Monday, 27 October 2008

Biscuits: the driving force behind the nation’s freelance writers/editors

Freelance writers and editors, working at home, need to demonstrate a significant level of willpower; so I’m pleased to learn that scientists have published evidence to suggest that sneaking a daily dip into the biscuit barrel could, contrary to expectations, give your willpower a much needed boost.

Although I criticised the concept of Psychologies magazine last week, I am still drawn to psychology-related articles in the more serious press. Last week, while belated flicking through back issues of New Scientist, I came across a piece that pretty neatly sums up the chemistry/biology behind that eternal freelances’ problem: procrastination. And, in a twist of logic that Psychologies would surely be proud of, here I go reinterpreting the hard science for my own journalistic purposes…

Resist! by Helen Phillips (New Scientist, 13 September 2008, pp40–43) reports on several studies into self-control and willpower. Few readers will be surprised to learn that some people are better at self-control than others, that female impulse control is linked to the menstrual cycle, and that there are links between IQ and the ability to avoid temptation.

More interesting, though, is the news that resisting temptation appears to be controlled by the frontal lobes of the brain (especially the right frontal lobe), and that the effort of self-control also taxes the areas of the brain responsible for ‘working memory’. (One conclusion the researchers draw from these results is that teenagers find it hard to control their impulses because their frontal lobes are still developing.)

On top of that, there’s evidence that exercising willpower is also a physiological process – i.e. it’s a process that needs energy.

Helen Phillips cites studies published in the journals Psychological Science, and Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which suggest that self-control requires effort (energy) and, just as you can run out of energy when you’re pounding the treadmill at the gym, you can run of out self-control.

Part of the evidence for this comes from studying people’s heart rates while they’re being asked to resist temptation, which shows that there are peaks in energy use during temptation experiments. Another study (by Roy Baumeister at Florida State University) found that giving participants a sugary drink before their self-control was challenged improved their ability to resist temptation.

Ok, so here’s my spin on this news: eating a bicky or two before I set to work in the morning is actually good for me, because keeping up my blood sugar level boosts my self-control ‘muscle’.

A bit far fetched, perhaps? Not necessarily. One thing I’ve noticed since I turned freelance is that prioritisation (inextricably linked to resistance and self-control) is getting harder and harder. On the evidence of Phillips’ article, I now suspect my problem is caused by long-term depletion of willpower.

Ponder this for a moment:

Ten years ago the biggest drain on my self-control was the effort of getting out of bed, performing my daily ablutions and setting off for the office.

Fast forward a few years and my self-control was sorely tested by the arrival of a baby who needed me to think on his behalf (and I still do, 9 years on!), then later, along came the dog who had to be walked, fed and pampered, with rarely a day off from my responsibilities. (Not to mention all the other domestic chores, of which the most brain-taxing is invariably answering the question "What's for dinner?" )

These days I reckon I spend 90% of my time resisting doing the things I want to do, because I have so many other things that MUST BE DONE.

Having a deadline, therefore, is crucial. If, as now, I have work on the books, but nothing urgent, I can’t resist the temptation to blog instead of getting on with the paid-for stuff. And every day I’m also using up currency from my bank of self-control by “resisting” the temptation to tidy the house, put the rubbish out, stuff/unstuff the washing machine, prune my email inbox, write letters to friends I should’ve replied to in January…

It’s only biscuit power that’s helping me to resist all these exciting opportunities!!

One last thought before I really MUST get on with real work: one of Phillips’ interviewees strongly recommends writing detailed ‘to do’ lists as a way of giving yourself a leg-up to get over the procrastination fence:

“… Even something as simple as saying you will go to the gym at 5pm on a specific day is a more successful strategy than intending to exercise once a week. Planning can turn a difficult conscious decision into an unconscious habit, which makes the whole process faster and more efficient without depleting energy levels.”

So if you don’t hear from me for a while, it’s because I’m knee-deep in ‘to do’ spreadsheets.


The Slow Smoulder said...

Resisting temptation when I am busy busy busy is something that I have made a policy decision not to do if I don't feel like it. It does take alot of effort to deprogramme a habit, and it is very off-putting not to indulge in a habit when abstainance will definitely not set me up for the next task in hand. But sometimes I will put the next job first and concentrate, concentrate, concentrate for the next hour or more. It depends on my mood, i.e. my self-control is dynamic.

There are things that I have previously programmed myself not to do, when things were not so hectic, such as raiding the biscuit tin: tomato juice and cheese instead, please, once in late afternoon.

And although I am busy, I decided in January to attend yoga classes three lunchtimes a week, and largely kept to it once I got used to watching the clock until involved familial matters too pressing to be ignored led to my martyred decision to stop for a while. Readers will be pleased to hear that I felt able yesterday to start my yoga routine once again and may be interested to learn that, the next day (even when one is practicing regularly), this gentle form of exercise provides significant muscular reminders that it was indulged in. Ouch.

Is it ironic, paradoxical or logical that yoga needs self-control to be practised, and that I feel mentally refreshed and centered and clear about my next task when I return to the office?

Finally, to-do lists? Yes, I keep lists, notably for my home life. When I am pottering at my best, I do what comes to mind, which seems to be on a want-or-need basis; then I return to my list, usually at the end of a blissful day, and cross off what I've already done.

I often find that I spend alot of time doing something which no-one reading the list could ever have guessed would be done AND a lot has been crossed off the list as well. It is almost as if the list promises to be my aide memoire if I lose inspiration, hence I can ignore it and know that nothing will be forgotten, and hence I am liberated to be inspired! This is very satisfying. Am I the only one to use lists like this?

ms_well.words said...

Re: Yoga

Yes, I agree about the paradox.

I drag myself off to a yoga class once a week; my teacher is fantastic. Given that the next day I usually have an assortment of unexpected muscular twinges, it is indeed a mammoth effort to get myself to the class. But I always really enjoy it while I'm there. A few rounds of Sun Salutation leave me puffed out, even though it doesn't look as if I've moved much!

What I find particularly interesting about yoga - and I haven't yet got my head around this - is that it is a self-centred, almost selfish, activity. I suppose that's true for other exercise classes, as opposed to 'sports' where a team might be involved. But while we're encouraged, in yoga, to think about other people and accept others' differences, not to try to out-do the person next to you, etc. etc., that's as far as it goes. We're encouraged to look inwards; and also to continue our 'private practice'. I'll never manage that! It's ironic that I can only concentrate on thinking about myself by going to a room full of other people…

As for lists, I often read Oliver Burkman's column in the Saturday Guardian magazine, which focuses on pop psychology (It's a good read, I think.). He's often discussed the 'list thing', and once or twice he's passed on the idea of writing things down AFTER you've done them, instead of before. Apparently, this can make you feel much happier about yourself, because of all the little things you have achieved. But I haven't tried it… Too busy doing stuff to write things down. And talking of which, I must be off. Another deadline beckons.