18 February 2014

On a Saturday night, i got out to party. After a few hours of dancing, and a few drinks I we got of the club to take a taxi home. I got hit by the delicious smell of bacon grilling around juicy hot dogs. Next to the dogs, onions and peppers added extra savory smell and ggot my mouth watering as I imagined biting into the juicy, crunchy hot dog. I wanted the hot dog so bad. I was determined to eat the hot dog, and nobody could convince me otherwise. So, I got the hot dog, and I ate it. It felt good.

This story has has happened many many times. Probably at least 20 times in the last couple of years. Even though I know that hot dog isn’t good healthy food. I know it may have suspicious ingredients, and is prepared with suspicious hygiene. It doesn’t make my muscles bigger, it makes my belly bigger. On the morning I feel heavier from the junk food. It is even not that tasty. And I don’t eat hot dog under normal sitations. But out of the club I still do it, and fall for it most of the time.

Because in the moment I go out of the club, my body is the one taking the action, and not my mind, my thinking self. My longer term decision making, conscious self gives way to the short term greedy self. It is really amazing how even though I am fully aware that the hot dog is not healthy, and I don’t normally like to eat it, I still do. I cant stop myself from eating it, and at the moment don’t even want to stop myself. Late at night, if you ask me I will tell you all the bad things about the hot dog and I will still eat it.

At this moment, all the logic and reason isn’t enough to convince my body to obey. It is not impossible for the mind the overrule the body though. But it requires willpower. Willpower would allow me to be conscious and to act in favor of my long term interests even when I have a primal urge not to do so. Willpower drives me to achieve larger goals, by powering through a bunch of uncomfortable inconveniences.

I think we can define willpower as the ability to take actions based off of longer term interests when the actions based on shorter term interests seem more attractive. In the short term I feel really happy by eating the hot dog, but in the longer term I might feel regret forfeeling heavy and out of shape. Willpower would mean that I decide to not eat the hot dog because it is not healthy. I would feel regret immediately and that’s the cost of excercising the willpower. Multiple studies and articles mention that willpower is a limited resource but to me this feels like a very crude model. Why? Because there are many people who are really driven and get to make themselves do a lot of things that seem to require a lot of willpower. I think these people have really strong long-term interests and thus they more often take decisions to serve these long term interests. From the outside they appear as if they have super strong willpower.

When we “eat a hot dog”, or simply do something for the current moment there is reward that we feel. “Mmm, yeah, that feels goood”. We need certain amount of it from time to time. If we deny ourselves the “oh yeah” then we feel regret. Doing something, that favors long term interests like abstaining from eating a hot dog can be really hard if one regrets it and very if easy if one doesnt care, or is commited to a longer term goal in advance.

I don’t think there is a simple model like “willpower is a limited resources that we spend like we spend money”, or “there is a certain amount of short term primal fun that we need on a regular basis”, or “we switch between long term and short term decision making through the day”, that describes accurately our decision making. But still, I think there is value in being thoughtful about how we make our decisions.

One short post per week, discussing actionable mental models. Join a community of readers, who receive these posts over email.