The Shattered Will: Neural Circuits and Compound Failure

This article is going to be something like a follow-up to the two willpower articles I wrote around this time last year (which will be required reading here), Defeating the Three Demons of Failure and the 10 Day Challenge. Since I wrote those, I’ve done a lot of experimenting with building willpower, some of it based on what’s in the book I co-authored, The Five Pillars of the Ascendant Mind. Anyway, if you’re really compelled it may be beneficial to read my recent article, The Origin of Consciousness, but that’s way more complex than what I’m writing about today, so it’s not super necessary. Also consider reading Value in the Highest and To Choose Life, as they both cover a more philosophical approach to the capital-W Will. Today, though we’re going to talk about what I’m going to call the Shattered Will, neural circuitry, and some strategies to use to start developing your willpower.

Let’s get it.

To summarize briefly the idea of my Origin of Consciousness article (as it pertains to the subject of willpower), there are a bunch of micropersonalities that make up your normal consciousness, like hunger, fear, anger, and so on. These are neural circuits that more-or-less take over at times. If you’ve ever seen that Snickers commercial where it says “you’re not you when you’re hungry,” they’re right, you’re not. Your hunger circuit is in control.

Now, this is tricky, because first you have to be able to identify these different circuits. It sounds easy enough to know when you’re angry, but if you’ve ever told an angry person to calm down, you’ll know that it’s not just about identifying when they’re in control. You have to be able to develop separate strategies for dealing with them.

If you’ve ever seen the fantastic show Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (spoiler alert, but if you haven’t seen it, stop reading this and go watch it, it’s brilliant), you may remember that Ed and Al’s Dad, Hohenheim has a Philosopher’s stone in him, and that the Philosopher’s stone is made out of thousands of souls. Over his extremely long life, he befriends and develops a relationship with all of them, and because of this, he has an advantage over his adversary, who does not. I’m not going to get too far into the series because I could write a small book on the depth of symbolism and meaning in that show, but that singular example is exactly what I’m talking about here.

Inside of you, there are several “sub-people,” kind of like that Pixar movie, Inside Out (except I didn’t see that, so I can’t use that for my metaphor), and it’s your job to learn everything about them so you can work with them. Fortunately, there are plenty of different strategies developed by many different people over thousands of years to train these circuits.

For example, fasting is a great way to learn about your relationship with the hunger circuit, which I cover at length in the FasterSelf series. People have fasted for longer than recorded history- there’s a reason that all religions include fasting in their practices. The Carnivore Challenge may also be of interest there, for when you’re not fasting.

In the 10 Day Challenge article, I talk about how to build up your willpower as if it’s a single thing, but I think it’s more complex than just that. This is what I call the Shattered Will- all of these separate circuits have their own strengths and weaknesses, and the misuse of one can wreck all the others. For example, if you’re fasting and doing well, but suddenly your girlfriend breaks up with you (and your sad-circuit response is to eat comfort food), you’re probably going to run into a problem with your overall willpower.

Think of the overarching Will as being supported by a bunch of columns that hold it up. If you can space the weight out properly, the other columns can keep supporting the Will if one or two fail, but if they’re not working together, your Will collapses with minimal interference. Now, I’d love to say that this is as simple as the 10 Day Challenge as far as implementation goes, but it’s not. However, the 10 Day Challenge system does give us the tools to start training the different circuits.

Let’s use the gym as a metaphor- you don’t go to the gym and work out every muscle at the same time. If you do, try it and let me know how it works- and record it, please. A normal person has separate days for arms, back, legs, or whatever specific parts of the body they’re working on, right?

This is the same concept behind training the Shattered Will- you’re going to identify these circuits and learn to train them all separately. It’s probably a prerequisite to have a good understanding of your own mind- I personally recommend learning to watch your thoughts constantly as a form of meditation, but it’s also worth trying out many forms to see what works best for you. The point here is that you’re not really going to be able to identify these mental circuits if you don’t have a good grasp on your mind to begin with.

Once you’ve got the prerequisite mental awareness developed, pick a circuit and train it. Hunger can be trained with fasting, anger can be trained by cultivating compassion, fear can be trained by continual exposure to the source of fear, sadness can be trained with Stoicism, laziness can be trained with scheduling and the development of discipline (and much of laziness is just habit), and so on. To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t any philosophy or other form of system that addresses all of these at once, so look at all of the systems and take what works.

You must become a student of everything and everyone.

At all times, there is an opportunity to observe, and through observation, to train. There will always be at least one of these circuits in play at any given time, so you should be constantly vigilant of any beginning to take over, because that means you’ve neglected something.

Figure out what the triggers are. You’re not going to be able to stop yourself from getting angry, or sad, or whatever, but you can learn to anticipate a circuit’s activation and take steps to prevent it from assuming control. For example, I don’t have too much of a temper, but when I do, I’m not super fun to be around. What I do to mitigate this is that I leave driving by myself as the one time I’m allowed to totally get as mad as I want, on the condition I don’t let it affect my driving or take it out on anyone. Every now and then, when someone cuts me off, I’ll just yell and swear to my heart’s content, and that’s the end of it. This is kind of the same idea with cheat days for diets, I think, although probably less family-friendly than ice cream with sprinkles.

Now, let’s talk about a failure in Will.

There are two kinds- simple and compound failures. A simple failure is an unplanned cheat on your diet, or forgetting to make your bed, or, after a hard day at work, throwing your clothes on the floor and ignoring it. These happen, and they’re not great, but they’re not the end of the world, either. If you have a solid foundation of the other columns supporting your Will, then you can maintain yourself through these small failings and do better tomorrow.

What’s more troubling is the compound failure.

This is when you come home from a long day at work, thrown your clothes on the floor, get drunk, order Chinese food and leave them laying on the couch as you pass out, oversleep, and skip your morning workout because you’re hungover.

A compound failure is bad, but it’s also a great opportunity for learning- better than a simple one. When you have a compound failure, your Will is basically saying “I can’t maintain the level that I’ve been operating at so I’m going to shutdown and reboot.” This is why New Year’s resolutions fail- because if you haven’t run at all for 11 months and you decide all-of-a-sudden to run 3 miles a day, you’re not going to be able to maintain the exertion.

This does not mean you’re a bad person.

It’s very easy to get into the self-loathing cycle that perpetuates the failure, but that only happens if you think that failure isn’t normal or natural in the self-improvement process. It is both, and it’s going to happen, and you’re going to cheat on your diet, and skip runs, and do all kinds of things you wish you weren’t going to do.

What it does mean is that you have to take a short break and analyze the failure.

Ask yourself, what went wrong?

“Oh, well, first I woke up late for work, and I got stressed, and then my boss yelled at me, so I was mad, so then I had a really bad time at work, and I got cut off on the way home, so by the time I got home I was in such a bad mood that I couldn’t think straight.”

Sometimes it goes further back than just a day. It may be a cliche, but it’s definitely a factor when you slowly let your room or house get dirty. “Oh, I’ll pick that up tomorrow,” is the beginning of every mess that ever existed, barring toddlers and acts of God (which may be considered much the same). It’s the small breakdowns in Will that we neglect that slowly accumulate into compound failures- and most often, these start in areas that we’re ignorant.

If I don’t realize the connection between the cleanliness of my room -> my mood -> my Will, it’s going to be very easy to continually neglect the root causes of your failures, and if you neglect causes, you will fail again. The bright side is that that’s part of it, you’re going to fail and you learn best from failure, so just accept it and try again when you’re ready.

Another note on compound failures-

Let’s say I’m totally on top of everything, I’m working out, eating right, getting up early, etc. Then, I have a compound failure, and suddenly I’m getting up late, skipping the gym, and eating Taco Bell every day. It’s really easy (especially if we’ve had a long streak of being on top of everything) to think that we have to just jump right back in to doing all of that, but if you try, you’re going to fail again and start that self-loathing spiral downwards.

It’s like jumping into a moving car, you just can’t do it. Instead, prioritize your tasks.

A good example:

As I write this, I’m quitting caffeine for some length of time for a tolerance break, which, if you’re not familiar, is a gigantic pain in the ass. At the same time, I’m running mostly every day (which is priority #1). I’m not going to stop running, so any solution to the caffeine thing has to take that into account. I could try and get back into getting up super early, but caffeine withdrawal makes you tired, so that would be adding insult to injury. Instead, I’m not going to beat myself up over that for the time being, because it’s just unnecessarily difficult. Additionally, because caffeine is an appetite suppressant (and a diuretic, meaning it dehydrates you), it’s not a great time to do anything particularly tricky that’s diet related, so I’m not going to try and get back on the Carnivore train at the moment.

This is how you should approach any particular shattering of Will- take all the shards of the various different circuits, figure out how they work, then look at them in comparison to one another and figure out how they fit together. They’re more like Legos than glass- glass is impossible to reassemble, but you can develop better and better ways of putting Legos together every time, and you can remember how they fit as well.

Over time, you start to figure stuff like this out- it took me years before I realized that the number one factor preventing me from doing long fasts was using caffeine in the prep phase, because of how it makes you hungry when it wears off. You really can’t get most of this except through trial and error, so making the concerted effort to not give yourself an excessively hard time is really important. The downside is that even that takes time, because it’s easy to confuse giving yourself a break with letting yourself get complacent. That being said, stressing endlessly about not being good enough is a surefire way to stay mediocre- understand that baby steps still count as progress, and it takes a long time to become great.

I hope this article was helpful, and I’ll probably revisit these topics again in the future, when I have another year’s worth of willpower tricks and tips to analyze for you. Until then, go listen to Akira The Don’s album with Jocko Willink, The Path, and use that to get motivated and cultivate some discipline to conquer the Shattered Will.

Go get it.

Originally Published as: