The Impeccable Path

Integrity has no need of rules

- Albert Camus

If you have ever lapsed despite your vow not to, then you have experienced the PIG’s ability to exert a greater influence over your behavior than your intention or vow not to lapse. You are not alone. In fact, most people misinterpret their history of violating their vow to change their ways as evidence that they are defective, rather than as an indication of the power of the PIG.

Developing the capability to act as intended despite the influence of local stressors and temptations is among the most difficult challenges of adult development. Despite a history of repeated failures, most people are taken in by the Soul Illusion and so continue to grossly underestimate the difficulty of this task. It is easy to adhere to a commitment when you in the psychological state as when you made it, but when you are in a high-risk state resisting the pull of the incentive is a challenge worthy of your respect. 

Those who have insufficient respect for this challenge tend to make shallow commitments. Making a commitment that is insufficiently robust to carry you through a high-risk situation sets the precedent that you can make a commitment and then violate it. This precedent weakens the power of future commitments to influence your behavior. Repeatedly following this sequence of making and then breaking commitments can result in the loss of the power of your word. The transition is insidious and you may not be aware of the developing dependence as it happens.

The point of making a commitment is to freeze your motivation to do the right thing, so that your future behavior is influenced by this intention rather than by local temptations. A commitment is your guarantee that you will adhere to your plan even when it would be easier or more pleasurable to defect.  If you fail to honor your guarantee, you have made a liar of yourself, and future guarantees will be worth less.

Making a commitment is like making a bet. If you adhere to it you win and your willpower is enhanced; if you fail, you lose and the strength of your will is diminished as a result.

Odysseus and the Sirens

In a different era Odysseus had to sail within earshot of the Sirens. No sailor could resist their seductive call. The penalty for giving in to this irresistible temptation was death by drowning—the fate experienced by all who had come before. Appreciating the danger, Odysseus filled his men’s ears with wax so they would not be able to hear the Sirens. Odysseus wanted to hear what the Sirens sounded like, but he knew that if he did he would be unable to resist their pull. The heroic solution: Odysseus pre-committed his future behavior by ordering his men to tie him to the mast of the ship.

The plan was successful—when the ship sailed past the island, the Sirens called, but the men could not hear them and kept rowing. Odysseus heard the Sirens, but did not (could not) give in to the temptation, because he was bound to the mast. There are 4 lessons for you in this story:

  1. Odysseus made his plans in advance. He knew that once he heard the Sirens it would be too late to influence his own behavior—their call would have transformed him from a potent warrior to a helpless victim. You would do well to use Odysseus’ humility as a model.
    • Understand this: When you encounter a high-risk situation you will not have the strengths that are available to you now, and you are not likely to come up with an effective response during the crisis. To succeed you must have a well planned, well rehearsed coping tactic already in place.

  2. He filled his men's ears with wax: Engineer your environment to minimize your exposure to temptation: avoid high-risk situations and people—at least until the healthy habits have strengthened.

  3. Because no sailor ever survived the temptation of the Sirens, some might take a defeatist attitude and passively accept the inevitable loss. But Odysseus was a hero (he had high self-efficacy) and so he approached the challenge as a problem to be solved. He devised a good plan and executed it well.

  4. The most important lesson is, even though Odysseus experienced irresistible temptation, he did not give in to it. Before reading on, think back to the story . . . how did he do it?
    • Having respect for the irresistible power of the Sirens, he pre-committed his future behavior by having himself bound by strong rope. Likewise you can pre-commit your future behavior by being bound by your word. For example: “I am not experiencing temptation now, but I know that I will. So I give my word that no matter what the circumstance I will keep distance between me and the incentive.” Willpower refers to your ability to adhere to your commitment despite the influence of local factors that would pull you astray.

Willpower is the strength of the binds that hold you to your commitment despite the influence of local conditions that would motivate you to do otherwise. Since a commitment is like a bet, you can increase your willpower by taking the bet and winning. However, be careful; one loss overcomes many victories.

As is the case with bets, it would be foolish to make abet that you cannot win in your lifetime - e.g., "I'll never have another cigarette." You do not get to win that one until you are dead. The point of making a bet is to win. A commitment such as., "I will stay sober today" is winnable. A particularly useful version of this kind of commitment is the Delay Tactic - e.g., "I don't know about later, but I give my word that I will stay clean for the next hour." [Naturally, this does not mean you will use in an hour. If you still want to use at the end of the hour, make another hour commitment to stay clean. The point of this tactic is that guarantee that you will not use now. Since there is no possibility of using now, you can forget it. There is no longer a decision to think about. The power of this method is that once you kill the option to use now, there is nothing to think about so you can forget it. Once you forget it, the incentive loses its influence over you].

Decision Fatigue

As will be discussed later in the Exercise of Will, willpower, like muscle power, can be depleted by exhaustion. Roy Baumeister and his colleagues,in a clever series of experiments, demonstrated that making decisions requires substantial cognitive resources and so has the effect of depleting willpower — a finding that helped me make sense of a puzzle that had stumped me since my early days as a psychologist.

Among the most striking observations of my career occurred while working for a protein-sparing-fast weight-loss program. Severely obese individuals consumed no food except protein shakes until they lost their excess weight. Weight losses of 150+ pounds were common - some individuals lost much more. Many participants were able to adhere to their fast for well over a year. The drop out rate was low and the "success rate" was surprisingly high: Most participants achieved their ambitious weight loss goals. I was so astounded by these results that I asked every participant privately, "How did you do it?" And almost every one of them reported, "It was easy, there were no decisions."

When food was reintroduced, most participants found they had little appetite, and the re-feeding phase, during which they gradually increased their calorie intake from the 500 calories/day to a maintenance level, typically around 1600 calories/day, generally went well. But sadly, despite their heroic performance of sticking with the fast for very long periods of time, most eventually regained all the weight they lost. How could they stick with a 500 calorie/day diet perfectly for so long, and yet be unable to stick with a 1600 calorie/day diet?

Adhering to your commitment is easy when defection is not an option. However, once defection becomes a possibility, you have to make decisions continually, which depletes the very cognitive resources required to exercise will. When struggling with an addictive incentive, you cannot allow local decisions to over-ride your commitments. During high-risk situations you may not have the cognitive resources to arrive at a good decision, and even if you do, the heroic effort may deplete your cognitive resources at the time you most need them. Remember, the exercise of will depends on access to resources that are easily exhausted.

The Conservation of Will

The challenge ahead is more like the tour de France than a sprint. You will not only have to get yourself in good shape by exercising and leading a healthy lifestyle, but you will also have to pace yourself and conserve your strength so it is available during the critical moments when you need it. To conserve willpower:

  • Avoid temptation. Avoid people, places and things that will elicit a motivational state that you will have to expend resources battling to over-ride.

  • Avoid decisions
    • Establish good habits so you do not have to make decisions. For example, an athlete who works out every morning does not have to make a decision about whether or not to work out.
    • Develop respect for the decisions you make by adhering to them impeccably. Once you make an irreversible decision, no further decisions are required.

To stop hemorrhaging the resources required to exercise will, follow the Impeccable Path. Needless to say, this benefit comes at the price of the flexibility to make exceptions for special circumstances.


What it Means to Decide > >
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