Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Science of Self Improvement

In my previous post in this series, I told you how I came to realize I needed to understand the science of human behavior and self improvement. In this post I will lay out what I learned through my studies.


Much of this post is based on a book called Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. But I also read a lot of other articles and sources of information. I am not going to bother to try and find references and links to them all, even if I could. So if you trust me on any of this it is your own fault.

Two Factors

Two important factors intersect on our quest for self improvement: the limited ability of our brains to do things, and the power of habits to maintain behavior without significant effort. Obviously, the situation is much more complex and can depend a lot on the individual. But continued study has shown us many helpful things.

Our Brains Run on Fuel

I will present a very simplified explanation of how our bodies power our brains. Our bodies take the food we eat and convert it to energy. I good portion of that energy gets sent to power the most important part of us, our brains. When we run out of energy from food our bodies start converting fat etc into more energy. This thing is obviously much more complex involving neurotransmitters etc etc..

Every time we do anything with our brains we use up some of this energy. Learning a new task at work, resisting the temptation to eat a brownie, trying to win an argument in a meeting, these all take up the amount of available fuel your brain can access. We replenish that fuel through eating. Those snicker commercials aren't far off.  You aren't you when you are hungry. You have a harder time doing things and making decisions.  When and what we eat can help keep our brains fueled. Foods that release their energy slowly, such as nuts, can keep us going while sugar will give a quick but short burst of brain power.

If you have been following this you may be realizing one of the reasons dieting can be difficult. You need the fuel from food to resist the temptation to eat too much, but you need to eat to give yourself the brain fuel to resist temptation. It can be difficult but is not impossible. There are tricks you can do and long term success is a very real possibility. 

So willpower can be described as the amount of fuel your brain has available and the efficiency in which it is used.

The research points to two interesting caveats. There does seem to be an inherited amount of willpower. Some people are just born with more than others. Most importantly it can be trained like a muscle. They studied people who showed the attributes of having a lot of willpower. These people did things  that "flexed" their willpower.  Stand still for long periods of time hold you hand for as long as possible in a bowl of ice water. One of the most important things they found about people who seemed to possess a lot of willpower is that they used as little of it as possible. That leads us to the next important point: habits.

Habits Conserve Brain Fuel

Habits are simply ingrained behaviors. They are things you have trained yourself to do requiring almost no effort. Habits range from brushing your teeth or putting the toilet seat down, which take almost no brain power at all, to getting up early in the morning and going to the gym.  What they found in researching a lot of very successful people was that they didn't spend a whole lot of time or effort deciding what to do. They didn't spend their time fighting to find the motivation or will to do positive things. It's just what they did. They busy executive who started the day with a stress relieving workout just did it. A habit begins with willpower since they are formed by repeated actions.

Make a habit  make a new habit re-enforce habit

I believe one of the most powerful tools at our disposal for long term self improvement is the creation of positive habits. This leaves our limited willpower to handle the really important things. My coworker does this.  He uses tools and automates much of his work. Repeated tasks become as easy as one click or including one function in some code. This way he isn't wasting his limited resources of time and brain power on trivial things and can concentrate on the actual hard parts. When we make the mundane things of life habits, we free up energy to consciously make positive habits. By making it so we don't have to put much effort into doing something that positively impacts our health and well being we can create a life of slow and steady improvement.

I am convinced of the need to create  conscious positive habits in order to live a good life.  In the next post in this series I'll tell you about the practical steps I have chosen to take to create good habits.

An Aside: The Self Esteem Myth

The early chapters of the willpower book deal with the self esteem myth. There has been a prevalent belief for awhile now that it is more important for a person to feel good about themselves instead of being good. A series of studies in the late70's/early 80s showed that successful people had high self esteem and the unsuccessful had a low self esteem.  It was surmised that if we elevated every bodies self esteem performance would increase.  (There was actually lot more studies and thought into it than they just assumed.) 

The same psychologist (not gonna bother looking up his name) how began the self esteem movement continued to study the issue.  By the 90s he realized he had made a big mistake. To simplify it, the people who were good at things had a high self esteem because they were good at things not the other way around. They found almost no improvement in performance based on increasing self esteem. In fact if people were below average at something and you increased their self esteem, they became worse at those things. 

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