Monday, 11 April 2016

My will power muscle is tired!

My rate of paper-completion has been astronomical this year, compared to normal years. I'm pretty pleased about this, although there are good reasons for wasn't that I was slacking last year but virtuous this year - I just spent lots of time investing in new projects last year, while this year I cleared my decks of all ancillary activities and just got things finished up. But I have an ongoing and unpleasant sensation in regard to it all that this article has just given me a name for: will power fatigue.

Well the article calls it 'decision fatigue' but they are related. The idea is that we have a sort of decision-making muscle, that gets tired when it is used a lot. Presumably it also gets fitter if its used regularly. But on a daily basis, we use this 'muscle' whenever we will anything: choose an action, make a decision, anything other than passively going with the flow, in other words. And there is a huge range in the significance of the things that use the muscle, from way down at 'What shall I wear today?' and 'Cereal or toast?' up to 'Shall I let that comment pass or take him up on it?' and 'Will I eat the salad or  the burger for lunch?' and all the way to 'What do I want the central message of this paper to be?' and 'Shall I grant this prisoner parole or not?'  With each one that muscle gets just a little bit more tired.

I love this story, because it explains so many things for me.

  • Why we tend to feel more empowered and competent in the morning than at the end of the day.
  • Why emails are such an enormous energy drain. Each one requires a decision of some sort to be made, and they're no less tiring for being inconsequential.
  • Why come the evening its so tempting to sit on the sofa and eat bad food and generally be as passive as possible.
  • Why I have an awful habit of mindlessly munching sweets when I'm finishing a paper. I detest the editing stage in particular, and always bribe myself through it with bad food.
  • Why 'flow' is so important and so energising...its the opposite of decision making. Flow lets the choice muscle rest!
  • Why big changes such as moving house can be so exhausting and draining...its not so much the physical moving as all the inconsequential choices that have to be made about what to put where. All the formerly unconscious behaviours about eg which way the shop is that suddenly have to be thought about.
  • Why I love reading trash magazines - i find it's impossible to have sentient thoughts at the same time as reading about Victoria beckham's latest diet. Aside from getting drunk, which is not happening much lately, trash magazines are one of the best 'off' switches that I know about.
  • Why sticking to a routine can be so freeing. If you eat the same thing for breakfast every morning you don't have to choose between cereal or toast. If you don't have many clothes in the wardrobe you don't have to rule so many options out before getting dressed.
This last point is particularly radical to me. I've always been a novelty-addict, and frequently have post-modern sounding conversations with my husband along the lines of 'We could do x' 'But we usually do y'. 'Agreed. And we could do x'. 'But we usually do y'. Maybe there has been a big change in how much time I have on my hands (lol) or maybe I'm getting old, but these days I'm a lot happier to just munch my fruit n fibre in the mornings. I presume our capacity for enjoying novelty naturally fluctuates with our general resilience and energy so hopefully one day I will return to my previous repetition-hating self. 

But for now, I feel strongly that I don't want to think about *anything* that is not consequential. I don't want to waste timing choosing products in a supermarket. I don't want to be given options about what to eat for lunch. I don't have any interest in getting involved in the details of any made-up story in book or film. 

And so I guess writing so many papers, expending so much energy on willing myself on long past the point where I've lost the natural and exuberant interest in a topic, finishing those references even when I just wanted to smash my head against a wall rather than position another comma, attending to my timetable even when I just wanted to fly to Vegas and get drunk.......its brought about a certain narrowness, a certain jadedness and lack of curiosity that actually has no place in an academic. Its certainly not sustainable in the long-term, for me at least.

So I'm pleased that I have tied up so many loose ends, and its nice not to have fears about the REF looming for a change. But its time to change tack and rediscover my curiosity now, before I start eating fruit n fibre for lunch.

Lucky I'm going on holiday in a few days.......

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