What do you actually do to replenish your willpower?

post by Sable · 2016-11-06T00:05:35.048Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 21 comments

After a bit of brief research, I still have no idea how willpower depletion actually works, or if I'm mistaking depletion for distraction, etc., etc.  I get the impression that there isn't much a consensus in the field on this subject.


What I'd like to know is this: what do you actually do to replenish willpower?


In other words, after working for several days in a row and being tired and not wanting to work on project x that has a large delay and little expectation (from the Procrastination Equation), how do you then work on project x?  Do you eat something sugary, recite a mantra, meditate, sleep?


I've read (I can't remember where) that completing difficult tasks gives a boost to willpower, but then how do you convince yourself to start that difficult task?  And what difficult task do you use?




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comment by JohnReese · 2016-11-07T02:40:32.150Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Greetings**, As someone who was once described as a self-control fetishist by a somewhat hedonistic friend of mine, I can report from experience on personal strategies. As someone whose doctoral work involved attempting to build a connectionist model of self-control, I would probably be inclined to highlight a couple of things from the literature. Let me try both.

  1. The psychology literature on self-control/willpower would suggest that regardless of whether the "limited resource" model of Baumeister and colleagues holds up in the long run, there are some things one could do to strengthen and replenish "willpower". I have not examined this work in relation to the current replication controversy within the behavioural sciences, but I have encountered it in a few different contexts and attempted to theorise about it, so would like to include it here. http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/96/4/770/

The basic idea appears to be that affirming core values or principles with the self as referent, would "boost" self-control. Of course, this is supposed to counteract depletion within a certain window, but not when the "self-control" system is pushed to fatigue. Another interesting context I have noticed it pop up is in military psychology and manuals for mindset training, where soldiers are given "affirmations" which typically include the military branch's code, a set of declarative , affirmative statements about membership and values associated with it etc, and this is prescribed as a means of combating fatigue in situations where focus and cognitive control are required (I need to re-read the source but if interested, check out work by Loren Christensen, Michael Asken et al.). My old modelling work (still unpublished...working on it) would have stuff to say and I would be happy to talk about it if that is ok and anyone is interested.

Now, from personal experience...I went through several years of extreme adventures in self-control... and self-denial. As a long-term meditator, some of it was part of the training. One could perform a little test. Perhaps try to eat a single crisp and put the bag back in the container. The body would naturally not like this as crisps tend to be tasty, and one would want more. Observing the wanting can help contain it. Similarly, observing the depletion of will can help in the sense that one can disengage from the task at hand and allow it to re-calibrate to functional levels. Otherwise, if ongoing control cannot be abandoned for any stretch of time, performing centering exercises taught to meditators, LEOs etc can help.

Exercise 1 - close your eyes, breathe deeply, and as you relax, try to detect and follow 4-5 different sounds in your environment. Do this for a couple of minutes. Exercise 2 - close your eyes, and detect different sensations you can feel...like your fingers on the keyboard, air circulation, how warm or cold the air in the room is, and keep at it for a couple of minutes. While not aimed at willpower as such, this should facilitate a relaxed alertness that would benefit the ongoing task.

Of course, these may not work for you..I'd be interested in finding out how it pans out if anyone wants to give it a shot. If they are already known, apologies for the redundant comment.

I also find that engaging in consistent practice of some sort, like say, a few proper repetitions of a Taijiquan form /day, is (anecdotally) correlated with having a higher degree of volitional control over decisions and willpower for cognitively challenging tasks. The practice does not have to be religious or involve chants or suchlike...I suspect it has more to do with relaxed alertness and positioning oneself at the edge of a "flow" attractor basin.

**I come in peace. New member. I do not know if the protocol is to publish a post introducing oneself. If such is the case, please let me know and I will do so. It is great to read the posts and discussions on LW and I am hoping to write some soon. Live Long and Prosper!

Replies from: arunbharatula, Sable
comment by arunbharatula · 2016-11-10T06:54:19.297Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can you recommend any mindset manuals?

Replies from: JohnReese
comment by JohnReese · 2016-11-10T20:23:21.342Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sure. For mindfulness based approaches anything by Jon Kabat-Zinn should be helpful...I recommend "Full Catastrophe Living". There are some useful hacks in other popular books but I am not keen on recommending stuff that may not live up to the hype. Reading up on the affirmations literature might also help. It is a tool used both in the everyday sense, as well as in hypnotherapy etc. Hope this helps.

comment by Sable · 2016-11-07T22:25:39.156Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Welcome to lesswrong, and thanks for the advice. I'll take a look at what you suggested.

Replies from: JohnReese
comment by JohnReese · 2016-11-08T00:45:26.501Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Greetings. Thanks :) Hope at least some of it is useful!!

comment by gwern · 2016-11-06T15:34:36.153Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is a metric ton of material on LW about akrasia and comments about how people have tried to deal with it.

Replies from: Sable
comment by Sable · 2016-11-07T01:03:54.414Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, I'll take a look.

comment by Val · 2016-11-06T10:57:52.390Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For many people, religion helps a lot in replenishing willpower. Although, what I observed, it's less about stopping procrastination, and more about not despairing in a difficult or depressing situation. I might even safely guess that for a lot of believers this is among the primary causes of their beliefs.

I know that religious beliefs on this site are significantly below the offline average, I didn't want to convince anyone of anything, I just pointed out that for many people it helps. Maybe by acknowledging this fact we might understand why.

Replies from: Jayson_Virissimo, RomeoStevens
comment by Jayson_Virissimo · 2016-11-07T03:06:23.164Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've noticed something even more general: people that have a well-defined philosophy of life seems more motivated and resilient to setbacks or tragedy than those who lack such a self-narrative. But this appears to be the case even for philosophies of life which have tenets that contradict (or at least stand is strong tension with) each other in important ways, such as Christianity, Objectivism, Buddhism, Stoicism, etc...

This is pure anecdote, and obviously the people I come in contact with are not even close to a random sample of humanity, so I'd very much like to be pointed towards a more systematic study of the phenomena (or lack thereof).

comment by RomeoStevens · 2016-11-12T03:44:43.622Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Agree and my proposed mechanism of action is a stance shift (more in the sense of how Mark uses stance in folding, or Chapman does) that seems to be the difference between believing that things are/will basically turn out okay vs being random and largely not in our control. In much the same way that having a fake button that the person thinks will turn off the annoying noise lets them tolerate it longer, having a fake meaning button allows one to handle set backs outside of the locus of control from sapping motivation.

comment by Fuglinnavon · 2016-11-13T20:05:32.782Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

To replenish my willpower, i watch a lot of TEDx conferences about positivity, mindset, success and ways of working and i write down what i've learned after each conference and i think about it. Also, when i just can't begin to work, i go outside for a long run with motivating music or i do some yoga. To sum up, you just have to create your own motivation/willpower rituals, just observe your way of living and the things that motivate you and try to use them as a tool to replenish your willpower.

comment by Vladimir_Golovin · 2016-11-07T10:20:40.081Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For me, the best way to replenish willpower is a long solitary walk. 2 hours, 5 kilometers or longer, preferably in nature or a non-crowded park, with minimized exposure to cars, dogs, people, speech, loud sounds, and any other attention-taxing things. I've been going on these walks for over 20 years, so the technique is time-tested.

Also: mini-vacations. Basically the same as above, but they should provide at least a week-long period of uninterruptible time ahead. This works wonders for me.

I've read (I can't remember where) that completing difficult tasks gives a boost to willpower, but then how do you convince yourself to start that difficult task? And what difficult task do you use?

In my case, the concepts of Trivial Inconvenience and Trivial Impetus were very helpful. I soften difficult tasks up by removing trivial inconveniences standing between me and the task, and facilitate my future work on them by creating trivial impetuses. Breaking a big monolithic task into smaller chunks also works well.

comment by Viliam · 2016-11-07T13:09:20.364Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Seems to me that the "willpower depletion" happens when some part of a brain decides that continuing the work is no longer the best action. That can happen for various reasons, so the strategy to "replenish willpower" should reflect the specific reason. For example:

If you feel tired, hungry, or need to visit the bathroom -- do what your body needs. (This assumes you are genuinely hungry, not merely using food as an excuse to avoid something unpleasant.)

If you feel uncertain whether you are progressing correctly -- try to get some feedback. (Again, assuming that uncertainty is the real problem.)

If you feel lack of motivation -- try to remind yourself, in near mode, why are you doing this.

Essentially, try solving the problem you actually have, instead of trying to find a universal solution for all kinds of problems. (Eating sugar is not a solution for depression; chanting motivational slogans is not a replacement for missing data.)

comment by [deleted] · 2016-11-17T14:39:27.842Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I eat or drink something sugary and for me this seams to work. I think the theory that glucose is somehow involved in keeping you motivated has been shown to be wrong though, so i think this is probably just some sort of conditioning on my side.

comment by Djini_Hendrix · 2016-11-11T08:22:19.497Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I simply don't know. I ask myself this question everytime I notice someone seems depressed and in want to do something meaningful. It just seems to arrive. In the case of personal projects, sometimes I simply get an idea, get excited about it and start working on it immediately. As the project takes shape I keep on getting excited wanting to improve it, maybe in search of a certain goal like feedback and recognition. I once worked on an editor for months, polished it a lot, for some reason I lost the code to it. After a while when remembering how much I liked that project I started feeling terrible, I still had an older version of the code and part of me wanted to restore it. I debated myself for days, argued with ideas of how it just wasn't worth it, but somehow I found the willpower to do it. Maybe it's like a rational decision, you decide it's the best way to go and do it. So it's not entirely controllable as you can't genuinely force your convictions and especially not all the outside stimuli that shape your thoughts.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2016-11-06T16:57:12.321Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One reason for the problems with the "willpower depletion" theory is that people think it should work like a gas tank. As long as you have gas, you can drive. When it runs out, your car stops, and that's it.

Obviously, willpower does not work like that, and it would be bad if it did. If it did, you would feel normally and do whatever you wanted, until you ran out, when you would suddenly lose all control.

Now the gas analogy is not totally false, and there are people who do run into a point like that, just like you can run and run until you literally fall to the ground. But that's not what normally happens, either with running, or with will power.

Instead, you get lots of warning signals when your willpower is running low, and therefore your brain starts telling you to conserve willpower by avoiding activities that seem especially unnecessary or especially difficult.

It also tends to work a bit like money. Money does not work like gas. How many people do you know who literally run out of money, so that they can't spend a single cent more? Not many. Instead, people become less willing to spend money as they have less left. Similarly, if you are planning to spending $300 on a party for your friends, you might do so fairly easily, but if you go out for dinner with your friends without planning on that, and suddenly they ask you to pay for it, that might be a bit upsetting. In a similar way, if you are planning to work Mon-Fri, it may be easy enough to do so. But if your boss calls you up and tells you that you have to work on the weekend, that might be a bit upsetting, in a similar way.

Basically, it is just really complicated and people who expect to confirm willpower depletion by simplistic testing are just doing it wrong. But it does work like a quantity, and as gwern says, lots of different things will tend to build it up, generally things you feel like doing, so which aren't using up as much willpower.

comment by kithpendragon · 2016-11-06T13:29:34.537Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The fact that "there isn't much consensus in the field" is a red flag to me.

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2016-11-06T16:09:40.522Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Under Kurzban's opportunity cost theory, lack of consensus is predicted: willpower/akrasia issues are a signal to move onto something else for a while. Hence, people will find totally different things to all work for each other. It's like the 2-4-6 game. The pattern isn't 'do something else which is a kind of meditation' or 'do something else which is a kind of exercise' - it's just 'do something else'. If you try out 'do (other thing) X' many times and find it works for you, someone else could easily try out 'do (other thing) Y' many times and find it works for them too; and attempts to try out the other person's thing could fail because you personally do not like that other thing. I might like walks as my other thing, and someone else might prefer meditation but find walks tedious and boring while conversely I find meditation tedious and boring. Producing mutually contradictory results about what works.

Replies from: kithpendragon
comment by kithpendragon · 2016-11-11T10:17:33.905Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You make a good point if we are accepting the premise, but from what I've seen it seems like there is still an open question as to whether willpower is a finite resource at all or if we just think it is and therefore act like it is. Certainly when we act like we have some kind of Will Points that we can spend, they seem to self-replenish over time spent doing non-WP-draining activities (to simplify by metaphor: my mana meter refills as long as I refrain from doing magic). But I would expect that to seem true even if the premise was false (I don't even have a mana meter, just some kind of self-imposed limit).

comment by Manfred · 2016-11-06T00:42:02.811Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Usually I don't view willpower as a resource, and instead think of not doing something as a bug in my doing-something procedure, that I need to fix by something that wouldn't make sense from the willpower-as-a-resource perspective, like working with another person or making my planned schedule better.

But sometimes I just feel really wiped out and like I can't do anything, and then I usually just read or browse the internet for as long as I feel like. Eating refined starches is sometimes good too.