Monday, March 25, 2013

The Willpower Experiment: The Final Chapter (Week Ten!)

My friend Sonnet and I are on Week Ten--the last week--of our Willpower Experiment, based on the book The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. To read the previous posts from this series, click here. The last chapter of the book is just a short summary/conclusion, so Sonnet and I will use this post to sum up what we've learned through this Experiment.

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My big eye-opener? Willpower is about figuring out what I really want in the long term, and making more decisions to support what I want. It is NOT about having a miserable life that replaces joy and spontaneity with strict discipline and structure. It's about figuring out how to actually be happier. Willpower is, surprisingly, very, very freeing! I love that I'm making more choices based on what will make me happy in the long run, because I'm finding it makes me happier in the short run too.

My Willpower Experiment has centered around decluttering my house. I love the progress I'm making. I'm quite surprised about the extent of clutter I still have to tackle. It was worse than I'd realized, but I'm headed in the right direction. And I've learned that instead of patting myself on the back for my progress (and giving myself an excuse to let go of my goal), I need to keep reminding myself that every day I declutter a small area, I'm proving my commitment to this long-term life change. I want to stay committed, because my house is becoming a more and more pleasant place to live, and I want to continue that.

But remember way back when we talked about willpower being like a muscle? It gets stronger as you train it. I'm seeing that happen! I'm finding that it's easier for me to say no to sweets. (I tend to have quite a sweet tooth!) I'm procrastinating less on some things. Yes, I focused on decluttering as my willpower challenge, but I love that I'm seeing willpower increases in other areas of my life.

I have not become some sort of Willpower Superhero! I still have days when I sleep too late, or eat too much junk food, or create more clutter. But another thing I've learned is that I need to let go of the shame that comes with making mistakes. It's part of being human. I can learn from it instead of beating myself up. That's not always easy for me, but I'm trying!

This is one of those books that has truly been life-changing, and I recommend it to anyone who wants really practical advice about how to create more of the life you really want. Here it is on Amazon. It just may be the best $16.50 or so (a little more for Kindle, gah) that you can spend!

One more time...heeeeeeeeere's Sonnet!

Wow! Ten weeks and we have finished the entire book! This week falls right after I faced a particular challenge with my parents being in town and the difference in the way we approach food, so that was a great case study for me to try out so of the stuff I had learned.

So, what were some highlights for me from this book? I’d say that for me, the most mind-blowing and insightful concept was the understanding about how dopamine works, and how it is tied to high-sugar, high-fat foods. That dopamine triggers not only pleasure but an anxiety response, and that I was in essence self-medicating my anxiety by creating a dopamine rush by encountering high sugar foods, then “washing it away” with the pleasure and relief of eating them. Yes, I had heard people use the phrase ‘self-medicating’ when they talked about food before but never had I heard it elaborated on so well. It really made sense for me in this context, and I saw the emotional component of it so clearly. Ever since reading that one chapter, I have had so much more control over my tendency to binge eat when I am anxious.

I also love the new understanding I have about the way willpower works in our brain. That we have, in a sense, two brains that have evolved differently, and both are valuable. When we’re functioning optimally our self-control brain can make choices for the long term; but when we’re threatened or stressed emotionally or physically our impulse brain kicks in and makes survival choices for the short term. When we say willpower we usually are referring to making choices that have long-term benefits. In order to make those choices we need to support our bodies and brains so they know what to choose.

So how did this all play out in my ‘real-life’ willpower challenge? Well, let me set the stage for you. I have wonderful parents who are amazing grandparents. They are kind, generous, and fun and they love their grandkids fiercely. They live on the opposite coast, and I am blessed that they come and visit every 6 – 8 weeks. However, we disagree on what constitutes a healthy diet, both for us adults and for my kids. So my willpower challenge during this last visit of theirs was to resist the junk food temptations and maybe even hold my kids to a normal, healthier eating standard. Conveniently, March is “March Into Fitness” month at the kid’s school, and the girls are filling out charts where they try to eat 5 fruits and vegetables a day - a great tool to help navigate the food dilemma. I spoke to my mom about it the first day, and she asked me to drive her to the grocery store so she could pick up some fresh produce for the kids to eat. I kept the receipt from her trip. Want to know what was purchased?
  • Bananas and grapes – great!
  • Fruit juice with HFC (“Does juice count for their 5 a day?” “No…”)
  • Ice cream
  • Cookies
  • Lunchables
  • Cupcakes
  • Sausages
  • Coke
  • Potato Chips
  • Beef Sticks
  • Green Food Coloring
  • Whipped Cream
  • Sugared Cereal / Mini-Boxes

So this is what I was up against. Mom also arrived with two batches of homemade cookies in her carry-on, and we ate out several times during their visit, almost always including dessert. It was a LOT of temptation!

To help fortify my willpower, I used the techniques I learned in Chapter 8 that related to “immunization:” spending time each morning thinking about my goals (eating a nutritious diet) and considering what kinds of enticements might come up during the day. I made plans for how I would handle them, and thought about how proud I would feel for making good choices. I brought to mind a quote from my ‘role model,’ Michael Pollan. I also used a technique from early on in the book where I reminded myself that I was committed to my goals.

The results: Well, I was not able to stop my kids from eating junk all weekend. The food was in front of them and they ate it. I also found I was not able to say ‘NO’ firmly enough sometimes. I would say, “I don’t want my kids to eat that,” and I would be ignored or discounted. My mom eventually resorted to guilt trips, telling the kids, “Your mother wants me to feed you nothing but celery!” Argh. That was really frustrating.

On the other hand, when it came to my own choices about myself, I did fantastic! I was not even tempted to eat the cookies that were set out the first day. I made a conscious choice to eat pancakes and sausages one morning with everyone for breakfast, and didn’t feel bad about it. One night we all went out to eat. While everyone else ate large bowls of pasta or enormous plates, I ordered a small salad off the diet menu (which was still enormous, not to mention very good!) In the past, I know if I had done this I would have felt deprived and would have possibly eaten something later to ‘make up for it.’ But this time I felt full and happy with my choice. Willpower success!

Food became my willpower challenge by Week Ten, but I started off with a willpower challenge of writing just 15 minutes a day. I’m proud to report I have more than exceeded that (some days by several hours!) every day since about Chapter 2. Meditation helped, and finding the right triggers and motivators to get me to stop procrastinating. This really works!

My conclusion: It comes down to understanding, “What is willpower?” I had a skewed view of willpower before reading this book. Willpower is NOT, as I previously understood it to be, a kind of steely resolve, denying yourself happiness, making hard choices and suffering. Who would choose it then? And to what end? Willpower IS reframing the way you think. It’s not letting myself be fooled by my surroundings, and remaining true to my inner voice. Then I am able to care for myself and make good decisions.

I’m so grateful that Beth talked me into going through this book with her. It’s been one of the most educational experiences I have had in a long time! I’d recommend the journey to anyone looking to gain a better understanding of their decision-making process.

This is so, so cool to read, Sonnet. I'm thrilled that the book ended up affecting your life in profound, positive ways, just as it did mine. Thank you so much for joining me--it was way more fun and motivational to do this with someone else!

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

1 comment:

Kelly McGonigal said...

Thank you for sharing these stories! I am so inspired by how you are connecting the science to your own experiences. That is exactly my dream for the book -- that the science can help you remember your vision for your life and take positive action in that direction.
Kelly McGonigal