Three Studies Find Ways to Get an Extra Boost of Willpower & Self-Control

Our ability to use self-control may be one of the most important things we can develop in ourselves. I’ve written before about how willpower is not enough and that developing habits is an important skill for sustaining the right behaviors.

But there’s more to the story.

In preparing to teach a course about willpower and behavior change, I uncovered new research revealing ways we can get an extra boost of self-control when we are running low. Here are some of the findings:

Choosing to exert self-control is less depleting than being forced to exert it

Mark Muraven, a Professor at the University at Albany, asked participants to resist eating a batch of cookies and tested them on an activity that required willpower both before and after resisting the cookies. Afterward, he asked participants their motivations for resisting the cookies and also examined their performance on the willpower test.

He bucketed the reasons into autonomous ones (e.g. “It was important to me not to eat them” or”It is fun to challenge myself not to eat them”) and external (e.g. “I wanted the experimenter to like me” or “I would feel guilty if I ate them”). In looking at the results (emphasis added)

“As compared to their baseline performance, participants who avoided eating the cookies for more autonomous performed better at the second measure relative to participants who did not eat for more extrinsic reasons. Mood, arousal, and demographic factors were not related to self-control performance and feelings of autonomy. Overall, it appears that feeling compelled to exert self-control may deplete more strength than having more freedom when exerting self-control.” [Muraven, Journal of Research in Personality, 2008]

So next time you’re faced with something that requires willpower, whether it’s staying late to finish a project or turning down that second slice of birthday cake, find a personally compelling reason to exert willpower, rather than placing the reason to something external. Continue reading…

Thoughts on Competition for Early Stage Startups

Photo credit: screen grab from Nike Free Commercial

I was recently speaking with a colleague of my father who works in education and had an idea for a product in the tutoring space. He specifically wanted to know where he could find someone with technical skills to help build out a prototype.

In Silicon Valley, we often take for granted the concept of “ideas don’t matter, execution is everything” and that “your greatest enemy is not the competition, but yourself”. But I think that outside of the tech world and outside of Hacker News, there are still a lot of misconceptions that exist around startups and starting/building a new idea.

So I figured I’d share some of the things I’ve learned about competition that might be a reminder for the experienced, and new to those just getting started in startups.

1) Don’t be afraid to tell people your idea. In fact, speak liberally about it.

When I asked my father’s colleague for details about his idea to get a better sense of what he needed to have built, he hesitated for a second and then told me more about it while stating “of course that everything that I tell you is supposed to be confidential”, suggesting that he was still concerned with people “taking” his idea. While understandable, this predilection for secrecy is mistaken.

The two reasons why you should talk to people about your idea are:

First, if the only advantage that you have is about having some idea that which if communicated to a certain person would give them everything they need to execute and produce this idea, you’re already screwed. You have already lost if the “idea” is the only advantage you have. Most good startup ideas start out sounding like bad ideas so it’s unlikely you’ll even convince anyone it’s a good idea.

It’s also likely that someone has already had this idea and is currently working on it, or has tried it in the past and it didn’t work. Both things were true when it came to Ridejoy. Your idea is not new, it’s the new insight, resources and ability to execute that matters.

Second, talking to people about your idea allows you to uncover new insights and resources far faster than keeping it a secret. We thought we knew a good deal about ridesharing when we got started with Ridejoy but we’ve learned so so much more because we’ve told lots of people about our ideas and gotten interesting insights about the history of ridesharing, or approaches that other people to take into building peer-to-peer marketplaces, or just small anecdotes about their own experiences or their friends experiences with ridesharing – we never would have learned all these things if we kept Ridejoy a big secret.

2) Don’t worry about the competition. You are much more likely to be beaten by the market or your own mistakes.

When you’re trying to innovate in a space that has other players, it’s easy to get caught up in what the competition is doing. Living in Silicon Valley doesn’t help this, all your friends and the press know about the other players and they’re always asking questions like “so how are you different from X?” or “Well, I already use Y – what makes you better?”

There’s a strong desire to quickly differentiate yourself from the competitors, or obsess over their every move. But honestly, it just doesn’t matter. There’s certainly a lot of value in understanding how other players are approaching the market and their products, but it’s far more important to really focus on your own product, your own customers, and how you’re going to achieve your own goals.

When you’re doing a startup, you’re usually tackling a LARGE market, (and if you aren’t, you’d better have a really good reason not to) Large markets mean there should be plenty of new customers/users to go around. Your competition is not “stealing” customers from you. If you are having a hard time getting traction, it’s either an issue with the market (too early, too niche, hard to reach) or with your ability to penetrate this market (weak product, poor distribution). Neither of these things relate to your competition.

As for the advice that I gave my father’s colleague, it was essentially a modified version of the answer I gave on Quora to this question: I have a great idea for a business and the technical expertise to build it. Where should I start? except I skewed even more heavily to the customer development side as it would be even more expensive and time-consuming for him to get something built without a better idea of the exact product he needed and his distribution channels.

So those are my thoughts on competition, especially as it pertains to early-stage startups. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic in the comments!

Kevin Gao’s 6 Rules of Well-Being

My friend Kevin Gao is the founder and CEO of Hyperink, a YC-backed digital publishing company. He recently shared his findings of 6 “rules” (my term, not his) from reviewing 3 years of monthly data tracking his well-being from a variety of metrics. I thought this was a really cool idea and wanted to share it with you.

Here’s the post (reprinted with permission):

Kevin Gao Scorecard Findings

I’ll retype his answer here (with some basic formatting/punctuation added)

Kevin’s 6 “Rules” of Well Being

So for the last 3 years I’ve kept a monthly scorecard of how I do (and how I feel) on a variety of things like health, sleep, family, etc. Just reviewed all of it and here are the 5 main conclusions I came to, thought it was amusing to share!

  1. Don’t sleep past 9am (for some reason my days just get out of whack when I sleep late)
  2. Run more, even if just 15 min/day
  3. Call mom more (right now its usually once/week but when i talk to her more often in a week i feel a lot better)
  4. Meditate more, even if just 5 min/day (can’t handle a lot more)
  5. Stop binge drinking (which according to wikipedia is 5 drinks a night!!…ruins my next day)
  6. Take more weekend trips

Later in the comments he elaborates on the system:

“I got it from stevepavlina.com, he basically lists a bunch of categories and then every month, rates himself 1-10 on each and writes a few notes. Track through Google Doc”

What can we learn from Kevin’s rules?

First there are the rules themselves: clear, easy and actionable.

It’s easy to look at them and go “Duh! If you exercise more and avoid binge drinking, of course you’ll feel better.” On the other hand, how hard is it to get ourselves to do run a little every day when we feel lazy?

But still, keeping a regular sleep schedule, exercising a little, staying in touch with family, being mindful, avoiding harmful substances and decompressing more frequently are things most of us could stand to keep in mind.

But more importantly is the system. Do you track what makes you happy?

I already do a lot of reflection (daily journal, weekly blog posts, quarterly newsletters) but I’m considering adding this habit because even a 1% improvement over the 480 waking hours a month would be worth 20 mins of reflection.

I found this post on Steve Pavlina’s blog which might be a good place to start.

Do any of you track your well-being? What have you learned?

What It Feels Like to Hit the Wall

“Hitting the wall” or “Bonking” is a term used by runners and bikers to describe glycogen depletion which leads to sudden fatigue and energy loss. In all my running, I had never experienced it – until recently.

Photo Credit: sebastien.barre

I was looking forward to the November trail race my girlfriend and I had signed up for at the China Camp Basin (she’d do a 10k and I’d do the half marathon).

Unfortunately, we suffered a brain fart and went there on Sunday rather than Saturday and missed the race. Whoops. It wasn’t all bad as we hiked the trail together for 2 hours instead and went oyster shucking at Point Reyes afterward.

Still, I was annoyed at missing the race. I had been looking forward to pushing myself, so I decided to run a fast 13 miles on my own instead. And that’s when I learned what it’s really like to hit the wall.

Getting to Empty

I went on my usual route that followed the Embarcadero along the water all the way to the Marina (the top of San Francisco) and back. I wasn’t feeling super rested that morning, but I was able to maintain around a 9:30-10min/mi pace which is faster than my usual long run, but slower than previous race paces.

I started getting hungry 40 minutes in but waited until the half way mark, 6.5 miles, to eat my one energy gel. As I headed back, I felt myself getting tired, but I really kept pushing hard.

“This is a race! Go all out and finish exhausted!” I told myself.

This pep talk got me through miles 7-11 but at mile 12 I started feeling really tired and hungry. I was frustrated but slowed, recognizing that I still had 2 miles to go.

The Bonk

That 12th mile took forever. I had my eyes closed for most of it (very bad idea, don’t do this) because I was so uncomfortable and just wanted to zone out completely.

When I finally made it to mile 13, I was basically shuffling. I didn’t want to walk because I knew if I did, I wouldn’t want to start up again. I was starving and it felt like the air had become thick and resisting my motions. Every step was a struggle.

Finally around 12.5 miles, I literally collapsed on my hands and knees. I couldn’t go any further. I walked the last .5 miles, just about finishing 13 miles (without the extra .1)

See my Runkeeper activity for this run.

When I got home, I stuffed my face with snacks and microwave meals (I know, the food of champions). It took a few hours of food, drink, shower and rest before I really felt myself again.

What It Means, Physiologically, to Hit the Wall

There’s a lot more science than I can touch on here but basically it appears I ran out of glycogen, which breaks down into glucose and is one of the primary forms of energy in the human body (the other is burning fat).

The more intense your activity, the more glycogen you use (compared to fat). During most long runs, I maintained a 11 min/mi pace, which is much easier on the body. During races, I would typically carbo-load, stuffing extra glycogen into my liver and muscles, and have several energy gels or drink lots of gatorade during the run.

Because I was running hard and didn’t replenish my energy sources fast enough, I ran down to nothing and crashed. Your brain uses a lot of glycogen too which might explain why I wanted to close my eyes – your mind starts working poorly when you’re low on energy, just like your muscles.

Additional Resources

I’m glad I had a chance to experience “the wall” but I don’t ever plan on doing it again. I found some resources on glycogen depletion that you might find useful as well.

Have you ever hit the wall? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments!