Monday, January 28, 2013

The Willpower Experiment: Week Two

Sonnet and I are continuing our Willpower Experiment, as we read  The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, PhD. To read my initial review of the book, click here. Week One's blog post is here.

I'm continuing to take care of one clutter area (usually a small one) per weekday. I missed one day last week, an exceptionally busy day. That's okay! I proved my commitment by finding time to tackle a small area the next day. Remember my junk drawer?

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Well, that was one of my projects this week. Here's the new and improved junk drawer:

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Much better, right?

Chapter Two is called "The Willpower Instinct," and it goes into the biological basis of self-control. "Heart rate variability" is the amount your heart rate naturally goes up and down throughout the day. It is a GOOD thing. People with greater heart rate variability statistically have higher self-control and are less likely to give in to willpower challenges.

McGonigal details several ways to increase your heart rate variability, which "sets you up" to be more successful at building self-control! You don't have to focus on all these at once! That can be overwhelming (as Sonnet expresses below.) Choose one thing at a time to work on. Here are some tips you can choose from to help you increase heart rate variability and self-control:
  • Slow your breathing to four to six breaths per minute. I tried this for five minutes while we were doing school this morning--and then continued past five minutes because it was working so well! I was more patient with Zoodle and Chickie. I was able to discipline Zoodle by sending him to his room, and help Chickie with her least-favorite subject (math), all without raising my voice or losing my temper. I like this exercise because I can do it even when I'm doing other things--I don't have to focus as much as I would during traditional meditation. And "it takes only one to two minutes of breathing at this pace to boost your willpower reserve; it's something you can do whenever you face a willpower challenge" (p. 41). So whether your challenge is staying patient with your kids or staying away from ice cream, you can try this easy technique.
  • Exercise! Of course, regular exercise is a great thing in many ways. But you can boost your mood and your willpower just by going outside and being slightly active (like walking) for five minutes. Five minutes! I've found this works so well for me. I've been more willing to go outside with my kids lately, hanging out with them while they ride bikes. (Zoodle is still mastering bike-riding, so I'm pretty active while I'm out there, since I'm helping him.) It improves my mood, which makes me more likely to say "yes" to decluttering.
  • Sleep. Did you know Americans get, on average, two hours less sleep a night than they did in 1960? Wow!! I know on days (like today) when I'm extra-tired, being self-controlled feels extra-hard. I usually sleep a lot, but we all have rough nights. McGonigal explains that if it's too hard for you to consistently get a good night's sleep, you can "catch up" with one good night, or "stock up" by getting extra sleep in advance of times you know you'll be sleep-deprived. Or you can take short, ten-minute naps to recharge your body. There are studies showing all of these techniques to be effective.
There are a couple of other things I want to share from this chapter.
  • "So often we believe that stress is the only way to get things done, and we even look for ways to increase stress--such as waiting until the last minute, or criticizing ourselves for being lazy or out of control--to motivate ourselves. Or we use stress to try to motivate others, turning up the heat at work or coming down hard at home. This may seem to work in the short term, but in the long term, nothing drains willpower faster than stress" (p. 51). This was an eye-opener for me, because I tend to try to motivate my kids through stress. I get frustrated and tense. I raise my voice and pressure them to do what they're supposed to do. I'm trying to find better ways to motivate them, because I know that yelling really doesn't work! They may (eventually) obey me, but it isn't teaching them the internal motivation they need to do the right thing when I'm not there.
  • "Just like living under chronic stress is unhealthy, trying to control every aspect of your thoughts, emotions, and behavior is a toxic strategy. It's too big a burden for your biology.... Even as you strengthen self-control, you cannot control everything you think, feel, say, and do. You will have to choose your willpower battles wisely" (p. 49). This is freeing to me. I can easily feel guilty that I don't have perfect willpower. It's good to be reminded that it's actually unhealthy to be a control freak!
Now, here is Sonnet's input on Chapter 2:

I’ll admit it, this week was really difficult for me. Maybe it’s because we had family visiting, and my schedule was out of sync. Maybe it was just starting new techniques. I am not sure, but I really belly flopped this week with the willpower stuff. And the very premise of this entire chapter leaves me shaking my head – it seems so backwards to me. We’re only two chapters in, and I feel like I’m starting to sink! 

In this chapter Dr. McGonigal talks mainly about situations where our willpower reserves will be depleted, and we’ll be more likely to give in. Some years ago in therapy for compulsive behavior I remember being taught to think of these situations as “HALT” triggers: are you Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired? If so, “halt” (stop.) Your compulsion is about those needs, not about your craving at all. Dr. McGonigal speaks about the exact same principals here, backing them up with the science behind willpower and the physiological responses to the choices we make.

Physical or emotional stressors – fatigue, hunger, anxiety, etc – these kinds of things all put us in a less than ideal state for coping. That state flips chemical switches in our brain that tell us that things aren’t going well, so go for the fight-or-flight options - which are impulsive. It is actually, on a physical level, harder to make good willpower decisions if you tired or hungry or upset about something. In one way everyone recognizes the truth of this. You’ve been doing great with that new diet until you break up with your boyfriend and then the ice cream and chocolate come out, no holds barred. You stick to a tight daily budget until your boss makes you work late and then you’re too tired to care and just buy dinner on the way home. But knowing that it’s not some ephemeral sort of ‘weakness’ that causes these lapses, but real changes in how the brain functions in order to protect us, is powerful. I do feel much better about it now!

So the idea is, then, to minimize these stressors on your life. In doing so you avoid shifting your brain into survival / impulse mode, and gain more willpower and control. Eat regularly, and eat nourishing foods. Sleep enough. Use the daily meditation breath practice to help let go of tension. Exercise, exercise, exercise. If we take care of our physical and emotional health, we’ll be able to make good choices.

And this is where it breaks down for me. In order to gain more willpower and be able to do the healthy things that don’t come easily to me, I need to exercise daily, stop eating junk food, go to bed early every night, and meditate. Well, obviously – if I could DO those things, I would HAVE willpower! It’s a spiral you can’t get out of. I have read and reread this chapter and I can’t figure out how someone such as myself (who struggles in basically all areas with willpower) is supposed to simply start just knowing how to eat better, exercise more, and sleep more. There are no suggestions as to how to do this either, except for a sentences stating reasons that these actions are good for me (which I already knew, of course.) I’m also struggling with the author’s suggestion to take a 5 minute ‘green willpower fill-up’ break every day to get outside and enjoy nature. It has been 40 below zero and we haven’t had anything green outside in months! Going outside for 5 minutes gets you frostbite and is not exactly relaxing. So, no go on that assignment either.

I guess I’m stuck with just the deep breathing and meditation suggested in chapter one. I’m not giving up on the book or the program, so I’ll continue to do that part and just do my best with everything else. Maybe future chapters will help me find my way to more practical willpower solutions.

That does sound like a frustrating week, Sonnet! I do think other chapters will help you with some of this. I hope next week is more encouraging to you--and when the sun is out and your area of the world has gotten warmer again, I bet that will help too.

I'll end with this quote, which sums up the chapter nicely:

"Focus one of the easiest and most effective ways to improve the biological basis of willpower. It not only trains the brain, but also increases heart rate variability. Anything else that you do to reduce stress and take care of your health--exercise, get a good night's sleep, eat better, spend quality time with friends and family, participate in a religious or spiritual practice--will improve your body's willpower reserve" (p. 39).

I was given a complimentary copy of this book and paid for my initial review; however, this in-depth series is uncompensated.

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