Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Time Management Tuesday: Can You Catch Willpower/Discipline From Others?

In her book The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, Kelly McGonigal (Cheers! My workshop participants will get that joke.) says, "Willpower failures may be contagious, but you can also catch self-control."

According to McGonigal, studies show that "behaviors we typically view as being under self-control are, in important ways, under social control as well." We are influenced by others in any particular group we are part of at any particular moment. Are you trying to control your eating or drinking? How does that work for you when you are out with a group of people who are really, really enjoying their food and drink? Trying to control your spending? You might want to be careful about whom you go shopping with. If you're with someone who either doesn't live with the same financial constraints you do, or just doesn't care, you can easily find yourself spending more than you wanted to because when you're with others who are doing it, it can seem like a great idea. But maybe not so much later when you're by yourself again.

This is one of the reasons obesity seems to "run" in families. In fact, McGonigal claims that a woman with an obese sister has a 67 percent increased risk of becoming obese herself. It's not so high for men with obese brothers--their risk is just 45 percent. (No, I do not know why.) Additionally, though, having a friend become obese increases an individual's risk of becoming obese, too. By a whopping 171 percent. Thus we're not just talking genetics here. It's the influence of a group. Willpower failure spreads among people.

We have mirror neurons in the brain that keep track of what others are doing. You can see why this would be a good survival mechanism for evolving humans who wanted to be part of a group to increase their chances of survival. Mirror neurons are part of the spread of willpower failure because they make us unintentionally mimic others who are not staying on task with their willpower goals, they mirror and spread emotion (poor moral in an office, for example--"Let's close up early and get out of this place."), and they mirror and spread temptation ("Everyone on Facebook is talking about that book. I should read that today to keep up instead of working.")

On the other hand, though, goals can spread from person to person, too. Yup, there's a term for this. "Goal Contagion." McGonigal says that research indicates that we can catch another person's goals and change our behavior by doing so. Some of this can come about just by reading or thinking about someone. Fortunately, goal contagion is limited to goals we already share somehow. We're unlikely to "catch"  goals to invest heavily in stocks or throw over our workaday lives and take a couple of years to travel the globe unless those were things we'd wanted to do somewhere at the back of our minds, anyway.

What does this have to do with managing time, particularly managing time for writers? The May Days, people! National Novel Writing Month! Your writers' groups. All these group initiatives involve setting aside time (a month, a meeting every week or two) and pulling people together with the hope that we will "catch" initiative, work ethic, etc., from each other. That we will catch each others' goals.

When the groups don't work, it's because not enough individuals were able to stay on their goals, giving others something to mirror. Remember, willpower/discipline failure spreads. But when they do work, it's because a big enough percentage of the group stayed on task--to any extent--and contributed to the discussion, and those people were able to provide something for others to catch. Because, remember, goals are contagious.

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