The Paradox of Self-Discipline

Posted: January 26, 2010 at 9:35 pm in cognition, journal

I was listening to the Fresh Air interview with Jonah Lehrer, author of
How We Decide, and he mentioned an experiment that seems relevant to me right now.

Lehrer describes the experiment in a Wall Street Journal article about New Year’s Resolutions:

In one experiment, led by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, several dozen undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.

Here’s where the results get weird. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Prof. Shiv, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain—they were a “cognitive load”—making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation.

In other words, the brain is not capable of making good decisions when overtaxed. For instance, if one were working long hours at Google, one’s ability to come home and exert the self-discipline necessary to write a blog post instead of flipping on the TV would be impaired. Just as a theoretical example.

The unfortunate implication of this, and the basis for this post’s title, is that it is those times when one is stressed that one most needs the ability to make good decisions. When I get overloaded at work, I get tunnel vision and start focusing mechanically on the tasks assigned to me, rather than taking the time to figure out what’s actually important and working on that. I also make other bad decisions like drinking more soda, skipping the gym, eating chips and cookies at work, and watching TV instead of sleeping. And, of course, those behaviors make me even less efficient, which means work takes even longer, which means the behavior perpetuates itself.

As an aside, breaking the cycle required a full two weeks of doing nothing over the holidays plus a couple weeks of a “normal” work week for me to rebuild my reserves to where I felt capable of blogging again. Now that I’m keeping more reasonable hours at work, I go to the gym, I’m eating better, and I’m even excited about blogging in the evening.

So how do we avoid this paradox? It seems to me that the bad behaviors like TV and junk food are always lurking in temptation for me, and the good behaviors like hitting the gym and writing blog posts require self-discipline. Part of it is building desired behaviors into habits that I do without questioning: successful examples of that for me include biking to work and flossing while unsuccessful ones include daily situps and pushups, hitting the gym regularly and blogging. Others have success by using a game of sorts where badges are earned for performing the desired behaviors, but I have trouble taking such games seriously.

Another weapon I have is simply self-awareness. If I consciously remind myself that I’m making bad decisions when I’m overloaded, it will hopefully make me question those decisions as I’m making them e.g. putting back the Oreos from the snack area at work and grabbing an apple instead. It’s helpful for me to treat my mind and body as systems that I can learn to optimize and compensate for, like having a tool that one has learned to use despite its quirky tendencies.

An extension of that last tactic is the one the WSJ article suggests, which is building up the muscles of self-discipline. Rather than doing lots of things at once, it would be better to focus my energy on building one habit, and only start on a new behavior when the first has become automatic. Right now, I’m splitting that self-discipline energy between work, going to the gym a few times a week, and blogging more regularly, so if I find myself slipping, I’ll have to prioritize more effectively. I need to recognize that my self-discipline is limited and deploy it in the most effective way until it gets stronger, rather than exhausting it to the point where I don’t do anything.

Anyway, given my struggles with work-life balance, I wanted to mention this experiment and how I perceive it as being relevant to my life. What tactics do you use to develop new habits?

P.S. I’ll be in Boston from Feb. 6-10 and New York from Feb. 11-14, with the timing chosen so that I could attend Grant McCracken’s Chief Culture Officer Boot Camp, but that’s just the cover reason for me to catch up with friends on the East Coast. Let me know if you want to meet up.

One Response to “The Paradox of Self-Discipline”

  1. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer || April || 2010 Says:

    […] as they are based in logic. Its weaknesses are that it is slow and has limited capacity (check out his anecdote on self-control when trying to remember too many things), and therefore works best on well-defined problems with only a few dimensions to […]

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