How to be a “willpower machine” (part 1)

Thanks to the INTERN (aka Hilary T. Smith) I recently saw this great talk on willpower, given by Kelly McGonigal, PhD. The video is long, but I think it’s well worth your time.

(Tip: Listen to it while folding laundry, doing dishes, etc.)

Now, I don’t want to re-hash the entire thing — you should just watch it! — but there were several points that really resonated with me.

1. Sleep

I can’t tell you how often I’ve wished for a few more hours in the day, or how badly I’ve longed for a time turner like Hermione had. Usually this feeling sets in right around dinner, when I realize the day is ending and I still haven’t accomplished half the things I wanted/intended to. Sometimes I just scramble to finish as much as I can before bed, but other times I force myself to stay up late, to make up for the time I misused earlier.

In losing sleep, I tell myself that I’m “creating” more time, that lots of people only need 4-6 hours a night, that waking up the next morning might be painful, but it will be worth it. I also tell myself that this is my own fault, that I deserve the pain of exhaustion.

All those things may be true, but so is this: When I get less than 7 hours of sleep, I become clumsy. I cry at silly things, like songs or commercials. And I have a much harder time focusing or buckling down to work.

That of course means I’m less likely to be productive the next day, which means I’ll have to stay up late to make up for it again. Which means I’m even less likely to be productive the next day, which means I’ll have to stay up late a third night… And so on and so forth, until I’m an incoherent sleep-deprived mess who crashes on the sofa in the middle of the afternoon, dead to the world, drooling like a loon.

Unsurprisingly, McGonigal asserts that sleep is one of the key physiological factors* in building up and harnessing our willpower. So from now on I’m going to try to remember that a good night’s rest will help more in the long run than an extra hour or two of working.

*Physical exercise, diet, and meditation are the other main factors.

Speaking of downward spirals and the importance of avoiding them…

2. Forgive yourself

“The harder you are on yourself when you have a willpower failure, the more likely you are to have the same failure again, and the bigger it’s going to be when you do.”

(Note: This holds applies to things much more serious than writing productivity — such as alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling, etc.)

So, this is something that I sort of intuited over the years, but I’m glad to see that it holds up to science — i.e., it’s not just something I made up to let myself off the hook.

Basically, don’t beat yourself up, because that only makes things worse. It sets up a negative mental and emotional space around your goal, which makes you less likely to even want to approach, much less break through and achieve.

Now, I don’t think you want to be oblivious or unconcerned about your bad behaviors; you just don’t want to harp on them either.

Stay tuned for part 2, which covers future self, failures, and holding your breath.

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9 Comments

  1. The part about sleep is very important, and it only becomes more true as you get older. :-)

    I find at this point that I often get more done it I get to bed really early and get up early in the morning, rather than trying to stay up until a project is done.

  2. This post caught me at just the right time! I’ve been having serious procrastination issues lately. I would watch the video now, but I have homework to do. I guess it’ll have to be a reward for getting my work done :)

  3. I need to work on both of those… its really hard to concentrate if you haven’t got the energy to. And, I think we’re harder on ourselves than others are sometimes.

  4. Oh, man, I wish I could go on a long plane ride to catch up on all the videos I want to see and books I want to read! This one looks fantastic, and I’ll definitely watch it along with the second half of last night’s presidential debate (I fell asleep – I’m one of those people who needs to watch the sleep portion of this video!), the season premier of The Walking Dead and last Sunday’s Dexter. Thanks for sharing this.

  5. “Now, I don’t think you want to be oblivious or unconcerned about your bad behaviors; you just don’t want to harp on them either.”

    I’ve heard this before. I’m always like, WTF DOES THAT MEAN? What is “enough” concern about bad behaviors/patterns? What is too much?

    I am not smart enough to figure this out.

  6. “When I get less than 7 hours of sleep, I become clumsy. I cry at silly things, like songs or commercials.”

    I LOLed at that, I’m hoping that was the intent :D

  7. Anthony-
    Oh, I get plenty done at night (when the rest of the world is asleep so there are no distractions available to me, even when I’m seeking them). However, as I said, it starts a downward spiral that isn’t always worth it. I think everyone’s different, though, and what’s most important is that we learn what works for us!

    T.S.-
    Yup, definitely harder on selves than others. Whyyyyy?

    Meghan-
    Sorry, I had to laugh at the thought of needing a plane ride to justify catching up on everything, even though I totally get it. I think that’s part of why I enjoy travel — even the actual transit part — so much. Everything is sort of suspended.

    Sonje-
    Oh baloney. You’re way more than smart enough. But “enough concern” isn’t quantifiable, and even if it were, everyone’s different anyway.

    Aisha-
    Definitely the intent. ;) But also, very very true.

  8. I assure you I am not smart enough to figure that out.

    I know this for sure because I never have.

  9. Julia

    Sonje, I think it means you recognize the bad behavior and use it as incentive to change, rather than as an obstacle to change.

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