The first principle in my willpower series states: Your self-discipline increases when you
First of all, no! You (probably) don’t have ADHD. Do not take this as medical advice (I’m not a psychiatrist), but for some people attention deficit disorder seems to be just a convenient excuse to not take responsibility for their lack of discipline. The truth is, everybody gets distracted. You can do something about it, but not if you hide behind a mental disorder you (most likely) don’t have. Ok, now with this out of the way, let’s get started.
In an experiment by Shiv & Nowlis (2004), people had to remember a number with eiter 2 digits (low distraction) or 8 digits (high distraction). Higher distraction led people to be more influenced by their emotions when choosing a food item (milk chocolate vs. a more healthy alternative). So if you want to make rational food choices because you’ve committed to getting shredded, minimize your distractions when you buy groceries. (If you don’t buy shitty foods, you can’t eat them—it’s the easiest way to stick to your diet.)
When you’re distracted, you’re more likely to give in to temptation or get lost in procrastination land. You lose focus, you lose control, you get affected stronger by emotions, and your behavior becomes a function of impulses and habits.
That’s why good habits are so crucial. They work in your favor when your conscious mind loses supremacy. However, in order to develop good habits, concentrated mental power is absolutely required. So as long as you’re in the process of habit development, you must minimize distraction.
In case you want a more scientific explanation, consider the role of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This part of the human neocortex mediates both willpower and working memory. If your working memory is busily processing distractions (= high cognitive load), you will have less resources to exert willpower. Remove the distractions and your willpower will increase. Simple logic. Now back to the more practical stuff:
How can you minimize distraction?
Types of distraction are as varied as willpower challenges. Turn off the TV or music in the background, leave the house, stop multitasking, wear earplugs, unplug your router, or stop looking at your fucking smartphone. As soon as you identify what’s distracting you, it won’t be hard to find a way to get rid of it. (By the way, if you feel like you want or need distraction, consider what you’re doing with your life that you have to distract yourself from it…) One source of distraction, however, is as common as it is pervasive and tough to deal with:—your own mind. How often do you find yourself obsessively thinking about something unproductive? When thoughts are going around in circles,
Set an alarm for 10 or 20 minutes. Sit down comfortably. Adopt a straight posture. Close your eyes. Observe your body as you breathe in and out. Don’t control your breath. You just observe. When thoughts hijack your mind, you smile at them, and you guide your mind back to your breath—moving in and out through your body. When the alarm goes off, you’re done. Ready? Go!
If you fail to meditate regularly, read this article.
Sure, meditation requires self-discipline, but it also strengthens it; just like weight training both requires and strengthens muscles. In the long term, meditation is the royal road to self-discipline. Along this road, unwanted distractions become more controllable, more minimizable.
Less distraction = more sex
Personally, minimizing distraction has helped me powerfully in dealing with my approach anxiety when hitting on sexy female strangers during the day. Focus! Don’t get distracted by the other strangers around. Don’t get distracted by bullshit excuses or possible outcomes. (You’re too busy to talk to a girl for 1 minute to grab her number? Don’t lie to yourself.) Don’t get distracted by how your body language might look like to her. “Will I act badass enough?” Fuck that. If all you think of while walking up to her is “Hey!”—then you will succeed. No “But what will I say after that?” No “She’s so pretty, I wonder how our children will look like.” No “Her ass is so tight, I wonder how hard I’ll get when I squeeze it.” No distraction.
In this example, unimpaired focus on the task at hand strengthens the positive aspect of willpower (“I will.“)—but what about when you need to say “I won’t!“? What when your focus is directed at something that you seek to avoid?
Can you distract yourself from temptation?
When your day is filled with exciting, meaningful activities, do you even think about the bad habits you seek to avoid? It seems like the best way to overpower your temptress is to distract yourself from her. Thus, for the negative force of willpower, your power to resist, the principle seems to reverse into—maximize distraction!?
Not really. When you’re focused on living life through fulfilling activities in line with your true will and purpose, bad habits aren’t even part of the equation—the concept of distraction doesn’t apply. On the other hand, when you’re actually facing your temptress, you can’t simply do something meaningful instead—not unless you apply willpower first to push your momentum in another direction. Therefore, maximizing distraction won’t be a helpful advice to increase self-control.
Still, even preschool children are capable of applying self-distraction techniques to successfully delay gratification, at least for 15 minutes in a study by Mischel & Ebbesen (1970). See a food you like to eat but shouldn’t? Cover your eyes!—Sounds easy, but can you rely on it?
As long as your bodymind stays focused on your temptress, it’s just a matter of time until your psychologically and physiologically charged potential flashes into action. Failed again.
What you really want is to redirect your bodymind charge. How, you ask?
Regulating your breathing rate will help. If that’s not enough, seek to prolong the time until you give in. If you know right from the start (and often you will) that you’re about to give in to a craving, accept the fact that you will, and start to mindfully observe what’s going on in your body. Don’t fight it. Just use this mindful observation to delay the moment of your surrender. What sensations are there in your body? How tense are your muscles? Where do you feel pain or discomfort?
If you practice this acceptance and mindfulness, your giving in will feel less like a capitulation. You will regain some of your control, a bit more every time, and retain your positive mindset. Then someday, when your temptress rises again, you will be powerful enough to experience your bodymind, fully accept the temptress inside you, and let her go. Then watch her fall and decay.
Breathing and bodymind observation is definitely superior to mindless distraction. I’ve heard people recommend distraction through watching TV, listening to music, solving a puzzle, reading a book, or going outside for a walk. While this might work on some occasions, such ways to suppress desire will not work consistently in the long run and are not reliably available at all times. In contrast, your breath and your bodymind are always present, always at your fingertips.
Breathing, bodymind awareness, acceptance, mindfulness,…—isn’t that just meditation again? Yes, this process of regaining control certainly is a form of meditation. There’s really no way around meditation if you care about your self-discipline. And yes, meditation will strengthen your mental strength as well as improve your attentional control. (Malinowski discusses the neural mechanisms of the latter relationship in his review article from 2013.)
Are you fatigued, or just anxious and weak?
While self-control fatigue does exist, it sets in later than you think. Always. Every athlete knows this: When you think you’re fully exhausted, you’ve still got more than 3/4 left in your tank. Don’t misuse the studies you may have read on ego depletion (the theory that willpower is a limited resource that can be exhausted) as a limiting belief or an excuse not to push through discomfort. If you give in to your desires as soon as you feel you’re not in your most optimal state anymore, you’re giving up too early. This will weaken your self-control muscle.
Easier said than done, especially when cool motivational sayings get confronted with the real world.
A frequent concern for me is MMA training, particularly on sparring days. I wake up at 5 am, have some coffee, lift some weights, eat a large meal, and then I’ll work for hours on end. Total focus! I must be efficient and produce peak quality. In my head, however, I know that today’s going to be a brutal training session. If I don’t want to get my ass kicked in sparring circuit, I must reserve some willpower. So I can’t exhaust myself fully by putting 100% of my energy into work right now, can I? This is anxiety about willpower depletion.
To deal with this anxiety, I choose to allow myself to take a 10-minute power nap right before I hit the gym. Will this restore all of my willpower? In my head it does. That’s all that matters. What’s crucial here, however, is not the power napping per se, but that awareness of this potential method to replenish my willpower will alleviate my anxiety about its depletion.
You see how this works? Anxiety is a stressor. Stressors cost willpower. Remove the stressor and you will have more willpower—even if, in the end, you don’t even take the power nap. But now let’s take a closer look at the ego depletion theory:
Is Your Willpower Limited?
Job et al. (2015) have shown that belief in ego depletion (“willpower is limited”) is a limiting belief that will lower your willpower. But ego depletion is a scientific fact, right? So how can you not believe it? Tricking yourself like I do with my (potential) power nap will only mitigate additional willpower drains, not reverse any fatigue.
Certainly there is such a thing as fatigue. However, recent studies suggest that ego depletion does not exist. For example, Lurquin et al. (2016) did not find any evidence for the claim that people have less self-control after a willpower-depleting task. What did they do different in their study?
- They used a large sample size (N = 200), which reduced statistical manipulation possibilities.
- Their experimenters were blinded to the (pre-registered) hypothesis, which ensured that they didn’t influence the results.
- Their experiment didn’t test self-control per se but working memory, which, however, has been correlated with self-control in several comparable study designs (also, consider again the role of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex mentioned above).
- They controlled whether participants actually followed the instructions or not, which is quite critical if you think about it. 🙂
A similar failure to replicate the ego depletion effect was reported by Xu et al. (2014). Furthermore, Carter et al. (2015), in a series of meta-analytic tests of ego depletion, found barely any evidence for the claim that self-control is limited by psychological or physical resources. The ego depletion effect may result from a publication bias: Positive results are more likely to get published, particularly studies with smaller sample sizes, as their effect sizes tend to be larger. Does this mean that the theory of ego depletion is bullshit? Well, to say it like a girl: It’s complicated. (See my further discussion here.)
Anyways, for practical and self-improvement purposes, it’s definitely the better choice to drop the idea of ego depletion and rather opine:
You have unlimited willpower.
Now reflect on yourself:
- Have you ever felt that distraction hinders you from winning at your most important willpower challenges? If so, how did you deal with it?
- Do you sometimes worry about depleting your willpower resources and try to save them up for later?
Tell me in the comments below!
Carter, Evan C., Kofler, Lilly M., Forster, Daniel E., McCullough, Michael E. (2015). A series of meta-analytic tests of the depletion effect: Self-control does not seem to rely on a limited resource. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 144(4), pp. 796-815.
Gogtay N., Giedd J. N., Lusk L., Hayashi K. M., Greenstein D., Vaituzis A. C., Nugent T. F. 3rd, Herman D. H., Clasen L. S., Toga A. W., Rapoport J. L., Thompson P. M. (2004). Dynamic mapping of human cortical development during childhood through early adulthood. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 101(21), pp. 8174-8179.
Job, V., Walton, G. M., Bernecker, K., Dweck, C. S. (2015). Implicit theories about will-power predict self-regulation and grades in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 108(4), pp. 637-647.
Lurquin, J. H., Michaelson, L. E., Barker, J. E., Gustavson, D. E., von Bastian, C. C., Carruth, N. P., Miyake, A. (2016). No Evidence of the Ego–Depletion Effect across Task Characteristics and Individual Differences: A Pre-Registered Study. PLoS One 11(2):e0147770. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0147770. eCollection 2016.
Malinowski, Peter (2013). Neural mechanisms of attentional control in mindfulness meditation. Frontiers in Neuroscience 7(8), doi: 10.3389/fnins.2013.00008.
Mischel, Walter, Ebbesen, Ebbe B. (1970). Attention in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 16(2), pp. 329-337.
Shiv, Baba & Nowlis, Stephen M. (2004). The Effect of Distractions While Tasting a Food Sample: The Interplay of Informational and Affective Components in Subsequent Choice. Journal of Consumer Research 31(3), pp. 599-608.
Xu, X., Demos, K. E., Leahey, T. M., Hart, C. N., Trautvetter, J., Coward, P., Middleton, K. R., Wing, R. R. (2014). Failure to Replicate Depletion of Self-Control. PLoS One 9(10), e109950, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0109950.