I recently read some books that are not in my usual range: books with titles such as Willpower, Succeed, and Learned Optimism.
The psychology of cognition and and will has changed beyond recognition, in the past twenty years. Or rather – it's changed so that, for the first time, I do recognize it: for the first time, what these people are describing looks something like my interior landscape. I don't live in a world of low self-esteem, deep suppressed anger, and endless replication of childhood trauma. I live in a world in which I frequently run out of steam. Oomph, as I call it. Oomph is what allows me to resist temptation and change habits. I also use it to write poems, and to write difficult database queries, and to engage in socializing. It is a precious and limited resource: and a couple years ago I formulated my notion of its importance. “The art of life,” I declared, “consists of the skillful deployment of oomph.”
It turns out that psychologists have been studying oomph a lot, lately. They call it self-regulation, which is a rather negative way of phrasing it. Roy Baumeister calls it willpower, but rightly cautions against a) the grandiosity of the term, and b) the tradition of considering “willpower” a fixed personality trait, rather than the name of something that rises and falls, is depleted and replenished, in everyone. He also – and this appears to be the mainstream view, at the moment – thinks it can trained up, like muscular strength. I'm a bit skeptical about this, but he has some data to back the idea up.
Trainable or not, it's a limited resource in everyone. People are very bad at assessing how much of it they have: almost everyone overestimates. And hence they put themselves in the way of temptations they can't really resist, or set themselves self-improvement programs that they can't really carry out, which is very discouraging, and they draw the conclusion that they're weak-willed, in a permanent and pervasive way, which is even more discouraging. But in fact they've just been treating their oomph as it was inexhaustible, which it's not, not in anyone.
So. I have some things I've been trying to change in my life, for years, for decades, actually. These books, and my own thinking about oomph, have given me new hope about succeeding in changing them. The basic approach is to split the changes into manageable steps – steps that will require oomph, but not more than I have. I create clear, explicit goals for these steps, so that there's no waffle-room – I know for sure whether I'm succeeding or failing. I track it on a calendar. If I succeed in a step for three weeks, by the end of that time it should be requiring much less oomph. It will have moved into “habit” territory. I get a reward of some sort, and I go on to the next step.
If I fail – and the steps should be ambitious enough that sometimes I do – then I don't need to waste much time scolding myself and beating myself up. I just need to recognize that what I thought was one three week step is too big for that: I need to break it down, somehow, into a couple of steps, and start over. It's important to really start over: rewrite the goals, re-set the endpoint, and to thoroughly give up on making it all the way through that project in three weeks.
From time to time is that I'll start failing again at something I thought I had mastered and had moved into the “habit” column. This is to be expected, and when it happens I simply need to put it back into the “un-mastered” column. I'll take it up again.
The key here is to have only one or two steps that I'm working on at any one time, so that I know what I'm focusing on, and so that I'm not overspending oomph at any one time.
The reason all this has come up, now, is that in moving to a new place, I lost several good habits, and have had to recover them. Things as simple and fundamental as showering and doing the dishes every day had moved from being habits to being things I had to spend oomph to accomplish. I'm fortunate to have stumbled over these books when I did, because they made this deterioration much easier to understand, and made it seem much less sinister. It's more than just the stresses and uncertainties of being displaced, and having a large house-full of stuff to sort, store, or dispose of. Habits are tied to time and place: with the move I lost my bearings in both. My schedule was disrupted, and the daily furniture of my life was gone (or at least in storage). The cues for doing my back exercises in the morning, and for doing the dishes in the evening, had vanished. I was going to have to rebuild my habits in the new house.
I've re-established most of it, now. When the current three-week projects are done – I'm about halfway in to them – I should have restored my habitual exercise (cycling 4+ times per week), and moved my schedule back 2½ hours, so that I'm getting to bed at 10:30 again. From there I will move into the much more difficult territory of changing my eating, which looks to be a whole string of three week projects involving planning, shopping, cooking, and storing food. Actually restricting what I eat will come last: I need to have a whole infrastructure of food habits in place before I attempt that.
Restricting eating is its own game, uniquely difficult: one of the more fascinating discoveries that Baumeister et al have made is that self-regulation – the expenditure of oomph – depletes the glucose supply to certain oomphy areas of the brain, which results – of course – in strong bodily cravings for a quick carb-rush. It's a neat little catch-22 that was not understood until recently, but which sheds a lot of light on the failures of dieting. I have some ideas about how to circumvent it – but that comes later. First I need to have daily habits of cooking and supplying a kitchen in place.