Jason Shen has achieved tremendous success in athletics, technology entrepreneurship, writing, and living an outstanding life. To promote his recent GiveGetWin deal on The Science of Willpower, he sat down to tell us how he started learning about willpower, the state of what's known scientifically about how willpower and the brain work, and how you can start improving your life right away by implementing a tiny habit, thinking and systems, and using some powerful thinking tools. Enjoy:
Developing Willpower by Jason Shen, as told to Sebastian Marshall
Willpower has been an undercurrent in my entire life. In gymnastics, you have to use your willpower to overcome your fear of an activity and go for the skill you want, to get over the fear, to push yourself to finish your conditioning and strength training a part of you doesn't want to…
It didn't come automatically to me. When I was a student, I wasn't automatically self-disciplined. There were actions I knew were useful, like doing my homework in one session without getting distracted, or not throwing clothing on my apartment floor. But I wouldn't always do them, and I didn't know why.
I started to learn those answers during a student initiative course at Stanford called The Psychology of Personal Change. That's when I first started reading academic papers on the topic. In academia, willpower and self-discipline is often called "self-regulation," and in 2009 I started to get really serious about it from an academic perspective -- and saw gains from it in my personal life.
We're all sort of amateur psychologists. Since we all have a brain and a mind, most people tend to have our own theories about how it works.
Normally, a person wouldn't assume they know nuclear physics better than someone who has studied as a nuclear physicist, but most people think they know lots about their mind because they've been living in it our whole lives. People tend to think they know how their brain works, but they never spent time to understand it, to learn from studies, and to try to understand the most common biases that people share.
It takes a lot to face up to reality and recognize the way you think contains biases and differs from how you predict your behavior is going to be differs from reality. When we fail to do something we want to do, we tend to rationalize it away instead of examining it and learning, the way we'd examine scientific evidence.
Studying willpower makes you face up to the fact that you're not as good as you'd like to be yet, and most people are comfortable with that fact and would rather choose to avoid that topic… even though they can get huge gains from learning.
But there's significant gains to be had: it's clear from sports and looking at successful artists and people in other fields, the people who are the most successful often aren't the most naturally talented or well-connected, the 'obvious best bets' to win aren't always the winners. They don't always invest the time and energy to hone their craft and to become the best.
Winning comes from orienting your behavior towards the most productive activities, and there's two parts of that:figure out what the best activities are, and get yourself to do them. Passion and love of what you're doing can help, but even the most passionate people rarely want to do what's best for their training all the time. Once you get really serious about anything, it's often not fun to consistently put in the time to be great at it.
When you want to do productive activities more, it's not about having more willpower -- it's about intelligently using the willpower you've got. Figure out your own psychology, understand the general principles, and direct yourself to do the activities even when you don't feel like it.
Willpower is only half of the equation for general behavior change. Habits are the other half.
A short discussion about the brain is in order. Willpower takes active use of the prefrontal cortex, which is the most recently evolved part of the brain. This new part of the brain is also in charge of things like setting goals, analyzing information, making predictions, and a whole range of activities you've call 'higher level of thinking.
A variety of studies have shown that our ability to take on activities and tasks that requires the use of the prefrontal cortex diminishes over short-term use. As you tax this ability over time, it performs worse and worse if you don't allow adequate recovery.
That's a big deal: it means doing anything that takes your willpower and advanced difficult thinking makes you have less performance, less thinking ability, and less willpower in the short term until you rest again.
A lot of studies have shown this… for instance, coping with stress often makes people relapse from quitting smoking. People don't like being in bad moods, so you need to use willpower when in a bad mood to stop from snapping at a coworker or spouse. And that's the same willpower you're using to not smoke cigarettes… so hitting stress makes you more likely to relapse into smoking, drinking, a drug you're trying to quit, or going off your diet.
That makes intuitive sense to most people, but they don't think about if they're trying to do too much at once and it all falls apart. They might see that pattern if they reflect on their behavior, but it doesn't factor into their plans for the future.
So willpower can only be half of the equation of behavior change: it's too limited on a day to day, moment by moment level to do everything you want. You don't want to tax your willpower too much on a given day or at a given time. You want to offload these actions and turn them into habits, which are the second part the equation.
Habits are great when you set them correctly: it's behavior you repeat subconsciously or without thinking whenever the habit is cued or triggered. You're not doing habits with a particular goal in mind, and they don't require that prefrontal cortex thinking. It becomes "just sort of something you do now."
Brushing your teeth is an obvious example of something that doesn't take much willpower or self-discipline. You just do it.
On the other hand, if you've got a bookmark for Hacker News, Reddit, or Facebook that you frequently click on. In that case, you don't stop and think, 'I'm frustrated on this problem, so I'm going to go get sucked into HN and read.' It gives an instant payoff, but you're not thinking it. You just do it.
Habits seem to be a form of memory. The current thinking is that it resides in the limbic system, which is an older system that exists in most mammals. You seem less planning and executive thinking in other mammals, but you do see limbic behavior.
You see mice run the maze, get the cheese, run the maze, get the cheese… after they've been doing it, they'll start running the maze even if there's no cheese at the end.
You want to do that for yourself -- give yourself habits, and then you don't need to use willpower constantly. It's like hard drive vs. RAM -- you have a lot more hard drive space than RAM.
How many changes you can make at the same time depends on a couple things.
In a weird way, the more stable your life is, the more changes you can make to some extent. A fixed routine and a fixed schedule makes it easier to establish changes, especially habit changes. If you're flying around, and sometimes your job has a crazy schedule with staying late, traveling, etc… or if you have a lot of drama going on with your girlfriend and boyfriend, it's going to block your schedule and make it harder for you to form new habits.
The other thing is how gradually are you taking on these habits. In the class I taught, I had everyone take on a habit they could do in under five minutes, the minimal thing they'd need to take on towards their desired new behavior. If you start like that, you could take on 3 or 4 little habits, and then gradually ease into expanding them. But if you wanted to quit smoking cold turkey, that might take 120% of your focus at first.
The metaphor most people use for willpower is that it's like a muscle… it's not like you're running to full capacity, you get to zero, and you've got nothing. It's like, as you get tired, your performance gets worse. It appears you can strengthen your willpower over time. Willpower varies over time in people, but everyone can increase their willpower over time.
There was a study on strengthening willpower: students were assigned to one of three different self-control drills. One involved posture, and they had to think of their posture all the time. The other was regulating mood, and the third was keeping a diary of what they ate. They did this for two weeks. Then they did a test of their willpower, which involved squeezing a handgrip as hard as they could, which has been shown to map to willpower.
Interestingly, the handgrip has nothing to do with these 3 things, there was no working out, and there's no reason they'd be physically stronger -- but they showed an ability to get stronger to squeeze the handgrip compared to people who didn't do anything after training their willpower.
Other studies have shown the act of developing a habit that taxes your willpower doesn't just improve your peer ability to exert your willpower in a singular, one-dimensional way, it can also spill over into other areas of your life.
There was one where study participants did eight weeks of exercise. First, once a week. Then twice a week. Then three to four times per week. Exercise made them improve at all kinds of other habits -- eating healthier, eating less junk food, watching less TV and studying more, missing less appointments, leaving dirty dishes in the sink lesson often… almost every habit researchers asked them to measure improved. They were doing right things more often in all these areas. Doing bench press doesn't just make you stronger, it also lets you have more strength for everything. Same with habit change.
Starting a tiny habit is one of the best ways to get started with developing your willpower. That means pick something really small, like flossing. It's not particularly fun, or particularly hard. And then get into the habit of flossing every day. If you can't get yourself to floss every day, how are you going to build a thriving a business? How are you going to lose 50 pounds? How are you going to deliver a large project on-time under project with all the spec fleshed out? Flossing takes one minute. And it doesn't have to be flossing -- it could be anything simple, like drinking a glass of water first thing in the morning.
When it's small, all the noise and excuses fall away. If you failed with a tiny easy habit, ask why. Start to analyze. Did you forget? Make reminders. Maybe you need to put a post-it note up. Try to run a tiny habit for 10 days in a row. Then analyze if you miss a day. Did you feel tired? Then ask yourself if you can go to bed one minute later. Maybe you need to set an alarm as a reminder.
If something is not going the way you want, the answer is rarely if ever to try harder. The general response is often, 'I'm going to try harder.' If you understand willpower is sort of limited on a moment to moment basis and can be strengthened over time, but if you're not doing what you're supposed to be doing… then look at your system. Look at fixing it as a system instead of trying harder.
This is why starting a tiny habit can work really well: it gives you an opportunity to analyze your system of behavior without making excuses, paying attention to the wrong thing, or feeling bad. If you forget to floss, the answer isn't to try harder. If you forgot, you need reminders. If you don't have floss in the house, you need to buy some.
As an entrepreneur, there's sometimes drudge work that you don't want to do but needs to get done for the business. Sometimes you can use willpower as a short-term one-time thing, but if it's a repeated thing, you've got to say, 'I'm not going to be able to try harder forever. Can I pay someone else to do this? Can I batch this and do it less often? Can I reduce 70% of the work on this? How do I eliminate the need for me to try harder on this? You want to look to make it so you don't have try harder.
Any sort of prefrontal cortex thinking seems to tax the willpower muscle. If you're thinking really really hard, that's going to drain your willpower. A good example: they had students who had to memorize either a two-digit or a seven-digit number. They were told it's for a music study, they're listening to music while trying to remember this number. At the end, they thanked the student and offered them a snack -- either fruit salad or chocolate cake. Quickly decide which. 70% of 2-digit numbers took the fruit, 30% got the cake. If they had to remember the harder seven-digit number, it's harder and more work. Those people, 50% chose the cake. That's a significant increase in people choosing cake, just because they were trying to remember a seven-digit instead of two digit number.
Depression is really bad for willpower. You're hovering in a low zone, but you need to be in a pretty good mood to do the stuff to get the gains. I hesitate to make recommendations since I'm not that familiar with depression, but -- exercise. Aerobic exercise has been shown to equally or more effective than Zoloft. They did this for four months, and 88% who did exercise had recovered and not relapsed six months later. Only 55% who hadn't exercised and taken Zoloft fully recovered.
If you want to exercise, that can be a great thing to make a tiny habit out of. Like running, put running shorts, sneakers, and shirt on, go outside and run for 1 minute and go home. And then five minutes. And then run down the block and come back. Some advocates say keep the tiny habit as is, and you'll feel inclined to go and run more, but you still 'win' if you keep doing the tiny habit and never change it.
That's one way to do it. Start tiny and build. Another way would to get external accountability: a personal trainer or a highly motivated and supporting friend who already works out all the time like clockwork. External accountability will make people feel a little pressure from the social perspective, so they'll go and do the thing.
A third approach: Because decisions take energy and sap energy, OFFLOAD THE DECISION. Don't try to start exercising and decide on the whole program yourself. Do Starting Strength or the Insanity Program for 10 weeks, and just follow the instructions and get it going for you. Remember that thinking taxes willpower. "Should I use dumbbells or the machine?" That's no good for willpower and habit-forming, so just find a good plan and follow the plan to start.
Of course, If it's a core piece of your being, it makes sense to design your own program. If you're a pro athlete, design your own program. If it's a supplementary part of your life, pick something proven that works.
In the Vanity Fair piece called 'Obama's Way' by Michael Lewis, they talked about how President Obama is aware of and works against decision fatigue. He only has navy and grey suits. So all he has to decide is 'navy or grey', no other decisions from a fashion perspective. He doesn't decide the meals he eats. The offloads decisions and preserves decisionmaking for the most important stuff (and his March Madness basketball picks).
Of all the habits and behavior change you could do, fitness is the #1 biggest win possible. There's so many benefits to exercise.
If you're not regularly exercising, it should be the HIGHEST AREA OF PRIORITY. An Associate Professor at Harvard Public Health said, 'The closest thing to a magic bullet is exercise.' That's the number one thing. It affects mood. Anti-depression. Improves learning. After kids did intense sprinting exercise, it increased bloodflow to the hippocampos which relates to memory and helped learning vocabulary. If you're not exercising, you're not maximizing your ability.
This is another example where in thinking in a systems way comes into play: there are people out there who says, 'I tried exercising, it doesn't work for me. It doesn't fit into my schedule. I go for a couple weeks, and then I stopped.' If you tried something and it didn't work, that doesn't meant he whole thing is busted. If your roof leaked, and you tried to patch it and the first patch didn't work, you wouldn't say, 'Well, my roof is busted so it's going to leak into the house.' Try different materials, try a different contractor, try something else.
Don't like going to the gym? It's not the only way to exercise. Running. Dancing. Spinning class. At-home video. Integrate more walking, walk everywhere… that's still better than nothing. Join a sport you like. Do 10 pushups every time before you go to the bathroom.
There's a million and one ways to get physical activity into your life. You only need to find one.
People give up because they like to keep a positive self-conception of themselves. People think they're in the right, and want to keep thinking they're in the right, so they find an excuse. We don't want to have a negative conception of ourselves.
If an attempt to start exercising doesn't work, most people (falsely) see the choice as between being a bad person or saying 'exercise doesn't work for me.' But you don't need to make it personal: you can approach it just like a roof that's leaking or a car that breaks down, and analyze the system. Build a better system for exercising.
You can think of this like training a dragon. The thinking part of you -- the prefrontal cortex -- is a guy riding a dragon. The prefrontal cortex thinks it's smart, but it's riding this giant beast that's primitive and shoots flames. It responds best to rewards and cues, and if the dragon gets mad, you're in big trouble. That can depersonalize things to some extent. If you're trying to change your dragon and it doesn't like what you're doing, try to think of something else to make it work.
That gets back to the systems thinking. Ask, "What can I change and try again, and see if I can run it?"
If you're interested in finishing and completing more things, there's an interesting phase: instead of saying, "How can I ever finish?" replace it with "How can I start?" If you keep starting again and again, you'll get it done. Focus on the starting, not on the finishing.
Then, give yourself a big reward. Especially if it's late or overdue, we tend to beat ourselves up and feel bad about things. And that's detrimental -- negative feelings are detrimental, they hurt our willpower, and make us avoid whatever we feel negative about.
If something is late, START BY FORGIVING YOURSELF for whatever is going on. And then give yourself a big reward if you get it done. Try it out, most people don't want to reward themselves for doing something they suck at. But try it out, it might get yourself across the finish line.
Giving yourself rewards can be hard to do, because it feels arbitrary. This is where all this stuff with badges and gamification, it's designed to externalize the rewards.
I'm learning how to code and using something called Treehouse. I'm learning Ruby and I get a badge about Arrays or Hashes as I learn something and pass a quiz. Every couple exercises you'll get a short little funny/interesting video, you get to watch a little episode randomly when you complete a module. It totally motivates me to keep doing this. I've been trying to make REWARDS FEEL MORE EXTERNAL AND LESS LIKE I'M ARBITRARILY DOING SOMETHING.
The other part of it is a natural reward, a reward in the outside world… people get praised, get an external reward. If you can set this sort of reward up, where you know you're going to feel good after completing something, you'll get more done.
When I was a gymnast, our coach would get upset when we'd over think our training. It was at Stanford, so we all thought we were pretty smart kids. We'd be overanalyzing. The coach would say, 'Trust the training.' We think more when we're anxious, and less when we're relaxed… so how to get more relaxed? Trust what you're doing, and you'll relax.
An exercise I read recently in The Charisma Myth. It feels quite hokey, but it's tested with some very successful senior executives and it's gotten great results: Take a deep breath, close your eyes, imagine a large force -- the Universe, God, Fate, whatever you want to call it -- and imagine all your worries get sucked by the thing and everything is going to work our as well as it's supposed to, it's going to work out perfectly for you.
If you don't naturally have this thought, you can work on, this can help you get moving.
When you're paralyzed and not moving, you're spending part of your time thinking, 'Is what I'm doing the right thing? Should I be doing something else entirely?' But you often wind up doing nothing, which is the worst thing possible…this exercise lets you get into motion. Once you get to a certain threshold of very basic understanding, it's better to take action.
It's like General Patton said, "A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week."Jason's blog is The Art of Ass-Kicking. You can find his GiveGetWin deal, a class he's teaching on "The Science of Willpower" which will be fantastic.