Jason Shen graciously contributed a new guestpost to the site -- his have always been popular here. He's running an online class on "The Science of Willpower, Habits, And Behavior Change" in January. Here's Jason --
Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy is one of my favorite films and the best comic book to film translation ever done. Nolan's take on Batman is gritty, heroic, fresh, and even somewhat plausible. One of my favorite scenes from the first film, Batman Begins, is when he is being trained by Ra's al Ghul on the art of ninjutsu.
The key conversation I want to point out here:
Ra's al Ghul: "Your parents' death was not your fault … it was your father's."
Bruce fights back in anger
Ra's al Ghul: "Anger does not change the fact that your father failed to act."
Bruce Wayne: "The man had a gun."
Ra's al Ghul: "Would that stop you?"
Bruce Wayne: "I've had training."
Ra's al Ghul: "The training is nothing! The will is everything. The will to act."
This is a powerful and important scene and a formative part of Bruce Wayne's transformation into Batman. He realizes that all the training, resources or external factors in the world are not as important as a highly driven person with the will to act. This thought packs a punch - "Training is nothing! The will is everything." - but it's a profoundly dangerous one to adopt, because it's wrong. It's obvious that an insanely motivated, untrained person would lose in a fight with George St-Pierre, the current Welterweight Champion of UFC. They would get destroyed.
George St. Pierre pummeling your untrained faceBut beyond the literal falseness of this idea, this "lesson" encourages us to believe that willpower is everything and that all external factors play a minor role in guiding our behavior. Dispelling the myth Look, the will to act is important, and you will never succeed in anything without a great deal of hard work, but it can be dangerous to put too much stock in this concept. One of the first things I teach in my class on the science of willpower, habits and behavior change is that willpower is not enough. Sebastian himself has documented how he's slowly but surely eliminated sugar from his diet, developed a complex time-tracking system and used public accountability to get more sh*t done. If willpower was everything, why bother with this nonsense? He'd just grind through it. But Sebastian knows better. He understands that his environment, his habits, his systems matter. Controlling behavior is kind of like riding an elephant. The elephant is powerful but can easily get off track. It takes a smart rider and a carefully laid path to guide the beast in the right direction.
Courage Wolf giving some bad advice.Going beyond willpower
Alright so let's get concrete here. While we can't go into too much detail in this post, I would like to outline some data-driven principles for thinking about behavior, willpower and habits. We go much more into the nitty gritty in the class I teach, but this should get you started.
Willpower/self-control is a limited resource. Numerous studies over decades have shown that when you tax a person's self-control (by making them see but not eat cookies when hungry, or watch a sad movie without showing any emotion on their face) there will be a significant drop in performance compared to baseline on a subsequent task that requires self-control (keeping your hand in ice water, solving lots of math problems). So don't try to take on too many new challenges at once - lest you run your well dry and burn out.
Developing habits can strength your willpower overall A number of studies have shown that by fostering a habit (like regular gym workouts, study habits or tracking spending) that over time, participants will be able to quickly recover their willpower loss and perform better on subsequent tasks requiring willpower. Not only that, but habit-developing participants also showed an unexpected decrease in undesired behavior (cigarettes smoked, junk food eaten) and an increase in desired behaviors (doing housework, exercising).
Habits allow you to bypass willpower Studies have shown that even people with no explicit memory can develop habits, and that brain activity in mice goes down once they memorize a maze. Once you develop a good habit, you don't even have to think about it any more. You are no longer using your willpower at all and can devote it to other things.