Saturday, November 7, 2009

How to Follow Through: The Emerging Science of Self-Control

Followup to: Your Work Habits and the Happiness Treadmill

On the one hand, sure, you really should fix that medium-priority production bug today instead of tomorrow. But that's a bit boring, and a few minutes' delay won't hurt; why not take a break and launch Google Reader to browse your feeds? It's about time for a new xkcd, or better yet there may be a new Rational Entrepreneur post (and the running 'my personal hero' joke never gets old!) And hey wait, someone on the Internet may have posted a new picture of a cat with a funny caption, you can't possibly skip one of those!

Stop, stop, stop. You are a brain, brains are physical objects that obey laws of cause and effect, brains can be hacked to reduce the prevalence of such failures of self-control. First we need to draw on the works of Baumeister et al (see below for references) to understand how self-control works, from a causal perspective.

Suppose you have a set of normative standards that you would, long-term, like to adopt. A useful way to frame your odds of successful self-control is by the level to which you possess three elements:

  1. Motivation: an internal or external incentive (a scenario-specific desire) to meet that particular set of normative standards
  2. Monitoring: a way of noticing that your current impulses would deviate from those standards, and that self-control is required
  3. Willpower: the quantitatively measurable ability to, given awareness of a self-control opportunity and an incentive to achieve that opportunity, actually succeed in exercising self-control.
Overall willpower levels vary from person to person; your level is probably related to the well-established conscientiousness personality trait. Whenever you exercise self-control, two effects happen. The first, and best-established, is that you suffer a short-term loss of willpower. This well-documented, but complicated, phenomenon is known as ego depletion. In one classic initial ego depletion experiment:
(P)eople who forced themselves to eat radishes instead of tempting chocolates subsequently quit faster on unsolvable puzzles than people who had not had to exert self-control over eating.  (Personality Processes and Individual Differences)
Ego depletion is a robustly reproducible process involving the consumption and subsequent shortage of glucose in certain parts of the brain. Ego depletion has confirmed in many domains:
  • eating
  • drinking
  • spending
  • sexuality
  • intelligent thought
  • making choices
  • interpersonal behavior
The other, less well-understood, effect of exercising self-control is somewhat opposite: regularly exercising self-control over a long period of time seems to somehow "strengthen your willpower muscles" and increase your medium-term (and, for all we know, maybe even long-term) ability to exercise self-control in the future.

Some additional complications:
  • Sitting through a boring film doesn't seem to require self-control; making the decision to get up to leave a boring film does.
  • Deliberating between important choices requires self-control and depletes the ego.
  • Positive emotions can mitigate ego depletion.
  • Having the illusion of control seems to paradoxically strengthen willpower and motivation (in contrast with having to actually think through difficult choices, which depletes the ego).
Now that you know the broad research, the specific decisions of how to hack your brain in your own circumstances to move closer to your "ideal self" are going to vary depending on your individual situation. Some obvious general advice:
  1. For important tasks, leverage peer pressure and your social goals to overcome ego depletion
  2. Plan out ahead of time not to succumb to specific predictable temptations
  3. Avoid hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), for example by making a point to not skip meals
A more complicated question is whether to seek out difficult dilemmas to strengthen your medium-term self-control skills, or whether to avoid them to prevent short-term ego depletion. The obvious partial answer to this will be the subject of tomorrow's post. In the meantime, the lolcats can wait until you've fixed that bug.



Vladimir Golovin

Regarding willpower replenishment: there's another Baumeister paper, titled "Restoring the self: Positive affect helps improve self-regulation following ego depletion". Here's the abstract:

"Previous work has shown that acts of self-regulation appear to deplete a psychological resource, resulting in poorer self-regulation subsequently. Four experiments using assorted manipulations and measures found that positive mood or emotion can counteract ego depletion. After an initial act of self-regulation, participants who watched a comedy video or received a surprise gift self-regulated on various tasks as well as non-depleted participants and significantly better than participants who experienced a sad mood induction, a neutral mood stimulus, or a brief rest period."

The PDF can be requested by email here:

Rolf Nelson

@Vladimir: agreed, but I'm not sure how to leverage that as an entrepreneur; it's not practical to schedule time to watch a funny movie every time I undergo an ego-depleting activity. :-)


I've always found that a good way to hack this a little bit is by not putting yourself in a situation where you need as much willpower. For example, if I start getting easily distracted, I go to a coffee shop to work for a while. Perhaps its peer pressure, but I find I'm more productive there. The small amount of willpower used to make that initial move ends up being much less then the amount of willpower I'd need to continually keep myself from being distracted.

If you don't want to eat so many chocolate bars, make the decision at the supermarket rather then having a bar sitting on your desk. That bar on your desk might be a smaller willpower decision but it gets repeated all day and wears you down. Game the system!

Basically, finding a low willpower decision now that anticipates and prevents running down my willpower tank later ends up being a good investment. It seems deceptively simple but it works.

btw. I got as far as the xkcd link and was like "oh! maybe there IS a new xkcd comic!"


So if I wrote a computer program to deliver the newest xkcd comic to my screen at random intervals (it's like being gifted a comedy video)it would increase my productivity?


@R.J. Hmm, randomly popping it up in the middle of your work would seem like a distraction. If you have a to-do list, having it occasionally pop up when you check off an item might be a possibility. It would also tie into the power of having a random reinforcement schedule, with the usual caveat that there's always a little danger in having extrinsic rewards.