"The Willpower Instinct", Ch. 4


Hi folks! This is your “The Willpower Instinct” Chapter 4 thread!

Teaser from chapter 5 :slight_smile:

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I think I’m running behind (I blame the new baby), but I really liked this chapter and wanted to share my notes.

My main take-away: strive to be a goal consequentialist!

Anything you moralize becomes fair game for the effect of moral licensing. If you tell yourself that you’re “good” when you exercise and “bad” when you don’t, then you’re more likely to skip the gym tomorrow if you work out today.

If the research she’s citing has held up (does anyone know?), then it seems that casting your goals in moral terms triggers some kind of ethical homeostasis, which shows up as cognitive biases like moral licensing and the halo effect.

When we think about our willpower challenges in moral terms, we get lost in self-judgments and lose sight of how those challenges will help us get what we want.

Nate Soares’ series on replacing guilt covers some similar ground, especially the post “‘Should’ Considered Harmful”. He makes the case that when you use the word “should” about your behaviors, you shortcut the kind of reasoning about consequences that lets you effectively make trade-offs between conflicting goals.

It’s not quite the same concept as moral licensing, but I think it’s related… we have goals for instrumental reasons, not to earn abstract goodness points. This is one of the big reasons I am so die-hard about Beeminder. I have a serious tendency to moralize my goals and then crank up the inner critic. Quantifying my goals and tracking them forces me to break out of the moral framing and think more about the causal model for the outcomes I want.

I think having a quantified, causal model also forces me out of the illusion that Future Dave can make up for lost time:

This illustrates a fundamental mistake we make when thinking about our future choices. We wrongly but persistently expect to make different decisions tomorrow than we do today. I’ll smoke this one cigarette, but starting tomorrow, I’m done. I’ll skip the gym today, but I’m sure I’ll go tomorrow. I’ll splurge on holiday gifts, but then no more shopping for at least three months.

It’s hard to lie to myself about what I can get done when Beeminder shows me the evidence right there.

The “A Tomorrow Just Like Today” sidebar had a tip that I’ll be considering for all future “Do Less” goals.

When you want to change a behavior, aim to reduce the variability in your behavior, not the behavior itself.

I can easily imagine a ratcheting effect with addictive behaviors. It might be easy to rationalize the occasional binge, but there’s a risk that the binge pushes your norm a bit further in the wrong direction. Looking back on my “Do Less” goals, I have had way more success when I start with tracking and attempting to maintain the status quo rather than jumping straight to cutting back.

By the way, the Replacing Guilt series is really good and worth your time. Have you ever had the urge to just throw out all discipline once you know you are going to derail on a goal? The post “Failing with Abandon” has made me much less prone to doing that:

When you miss your target, you can take a moment to remember who put the target there, and you can ask yourself whether you want to get as close to the target as possible. If you decide you only want to miss your target by a little bit, you still can.

UPDATE: on further reflection, the whole Nate Soares blog series is pretty long. While I found the whole thing useful and inspiring, I’m amending my recommendation: both “Should Considered Harmful” and “Failing with Abandon” are worth reading and work in isolation. If you like those, then the whole thing might also be for you.


I have also fallen behind, and no new baby to blame (Congratulations!!), but your thoughts here have inspired me to get back to the book. Thanks!


Seems like our book club has derailed :smiley:
For what’s worth, I’m continuing on reading the book
although I’ve been negligent on puting it into practice. The challenge i put initially (use of mobile phone / social media) has not been going very well…


I’ve been continuing to read the book too, and have been finding it really interesting and helpful — I just haven’t been good about posting thoughts here. I guess I would need to make a beeminder goal for that too, but I don’t really want to add yet another thing at the moment…


I have a backlog of discussion topics from chapters 4 through 6! Eep!