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How Getting a Little Distance Can Help Willpower

The human mind

Maybe you’ve had the experience–I know I have–of doing something that at the time seems overwhelmingly important or irresistable but that later just seems … stupid. Or at least unnecessary and a bad idea. It doesn’t matter whether it’s spending a whole afternoon at work searching for an e-mail that will prove a point you’re trying to make, or heading out to the couch with a spoon and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s that will never be seen or heard from again, or staying up all night watching the Gilligan’s Island marathon instead of studying: our judgment of what to do in the moment often doesn’t agreewith what we’ll later decide we would like to have done.

So if we want to try to bring those two perspectives closer–that is, to be more comfortable doing things we’ll still approve of later–one key skill is getting a little distance. I’ll be more specific: when I say “distance,” I’m talking about three separate things: awareness, perspective, and mental separation.

Being aware of–mindful of–what’s going on in our own brains is not automatic. It’s entirely possible–even easy–to think about something without paying much attention to the fact that we’re thinking about it. Thinking about thinking (“metacognition”) is a conscious process that we do more of when we encourage the habit and less of if we don’t make an effort.

Without noticing what we’re thinking about, we’re fairly powerless to change our thoughts. But when we pay attention to what our minds are doing, we have options: we can refocus attention elsewhere, think through consequences, distract ourselves, surrender ourselves, or take other steps to be more practical, consistent, serene, constructive, or however else we want to be in those moments.

Perspective is the difference between “I’m going to die if I don’t get those shoes” and “I’d enjoy those shoes, but I’d rather spend the $200 on groceries.” Lack of perspective makes things that will detract from our happiness more attractive and makes things that will make us happier down the road seem dull and un-hip.

One way to get perspective is to think about all of the consequences of an action, not just the appealing ones. Another one, which helps me sometimes, is self-mockery. Mentally (or even out loud, if you can’t be heard or don’t mind) saying “Oh yes, I’m going to be in absolute torture every moment of my life if I don’t get an iPad!” (for instance) wakes up our critical thinking and often yields a “wait–I really don’t want that” effect.

Mental separation
Mental separation is the process of changing focus to another subject or another aspect of the current subject. If I’m being tempted to procrastinate on important work by reading a novel instead, mental separation means leaving off thinking about the novel for the moment and instead focusing on something more constructive, like what it will be like to present the project I’m working on to an appreciative audience, or how much I love my paycheck. As long as our focus remains unchanged, it’s difficult to change our minds about what we want to do, although perspective can help. When we let go of a slightly obsessive line of thought in favor of some other subject, the dangerous line of thought ceases to have nearly as much sway over us, and in fact it would take work to get back into that same way of thinking. (See “How to Multitask, and When Not To” for information about how changing what we’re thinking about requires us to reorganize our brains.)

Getting a little distance from overly eager thoughts about underly good things is an important component of being able to exercise willpower. Willpower is making good choices, and our choices are driven in large part by how we feel about the options. Switching to a healthier kind of thinking makes healthier options seem more appealing, and with no more effort than that move, we can improve our chances of going down the paths we really want to follow.

Photo by loungerie

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