(Page 4 of 4)
reason: Toward the end of the book you discuss replacing God with technology for this purpose. In a country where we are less and less religious, how else can we get those good bright-line rules that God previously provided?
Tierney: There’s this movement called the quantified self, which is using digital tools for monitoring yourself—and basically outsourcing the monitoring. I weigh myself every morning on a Withings scale that sends it to my computer so I can see this chart, and just knowing that’s going to be there is something that affects me a little bit. I wear a band on my arm that keeps track of how many steps I take, how much I sleep. I have this software that monitors my computer use. My finances are automatically monitored by Mint.com. Just knowing that you’re going to get this email on Saturday, “Unusual spending on meals,” that has an impact. That’s basically a way someone else is helping you keep track of yourself.
reason: What output of your quantified self most shocked you or most changed your behavior?
Tierney: I think the shocking thing for me was the amount of writing that I did. At one point I took leave and went off to write the book. I was spending 10, 12 hours a day writing and pretty much doing just that. I found that when I actually looked at what I was doing, and you could see the little graph, it was really hard to write for more than four or five hours a day. It’s decision fatigue. I also realized that that’s what writers have all day. It’s a decision every word. What’s the next word going to be? You can’t keep doing that all day.
I guess I got a little more realistic in that I used to always think, “Well, I’ll do 2,000 words tomorrow. I’ll finish it all tomorrow. I’ll do it all tomorrow morning.” The more I kept track, I could look back and say, “I’ve never written 2,000 words in a morning before, so maybe I shouldn’t plan on that for tomorrow.” It’s something called the planning fallacy. Everybody thinks that they’re going to get more done than they possibly could.
reason: What else should people know about self-control and willpower?
Tierney: The term willpower started being used by the Victorians. They had this notion that there was this energy, kind of like the steam engine, and what Roy has found is that there really is this energy there. The Victorians were also concerned because at that time people were leaving their villages, their churches, and moving into the cities. And there was nobody controlling them. The Victorians didn’t instinctively look to the government to control everything for them. They wanted to be able to develop this inner fortitude, even as they were losing their religious faith, even though their neighbors in the village were no longer constraining them.
I think that we’re in an era like that today with the Net, that we’re suddenly subjected to temptations all the time with nobody looking over us, and there’s this real temptation to say, “The government has to save us from this.” I think that [if] we can encourage people to use their own self-control, they’ll do a much better job of controlling themselves, and we won’t have all these problems with the government [using] blunt instruments that restrict our freedom, because basically you need self-control to have freedom.
I also think self-control and willpower got a terrible rap after the Nazis. The power of the will, that was not good P.R. It’s associated with this idea of selfish people trying to get their own way. But the really heartening research [suggests] that self-control evolved [because it] enabled us to get along with other people. We’re social creatures, and we need this in order to get along. People with self-control are actually more altruistic; they do more to help other people. So it’s not just a selfish virtue; it’s a social virtue too. We can actually develop ourselves without the nanny state doing it for us.