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:
- Motivation: an internal or external incentive (a scenario-specific desire) to meet that particular set of normative standards
- Monitoring: a way of noticing that your current impulses would deviate from those standards, and that self-control is required
- 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.
(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:
- intelligent thought
- making choices
- interpersonal behavior
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).
- For important tasks, leverage peer pressure and your social goals to overcome ego depletion
- Plan out ahead of time not to succumb to specific predictable temptations
- Avoid hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), for example by making a point to not skip meals