So my eye was caught by this piece in Sunday's New York Times. In it, Science Times columnist John Tierney, coauthor of a book on willpower, assures the reader that you're more likely to achieve your goal if you make a formal resolution and stick to it throughout the month of January, then adds that "with a few relatively painless strategies and new digital tools, you can significantly boost your odds of success."
Willpower, according to Tierney, "is a real form of mental energy, powered by glucose in the bloodstream, which is used up as you exert self-control." He points to a recent study headed up by the U. of C.'s Wilhelm Hofmann (I wasn't willing to pony up $11.95 for a PDF of it, but the abstract is here), which "showed that the people with the best self-control, paradoxically, are the ones who use their willpower less often."
They play offense, not defense, using their willpower in advance so that they avoid crises, conserve their energy and outsource as much self-control as they can.
The first part stands to reason—I'm not going to go out and buy a pack of cigarettes—but "outsourcing" self-control? Doesn't outsourcing usually just put people out of work?
Conceding that it's "not exactly a typical story," he goes on to tell the tale of Doug Teitelbaum, a New York hedge fund operator "who could afford the ultimate in outsourcing." Forty years old, six foot one, and almost 375 pounds, he had gastric band surgery and started working out with a trainer.
Then a new problem arose. After Mr. Teitelbaum’s company bought the Planet Hollywood chain, he had to go to Las Vegas to oversee the conversion of the old Aladdin into the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino. It meant leaving home and living for months in a suite at the hotel above the glittering Las Vegas Strip, surrounded by an endless supply of alluring food — all available 24 hours a day. Mr. Teitelbaum knew that his gastric band . . . wouldn’t save him from 4 a.m. room-service pizzas.
So he went into action, setting a goal of losing 100 pounds, turning one of the rooms in his hotel suite into a personal gym "complete with dumbbells, weight machines, exercise bike and elliptical trainer," and hiring his trainer's son, himself a trainer, to move into the hotel to oversee his fitness program and make him protein smoothies. He lost 50 pounds over the four months, and subsequently went to lose more than his goal of 100.
As Tierney says, that's the ultimate in outsourcing. What can the rest of us do? Tierney advises choosing just one goal at a time: "If you're trying to quit smoking or save money, don't bother counting how many calories you consume or burn up. With a finite amount of willpower it's tough enough to keep one resolution."
Well, OK, I guess I can stick with just smoking cessation for now. But—and this is the part that kills me—Tierney suggests we proles can outsource by using social media and/or a website, stickK.com:
You can outsource self-control by sharing your progress with friends through Twitter posts about your weight or your workouts, or by making a formal contract at Web sites like stickK.com, which was started by economists at Yale. At stickK, you set the goal and have the option of naming a referee to enforce it. You also set the penalty. It might be just an e-mailed announcement to a list of friends (or enemies), but you can also put money on the line. You can precommit to paying the penalty to anyone you designate, including an “anti-charity,” which for a Democrat could be the George W. Bush library. (The Clinton library is available for Republicans.)
Good lord. A chart shows that stickK users who employed financial penalties or a referee were more successful at achieving their goals than those who didn't. And I guess the former is akin to making a bet, something I've been known to do, though typically just on baseball. But the notion of "outsourcing" by twittering "Another day and still no cheating" or "Made slow-cooker lentils at home tonight!" or "Hey, I finally did laundry" strikes me as appalling. And I honestly don't think my friends give a shit about whether I've lost four pounds or what have you.
Tierney also suggests keeping track of whatever it is you're working toward:
Scales like one made by Withings will log your weight on your computer and notify your friends (if you want). Gizmos like the BodyMedia Fit armband and the FitBit clip can estimate how many calories you’ve burned by keeping track of your movements all day long. You can let all your financial transactions be automatically categorized by Mint.com. . . . Entrepreneurs are rushing to monitor just about every aspect of your life — your health, your moods, your sleep — and you can find dozens of their products by consulting Web sites like Quantified Self and Lifehacker.
Yes, you too can live in a panopticon!