It’s the monkey’s fault

Joshua Lee (’24) discusses some strategies for self-control from Kelly McGonigal’s book The Willpower Instinct. “…individuals can strengthen self-control, similar to how muscles become stronger through exercise.”

I often find myself procrastinating when confronted with a writing assignment. I find writing to be more convoluted than other subjects, such as mathematics. In mathematics, there is one—and only one—correct answer. The subjective nature of writing was causing me to set aside writing assignments until the very last minute. I was searching for remedies to procrastination when I stumbled upon the book The Willpower Instinct. This book has been of tremendous help to me, and with courses increasing workloads, I wanted to share some valuable insights from it.

Kelly McGonigal, the author of The Willpower Instinct, explains that two sections of the brain constantly clash: the monkey and the rational self. The monkey is the obstacle that prevents humans from becoming more fit, spending less, and losing weight; it is the part of the brain that prioritizes instant gratification. The monkey is the reason people binge-watch Netflix shows instead of doing math homework. In contrast, the rational self reflects a person’s true desires and goals. McGonigal asserts that the only way to restrain the monkey from controlling decisions is to strengthen self-control.  

To successfully practice delayed gratification (the act of resisting an immediate reward for a more valuable future reward), people must utilize self-control for the three powers listed below:

  1. The “I will” power: the ability to make decisions that improve quality of life;
  2. The “I won’t” power: the ability to prevent decisions that may hinder success or happiness;
  3. The “I want” power: the ability to make choices that align with long-term goals, not instant gratification.

It takes people immense willpower to consistently make decisions that bring them closer to fulfilling their long-term goals. Fortunately, individuals can strengthen self-control, similar to how muscles become stronger through exercise. Self-control is critical in living a successful and fulfilling life, so what are some strategies to improve it?

Meditation is an effective method for building self-control. With just 11 hours of meditation, the brain begins to increase neural connections between regions of the brain that are important for staying focused, ignoring distractions, and controlling impulses. Most individuals avoid meditation because they claim it takes too much time, but five to ten minutes is more than enough to yield fruitful results. Referred to as the “miracle drug,” exercise is another way to train willpower. Not only does it increase gray matter (brain cells) and white matter (nerve fibers that enable communication within the brain), but it serves as a powerful antidepressant. The intensity of exercise can depend on the person. Not everyone is a marathon runner: walking five minutes is better than no exercise. Although strengthening willpower is essential to defeating the monkey, becoming acquainted with the monkey’s deceptive tactics is just as important.

Moral licensing is when the brain justifies a bad behavior by praising good behavior. For instance, a shopper who restrained themself from purchasing fancy clothes may go home and enjoy sweets, or a student who worked hard on a project at school may justify playing video games for the rest of the day. Another common trick the monkey uses to make people relapse back into addiction or break good habits is recognized as the What The Hell Effect. The effect occurs when a person indulges in harmful behavior. For example, if a person on a diet ate a slice of cake, they may feel ashamed that they ruined their diet. The emotions of guilt and shame cause the dieter to indulge in even more unhealthy foods in an attempt to make themselves feel better, resulting in a downward spiral back to their old self.

The information and strategies I shared in this blog post only scratch the surface of The Willpower Instinct, so if what you read here sounded intriguing, I highly recommend reading the entire book for yourself. 

Procrastinating, Passion and Inspiration

Gia Falcicchio-Wall (’24) writes about the intersections between procrastination and passion. “Writing is a place where I feel I lay right in between the mindsets of procrastination and passion. It can take me a very long time to get started on a writing project, but once I’ve started the words will just spill out of my brain, into my fingers, which then type, type and type some more.”

Procrastination. Something everyone struggles with from time to time. Writing is definitely a major place where people fall victim to procrastination the most often. I know that as I slowly work on this blog post, I too am guilty of putting it off until the very last possible minute. 

There isn’t much rhyme or reason behind procrastinating. Sometimes I just don’t want to take the time to sit down and write; so I put it off. Maybe I am just lazy. Maybe I just need to be in a special mood to actually get work done, use my time wisely or even just be productive. 

As anyone who procrastinates does, I turn to Google. A quick and easy way to figure out answers to all of life’s burning questions; the same questions that I couldn’t be bothered to waste more than 10 minutes researching. So I open a new tab, hover over the search bar and I type “Why do I procrastinate so much”. With no question mark. That takes too much effort. I click enter and see all of the different words fill the page. 

All that I see are things that are “wrong” with you if you procrastinate. Oh you procrastinate? You must be depressed, anxious all the time, you don’t believe in yourself enough and your study habits must be awful. We can all agree that procrastinating isn’t a great habit and for sure has to do with your mental health, but there is so much more to it than that. 

Passion. Something everyone needs to have for something at some point in your life. Having a certain level of passion for what you are working on is what makes you want to be productive in finishing the assignment. If you have absolutely no passion or interest all together why even bother wasting valuable time towards it. 

Writing is a place where I feel I lay right in between the mindsets of procrastination and passion. It can take me a very long time to get started on a writing project, but once I’ve started the words will just spill out of my brain, into my fingers, which then type, type and type some more. But I get it, not everyone has the inspiration to pull out a pen and some paper and to start writing out of the blue. But what if you did? 

Inspiration. Something that is everywhere as long as you look for it. Look around the room you are sitting in right now. There has got to be something that you could stare at endlessly out of interest (or boredom). Pick up a pen and write about thoughts or feelings that need to be addressed. Even if you have an essay due at 11:59, when inspiration hits you, it hits you hard. If there’s something you want to write about, just do it! Don’t let deadlines or boring people get you down. 

Writing is a safe place for everyone to use to share passion and joy. Writing is a safe place for everyone to use to share struggles. As long as people keep writing, and enjoy doing so, passion for writing will never go away.

Creating Writing Abundance Through Growth, Love, and Time

The next time you tell yourself that you are not good at writing, reframe your mindset, pick a topic that interests you, and give yourself enough time to enjoy the creative process.

By: Izzy Nichols (’20)
First-Year Tutor

Images from the Skyline Writing Center’s SSWCA presentation on growth mindset (November 2018).

“I am a terrible writer, and I hate it.”

How many of you have thought this in the past? How many of you constantly question your writing abilities? How many of you have waited until the last minute to write a paper? I know that I have. What do you think is keeping you from picking up a pencil and writing? Are negative thoughts impacting the way you engage in writing? Let me share three strategies that might be helpful.

First, you need to understand that writing is not a “fixed” skill. Similarly to learning tennis, for example, you are not born either being good or bad at tennis. With training and focus, anyone can learn to play tennis, and get better with practice. You might even learn to enjoy it. According to Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University who has written extensively about mindsets, it is important to develop a growth mindset and not become boxed in to having certain fixed beliefs about your abilities. Intelligence and mastery can be developed and achieved. It is not that you are bad at writing, you just need a little more practice, and the belief that you can improve.

Coming from someone who has had a fixed mindset regarding my math abilities, creating mental barriers only makes things worse. Because of the belief that I was not good at math, I began to avoid it, hate it, and my performance clearly reflected my fixed mindset. I recognized that the path I was on was not a good one, so I started to change my approach. I also was lucky to have a teacher the following year who believed in my math abilities, and was able to help me focus on having a growth mindset. If I did not do well on one test, he would say “you got the next one. You are improving tremendously.” Once I really began to believe that I could get better, I started to break down the mental barriers that kept me from improving.

After you have convinced yourself that you can get better at writing, the next step is trying to enjoy the process. An effective way to quickly do this is to pick topics you have interest in writing about. Personally, I love writing fictional mysteries with action-filled adventures. If I have to write a paper for school, I will try to select a topic relating to something I care about like public policy and politics. When you are writing about something you care about, it is easier to enjoy the process while feeling confident and proud of your abilities.

The third way to improve your writing is to actually reduce the stress involved by not procrastinating. In high school, we tend to blow off assignments until the last minute, claiming that we are too busy, or avoiding a certain assignment we know will be hard. Waiting until the last minute only adds stress, and makes the creative process less enjoyable. Create good writing habits by planning ahead, writing a clear outline, and giving yourself plenty of time for editing.

So remember, the next time you tell yourself that you are not good at writing, try to rephrase and reframe your mindset, pick a topic you have an interest in, and give yourself enough time to truly enjoy the creative process. Remember that you have a voice and something to say. So pick up a pencil, and start writing!