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External Supports for Your Willpower

How can we be more strategic with our willpower?

Alarm clock ringing

Typically, we think of the self-controlled person as one with tremendous willpower, incredible internal resources of self-discipline. The thing is, this individual's success may be more a matter of strategy than the traditional notion of strength. We can and do offload the burden of willpower to the environment to scaffold our success.

I recently did an iProcrastinate Podcast with one of the authors of an excellent chapter from the book The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination. The chapter is entitled Procrastination and the Extended Will. The authors are Joseph Heath and Joel Anderson. I spoke with Professor Anderson, Joel, at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences. He explained how we have some mistaken assumptions about willpower. It's not solely an internal, personal resource. Context matters too. Willpower is distributed.

Extended Will and Distributed Willpower
The gist of the notion of extended will is that human rationality is heavily scaffolded. That is, our environment works to support our actions or to hinder them. As Heath and Anderson write in their chapter, "People are able to get on because they ‘offload' an enormous amount of practical reasoning onto their environment" (p. 233). As an example they note that "The most common form of offloading that we perform is to transfer segments of our working memory onto the environment. We write things down" (p. 235). We all realize this when we stop and think about it. This is particularly true for more difficult mental tasks such as complex mathematical calculations. It's rare that we would do these calculations "in our heads." In sum, we can do more with the scaffolding provided by tools like writing. This is known most generally as the "extended mind."

To over-simplify the argument made by Heath and Anderson, they maintain that we can think of will in a similar manner. Certainly we can and do just "buckle down" at times to accomplish tasks by exerting self-control or will. However, more often than not, ". . . what looks like sheer willpower is the result of more or less well-orchestrated attempts by individuals to arrange their lives in such a way as to economize on willpower, by avoiding situations that call for its exercise. We refer to this as distributed willpower, since it involves individuals creating more than one locus of self-control" (p. 241).

There are many strategies that we use every day that reflect these notions of an extended will and distributed willpower. We can reframe aversive tasks so they seem less repulsive, thereby minimizing are desire to procrastinate. For example, we can try to find something interesting in a task that at first seems a bore. Heath and Anderson remind us how common this is by noting that this is a Mary Poppins strategy ("For every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. Find the fun and, snap, the job's a game" [p. 242]). In fact, many strategies that I have offered up previously in my Don't Delay blog are captured in this notion such as creating implementation intentions to support a goal or breaking down a task into more manageable, doable short-term jobs.

The key thing is that willpower is not simply an internal process, and we need to keep this in focus in order to be more strategic and successful. A very concrete example may help to make this clearer.

It won't be very long until the start of the annual Iditarod sled-dog race (the first Saturday in March). In fact, the start of the Yukon Quest race is only a week away. My example comes from the practical problems faced by mushers who must find incredible self-control to stay on task (running their dog teams on schedule) despite sleep deprivation, physical exhaustion and very challenging circumstances.

Environmental strategies typical of extended will are crucial to success. In a recent podcast with Mushing Magazine, the young champion musher Dallas Seavey, explained how he uses a series of strategies to scaffold his willpower.

Exhausted by the grueling pace of the race and lack of sleep, it is difficult for a musher to take a short nap, wake on schedule and keep moving forward with his or her dog team. While dogs eat, get massaged and sleep, the musher is busy tending to dog care, equipment and preparing for the next leg of the journey. A "cat nap" (pardon the pun) is the most that competitive mushers get at most checkpoints. The challenge is to have the willpower to get up on schedule.

Of course, few, if any, mushers can do this with internal self-control alone. True to Heath's and Anderson's argument, these mushers have to be strategic and scaffold their will. Here's how Dallas Seavey does it:

1. He puts two alarm clocks in his hat (where he will hear them) before he gets into his sleeping bag. When these alarms ring, he never shuts them off. He only presses the snooze button so they will ring again 7 or 8 minutes later. Why? Because he knows it's too easy to be sitting down putting on his boots only to slump back asleep. He shuts them off when he's driving his team out of the checkpoint.
2. He has practiced the checkpoint routine repeatedly in preparation for the race so that his actions become "muscle memory" as he puts it. When the alarms go off, he begins to stuff his sleeping bag away (it's also very much like Gollwitzer's implementation intention, "If the alarm goes off, then I stuff my sleeping bag and get moving). The "trigger" for action is set with the alarm, and no thinking is required. The pre-decision has been made.
3. He can also draw on social support, asking checkpoint volunteers to wake him at a particular time, giving them what Heath and Anderson call a "license to nag."

This doesn't mean that Dallas lacks personal self-control or willpower. Nothing could be further from the truth, in fact. He's was a champion wrestler; he knows what hard work and training are and the self-discipline required. In fact, that is why he's such a perfect example of how everyone requires this scaffolding, even those of us who are already gifted with self-determination, strong goals and internal resources of self-control. The key to success, it seems, is in being strategic with this careful scaffolding known as the extended will.

In fact, as Heath and Anderson write, "Getting things done becomes then a decided nonmentalistic matter of turning amorphous responsibilities into a much less intimidating pile of ‘widgets to be cranked'" (p. 249). Dallas has learned this important strategy, among others. Pack the sleeping bag, bootie the dogs, pack the sled . . . . widgets to be cranked, not decisions to be made. The decision to act was made, and the environment has been orchestrated to support these actions with as low a threshold for engagement as possible.

So, what are your goals? How can you strategically "offload" willpower to the environment to distribute your willpower and scaffold your success? We all do it. I think if we focus on it more explicitly we could all do it much better, strategically minimizing distractions and lowering the threshold for acting on our intentions in a timely manner to achieve our goals.

Heath, J., & Anderson, J. (2010). Procrastination and the Extended Will. In C. Andreou & M.D. White (Eds.) The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination (pp. 233-252). New York: Oxford University Press.

Blogger Note: I apologize for my extended absence. Family illness has made finding time for writing difficult.

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