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?

 photo IMAG2407.jpg

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

 photo IMAG2512.jpg

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.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Willpower Experiment: Week One

Last week I posted about the book I read for BlogHer Book Club, The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, PhD (Penguin, 2012). I invited C. Beth Blog readers to get a copy of the book and read it with me. I'm thrilled that my cyber-friend Sonnet has agreed to join me. Hi, Sonnet! (Everybody wave hello!) And for those of you who didn't get the book, no problem. Our posts will give you some useful tips. This is a very practical book!

I'm going to let Sonnet share her recap of Chapter One and her experiences from this week, and then I'll wrap up with my own input. Here we go!

Beth posted on Facebook that she was looking for people to read a book about Willpower with her. Willpower, I thought. Now THAT is something I could use!

According to the author of the book, Kelly McGonigal PhD, this is the reaction everyone has when they hear she’s teaching or writing about willpower. Apparently everyone thinks they lack it somehow. But let me be brutally honest with you about my life.

I’m the oldest child, and if you believe in birth order you know that the oldest child should be the one who has their life all together. However, it’s my brother and sister who have lovely jobs and lovely savings accounts to go with them. My sister never leaves the house without every strand of hair and molecule of makeup in model-perfect order; and my brother – I kid you not – moves his couches so he can vacuum underneath them. Every day. Somehow I have completely missed out on this gene, and I lack what my mother calls “gumption.” I am fat, dowdy, have never made a financial success of any career, don’t even bother opening the overdue bills before I throw them out (or stack them up in piles on the kitchen table,) repeatedly start projects I never finish, and have a whole ROOM of the house you can’t even go in it’s so cluttered. Can anyone else relate to this mess? So yes, more willpower. That would be excellent, thank you.

I excitedly read through the preface of the book, but then began to feel uncomfortable. This book wasn’t just going to magically grant me more willpower, it was asking me to choose a specific area to work on. Yikes. That was so overwhelming and frightening to me, I almost gave up right there. I’m going to have to change. I pictured my future self after reading this book: eating nothing but high fiber vegetables and spending all my free time steaming the carpets and organizing our financial portfolio. It was terrifying, and that’s not the life I want. That’s not me.

So I decided to start small, and choose something I actually enjoy doing but tend to put off. My very modest goal: Write every day for at least 15 minutes. Don’t get distracted by Facebook. No goofing off, no deciding today would be a great day to take the kids sledding or wash the dog or learn to bake popovers instead. It’s just 15 minutes of focus, it’s work I like doing, and that’s not so scary. Okay. I can do this.

As I got into the meat and potatoes of the first chapter – and there is a LOT of deep stuff to think about in here, despite it being an easy read – I considered that maybe I was letting myself off too easy. Dr. McGonigal was asking questions like, “What makes [your challenge] so difficult?” and that was tough for me to answer with such an easy task. I thought about all those other willpower challenges I had run away from. Losing weight, going to bed before midnight, paying bills on time. Chapter One also talks quite a bit about being self-aware and paying attention to the circumstances and feelings that lead up to a willpower choice. With something as minor as 15 minutes of work, I don’t know how many choices I’m actually making, but we’ll see!

McGonigal went through a lot of the science behind impulses and willpower, and how those two governing areas of the brain developed. Particularly helpful for me in this section was making peace with the impulsive part of the brain; to realize that it is still there for a reason. Wanting to dive into a pint of Ben and Jerry’s at midnight isn’t bad, it’s an instinct that was honed for thousands of years to protect us. It is still there to provide us with emotional health and protect us from depression.

Chapter 1 ended with instructions on daily meditation and some scientific background as to why this practice is so effective for ‘willpower training.’ If you have ever meditated, say during shavasana at the end of your yoga class, you know that one of the core ideas is to focus on the breath. Inhale, exhale. When the mind wanders, you gently bring it back to the breath. This practice helps your brain learn the skills that can also be applied to willpower. When your willpower focus wanders, you don’t castigate yourself or give up. You just gently bring yourself back to the goal. Meditation is something I have been doing already for years, so (phew!) I got this first exercise down. So far, so good.

I’m still anxious about the possibility of failing. On the other hand, I’m three days in, have been more regular about both my writing and my meditation, and that feels really good! Baby steps.

Awesome, Sonnet--thank you for the great overview!

As I shared in my original post, I decided that my willpower challenge is reducing the clutter in my house.

McGonigal stresses the importance of figuring out why you lose control. Statistically, "people who think they have the most willpower areactually the most likely to lose control when tempted.... They fail to predict when, where, and why they will give in. They expose themselves to more temptation..." (page 4). She encourages each reader to examine what makes their willpower challenge so difficult.

So why do I pass by clutter spots...over and over...instead of taking care of them? I hesitate to tackle clutter because I find it boring. I avoid tasks that are boring. But you know what? In trying to avoid boredom, I actually add stress (which is sort of opposite of boredom!) to my life. And it's not a good trade-off!

I've been tackling one clutter spot--usually a small one--every weekday. And you know what? I am more at peace. Choosing to do these "boring" activities (like cleaning the books off my bedside table) is proving to be so rewarding. I love looking at a formerly-cluttered spot and seeing it nicely-organized. I'm realizing that sometimes I have to do some boring things to find more peace.

As for the main technique Chapter One suggests--meditation--I'm not as consistent with it as the author suggests. However, I'd already started doing some deep breathing recently, thanks to another book I've been reading. Reading this book has reminded me to get back to that breathing. I don't do it for five minutes at a time (as suggested), and honestly I can't tell if it's helping at all with my clutter willpower challenge. But it does bring me more peace, so no matter what it's worth it.

One thing I have realized is that "meditation" doesn't have to be weird. Really, it's just breathing deeply and focusing on that breathing. It's that simple. And I even find I can pray when I'm doing my breathing. For instance, I like to invite the Holy Spirit in on my inhales, and release my worries to Him on my exhales.

If you'd like to join us this week, it's easy.
  • Think about your willpower challenge, and why you say "yes" when you should say "no," or vice-versa. Just being aware may help you resist impulses later. 
  • And take a few minutes to focus on your breathing...slowly in and slowly out.
There you go--your first two willpower exercises! See you next week.

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

Friday, January 18, 2013

Honey instead of vinegar

You've probably heard that phrase, "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." I had a chance to test it out yesterday.

The kids and I walked a couple of blocks to a neighbor's house so they could all ride bikes. In our neighborhood, the kids generally ride in the street, but my friend and I aren't ready to let our kids do that without us--they just aren't yet aware enough of traffic. So we stood outside, watching them and shouting out frequent reminders. ("WATCH FOR CARS!!!")

After the kids had been riding awhile, their energy was waning. A couple of them were hanging out on the sidewalk, and a couple others were on the grass.

Suddenly, a car turned onto the street and zoomed past. The speed limit is 30 miles per hour, and I bet the driver was going at least 45.

"That makes me so mad!" I said to my friend. I saw the driver park several houses down. "I kind of want to give her a piece of my mind!" Even though our kids were out of the way, they could just as well have still been playing in the street.

I'm not normally a very confrontational person, but when drivers are unsafe in residential areas, I take it personally. So I started walking toward the house where the car was parking. It took a minute to get there, which gave me time to cool down. And I decided if I wanted this neighbor to listen to me, I should treat her in a neighborly way.

"Excuse me," I called as I approached. I had a smile on my face and used a polite tone of voice. "I'm not sure if you realized how fast you were going," I said. "Honestly, it kind of freaked us out, because our kids are playing outside."

"Oh, I'm sorry," the woman replied.

"Maybe you can just keep that in mind next time," I said, still in a friendly tone.

She was smiling, in an embarrassed sort of way. She wasn't defensive or angry. "Okay," she replied.

I don't know if our little conversation made a difference or not. At the very least, I bet it was more effective than if I had come to her screaming and cursing. (Mommy Rage can be more potent than Road Rage!)

Let's hope this is one time that a little "honey" worked!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Fill-in-the-blank thank you notes

I am having both my kids do thank you notes for Christmas this year. (Chickie is doing them for her birthday too.)

Chickie can write her own thank you notes, but that would be a lot of writing to expect Zoodle to do. I've seen fill-in-the-blank thank you notes for small children before, so I made some for him. He wanted to be able to attach them inside real thank you cards. These will fit inside a small card, if you cut them out (including cutting the side margins.) Hope these help others too!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Prime Numbers Week!

Chickie turned 7 on Monday, and yesterday The Engineer and I celebrated 13 years of marriage! I guess that means it's Prime Numbers Week in our house! (If the kids were a little older, maybe I'd even incorporate that into our homeschool curriculum....)

The Engineer is awesome. He's kind and holds firmly to his beliefs. He is a man of integrity. He works really hard and he's really smart. And call me crazy, but I love the flecks of gray in his beard! He definitely makes "growing older" look good. He's my guy, and I love partnering with him in this life.

Photo by Whitney Runyan Photography.

And with this beautiful cross pendant and gorgeous roses, he did good this year! (Much better than I. I didn't even manage to get him a card, and I ordered him a gift that won't be here for weeks! Oops.)

What a prime family I have! I'm blessed beyond measure.

Monday, January 14, 2013


Chickie is seven years old today.


Somehow that's a really big milestone to me. I remember so much starting at age seven. Sure, I remember snippets of those years when I was six and five and even four and maybe three...but at age seven the memories get sharper and more frequent.

Chickie is seven, and she's becoming less of a little girl and more of a big girl. It's both sweet and scary, my first baby growing up.

At age seven, Chickie loves...
Uploaded from the Photobucket Android App
Chickie and her new microscope from Uncle Becki and Uncle Donal

...climbing trees.
Uploaded from the Photobucket Android App

...old cartoons.
Uploaded from the Photobucket Android App and other pretty colors.
Uploaded from the Photobucket Android App

...her new camera from Uncle Sean.
Uploaded from the Photobucket Android App
I downloaded photos to the computer the other day. In her first 19 days of camera ownership, she took over 500 pictures.

Uploaded from the Photobucket Android App
Mommy is SO happy about this! In this photo, she's reading to her great-grandma Kitty.

...riding her bike.
Uploaded from the Photobucket Android App

...drawing and using her imagination.
Uploaded from the Photobucket Android App
Click to read the whole thing. It's worth it.

...tying her shoes.
Uploaded from the Photobucket Android App
Well, okay, she doesn't really LOVE tying her shoes, but she's sure gotten good at it quickly.

And what do I love? I love my girl.

From the tips of her short toes to the top of her tender little scalp. From one marker-stained hand to the other. From her sparkling hazel eyes to her gap-toothed mouth to her long, skinny legs.

Boy, do I love that seven-year-old girl.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Willpower Instinct (a lifechanging book)

I have a junk drawer. It's full of pens and pencils and notepads and stamps and glue and coupons and lots more. You probably have one too.

Uploaded from the Photobucket Android App

Problem is, my junk drawer isn't my only "clutter spot." There's my end table in my room, piled with books. There's that one corner of my kitchen counter...and that other corner...and that third one. There's the mail that piles up on the countertop bar. Need I go on?

I'm sick of my clutter.

So when I started reading The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., I decided that reducing clutter is my willpower challenge. Not eliminating clutter, but reducing it, and keeping it at a manageable level.

And this book makes me believe I can actually do it. Not because it's full of empty optimism. But because it's crammed with practical techniques that help the reader find his or her willpower, and increase it.

There are simple tips in the book. (One example: Stress leads to willpower failures. So McGonigal clearly lays out what works to relieve stress, and what doesn't. Walking outside for five minutes works. Playing a game on my phone doesn't.) There are counter-intuitive tips. (For instance, I learned that if I'm craving something--like more Facebook time in lieu of decluttering time--I can "surf the urge." If I pay attention to the urge--instead of trying to ignore it--it will lose much of its power and eventually subside.)

And all these tips are backed up with scientific study after scientific study. (Really, really interesting stuff, not dry, journal-eque recaps.) Who knew so many scientists had studied willpower and self-control?!

It's hard for me to write this review because I'm so enthusiastic about the book that I am overwhelmed and know I can't cover it all! Also, the book is meant to be read slowly. (The author suggests one chapter per week; it's a 10-chapter book.) But I read the whole book in about a week and a half, so I felt like I wasn't able to put everything into practice immediately.

So I'm going to start a blog series here. (I suppose this is another willpower challenge!) I'll be re-reading this book, one chapter every week. I'll put that chapter into practice, and then I'll blog about it. I'll include plenty of the practical tips I'm learning.

Would anyone like to join me? The book is about $16 (hardcover) or $13 (Kindle) on Amazon. Click here to check it out. It has great reviews. I plan to do my first blog post (covering Chapter 1) one week from today, but if anyone wants to join me on this adventure, I can put it off a bit so you have time to get the book. Just comment here or email me at

And if you're thinking, "Well, I might want to, BUT..." then let me share a few things with you that I learned from the book:
  • If you think you'll have more time (or more of a book budget) "later" you may be deceiving yourself. We all tend to think we'll have more time, money, and, yes, willpower, in the future. But you'll always have responsibilities, including unexpected ones. You'll probably always be on a budget. If you are waiting for some "better time" to do something, you may never get it done! But you can invest in your future self now!
  • One of the big willpower challenges many of us have is how we spend our money. With the tips in this book, I bet you can find a way to recoup the $13-$16 the book cost (and probably a lot more than that.)
  • Many of us have religious beliefs that affect the way we live our lives, and we can be cynical about self-help books. We might think, "I can pray my way through my willpower challenges!" Rest assured, this book is not anti-religion. In fact, the author speaks positively about prayer and about faith as a motivation. I am finding that many of the suggestions are easily integrated with my faith. For instance, the book talks about how counterproductive guilt and self-criticism are. That goes right along with my beliefs about God's grace and forgiveness.
  • You may be afraid that you will get the book and it will sit on your shelf, unread. (I've got books like that!) But studies show that if you are tackling a willpower challenge with others in your community (including your online community!) then you are far more likely to succeed. We'll figure out a way to stay in touch as we read this together, so that we can hold each other accountable!
I hope someone will join me! If not, I'm still going to do the blog series myself. This is just such good stuff!

To check out The Willpower Instinct on Amazon, click here.

I'm reading this book as part of BlogHer Book Club. I'll be participating in discussions on their site. To check out those discussions (and to participate, even if you aren't reading the book), click here.

One more thing: I'm already finding more willpower. When we got home from vacation on Monday afternoon, I unpacked everything...that day. That's a big deal for this clutter-prone girl!

I was provided with a complimentary copy of this book and am receiving compensation for this review. All opinions are my own.