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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.