinking up at the party. Further up the sequence : But what caused the drinking ? Peer pressure. Great. Impose your rules then. Drink slower, drink less. Hard ? Think of all you'll be avoiding simply by implementing that simple change. Just that.

  • Make Important Decisions First :
    • Order your decisions from most important to least important : Spend your limited reserves on the decisions that matter most. That way if you do hit decision fatigue, it’ll have less impact.
    • Have a hit list : This is the idea behind the Big 5 To-Do list. 5 things you feel able to do in a day and moreover that'll leave you satisfied once accomplished.
  • Fuel your decisions properly :
    • Reduce overall stress : Make an effort to reduce overall stress in your life. Meditation, emotional awareness/management, etc. BECAUSE Will power is not effort specific
    • Eat : Decision reserves get replenished with foods. And especially brain foods. Also, recent research has pointed to increasing your serotonin levels as a way to make more rational decisions. It may also be helpful in alleviating ego depletion / decision fatigue. Check out the The cheesy secret behind successful decision making

This is a big ongoing experiment which neuro-science are bound to enlighten in the years to come. It'll get very exciting before becoming mainstream. What do you think ?