Willpower

Here we are, after a successful week of sticking to a timetable! Already, things are looking up.

The subject today is, perhaps unsurprisingly, willpower. I thought I’d share a little bit about what I’ve learned about willpower. Having managed to not slack off in my free time for a week, I am now clearly a paragon of strength in an harsh, unproductive world.

I worry that this is another abortive attempt to kick myself into gear. Indeed, having failed in the past with similar endeavours, coming across this panel from xkcd was bit of a downer:

HarshWordsFromxkcd

I spend a lot of time thinking about this single panel. Seriously, it’s one of the most horrible things I can think of. But you know, either you eventually figure it out, or you keep trying until you can’t any more. So let’s keep trying (’til we run out of cake)!

What is willpower, anyway? The American Psychological Association partially defines it as “the ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals”. I’d like me some of that! So I’ve been working on it.

As I said earlier, this past week was really good for sticking to a timetable. I’ve started going to bed earlier, getting into work earlier, and overall ending up with more productive time than I would have by getting in late and staying up late. In a way, 7:30am and 12 midnight have become the anchor points of my day. This brings me neatly to the first actual thing I want to talk about.

The Power of Habits

That’s probably the title of a book by Tim Robbins, but hopefully no one is going to be suing me. But yeah! It turns out that there’s been studies (or more likely, a single study that has been blown out of proportion) that suggest a correlation between building habits and an increase in willpower. The study in question measured willpower as a function of how well the participants performed in specialised tasks before and after starting to visit the gym regularly. I didn’t read it myself, but rather read a regurgitation from the wonderful Jason Shen of the conclusions of the study.

It’s not just people who actually do science for a living who have decided this. Indeed, there are many, many articles out there that claim that you too can become a productivity powerhouse by simply adopting a set of habits, without citing a single academic paper! But science is overrated anyway, right? Just prepare yourself to get things done, and good things will come.

Habitually picking up habits

So what habits did I pick up? Well, the timetable itself is a habit, just like going to the gym except a bit larger in scope. It makes it easier in general to get started with things, because you know ahead of time pretty much what you’re going to be doing and for how long. Because I don’t have to think (which is awesome, thinking hurts my drain), I find myself with fewer excuses to not sit down and get started on the task at hand. So that removal of choice that comes with picking up a timetable as a habit.. Definitely seems to help. The results will speak for themselves in a few weeks time.

The timetable itself hints at another key habit I’ve stuck to (mostly, give or take an hour here or there): Regular bed times and regular wake up times. I’ve always resisted bed time. Like, as long as I can remember, I’ve tried to stay up as late as possible. Back at university, it wasn’t uncommon for me to be up at 3am on days where the lectures started late. But in fact, maybe that wasn’t such a great idea. Sure, you stay up later, but you also wake up later. Depending on how much your body likes sunlight, you’ll deprive it of valuable daylight hours where you could be getting stuff done! Also, some things can only be done before it’s too late in the day (for instance, I can’t really play the piano past 10pm. Can’t really play it before 10pm either, bazinga). The main benefit however, is that it’s a habit. You don’t have to worry about wondering what time you’re going to bed (and no, it isn’t ‘when you’re too tired to stay awake’, Old Matt), because when the time comes.. You’ll just go to bed. Bonus: Sleeping at regular times helps your body get more rest, and helps you get to sleep!

Other than the timetable and sleeping , I’ve picked up a couple of other ‘good’ habits: I sit up straight when I catch myself slouching (which apparently has its own benefits). I make the bed! Well, I throw the covers back on the bed and flatten it out a bit. At least it’s more presentable than it usually is. Will these micro-habits help out in the long run? I would guess.. probably not. But I’m not a psychologist or anything, and given how they’re not exactly draining, I’ll probably keep them up for a while. Will automatic behaviours help save my energy for when I actually have to think? Sounds good to me, not sure how measure their effect though.

Willpower as a Muscle

Speaking of ‘saving energy’, willpower has been characterised as a muscle quite a bit these days. Effectively, those clever psychologists say that willpower may be thought of an exhaustible resource. I haven’t really been monitoring my ‘willpower’ level, but I can confirm that the longer I spend doing something, the less energy I have for other activities. I guess this is both physical energy, like ‘awakeness’, and mental energy, like willpower.

If we keep the ‘willpower as a muscle’ analogy, then we have to expect that over time that willpower will either grow in strength, or atrophy depending on one’s actions. My willpower isn’t perfect. I can’t resist sneaking in the occasional break (which is no bad thing, being a machine is probably detrimental to your health). I definitely feel like this whole analogy has some merit though, it was easier to sit down this week to write than it was last week. Then again, that could be down to any number of factors. You may have realised by now that this is not a blog for people who want controlled measured experiments. I love those! But I’m a a terrible record keeper. Maybe that’s another good habit I should try and build up? It’s not like we’re not spoiled for choice when it comes to life tracking. Indeed, you can’t swing a cat for all the fitness doo-dahs.

Going back to the ‘problematic’ breaks: I try and have ‘productive’ breaks. By that, I mean that even my breaks are useful in some way. Indeed, I think in general there’s very few ‘brainless’ activities. For instance, I might sit down and watch Friends for half an hour. Doesn’t sound productive, right? Ah, but I watch it in the Original Japanese. You people watching the American dub have no idea what you’re missing. Jokes aside, breaks are useful for restocking some of that willpower, even if it’s something as ‘unproductive’ as sitting down to watch Joey and Chandler chat about garbage. I believe taking too many breaks will give diminishing returns, but the occasional break is almost certainly a good thing, especially if you can find a way to make it useful, as championed by Khatz of All Japanese All The Time.

When using the Pomodoro Technique (named after the novelty oven timer) for working in blocks of time, you sit down for 25 minutes and work on one thing and ONE THING ONLY. Then you take a five minute break, and repeat. And you keep doing this! Occasionally, every four or five cycles you give yourself a longer break. I tried the Pomodoro Technique for a while back in the day, and while it was nice, there aren’t that many things where I can feel accomplished during my breaks that only take five minutes. Of course, I’m missing the point of breaks. I might have to give it another go in the future with fresh eyes and renewed motivation!

That’s It!

So yeah, you now know pretty much everything I know (or believe, as the case may be) about willpower. Just remember there are no silver bullets. I want to believe that there is a method out there that will work for me and keep me productive. I hope regular habits and staying healthy is the way forward in this regard, but even if it isn’t: I’ll have picked up some good habits (hopefully) and ended up healthier for it. And those things alone would have been worth the time spent trying to improve myself. And if this turns me into the productive powerhouse I want to be, then awesome.

Focus

This post has very little to say, but I need to write it anyway. It’s a long ramble about where I’m at now, and where I want to be.

So, that little video game project didn’t pan out so great in the end. But you know what, that’s okay. I learned a lot about Python, Curses, and getting things to work on both Windows and Linux. Here’s a tip: It’s a pain, don’t bother. But as far as difficulties regarding getting a console-based game to work cross-platform go.. The only tricky bits were making sure the character encodings were set-up nicely across both platforms. The down-right DIFFICULT part was getting Curses to work on Windows at all.

Anyway, that was in the past. It’s time to look forward! Another abandoned project, but maybe that’s okay. I spend more time than I’d like sitting down regretting idle, wasted hours. The big problem with lamenting wasted and lost time is that the lament is often a waste of time itself. When I get in a slump, I remind myself that I’m not number one yet, so I have to try harder.

So I’ve started another endeavour. Yes, another one. It’s near the bottom of this post. I never follow through or finish anything, but maybe it’s time to change that? Looking back at unfinished project after unfinished project, it’s easy to fall into the trap of losing faith in yourself. I’ve lost faith in my own ability to finish things so many times, but I always manage to claw back some self-discipline and self-respect to try again. However, these salvaged feelings are suffering from diminishing returns. You can only fall so many times before you stay down, right?

Over time, I’ve become quite good at starting things. And if it’s not a huge thing, I can follow through without too much problem. For example, roughly a year ago, I sat down with a Rubik’s Cube for the first time. Within a few months of playing with it, devouring the vast amount of cube-related information, I was able to solve the cube. Fast. Like, forty seconds fast. Technically kind of slow compared to proper cubers, but you know. That was easy, because it’s just memorisation and repetition. After a while, you switch your brain off and idly practice on the bus or train, letting your fingers do the work while you think about what you’ll make for dinner.

There’s a few things about having learned the cube that bother me:

  1. I can’t tell you why I did it, other than ‘it looked kind of cool and seemed like a fun idea at the time’.
  2. I have absolutely zero use for a skill like that.
  3. It was one of the only things I finished.

Why would that last thing bother me? Well, it’s such a useless thing, completely inconsequential. It has not changed my life in any way. If I used that energy differently, I’d have a finished game (or maybe two) under my belt. At the same time, it’s okay. I want to be one of those amazing people who only do useful things, but maybe that’s an unrealistic ideal. Time will tell.

I have things I want to learn, things I want to do. Some useless things, and some useful things. Knowing the cube? Useless, but fun. It’s nice to watch people’s lips curl into a smile after they watch me solve a cube. I want to learn a foreign language. I want to write a book. I want to ride a unicycle (and maybe solve a cube at the same time?). I want to be better at physics. I want a perfect body (I want a perfect soul).

I never really considered that there wouldn’t be enough time. I didn’t consider that I’d have no willpower, or the attention span of a hyped-up kitten. After a lot of thought, I’ve identified these as the key problems:

  1. Willpower.
  2. Time.

The book ‘Mastery’ by Robert Greene claims that every human being has a calling deep inside them, they just have to find it. They’ll just ‘know’ when it comes, and they will be able to draw strength from this calling. It will be their muse and their motivator. It’s a romantic notion. I haven’t found that thing yet, and to be honest, I’m not really buying into the idea that it exists for even half of people, let alone all of them. So that willpower has to come from somewhere else, or that one thing has to be found.

I’m told by the Internet that a person needs 10,000 hours of practice at an activity before they can be considered ‘a master’. To put that in to perspective, you would have to train every hour of every day for over a year to reach that number of hours. If you spent seven hours a day working on your activity, it would still take over four years to reach the lofty height of master.

So we can’t waste time. If you’re going to become brilliant at something, you have to work at it. The problem is that you need to want it, and you can’t want to stop. That is so hard! It’s one thing to persevere through pain and difficulty, but it’s another thing to want to. Like, it’s the difference between studying because you need to graduate and get a job, and studying because you want to actually know the material and have a deep understanding of the subject for the sake of it.

This means we need to find what we want to do, soon. Earlier than soon, we’re talking like years ago. Probably should have figured out at least one thing to focus on by now. I knew I wanted to go to a good university, but that wasn’t an end goal in itself. I just had no other plans. And then I had to get a job, because that’s just how life is unless you’re pretty brilliant (or lucky).

I’ve rambled enough, so here’s the plan: I’ve put together a timetable. It’s not perfect, and it’s not meant to be. It is subject to change. I will spend my time a little more productively than I have in the past. I’m not going to try for miracles. I know better than anyone that my weekends are likely to fall apart. I know I couldn’t spend more than a few hours a day focusing on things right now. Hell, there’s hardly three hours per night anyway.

So that’s at least one hour a week on a bunch of different things. That won’t help me become ‘a master’ in any of these disciplines. Or rather, it will. In about 190 years, I’d expect to be amazing at all of the stuff in my timetable! The idea is to weed out the activities I don’t find interesting, and give more time to the ones I do enjoy. Some activities are ‘larger': ‘Maths’ and ‘Tumbling’ refer to the full disciplines of studying vector calculus, classic mechanics, contact juggling, riding a unicycle, and so on. I feel I want to be good at something in those areas, I just need to find out what. Others are more concrete, like ‘Blog’. Guess what time it is? The subject of each post isn’t set in stone, but the activity itself is known ahead of time.

Writing out the timetable was a horrifying experience. Subtracting all the time for work, eating, and sleeping, I’m left with maybe six hours a day, out of sixteen, seventeen waking hours.. But hey, that’s almost seven right? If I can find something I’m so enthralled with, that I only want to do that one thing.. Mastery is only years away.

The timetable is set for a reason. With past projects, it’s always a very ‘if I have time’ deal. Or worse, procrastination has reared its ugly head. “I’ll start this later, I need to finish this YouTube video first”. At first glance, setting things in stone seems to be detrimental to willpower as a whole. But I’m trying out a technique of habits. I want to practice things regularly, at set times. Or at least, in the same order. I want to take the choice of ‘what to do, when’ out of the equation, and focus more time on actually doing stuff.

For instance, it’s now 10pm, the end of my blogging hour. Next up, I’ll be reaching out and talking to people. About what? And to who? I have no idea, but the point is to just try. See what happens, maybe end up with a more specific goal for next week.

I’ll sum up quickly: I’m horrified and saddened at at how terrible I am, and how awful I am at stuff. In general. I have very little to show for twenty five years of living. That Rubik’s Cube has become a symbol of the pointlessness of everything I set out to do.

It’s not all doom and gloom. I said before that I always get up and try again. And that’s what I’m doing now. I will work on my willpower, and I will find a calling, something I want to do more than anything else. And even if I don’t, at least I’ll have spent my time doing things I want to do, and even some things that might actually be useful in the future.

That’s it! The most narcissistic post I’ve ever written.. Since I was like, thirteen or whatever, on the LiveJournal. If all goes according to plan, I’ll be back next week. I have no idea what I’ll write about now, and that’s both scary and exciting. If there’s no post here next week, I will have failed.