Further Notes on “Rethinking Discipline”

Last week I published an article arguing for a different hypothesis about how self-discipline works. The standard idea, which even had decent scientific backing, was that willpower was a resource that could be depleted like a fuel.

Now the evidence behind this view is a bit shakier, so I wanted to suggest an alternative: self-discipline is a competition between different “mental habits” or patterns of thinking, feeling and reacting.

This idea is a bit confusing. It’s certainly less intuitive than a fuel analogy to self-discipline. With an idea of fuel being consumed over short-term acts of self-discipline, it’s fairly simple to make predictions. The idea of a messy array of mental habits you’re only partially aware of and which get feedback both internally and from the environment, is not.

The article attracted some outside attention, so I thought I’d take a few moments to clarify what I think the similarities and differences are with the standard resource-based theory.

Side note: It goes without saying that this is speculative. I think there’s evidence in support of this hypothesis, but there’s a good chance it’s wrong either in details or on major points which would undermine some of these conclusions.

Similarities Between Resource-Based and Mental Habit-Based Theories of Will

Some commenters expressed that they believed the correct way to view willpower was of a model of progressive training. You exercise your self-discipline more, and it gets stronger.

Interestingly, this is actually a point of agreement between the two theories, although the mechanisms and specific implications are different.

In a resource-based theory, willpower is like a muscle. It gets fatigued in the short-term through use. Over the long-term, however, it will adapt and grow to lift more weight.

In a habit-based theory, willpower is a competition between different mental patterns. Pay attention to patterns you want to amplify, mindfully non-react to those you want to diminish, and over the long-run you should be able to make changes to the overall pattern of reaction, leading to greater self-discipline.

There are key differences in what these theories predict, however:

First, in a resource-based theory, willpower is drawn from a common store. This means all willpower is the same. Get better at resisting donuts and, presumably, you should get better at not procrastinating. Exhaust yourself by focusing really hard, and other, unrelated, acts of self-discipline will be harder for a brief time.

In a habit-based theory, however, the mechanism is subject to the same things we know about mental patterns in learning. Therefore, it’s quite likely that there will be considerably context-dependence and possible failures of transfer when moving from one domain of willpower to another.

Self-discipline would only cross over to the extent that the mental patterns overlap. For some things this might be true, but for many it won’t.

Second, a habit-based theory has stochastic control over attention as the variable which modulates success at resisting temptation, not a depleting resource. Given this view, assuming environmental feedback remains constant, it’s not the case that self-discipline is fatigued in the short-run from use.

My feeling is that this isn’t often a huge difference because, in many acts of self-discipline, environmental feedback does increase which makes resisting harder and harder. Exercising, for instance, may be a situation where as one’s body gets more and more tired, reactions to pain become harder to avoid.

However, it does lead to some interesting conclusions where, if the environmental feedback plateaus at some level, it might be the case where relatively non-stop performance of self-discipline becomes possible. Long-distance runners, for instance, have told me that they find the run, “mostly mental,” after a certain distance, implying that bodily feedback has reached some relative level of constancy and now they’re just playing a game of attention to prevent reacting to it while they finish their run. (Actual long-distance runners may want to weigh-in here if my description is fair.)

What Does Meditation Have to Do With Self-Discipline?

Mindfulness and meditation, seem to play two distinct possible roles here in relation to self-discipline.

The first is that mindfulness, the act of trying to be aware of what is going on in your consciousness at a given moment in time, rather than simply trying to execute upon or judge those experiences, may give one a greater awareness of what exactly are the patterns which precede certain reactions.

My own experience meditating put a lot of these patterns into sharp relief. I used to think I would squirm out of an uncomfortable position because of the sensations themselves. However, looking more closely, the timing actually corresponded to some kind of thought or impulse, often with content which didn’t relate to this specific moment but worries about the duration of pain or the worthiness of the task I’m trying to endure.

I think many of these patterns are really hard to spot. Even meditating nearly non-stop during my 10-day retreat, I only started to notice some of them after several days in. Chances are there are subtler patterns of feeling and reaction I’m still oblivious to. This is even more true when, in a normal, non-meditative environment, you’re constantly trying to do things and make decisions and deal with huge amounts of impinging sensory information.

The second role of mindfulness seems to be that it allows a more precise control over attention. Attention has a voluntary component and an involuntary component. Voluntary, because we have some choice about what we want to pay attention to in a given moment, based on our values, feelings and previous decisions.

Involuntary because we all exhibit what psychologists call orienting responses. These are involuntary jerks of attention to strong stimulus coming from outside of our previous sphere of attention. A phone ringing, someone saying your name, pain from your body or an enticing thought pattern all cause momentary orientations away from the previous object of attention.

In most activities, attention control is the means for achieving some other objective, rather than the goal in and of itself. However, in practicing mindfulness, either in meditation or in life, the “goal” (if you can call it that) is on directing the voluntary part of attention itself.

This may have a facilitating effect on diminishing mental patterns that normally create strong orienting responses. Deprived of their normal sequential pattern of reaction, they will diminish in strength over time, the same way that overt physical habits extinguish when you stop following them automatically.

One open question for me is whether the mechanism of voluntary attention is the same as the habit patterns one wishes to modulate or whether it is operated by a different type of circuitry in the brain that has different principles. If the former is true, it may be that attention control has the same problems of transfer as other mental patterns, and therefore requires context-specific training. Alternatively, it may be operated by more generalized circuits in the brain and be closer to a faculty, meaning that training in mindfulness in one context could generalize to another, even if the habit patterns one wishes to engage in or avoid reacting to are different.

The answer to this question may suggest how important meditation is versus mindfulness in everyday life. If voluntary attention control has hard transfer problems, mindfulness in everyday life would be the main focus with meditation serving as a basic training or activity to remind yourself how to be mindful. If, on the other hand, voluntary attention control is a more general faculty, meditation itself may do much of the work and the mindfulness in other areas would be simply a matter of turning it on.

This point may be a bit confusing, so I’ll reiterate the model:

  1. There are different habit patterns. Some you want to pay attention to. Others you want to avoid reacting to. These are likely fairly context-dependent. Meaning self-discipline doesn’t transfer perfectly across domains.
  2. The act of mindfulness is a mechanism for facilitating self-discipline. It deals with the act of voluntary attention control in the moment, rather than the outcome of broader behaviors. This may be a fairly general faculty, or it might be like the mental habit patterns and itself be highly context-dependent.
  3. If attention control is context-dependent, that may mean everyday mindfulness (e.g. Power of Now) is more important than meditation (e.g. Vipassana). If attention control is relatively general, meditation is relatively more important because it’s an opportunity to exclusively develop this faculty, without the constraints of other tasks.

Why the Focus on Self-Discipline?

I constrained the initial discussion to self-discipline because this seemed like a really good example of mental habits and one in which the ideas contradict a more standard model.

However, this really isn’t limited to self-discipline. If there’s a much broader quality of amplifying some mental patterns and diminishing others, then one could presumably optimize for very different sets of values.

One of my major goals with meditation was to reduce anxiety. As my life has gotten more complex and more of my major life goals have been achieved, what I’ve been left with has been increasingly the category of problems in which my life would be  better if I stopped worrying about them–rather than the category of problems solved by taking some concrete action towards their resolution.

For me, therefore, the quality in which this has played out has been from trying to redirect attention away from future concerns, plans and worries when that is unnecessary and inappropriate, and onto the task I’m working on or the current moment.

This isn’t usually the aim of self-discipline, but the operation of this seems to be much the same as what I’ve described above. It’s simply that my emphasis is on different sets of patterns.

Similarly, I could see this working for stimulating spontaneity or creativity in the same way. Spontaneity seems to me to require the combination of a great deal of attention paid to the current moment, where alternatives and opportunities can be spotted, along with a disinhibition of unconventional or new patterns of action.

Spontaneity is perceived as being almost the opposite of self-discipline, and yet, it seems to be amenable to the same basic mechanism of attenuating and amplifying mental habit patterns.

How Far Does This Go?

I’m so early in the process of exploring this, I’m not even sure if this hypothesis is correct, never mind how far it can lead with reasonable dedication.

It may turn out that there are strong biological imperatives in one’s mental circuitry, so plasticity has fairly sharp limits. You may not be able to prevent yourself from succumbing to some patterns, or if you do, the brain may compensate by amplifying a related pattern to fulfill the same biological need.

In the context of overt habits, I’ve written that many are “meta-stable.” Meta-stability is a physical term referring to when a certain state may not have any inclination to change, but minor perturbations will kick it out of that state. A pendulum hanging is stable. A pendulum balancing perfectly upside-down is meta-stable.

Similarly, there may be a biologically preset level of certain mental habits that mean full extinction of the pattern without further effort to maintain it is impossible. It may even mean that getting the mental pattern down to a quieter level is still very hard, depending on the pattern.

My suspicion, however, is that the range of changes one could make with this method are a lot broader than the normal variation you see across human societies (which is already quite broad). I believe this because most patterns are self-reinforcing. Without realizing it, you make existing patterns stronger, not less. This leads to addiction, in extreme cases, but even when we don’t label the behavior as addiction, there’s a strong compulsion to engage in it. Since most of these patterns are being amplified beneath your awareness, then it will be whatever underlying tendencies existed before that guide them.

Rethinking Discipline

What is self-discipline? I think everyone has at least a hazy picture of what it means to be self-disciplined. From the outside, self-discipline looks like suppressing impulses to do things you shouldn’t do. Self-discipline means not eating too much, not succumbing to the temptation to check your phone every two minutes, ignoring what you want to do and doing what you should.

Everyone has experienced being self-disciplined—that time when you valiantly resisted an impulse you thought you shouldn’t follow. But, more often than not, we have the opposite experience: failing to be self-disciplined, succumbing to temptations.

This outside-view and numerous experiences would make it seem likely that we should all be experts in self-discpline. If not in practice, then at least in theory. We should know why we persist when we do, why we give up and what’s going on inside our heads in both cases. After all, experiences of self-discipline—both in failure and in success—happen every day.

Yet, I think this familiarity doesn’t necessarily equate to understanding. I’ve written about self-discipline for years, but recently I’ve had some experience that make me rethink what it might be all about.

Is Self-Discipline a Resource?

The easiest metaphor, and the one I’ve operated on implicitly for most of my life is that self-discipline is a kind of resource. Use more self-discipline and it will get used up and you’ll feel tired.

Intuitively this seems to be the case. With few exceptions, most people can’t endure indefinitely in a situation that requires constant willpower. Eventually we give up, and when we do, it seems likely that there was some kind of fuel that was used up in the process.

Scientifically, this also seemed to be the case until recently. Roy Baumeister’s research into ego-depletion was seen as a pretty solid edifice to the idea that there is a bottleneck in the amount of willpower you can expend, and when it gets used up you succumb to whatever temptation you’re facing.

However, Baumeister’s work has also fallen victim to the replication crisis in psychology. Whether this is truly an invalidation of his theory, or the presence of statistical complications that go over my head, I think remains to be seen. For the moment at least, it appears that science doesn’t have a definitive answer to the question of what is self-discipline.

Although less scientific, the concept of energy management dovetails nicely with ego-depletion. The fundamental idea is that there are different stores of an abstract quantity of energy and that managing this resource, and not time management, is the key to productivity. This has also been a foundational idea in my own thinking on productivity and I’ve written in support of it quite often.

What if Self-Discipline Isn’t a Resource?

I just got back from an intensive 10-day silent meditation retreat. Some of the experiences bordered on insanity, and perhaps I’ll share more about them when I’ve had time to process them. But one of the aspects of my life it shed light on was this concept of self-discipline.

Going on a meditation retreat is like becoming a monk for ten days, except instead of even the duties one would have as a monk, there’s just more meditating. There’s no speaking, no phones, no computers, no reading, no writing, no exercising and no sex. Instead you wake up at 4am, meditate for ten hours per day, with short breaks to stretch your legs and eat two meals a day.

The outside-view of the meditation retreat is that all of the worldly pleasures you’re giving up will be the temptation. That you’ll be tempted to speak, want to eat in the evening, crave checking your phone or do something fun.

I can’t speak for others’ experience, but in my case, none of that was hard at all. The thing that’s hard about a meditation retreat is the meditating. Because even when you have nothing to do, there’s still a lot you can do: you can look around at things, walk around a little, scratch your face, change your position. When you meditate, even those minor pleasures are discouraged. Instead you’re to sit as still as possible and focus on some object of meditation, say your breath or sensations in your body.

Needless to say, meditating requires a lot of self-discipline. But is it the kind of self-discipline that gets consumed as a resource?

At first, that answer seemed obvious to me: the longer a meditation session went on, the more willpower I’d need to resist the urge to quit and go do something else. My back and legs would hurt, so I’d want to change my posture. I’d want to daydream about something else, engage in a little mental theatre imagining this scenario or that one. Yet—according to the technique—whenever this happens you’re to remind yourself you’re here to work and shift your focus back onto something happening right now.

As the days wore on, however, I started to notice something about my own self-discipline that seemed to contradict the resource metaphor. Sitting still and doing meditation was hard, but it was hard to the degree to which I was somewhere else. If my attention was fully focused on what I was doing, and not on, say, thinking to myself about how long this will last and when I’ll be free, the act got a lot easier. The longer attention was paid to the meditation without these interruptions, the easier it got.

This suggests a very different model of willpower, one based on attention and mental habit patterns, instead of a consumable resource.

A Closer Look at Self-Discipline

The idea is still very speculative, but here it is: at any moment, there are mental habit patterns that are compelling you to engage in some kind of action. Move. Change your posture. Think out a plan to solve this problem.

In addition to these mental habit patterns, there’s a broader quality of attention. What is being paid attention to in this particular moment. What is filling the field of your consciousness, at varying degrees of precision and intensity.

Self-discipline occurs when there is a mental habit pattern encouraging some further action and the attentional response is to not engage in that habit pattern. Not to resist it or try to push it out of your thoughts, but just to ignore it.

One metaphor that comes to mind is it is as if your mind is full of tons of whiny children who all want you to do something for them. At any particular moment, you can engage your attention onto one of the children—either by trying to fulfill its wishes, trying to argue with it or telling it to shut up. Or you can just see it and not react.

When you ignore it, the impulse will still be there, but it will eventually diminish in intensity, over both the short and long-term. Over the short-term, it will eventually quieten down because no thought, sensation or feeling can be permanent. They’re all unstable and eventually decay to normal neuronal background levels. Over the long-term, it will become less noisy in the future because that impulse, through being frustrated, is conditioned to be quieter next time.

If this model is true, then self-discipline isn’t a resource at all. The problem is simply that voluntary attentional control is itself a somewhat random process that has ups and downs, starts and stops.

These ups and downs, or to use the term from Buddhism, arising and passing away, of both the impulses and one’s voluntary control over focus will occasionally create gaps, particularly in the short-term, where one succumbs to temptation. That’s because one’s impulse exceeds the attentional resources to not pay attention to it in that moment, and you succumb. However, no resource was consumed either before or after, simply an inevitable result from somewhat noisy processes competing for control over your body.

Side note: I’m creating a dichotomy between volitional control over attention and the impulses that impinge on it. This is probably not accurate. It’s probably better to say that the impulses of discipline are themselves one of the voices, but it’s that this is the voice you’re trying to amplify with attention while the others are being ignored. My explanation is probably a little less accurate, but I think it’s a bit easier to wrap your head around than the deeper idea that there’s no one thing really in control when we think of voluntary control.

Why Does It Feel Like Self-Discipline is a Resource?

This then raises an interesting question, why does it *feel* as if there’s a resource being used up, if the reality is just competing habit patterns in the mind and “voluntary” control over attention, why does it feel like we can run out of willpower. If I’m able to resist an urge for five minutes, why can I not do it indefinitely?

I think there’s three reasons for the seeming presence of an underlying resource. The first is environmental feedback. The second is in thinking of averages instead of individual events. The third is that knowledge of time is itself a feedback signal that influences our habits.

Environmental feedback can happen when, as one persists, the urge gets stronger and stronger because there is continued reinforcement in the form of bodily sensations that make it feel stronger. Hunger works like this. When you’re a little hungry you can easily resist paying attention to it. When you’re starving it’s the only thing you can think about.

In this model, some activities of self-discipline will create an increasing intensity until they are satiated. These intensities cannot reach infinity, so there’s always the possibility of someone resisting even the most intense urges when the voluntary control over attention is even stronger, but these are rare because it is very unusual to develop that kind of self-discipline (and probably harmful, in most cases—such as diseases like anorexia or pain-seeking behavior).

While meditating for instance, as you sit for longer, your body itself becomes increasingly uncomfortable. This means that it can be very easy to sit for 20 minutes, but very hard to sit for 2 hours, if your volitional control habits aren’t very strong. It’s simply much more likely after the 2-hour mark that the habit pattern to quit will overwhelm you.

This idea may seem to be bringing back the idea of a resource in a covert form, so it’s important to understand the distinction: nothing is getting used up. The only thing modulating behavior is the relative strength of different mental habits, and feedback from either the outside world or internal sensations, can trigger those habits with different intensities.

The second reason that willpower “feels” like a resource is that, if we consider it a stochastic process, there will always be an expected value. A Poisson process is a statistical model that envisions this nicely. In such a process, events always have some small probability of occuring in every moment. This creates an average time between events, but it doesn’t create a “building up” of energy that needs to release itself if an event doesn’t happen soon.

The third reason for willpower seeming like a resource is that one of the regulators of habits is itself a kind of knowledge of time. One powerful mental habit is that if you’re in some kind of discomfort, either physical or psychological, and you believe that this situation will persist for a long time, the urge to take action to change it becomes much stronger.

This tendency of the mind became very clear while meditating. In normal life, this mental habit can receive reinforcement from a clock or some internal pacing rhythm, which tells you roughly how long you have left. If it is a short time, this mental habit doesn’t react as strongly. If it’s a long time you need to persist, it can be a stronger urge than almost any other.

While meditating, however, one doesn’t have external time cues. Therefore this mental habit frequently gets frustrated because the amount of time left may be a few minutes or it may be over an hour, and you have no idea. Once again, by ignoring this urge to ask how much longer the experience will be, this time-habit diminishes in intensity.

What are the Implications of an Attention-Habit Versus a Resource Model of Self-Discipline?

All of this may sound a little too technical. Most people probably don’t even think of self-discipline clearly enough to see it as a resource, nevermind asking whether that is a simplification. Why bother thinking about this?

I feel like this idea, if it turns out to be correct and properly applied, opens up many new ways of thinking about self-improvement. So many of the things we want to achieve in life are based in requiring some kind of self-discipline. So many of the negative things we experience that we’d like to be free of are also mental habits of this sort.

I don’t have an exact picture of how to use this idea yet, but here are a few specultative suggestions for where it might be useful:

Building a “now” habit. The mental habit of taking mildly unpleasant conditions and making them seem excruciatingly unbearable if they are imagined to persist for a long period of time is quite a strong one. Does this mean it might make more sense to work in a room without clocks? So the feedback signal from this mental habit becomes less precise and therefore more unstable over time? In practice it could be replaced with a bell or timer indicating the time allotted for the task was finished and one could make an adjustment.

Ignore, don’t engage. Habits get stronger with use. At the behavioral level this is clear, but I believe it is also true at the mental level. To “use” a mental habit is to engage in it in any way. Trying to fulfill it, suppress it, even feeling guilty about having it are all forms of engagement. Just let it be, and don’t do anything. The Buddhist wisdom to simply accept a reality takes on a subtle meaning here of not engaging leading to mental freedom seems to be putting this idea into practice.

Far more self-discipline and control is possible than we realize. The idea that we have to succumb to certain temptations, that we couldn’t possibly put in *that* much effort or that life would be unbearable if it weren’t like X, Y or Z, may be false at a fundamental level. By slowly building habits of attention and letting ones you don’t want extinguish, much of the internal conflict you feel over what you should be doing and what you actually do might go away.

Applying this Idea in Recursive Stages

Part of what always bugged me about Eastern philosophies was that they told you to “accept” reality as what it was, but isn’t my own non-acceptance part of reality and therefore what I should accept? This seemed like a straightforward contradiction and I didn’t know my way out of it.

Now I see that the answer is that there are different levels of mental patterns and sometimes to counteract a particularly strong one you need a lot of attention onto an alternate pattern. However, this alternate pattern eventually creates its own weaknesses and so to go further, you have to give this up as well. This means that the idea of accepting non-acceptance has to proceed recursively, first working on the bigger picture and then onto subtler and subtler realities. If you just dismiss the whole notion because you know it eventually self-contradicts, you’re missing the progressive aspect.

What does this mean for self-discipline?

Well I can imagine starting out where one feels that they have no self-discipline at all. Here, this person needs to have fairly crude mental habits to rectify the worst of their impulse control. In this area, setting minimal habits to put even a tiny amount of effort into the task might be necessary.

Later, once some mental control structures have been built that avoid being completely at the whim of negative impulses, one might try setting up systems: things like GTD, fixed-schedule productivity, weekly/daily goals and other systems that work over a longer time-scale. These can placate somewhat that strong tendency of the mind to look for escape when the current unpleasantness will last for too long. By forming a structured system with a predefined escape time, you can build a habit of working hard inside that structure.

However, further levels of self-discipline might transcend this system itself. By reducing the impulse to do other things to a low enough level, one might be able to “work” on whatever you need to do nearly continuously as if it were a fun activity.

This isn’t to say that one *should* work continuously, obviously there is more to life than work. Rather its to say that the unpleasantness of work, the desire to have leisure time when you’re supposed to be working, would go away.

These successive layers of self-discipline, resulting in an extreme of an effortless kind of action, would require a lot of patience to slowly develop. Because going deeper into the structure involves working against the structure previously established, there’s always a risk of not realizing impulsive habits have been building up and losing the entire structure and needing to partially start over. However, that may be a worthwhile price to pay in the long-run.

As I said previously, there’s a lot to explore here and I’m not even certain that this is true. However, it lines up more closely with neurobiology than a resource-based theory of self-discipline, so I’m willing to accept it tentatively. Whether one can reach this theoretical end-goal of endless, effortless action, is still an open question, but the possibility is very interesting nonetheless.

Side Note: Robert Wright’s book, Why Buddhism is True, discusses many similar ideas, so if you think this discussion is interesting and want to hear from a better meditator and scientist than I am, you may want to check it out.

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