Tighten Your Belt, Strengthen Your Mind is an op-ed piece by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang in the New York Times. Every time I read something like this it seems to light my brain on fire. I recommend you read the article but the key thing I took out of it is this: any mental process is a biological process and has the same properties as most physiological processes of the body. What got my brain going is the fact that there is a finite capacity to mental processes and an adaptive quality to them.
Self-discipline or will-power, it turns out, is very much like muscle strength, finite and adaptive. The article reports the finding that when someone uses their will power to do something like quit smoking, they are more likely to display a decrease in discipline in other areas – they gain weight for example because they are not able to control their eating. However, over time they are able to grow their level of self-discipline and reach the point of being able to not smoke and not over-eat – one adapts by investing effort and grows their finite capacity.
So what? Well, this knowledge is important for a couple of reason:
Given that people have a finite amount of will power, their chances of success for adopting a new habit or eliminating a bad one greatly increase if they do not try to do too much at once. If we take changing body composition as an example, we know that you need to do two main things to achieve a leaner body – exercise and eat well. You increase the likelihood of being successful if you pick one of them to focus on for a month and then start to focus on the other. If you focus on both at the same time your limited will-power will be split between the two increasing the chances that you fall off the wagon on one or both of them. You are better to make small steps and slowly build up the number of good habits.
Also, people cannot use the excuse that they “just don’t have the will power” to stick to something. True, they may not have it right now but if they invest the time and effort they WILL end up developing it and it will allow them to stick to it.