Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Yep, it was a lazy Monday. I was utterly useless in the afternoon, so I gave up and made an early dinner. But then I got through the killer scene late at night. It's possible that this round could be a night book that refuses to cooperate in daylight. I'll give afternoon work another shot today and we'll see if it was just that one section that was the problem or if I need to adjust my schedule. It helps that after last night, aside from my Sci Fi Friday shows and BBCAmerica OnDemand or PBS stuff, we've had the season finales for everything I watch (and Sci Fi is doing a marathon of bad movies this Friday for the holiday weekend).

There was a really interesting article on willpower in the newspaper on Sunday that seems to be adapted from a book called Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life. It really does explain a lot about my working processes and the way my life tends to go.

For instance, there's a possibility that willpower is related to blood sugar, since brain cells need sugar to function, and exerting self-control lowers blood sugar, making it harder to keep being in control. Studies show that people given a sugar-sweetened drink between two tasks requiring self-control do better on both than those given an artificially sweetened drink, who make more errors on the second task. That may be why a lot of writers seem to crave carbs when working, and it gives scientific validity to my practice of eating an M&M after each page I write. It's not only a reward system, it keeps replenishing the blood sugar that allows my brain cells to keep going so I can force myself to work when I want to do other things. I guess that also explains why I work better on the kind of days when I want to drink lots of hot tea and worse on hot days when I don't want hot tea. Maybe it's not the caffeine, but rather the sugar, and I might do better to switch to sweetened ice tea in the summer instead of diet Dr Pepper.

We also likely have a limited "budget" of willpower, so that if you're doing one task that requires a lot of willpower, it's harder to make yourself do anything else. Their example is that letting the housecleaning go before a big exam might be a good idea so you can focus your willpower on the studying (and replace "exam" with "deadline" and "studying" with "writing" and we've explained the state of my house). You're more likely to be successful at one goal if you focus all your mental effort on it instead of diluting your efforts by trying to do too much.

However, you can also build willpower, almost like a muscle, and once you've stuck with something requiring willpower long enough for it to become a habit, so it doesn't really require a lot of willpower to do it anymore, you tend to gain the willpower to do a lot of other things. In studies, people who stuck to an exercise program for two months then found that they also got their spending under control, cut out junk food and smoking, studied more, watched less television and did more housework. Any kind of willpower or self-management training works. One thing that seemed kind of odd was that brushing your teeth for two weeks with your non-dominant hand can help build willpower (I'll have to try that).

I've already put myself on the waiting list for this book at the library.

This also ties into something else I was thinking yesterday. As I have mentioned, I'm facing one of those big round-number birthdays this year. I thought I was pretty much fine with it, and I've already started thinking of myself as that age. Nobody believes I'm that old, and they regularly estimate my age as more than ten years younger than I really am, which makes it kind of a point of pride rather than something I want to hide. But I was shopping for a birthday card for my dad at Target, and I saw the rack of "So, You're Turning 40!" cards and had a minor anxiety attack. It really hit me. I resolved to do something for myself to make the experience empowering instead of frightening, and I decided it was finally really time to get in shape. I don't need to lose weight, although I've put on a few pounds in the last couple of years, and on my frame that makes enough difference that there are clothes I can't wear anymore. I'm more concerned with being fit -- having endurance, strength and flexibility. If I don't do this now, it will get harder to get there, and I think it will be easier to turn that age if I can honestly say to myself that I'm in the best shape I've ever been.

Of course, in the middle of struggling through book revisions isn't the best time to start something else that requires willpower, but maybe once I get this book done, starting the exercise program can be my key to building overall willpower that might spill over into writing and housework.

First, though, I'm going to try that tooth brushing thing. I'm already pretty ambidextrous for everything but writing, and brushing my teeth left-handed for two weeks seems a lot easier for a kick start than two months of an exercise program.

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