Avoid these willpower mistakes

I was pleased when I found The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, by Kelly McGonigal. There has been a plethora of books about the science of willpower with this book brings us up to date with the state of the art.

This book was created from a popular course that Kelly taught at Stanford University. There is so much useful information here that I will only touch upon only a few points

Maintain your Willpower Energy

Kelly explains that self control is like a muscle, and as such can be built up, but also can be exhausted. Will power is based in the higher functions of the brain, so if our glucose levels are in decline, so does our ability to exercise will power. I think this is one of the reasons we should not go grocery shopping hungry. Maybe all we need is a healthy snack or drink. our body does know if we are drinking a real energy source or a diet drink that does not provide real energy.

We should also realize that this weakness is a mental limitation and not a physical one. Can we train ourselves to push through this weakness and exercise control. By understanding this book we can be more aware of when we are weakened.

Focus on our Good Goals, not the “Goodness” of Our Actions.

Studies have found that we want to feel good about ourselves. If we feel good about an action we have taken, we are more likely to make a bad decision immediately after. We feel good about ordering a healthy salad, so we finish it up with a fat filled dessert.

In a reported study a group of people was asked to indicate whether they agreed or disagreed with a pair of discriminatory statements. Another group did the same for a pair of pretty neutral statements.  Both groups were then asked to choose between a male or a female candidate to fill an executive position in a traditionally male industry.

The study found that those individuals that had the opportunity to object to a sexist statement were more likely to discriminate against the female candidate.

The bottom line is to focus on why we were good (to achieve our goal) rather than on the “goodness” of our actions.

Train Ourselves to Recognize Real Happiness

If you are like me, you have heard about societies where people have very little of the niceties of life that we have, yet they are very happy. We are a victim of years of advertising that tells us how happy we will be only when we have acquired the latest toy or trinket. We have to recognize that the promise of reward can be very enticing and yet will lead to regret and remorse (think Las Vegas).

Leverage those experiences that get your dopamine flowing to make yourself do those things that will provide lasting happiness and satisfaction. Maybe use the prospect of a modest shopping trip to encourage us to continue our exercise routine.

Avoid Guilt When We do not Live Up to Our Expectations

Related to the earlier point about feeling good about our actions, we will also behave poorly when we feel bad about ourselves.  We maybe slip and eat a cookie and then feel so guilty that we splurge and eat an entire half a cake. Often this is because we were very optimistic about how we would perform and then when we disappoint ourselves we throw in the towel. It is better to assume that we will be tempted and think through how we will respond to the temptation when it presents itself.

If you still slip up take it easy on yourself and avoid labeling yourself as a loser. Understand that everyone makes mistakes and you need to prepare yourself to avoid those mistakes next time.

There is much more fascinating advice in this book. There is the study that shows how chimpanzees are better than grad students in delaying gratification in order to achieve a greater reward. The reason that we fail to make the best decision shows that we are too smart for our own good.

Please pick up a copy of the book The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It at Amazon.com. Any of your purchases made at Amazon after clicking through from my site helps support my blog. Thanks!


5 steps to better sleep and review of “Dreamland” by David K. Randall

Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleepby David K. Randall is another in the recent stream of accessable science reporting by  journalists, like books by Malcolm Gladwell and Charles Duhigg.

This probe into the science of sleep is for Randall a personal quest to understand his own sporadic sleepwalking. From it we learn that to get better sleep we should:

  1. Avoid coffee and alcohol around bedtime
  2. Take advantage of the circadian rhythms by getting natural light during the day and lower lights and avoid artificial lights around bedtime
  3. Avoid non-sleeping activities in the bedroom
  4. Take a cool shower, since, in falling asleep, the body temperature drops and the hands and feet get hotter as they give off heat, it can be helpful to cool down.
  5. Exercise,which improves sleep, though some of the effects are more mental than physical.

We learn much more from this fascinating read which I review here. We learn that the advent of the light bulb significantly changed our sleep rhythms. Pre-Edison writings show that people would commonly awake once during the night and would engage in sundry activities before returning to sleep until morning. A study decades ago showed that when isolated from artificial light subjects return to a pattern of first and second sleeps. I have found personally when I get to bed early I will more likely awake in the middle of the night. I am less stressed to know that this is natural and not the sinister sign of insomnia.

Some sleep experts are puzzled as to why people would choose to share a bed with a spouse when it can mean a worse sleep for both of them. Further work confirmed that despite that, the benefits for some of bonding and security take precedence over comfort.

A chapter on dreams is interesting as it follows the theory of dreams from Freud with its pervasively sexual interpretations to modern researchers that ascribe less mysterious motives to our dreams. Many find them to be no more than the nocturnal counterpart to the daydreams that occupy our blank mind. Dreams could be understood by experts as being the brain reviewing and making sense of the previous waking hours. Where dreams are unusual or strange, they still are borrowing information that is present, around us in our daily lives.

A symptom of PTSD is recurring nightmares. One researcher found that some were helpful to take the recurring disturbing images and purposely choose replacement images that they would think about as they fell asleep.

I find the chapter about dreams as a source of source for ideas and breakthroughs to be more interesting. There are examples as diverse as Paul McCartney and Stephanie Meyers (of twilight fame). One theory was that the creative insights were the byproduct of memory housekeeping that occurs while we are in the REM sleep state.

Across the board, sleep helps us learn and solve problems. When we cannot get a full night’s sleep, a nap can provide an improvement in cognitive performance. Some businesses have installed designated napping areas in their offices.

Randall reports that lack of sleep has tragic effects in the military where friendly fire incidents are associated with lack of sleep and battle fatigue. Most military personnel rely on caffeinated drinks,enhanced coffee or even stimulants in pill form to stay alert. Many studies and experiments have tried to overcome man’s need for sleep. The bottom line was that only sleep can reliably overcome the lack thereof.

The chapter on sleep-walking, -driving and even -killing is fascinating. It is sad to think of those who, like the author who are victims of this condition, interesting how the has grappled with deciding how we treat crimes committed during sleep.

A chapter on sleep apnea, where a blocking of the airway routinely during sleep discusses the invention of the CPAP (Continuous positive airway pressure) machine that uses a pressurized face mask to keep the airways of apnea sufferers open as they get much needed sleep.

Insomnia is common. It is challenging, because though sleep is so beneficial for us, concentrating on getting to sleep makes it more elusive. Insomnia might be a cause of depression, not a result. Sleeping pills came in to fix this problem, but they showed a long list of side effects, including loss of memory and sometimes death by accidental overdose. Sleep aids are a big market with about one in four Americans having prescription sleeping pills in their medicine cabinet. Ironically some studies have shown that some products do not offer significant improvement in sleep quality and only a tiny improvement in quantity. Some sleep drugs make it harder to remember tossing and turning during the night. One, Ambien can lead to waking behavior that is embarrassing and vaguely remembered.

Studies showed that changing behaviors, not taking sleep pills are best for long term sleep quality. Though age is a factor in reduction in sleep quality, because REM sleep begins to decline after age 40.

Sleep inertia is the quality of fuzzy headed-ness that we have when we are awaken from sleep. It is a real curse to pilots that doe on long flights and then need to make crucial decisions after awakening abruptly. maybe this is the reason that I cannot feel awake after trying to take a Sunday afternoon nap. Student trying to avoid disrupting sleep at the wrong moment designed a system to track sleep stages (I believe there is now a Iphone app for this). It became a product that gives each sleep session a score from 0 to 120. Using the numbers allows people to do experiments to optimize sleep

Science has found that sleep depends on two things, first, getting the mind to calm down and second becoming comfortable enough that that physical issues are not obstacles

Finally, there is no perfect mattress, each seems to prefer whatever they are used to. An expensive mattress might feel vastly more comfortable, but it will not translate to a significantly better sleep.

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