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.


Call Me Cate said...

I was raised to think that meditation was some kind of new-agey practice just short of satan-worship. (Hey, my family had some interesting ideas...) But I've found meditation to be so beneficial for slowing both my body and my mind. That concentration on breathing slowly in and out, focusing my thoughts. Whether you use it for prayers or something like peace in, stress out, or whatever else comes to mind, I find it hard to think that most of us wouldn't benefit from a few minutes of quietly inhaling and exhaling.

I've also been decluttering here and there and such joy! I'm not able to devote myself to this challenge but I will enjoy following along and may be able to come back to it later. I'm glad Sonnet is able to enjoy you and especially interested that she chose writing!

Jamie said...

I'm a little late to the challenge, but this has been a source of stress in my life. Simply wondering "why can't I have more willpower?" already takes a toll on my self-worth and feels defeating. I like what I've read so far and it really resonates. Now I think I'll get the book too!