Why Our Willpower Sucks

Photo by Charles Deluvio 🇵🇭🇨🇦 on Unsplash

When it comes to non-habitual behaviours, most of us are terrible at sticking to our guns. Science has revealed routines that are proven to make us happier (exercise, meditation, a healthy diet, etc.), and yet we repeatedly fail to put these into practice, despite fully comprehending the long-term benefits. Why do we screw up so much?

There’s a few reasons, and most of them aren’t our fault.

As with every other living thing on Earth, we’re the products of evolution. Over the course of 4 billion years, our two main concerns were surviving, and procreating. These have been of vital importance for billions of years, and our brains have evolved to respond fiercely to them. Nowadays, when we see a pretty girl with a muffin, it’s a wonder we don’t trample her to death.

The pre-frontal cortex is the part of our brain that regulates behaviour, developing during the later stages of our evolution. Our brains are less a single, coherent unit, and more a collection of tacked on improvements, which explains why we often feel so conflicted. The ancient, primal parts of our brains want to eat and fuck everything in sight, and the modern parts attempt to remind us that those things aren’t always our best options. We have two minds, pitted against each other in battle, with psychological distress as the consequence. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt created a fitting metaphor for this, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis:

“The image I came up with for myself, as I marvelled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.” 

Jonathan Haidt

The elephant is very much in control. We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves after failing to resist a glistening cream-filled doughnut.

In addition to battling against a burly, be-trunked mammal, we’re also up against the brain’s tendency to form habits. Repeating an action and having it ingrained into your mind as a habit is a wonderfully useful technique, until it happens for an undesirable action, such as consuming a fistful of Lindt balls. Every time our willpower fails and we do something harmful to our long-term health, that destructive habit becomes a little stronger. This is probably the biggest cause of failure for us. Even when we do have a moment of strength and hold fast against our habituated primal desires, we’re using a precious reserve of willpower which depletes over the course of the day. The cookie that we defy in the morning takes on an especially delicious glow by afternoon.

The internet and social media are also to blame. We live in an age of instant gratification — social media apps are designed to hack our reward system, turning us into twitching addicts who crave our quick-fix daily memes. We want a million delightful things at once, and we don’t want to put any effort into them. As a result, resisting what’s harmful is becoming much more difficult.

It’s not all doom and gloom, we just need to learn how to build better habits. This is one of the most important skills you can develop; Leo Babauta offers immensely helpful advice on in his blog Zen Habits. He suggests starting extremely small, and working your way up. You won’t develop a running habit if you tell yourself you’re going to run 10km every day. Neither will you be able to completely stop eating sugary treats. This is setting yourself up to fail. You need to give yourself a lot of leeway to begin with, and make slow, incremental improvements. Remember that the elephant is in control most of the time.

Another suggestion is to only focus on a single habit at a time. Figure out what it is that bothers you the most — the one thing that you’d love to start doing — and put all of your effort into that sole habit. You won’t be able to change ten things at a time; you’ll flounder and then feel terrible afterwards because you’ve failed again. Once your new habit is embedded, move onto the next. This is a process that might take years—prepare yourself for a lot of hard work. Realise that you’ll still mess up from time to time, and all that is required is to pick up where you left off.

Lastly, celebrating your success is key. Instead of focusing on what you’ve failed at, look to what you’ve achieved. Illuminate your accomplishments; remind yourself that you’re triumphing over something that you’ve flopped at for years. This will give you the motivation you need to continue.

By slowly building good habits, we can all gain a little more mastery over our elephants.

Looking down on others

Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 1.24.31 pmStereosonic festival – Australia

Most of us are familiar with the feeling of being better than someone else; of tilting our heads and arrogantly looking down our noses at them. For me, this behaviour was exhibited when attending a now-cancelled music festival in Australia called Stereosonic, a dance music extravaganza for which 75% of the audience were either steroid-fuelled male beefcakes, or scantily-clad, tits-out barbie dolls, both with the same levels of self-esteem as a fired McDonalds worker. My judgments of such people are based on my beliefs that you won’t find much genuine, long-lasting fulfilment by inflating and flaunting your bodies, like peacocks with gym memberships and extra chromosomes. I’m extremely confident in this belief, and the result is condescension.

You may choose to look down on someone because of their dietary choices, perhaps going so far as to ruthlessly rebuke them. This is a trait for which some vegans have become notorious, and the reaction is often rebounded condescension, and not-so-playful piss-taking. Maybe your judgment reaches harsh levels when you observe a casually-smoking mother, whose plumes of vapour appear to be forming a circle around her innocent child.

Whatever it is that evokes condescension in you, it’s rarely a constructive thing. Though we may be confident in our judgment of the situation, we’re usually acting out of insecurity; our criticisms are often formed because we feel that we are lacking in some way, and so we judge in order to feel better about ourselves. Attacking from an elevated position is satisfying; it’s a temporary state of power and confidence. We’re right, and they’re wrong. We’re smart, and they’re dumb. We’re quite clearly better than them, and travelling on a superior path.

One of the biggest mistakes that we make when being condescending is our arrogant confidence in being 100% accurate. Our world is obscenely complex – every choice that we make and every circumstance that we find ourselves in is comprised of a huge number of intricacies. It’s usually arrogant to assume that we can recognise, analyse and conclude that somebody is making a bad choice, based on our limited understanding of the situation. Even experienced professionals are only working from the knowledge available in their field, and are just as fallible as everyone else. While I may believe that inflating your muscles in order to impress others isn’t a good tactic for achieving contentment, I don’t really know whether that’s true. I can certainly make assumptions based on my arm-chair psychology knowledge, but these are flimsy foundations on which to elevate yourself. Even the scopes of geniuses have limited clarity.

Some choices are, of course, clearly bad. Someone subject to a severe cocaine addiction shouldn’t continue to ingest cocaine, unless they want to end up killing themselves. Such clear-cut examples appear to be a rarity though – the situation is often too complex for us to make an accurate judgment on the positive value of a life choice.

One possible cause of our tendency towards condescension is the idea of cognitive dissonance. This is the uneasy feeling that appears when a belief is contradicted by another belief, and you suddenly feel unsure of yourself. Much of our confidence is hinged on the certainty of our beliefs, and when people act in ways that go against them, we react with condescension, because we’re desperate to cling onto our own confidence. We don’t like being wrong, and so we idealise our own choices and beliefs in order to protect our delicate ego. The fact that the world is extremely complicated doesn’t even factor into our thinking; we just climb onto that high horse of ours – a more comfortably superior position.

People invested in a given perspective shall—when confronted with disconfirming evidence—expend great effort to justify retaining the challenged perspective. — Wikipedia on cognitive dissonance

There’s a few reasons why you should change your condescending ways, the biggest of which is sociability. You’re not going to form good relationships with people if you look down your nose at them – it’s an awful way to be treated. A nasty habit is also being formed, which might end up with you being a resident of, or perhaps even the president of, Cuntsville. Habitants of this place constantly focus on the bad, and can become deeply depressed in the process.

If you’ve decided that you want your condescending habit to be over, then compassion is the thing that it should be replaced with. Compassion is the nemesis of condescension; it’s about displaying tender understanding, rather than arrogant judgment. As humans, we all suffer a great deal, and we’d do well to remember this fact when we’re casting judgment on another person’s choices. Everyone is just trying to do the best they can with the cards they’ve been dealt. Even if you’re supremely confident in their failure to make good choices, treating them with condescension helps neither one of you. The few bad choices that are apparent may be concealed by a treasure-trove of good ones, and unless you can display the exquisite compassion required to love your fellow humans, you’ll never find out about them. We must assume that everyone we meet is better than us in some way.

“In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s helpful to remember that we often have little control over the choices that we make. Vowing to lose 10 kilos usually doesn’t result in us losing 10 kilos. Our willpower has a tendency to be pitifully inept. Casting aspersions on people’s choices is especially callous when considering this fact, not to mention hypocritical.

Another reason to be compassionate about the apparent failings of others is the amount of terrible and easily-accessible information in the world. Some bad choices are made from a totally warped view of what will make you happy; of what is valuable. Some poor souls may live their entire lives acting out poisonous beliefs, with zero capacity or understanding on how to improve their situation. You simply can’t find good information if you don’t know how to.

There’s also our culture to consider, a powerful motivating force that can shape negative behaviours. Noxious celebrity magazines are plastered with images of stick-thin, perfectly-chiseled stars who become role models for impressionable everyday people. Is it really surprising that they will do whatever necessary to emulate the richest, most successful people on the planet? A culture doesn’t have the best interests of its people at heart, despite its potential to influence our choices. Looking down on a girl who injects her face with botox might seem justified, until you consider her a sufferer of society. And even then, what makes you so arrogant to decide that she’s making a bad choice?

We must learn to replace our condescension with a more caring, compassionate understanding. Don’t be so cocky to assume that your beliefs always reflect reality – that probably isn’t the case. Consistently challenging your beliefs and updating them will imbue you with guru-like wisdom, and the accompanying compassion that you exhibit will create long-lasting bonds with those around you.

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How to beat procrastination

Screen Shot 2018-11-28 at 6.31.44 pmPhoto from My Time News

Excessive procrastination is a sure-fire way to fuck up your life. Every time we put off the difficult and worthy thing in front of us, we’re walking the path of a trembling coward, destined not for excellence, but mediocrity. Life is full of growth-packed challenges, and if we consistently lack the courage to tackle them with immediate, unrelenting perseverance, then precious time is being thrown to the wind, and our habit of putting things off is a little more bolstered.

We procrastinate because we don’t want to feel stupid, to experience that distressing feeling of confusion, sitting there immobilised, waiting for your colleagues to start questioning your competency. We procrastinate because we fear failure, of ballsing something up so badly that our reputation is forever tarnished, waiting for the imminent invite to our boss’ office where we’ll be ruthlessly sacked. We procrastinate because we’ve been taught from a young age that unbroken happiness is a birthright, and in our foolish entitlement, can’t understand why we ever have to experience negative emotion. We procrastinate because it’s a deeply ingrained habit, which is fucking difficult to overcome.

Whatever your reasons might be, you have the ability to change. Insidious bad habits are formed over time, and just need to be replaced with a more positive habit. In the case of procrastination, it’s simply getting on with it. Those who appear brave aren’t fearless, they just continue despite their fear.

Here’s some ways in which you can defeat procrastination:

Learn how to catch yourself

One of the more difficult obstacles to overcome is catching yourself in the act of procrastination. Auto-pilot is great when we’re kicking goals, but not so great if we’re checking our Facebook feed for the 20th time that day, in an attempt to delay a painfully challenging task. You can fortify your conscious attention through mindfulness meditation, an exercise that is brimming with amazing benefits. The more mindful you become, the less time you’ll waste on valueless pursuits.

Murder distractions

Don’t literally kill your colleagues, however much you might want to. Instead, purchase a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, to blissfully drown them out. Close the 50 tabs that you have open in Chrome, to bring your focus to the single important thing that you have to do. Use Block Site to prevent your future-self from sabotaging your success, by disabling all of the distractions that you love to undertake. Temporarily murder anything that might send you a notification, including your emails, messaging apps, social media, and carrier pigeons. Those dirty, head-bobbing grey bastards will have to wait a couple of hours to coo in your ear.

Do a little dance, make a little love

It’s easy to get caught up in a perpetual cycle of hard-work, and not celebrate our achievements. Missing out this important step can make you feel like a forsaken slave, destined for a life of servitude. The next time you accomplish a formidable thing, leap from your desk like a spirit-possessed Evangelical Christian, and praise Jesus for your success. If you’re a little less unhinged, you might consider quietly smiling to yourself, acknowledging the fact that you’ve knuckled down and got the job done.

Don’t believe your own stories

Convinced you’re going to fail? That’s just a story that you’re telling yourself, and nothing more. Whether you choose to believe that story is entirely up to you, and it can be the difference between just getting the fuck on with it, or more procrastination. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) – a relatively new field of behavioural therapy – have a method called cognitive defusion in which you can alter your relationship with such destructive thoughts.

Take the hardest step

The first step is always the hardest. Sometimes the task in front of us can appear unsurmountable, but this is just fear whispering into your earholes. Taking the first step launches a momentum that might sustain you through to the end of the challenge. You’ll be too busy getting on with the exercise to worry about failing. Try not to hesitate, just jump right in and see what happens. You’ll quickly realise that it isn’t that scary.

If the task in front of you really is mammoth, consider breaking it down into more manageable chunks. This will make it much easier to start.

Take it easy on yourself

Understand that you’re going to fail, repeatedly. A deep-seated habit isn’t going to be replaced with ease. This process will be hard work, and without a little self-compassion, you’ll be punishing yourself unnecessarily. Respond to failures with kindness, and your motivation to doggedly return to the task will be enhanced. Unless you’re a PVC-clad masochist, stop whipping yourself.

Consider why you’re procrastinating

You might be procrastinating because you see no value in what you’re putting off. Maybe, like so many of us, you’re in a job that’s about as enjoyable as stepping on lego. Without a sense of personal meaning for the task, your motivation is bound to be stunted. Perhaps it’s finally time to discover your passion and move onto another job?

Slow down

Pull the reigns on those horses of yours, so that you may savour your time instead of manically rushing through it. It’s difficult to experience something at breakneck speed, not to mention stressful. Paradoxical as it may seem, we’re more happy and productive if we slow down.

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With the right tools and a lot of effort, you can finally tame the voracious beast that is procrastination, transforming your day from one of forlorn bitterness, to air-punching, rip-roaring achievement.

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How information overload is making you ill

1_6yk82b8JNEOT8cjjBV-L2QPhoto by rawpixel on Unsplash

If you’re a person living in the Western world today, there’s a good chance that you’re overstimulated. We’re on the receiving end of an unstoppable information Blitzkrieg, gun turrets mercilessly firing an endless amount of data into our frenzied brains. Gleaming high-definition screens are all around us, eternally beckoning us to bathe in their seductive luminosity, to steal our attention from the actual world. The writers of Wall-E were wonderfully prescient in their estimation of a chair-bound, near-boneless society who couldn’t fathom the idea of a world beyond their screens. Slowly but surely, we’re becoming that society. Some office spaces now offer a service whereby you can order a barista-made coffee directly to your desk, because heaven forbid you’d be forced away from your screen for five minutes, you might miss something! We want every email, meme, video and blog, and we want it right now. Yank us away from our screens and you may find yourself on the receiving end of a poorly-executed right hook; why would we want to talk to an actual person, with all of its potential for awkwardness, when we can communicate using a much safer method such as texting? Revealing micro-expressions aren’t part of the message-sending process, thank god.

Information is a broad term that includes anything that comes through our screens, and it’s something that we crave. During our lengthy evolution, information equipped us with a better chance for survival, so seeking it out is a core motivation for us. This is one of the many uses of the fabulous chemical dopamine, which when released in our brains, drives us to perform an action. A modern day example of this would be glimpsing your phone on a table while at a restaurant. The moment the phone re-enters your awareness, dopamine is released, which causes you to reach for it. Much of modern technology has been designed to satisfy our urges for information, and while many of our gadgets are incredibly useful, they can also be terribly toxic, transforming us into dopamine-addled automatons who live only for stimulating information, at the detriment of our sanity. We’re so accustomed to constant stimulation, our dopamine receptors so adapted to bombardment, that when we’re in a situation without it, we feel anxious and bored. Our eyes flit from object to object, it almost feels like our skin is crawling; we’re like hopeless drug-addicts who want nothing more than to be escape the situation by tightening the belt, spiking our veins, and pushing the HIV-coated needle in.

The metaphor is appropriate – information overload is playing havoc with our health. Overstimulation can lead to psychological orders such as anxiety, leaving you in a horrible, persistent state of inner turmoil. Social isolation, insomnia and depression are other disorders linked to perpetual screen-usage, each more grim than the last. Sensory overload can leave us feeling fidgety, restless, irritable, and with a frantic state of mind whose brakes appear to have been maliciously sabotaged. Any notion of switching our brains off and relaxing seems laughably futile. Could you imagine the horror of having forgotten your phone while being sat on a Mexican beach during a holiday? You’d be forced to take in your surroundings! At least we won’t miss any notifications on our smart watches while taking a soothing dip in the Pacific – they’re waterproof after all. And if that isn’t enough to satisfy our tragic craving, the hut-like beach bar has a 60-inch quantum-dot LED TV with an endless loop of humorous cat videos emblazoned across its surface.

Clearly, the assault on our senses is damaging us. Modern, millennial humans haven’t had the time to adapt to our current environment; we’re no longer required to hunt for food, undergo physical labour, or form lasting friendships in order to survive. These are things that we did for hundreds of thousands of years, and in the blink of an eye everything changed, apart from us. The price we’re paying is mental illness.

Thankfully, there’s solutions. Advocating a complete removal of technology is pointless; it’s everywhere you turn, and marvellously useful. Instead, we should consider self-imposed windows of use, such as only allowing yourself to check social media a couple of times a day. Apps such as Chrome’s Block Site can help with this. You don’t need to devour a hundred memes a day to survive, regardless of what your addicted brain is telling you.

Consider restricting your TV and YouTube usage to an hour a night, giving yourself an hour’s gap before bed so that your brain can start producing the melatonin that assists with sleep. The bright lights of your devices are fucking with your restoration. You might consider reading a book before bedtime instead, or an activity with similarly calming aspects.

Stop multi-tasking – you’re doing three things poorly, instead of one thing excellently, and you’re stressing yourself out at the same time. Good work requires focus, and it isn’t physically possible to focus on one thing at the same time. Multi-tasking is a myth created by the lizard people to control the masses, don’t succumb to their scaly ways.

Step out into the wonderful world once in a while. Whether gently ambling or speedily running, being amongst green surroundings reduces your blood pressure and refreshes your information-addled brain. Don’t batter your ears with music throughout the experience; listen to the world around you instead. It can be surprisingly compelling if you just pay attention. Leave your phone at home!

Allow yourself to be bored, it can be a fountain of creativity, and help you to discover what’s most important to you. Take the time you need to think about something in-depth, in every glorious dirty detail, instead of skimming the surface and then getting distracted. Only by switching off from time to time can we reap the therapeutic benefits of silence.

Most importantly, meditate. Vanquish the thought of your piss-taking friends for a moment, and just spend 15 minutes a day sitting still. The benefit list of this exercise is longer than a porn star’s man-sausage, and includes improved self-esteem and acceptance, a superior memory, improved focus and energy, and other benefits going on for another nine inches.

Take back the attention that has been stolen by the marauding and rapacious pirate that is modernity, and instead spend your time building good habits. Engage in activities that feed and replenish your soul; withdraw from the cloud, don’t immerse yourself in it. In time, you’ll start to feel better.

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