Monday, February 25, 2013

The Willpower Experiment: Week Six

My friend Sonnet and I are on Week Six 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. Pardon my language, but Chapter Six is called "What the Hell: How Feeling Bad Leads to Giving In." I'll let Sonnet starts us off this week!

“Our stresses, anxieties, pains, and problems arise because we do not see the world, others, or even ourselves as worthy of love. (9)”
Prem Prakash, The Yoga of Spiritual Devotion A Modern Translation of the Narada Bhakti Sutras

I decided to lead with this beautiful quote by Prem Prakash because it captures so much of what Chapter Six is about. The world is a stressful place, driving us to seek out comfort in our actions. When we react to these choices in ways that aren’t loving and supportive of our selves, we end up hurting; and the unhappy person within us makes repeatedly worse decisions as we seek even greater comfort. The only way out, the only way to make good willpower choices, is to act in love.

Stress is all around us, affecting every one, every day. Work, family responsibilities, financial struggles, health issues. Loud noises and traffic can cause stress. This chapter showed how just watching the news can be a source of stress as we subconsciously note all of the terror attacks, earthquakes, floods, car accidents, kidnappings and school shootings in our world. Our brains are driven to seek relief, to find comfort in any manner available. And what is the obvious choice? Dopamine rushes, just like we talked about in Chapter Five. These hit our reward center in just the right way and promise us happiness, calm, relief. So we turn to food, sex, money, spending hours on the internet, and other impulsive or even harmful behaviors because they promise to make us feel better.

Beth chiming in here! It's fascinating that "according to the American Psychological Association (APA), the most commonly used strategies for dealing with stress are those that activate the brain's reward system: eating, drinking, shopping, watching television, surfing the Web, and playing video games.... The most commonly used strategies were also rated as highly ineffective by the same people who reported using them" (p. 134).

We're back to my confession last week about repeatedly checking Facebook, being convinced I'll somehow find pleasure there. And I can definitely see the stress connection. When I'm stressed out, sometimes my brain rebels against doing anything that requires more focus or energy than clicking "Like" and "Comment"! Hearing an expert tell me that this is an ineffective way of dealing with stress is making a difference. It's making me think twice before I spend long periods of time scrolling through my News Feed! Why do we automatically return to behaviors that aren't helpful, and may be harmful, when we're stressed? Sonnet explains it here:

Stress triggers your fight-or-flight response, and it will always favor the short-term over the long term. So as stress and anxiety in your environment increase, so do impulsive behaviors. Willpower goes right out the door.

What’s funny is we know what behaviors work to reduce stress. This chapter has a great list of them...

...and I'm going to put that whole list here, because I found it so insightful. These behaviors genuinely work to reduce stress (quoted from p. 137):
  • exercising or playing  sports
  • praying or attending a religious service
  • reading
  • listening to music
  • spending time with friends or family
  • getting a massage
  • going outside for a walk
  • meditating or doing yoga
  • spending time with a creative hobby
When I watch TV, I usually want to be doing something else. I used to sit there on my computer, on Facebook or blogs, as if combining two ineffective stress relief activities would help. (All it did was annoy my husband, who knew I was only half-watching the TV!) But since I started crocheting a couple of years ago, that's usually my go-to television activity. And when I see the list above, I realize that's a great thing to do! Television itself doesn't reduce my stress. But crocheting is relaxing. I can spend time with my husband watching a show we enjoy, while I practice my "creative hobby." To me it feels so much better than just zoning off in front of what the "boob tube."

Those activities have all been well studied and always come through to dramatically make us really feel better, when chocolate binges won’t. But we don’t choose them. Why not? Because they don’t have an associated dopamine rush. They don’t feel heady, they don’t have that “rush” to them, so we underestimate the effect they will have. We assume activities need to feel “dopamine-y” to make us feel better, when that’s not the case.

"Rather than releasing dopamine and relying on the promise of reward," McGonigal explains, "the real stress relievers boost mood-enhancing brain chemicals like serotonin and GABA, as well as the feel-good hormone oxytocin" (p. 137).

Both last night and this morning, I was feeling stressed out, not quite prepared to take on what I expected to be a busy Monday. And I knew I needed to exercise, but I didn't want to. Last night, there was certainly no dopamine promising me pleasure if I got off the couch. And this morning not only was there a lack of dopamine telling me to exercise; I was also being begged to stay in bed by my warm covers, who can be very convincing.

McGonigal suggests that you find "a way to remind your stressed-out self what actually makes you feel better"( p. 139). Both last night and this morning, I just reminded myself that I would feel better if I got up and moved. I know that's true from personal experience. It was late last night--too late for a full workout--but I took a few minutes to get up and just move a bit, in my living room. I felt so much better! And this morning I (eventually!) convinced myself to get out of bed, and sure enough, a brisk walk was just what I needed to start my busy day on a positive note. When dopamine isn't telling us that a positive action is rewarding, we have to depend on what we know is truly rewarding instead.

So let's talk about how guilt keeps us from meeting our goals. If you're "good at guilt" like me, you need to read this part! Here's Sonnet:

Making poor choices can be a vicious cycle. You begin by being worried about one thing, which leads you to make a negative willpower choice, and then your guilt about that choice makes you feel bad, so you seek relief from that feeling and you make another poor choice. How often have you been tempted by “just a bite” of a rich dessert, felt bad about giving in, and ended up eating the entire thing? (I know I have!) The idea that guilt over a lapse in willpower makes us feel bad, so we are driven to make more unhealthy choices, is a well-known one.

Says Dr. McGonigal, “‘I’ve already broken my [diet, budget, sobriety, resolution], so what the hell, I might as well really enjoy myself.’ Crucially it’s not the first giving-in that guarantees the bigger relapse. It’s the feelings of shame, guilt, loss of control, and loss of hope that follow the first relapse. Once you’re stuck in the cycle, it can seem like there’s no way out except to keep going.” When we talk to ourselves in a critical way, like an angry parent scolding a child, we make this cycle worse. We deepen our feelings of shame and make it more likely that we will have little choice but to continue making bad decisions.

The way out, as Prem Prakash said, is love. Treating ourselves gently and kindly, with respect and compassion, stops this cycle. Reminding ourselves that everyone makes mistakes, or indulges once in a while, or struggles to always make the ‘right’ decisions, means we don’t feel the shame and guilt so acutely. Then we aren’t as driven to seek further dopamine comfort. We’re also more willing to face our lapses and really examine what went on, and make changes so we can do better in the future.

"As soon as I mention self-forgiveness in class," Dr. McGonigal writes (p. 147), "the arguments start pouring in. You would think I had just suggested that the secret to more willpower was throwing kittens in front of speeding buses.... To many people, self forgiveness sounds like excuse-making that will only lead to greater self-indulgence."

Do you relate? I do! However, "Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression, which drains both 'I will' power and 'I want' power" (p. 148).

If I believe in a God who forgives my sins, then that begs the question, would He really want me to beat myself up over my mistakes and bad choices? Yes, God wants me to become more like him--but surely that includes being a forgiver...even forgiving myself.

In addition to remembering that mistakes are part of being human, McGonigal also suggests thinking about how you'd talk to a friend who'd made the same mistake, and then talking to yourself that way. These perspectives help us to move past the guilt feelings, which actually get in the way of learning from our bad choices. And what a relief to live in grace instead of guilt!

I'll let Sonnet close our discussion for this week.

When we hear the word “WILLPOWER” we so often associate it with cold hard strength. With being able to shut off emotions and get the job done, powering through the temptations of physical comforts. This chapter turns all that on its head. This chapter shows the true power of kindness and gentleness, especially towards our selves. It’s impressive!

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

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Willpower Experiment: Week Five

My friend Sonnet and I are on Week Five 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.

Whew, what a week it's been for me! My husband has been sick, and just as he was starting to feel better, I came down with it. I've been sick since Monday, but today I'm starting to feel much better. I haven't done any decluttering this week--I've been doing well just to get through each day! I may be able to take on a decluttering project today or tomorrow, and I'm committed to continuing toward my goal!

Let's start with Sonnet's recap of Chapter Five, "The Brain's Big Lie: Why We Mistake Wanting for Happiness."

Five weeks in, and this chapter takes on one of the most powerful forces that affect how we respond to temptations. You probably have heard the slang term dope, which comes from dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls the reward system in our brain. There’s a reason something as bizarre as a neurotransmitter has made it into our everyday lexicon: a dopamine rush is a very, very potent force; one we all will happily turn our bodies (and homes, marriages, or wallets) over to given half a chance.

What causes dopamine to start flowing? Anything that gives us the promise of reward. This can be anything from food to sex to money to technology to an alcohol buzz to leveling up in your video game. Images or scents of good food do it. The sound of your aroused mate purring in your ear does it. The icon on your phone that says you have a new text message does it. There’s a rush to your reward center, and your brain starts telling you to act now - that this immediate gratification is absolutely what you are after, and bugger everything else.

Notice though, that dopamine works on the reward center of the brain, and not the pleasure center. It produces intense feelings of desire and motivation, not gratification. Dopamine can also cause a significant stress response when we think about not being able to act on our desire. Dr. McGonigal talks about a study where researchers showed women simple images of chocolate while monitoring their brains. The women all showed a ‘startle response,’ reacting with alarm. The women reported feeling pleasure when they saw the chocolate, but also anxiety and a sense of being out of control.

This one observation (that a dopamine rush produces anxiety as well as pleasure) was the biggest “ah-ha” moment for me so far in the book. All of a sudden, I saw with distinct clarity the pattern that has plagued and confused me for years with binge eating. I normally have very little appetite, but when I am anxious and frustrated, sometimes I binge on junk. I have never understood why – it’s not like I am hungry. The explanation of ‘emotional eating’ never really made much sense for me either. But this does, completely. My pattern goes like this:
  • I feel anxiety, and I don’t know how to deal with it.
  • In desperation, I create more anxiety by starting a dopamine rush, looking at or thinking about high-sugar food. I feel huge amounts of tension until I can eat it.
  • I eat it, and whoosh, there is an enormous sense of relief
  • I mistake this for relief about the anxiety I couldn’t solve before
This was huge for me. In the days since understanding this process, my whole relationship with food and with my stress levels has changed. It has only been a few days, and I need to work on finding more healthy ways of relieving anxiety and anger without “doping,” but I think that can be done. This is mind-blowing, life changing stuff!

Speaking of life changing, this chapter had another fantastic suggestion that really reframes the way I look at chores. Dopamine is one of the most effective marketing strategies ever utilized. Businesses use sexy models, half-off sales, scents and sounds to lure you in all the time. The lottery wants you to just imagine what you would do with $1 million. There’s a prize in every box. And we fall for it, all of it – we can’t help it. Dopamine is that strong. So if it works for selling junk we don’t need, why not make it work for the stuff we actually need to do?

Seriously. Imagine a world where instead of blowing your last $2 on a lottery ticket, you were entered in a million dollar prize drawing every time you made a savings deposit or filed your taxes on time. People would totally do that, wouldn’t they? You can use dopamine the same way for a “I WILL” challenge. Having trouble getting motivated to exercise? Try going for a run with the hot guy from across the street. Doing homework? It’s always easier with a supreme pizza. And, in the best example from the book: Hate decluttering? Hide scratch-off lottery tickets in your piles. You’ll be sorting through them in no time!

This chapter was so compelling for me. This was the chapter where I really saw my own reactions laid out, and found resources that are actually going to work for me and changing how I react to temptations. It’s amazing!

What an awesome recap, Sonnet! I love hearing about how this is changing the way you understand yourself, and helping you to change your actions!

This chapter helped me understand why sometimes I compulsively check Facebook. It used to be email. And then blogs. And then Twitter. "Because we know there's a chance we'll have a new message, or because the very next YouTube video may be the one that makes us laugh, we keep hitting refresh, clicking the next link, and checking our devices compuslively" (p. 114).

My brain's reward system (fueled by dopamine) promises me that if I see one more Like or Comment on the photo I posted on Facebook, I'll feel pleasure. But rarely do those online responses provide me with the amount of pleasure dopamine has promised--and, as Sonnet pointed out, there is a considerable amount of anxiety that comes along with my compulsive clicking! I think that just being aware of that trap--of the lies dopamine tells me--has helped me to be a little less compulsive about "checking my devices"--sometimes. Honestly, I have a ways to go on fighting this battle, but at least now I understand the battle better!

And do you know anyone who plays video games for hours upon hours? If so, you may find this just as eye-opening as I did: "Computer and video game designers intentionally manipulate the reward system to keep players hooked. The promise that the next level or big win could happen at any time is what makes a game compelling. It's also what makes a game hard to quit. One study found that playing a video game led to dopamine increases equivalent to amphetamine use--and it's this dopamine rush that makes both so addictive" (pp. 114-115). Wow!

Clearly Facebook and video games aren't actually the best ways to relax. Chapter Six, which we'll review next week, goes into more detail about what activities really do bring us stress relief, since the prompting of dopamine so often steers us in the wrong direction.

McGonigal makes it clear that dopamine isn't evil, though. When people don't have enough dopamine, "the result isn't so much total contentment as it is apathy" (p. 131). Seeking rewards is a very important part of being a healthy human. But, as Sonnet said, we can use dopamine to work for us.

I was intrigued by what McGonigal calls "the power of an unpredictable reward" (p.123). Some drug and alcohol recovery programs use a "fish bowl" reward system. The fish bowl holds slips of paper, half of which have rewards on them, from $1 to $20, with one $100 prize. The other half are printed with the message, "Keep up the good work." Patients who test negative on their drug tests are allowed to pick from the fish bowl. One study showed that patients who get fish bowl rewards are far more successful in staying off drugs or alcohol than those who don't get a reward. In fact, the fish bowl (which, as you'll recall, only gives monetary rewards half the time) even works better than guaranteed payments for passing drug tests. "Our reward system gets much more excited about a possible big win than a guaranteed smaller reward," McGonigal explains.

So I've put this into practice with my kids. For the last several weeks, we've been using an "unpredictable reward" system. When my kids are extra-helpful, or do a great job cleaning up their rooms, they get to dip their little hands into a canister that has rewards ranging from "One episode of television" to "Special date with Daddy." They love the new reward system and are so motivated to earn the right to choose one! And it's giving me the motivation to spend more time doing special things with them. When one of them gets the "Be Mommy's Assistant Chef" reward, I know I need to take the time to let that child help me in the kitchen.

Next week we'll talk about how GUILT and STRESS make it much more difficult to reach our goals. Get ready to hear scientific reasons to stop beating yourself up when you mess up! 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.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Willpower Experiment: Week Four, Part Two

My friend Sonnet and I are on Week Four of our Willpower Experiment, based on the book The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. To read the previous posts from this series, including the first half of this week's review, click here.

Let's talk about progress. In the past, when I tackled a clutter spot, I felt really good about it. I was one step closer to having a tidy house--progress! But somehow by the time I got around to tackling clutter again, it had usually built up to more than the amount I'd originally tidied up. I really hadn't made any "progress" at all!

So when I read that "making progress on a goal motivates people to engage in goal-sabotaging behavior" (p. 89), I definitely related! Thankfully, this trap is pretty simple to avoid, just by shifting your mindset. "Progress can be motivating," McGonigal writes, "but only if you view your actions as evidence that you are committed to your goal. In other words, you need to look at what you have done and conclude that you must really care about your goal, so much that you want to do even more to reach it.... A simple shift in focus leads to a very different interpretation of [your] own actions--'I did that because I wanted to,' not 'I did that, great, now I can do what I really want" (p. 90).

Sonnet further explains this idea. Here’s another story from the book that most people can relate to: How many times have you made a To-Do list, and then proudly sat back, your work for the day done because you made the list? This is an example of “goal liberation,” the concept that thinking about the progress we have made actually silences our willpower temporarily. We get so pleased with ourselves, we give in. A better choice is to remind ourselves that we are committed to our goals. Remember the theme of this chapter: We are the kind of people who want to do the right thing! When we stop and remind ourselves WHY we are making progress, we go on to achieve more.

These days when I keep up with my decluttering, I congratulate myself for proving that I'm committed to my goal, and I look foward toward the next weekday, when I will again prove it (and again, and again!) Once again, I am learning to come back to what I really want, which is to live in a house that is a more peaceful place, with less clutter.

I'll let Sonnet introduce another concept that made it seem like the book's author was reading my mind--and apparently Sonnet's mind too!

Alright so a mind trick that I am definitely guilty of? Over-optimism about the future. As Dr. McGonigal puts it: “We wrongly but persistently expect to make different decisions tomorrow than we do today.” I seem to always believe that tomorrow I will have more time, more energy, more ability. Challenges will always be easier to face tomorrow. And yet somehow, that is never the case. I started working on challenging this belief this week, and I tell you, it is hard! I don’t always recognize when I am doing it, and even when I catch it in time, it is a huge effort to bring myself back around. Hopefully with more practice, this will become easier for me.

Studies show that most people, like Sonnet and I, "wrongly predict we will have much more free time in the future than we do today" (p. 94). What's helping me is to find a way to get ever-closer to my goal of a decluttered house, even though I'm busy. For me, this means one clutter spot (sometimes a very small one!) per weekday. Even on extra-busy days, I can usually do that. And if I do miss a day, I just make sure I'm extra-motivated to pick up where I left off the next day.

I am trying to incorporate all these new willpower techniques while also giving myself grace when things really are extra-crazy. Yes, it's true that in general, I'm not going to suddenly find a ton of extra free time in the future. However, it's also true that I do have some weeks that are genuinely much-busier than my normal. I've been working with real estate clients, including some work that has been extra-complex and time-consuming. I don't want to expect that sometime in the nebulous "future" I'm suddenly going to have tons of extra time, but I can very reasonably expect that this week will be much less busy than the last two weeks have been.

So I've needed to give myself some extra grace lately! As I'm writing this post Monday, I'm considering not tackling a clutter spot. It's not because "I've earned it"; it's because I genuinely need some recovery time (mind and body!) after the craziness of my last two weeks. So while I don't want to fall into the "moral justification" traps in this chapter, I also don't want to get so uptight about my goals that I can't give myself a break when I'm genuinely exhausted. Maybe the key is for those "breaks" to be the exception rather than the rule!

It really is exciting to see the practical effects--all around my house--of what I'm learning. My decluttering is a process, but I'm committed to it! And Sonnet is finding success too! In her own words...

On the plus side, practically speaking I have had a very successful week. I have been meditating most days, especially before bed; and I have much more than exceeded my writing goals every day! It has been a busy week with many social demands for my time, and I have even been sick for a few days, and I still was able to accomplish everything in my willpower challenge. That feels really – unusually - good! Per the chapter, I have to remember why I am doing this. Why? Because I want to continue to improve as a writer, I don’t want to see my skills or contacts atrophy. I like the way accomplishing something every day feels, and I love being able to point out things that I have published to family or friends and say, “I created that.” Writing every day is my goal-supportive action to meet this aspiration. And this book is going to help me get out of my own way to get there!

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

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Willpower Experiment: Week Four, Part One

My friend Sonnet and I are on Week Four 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. Chapter Four has this tantalizing title: "License to Sin: Why Being Good Gives Us Permission to Be Bad." This chapter has so much "meat" to it that I'm going dividing our review into two parts. I'll post the second part on Wednesday. Let's start with Sonnet's introduction to Chapter Four.

Chapter Four! We have made it four weeks, that’s almost a month into this series. I think we’ve all earned a little something for doing so well and staying with our willpower challenges for a whole month! Plus, it’s Valentine’s Day this week. Here, have some chocolate hearts… Oh wait. Oops. This kind of pitfall is the focus of this chapter: How we use what’s called “moral licensing” to convince ourselves that we’re such great people and we’ve made such awesome progress on our goals that we really, truly should choose to go against our willpower challenges. So this chapter shifts from talking about the physical issues at work behind willpower struggles to the mental games we play.

I will admit, either I am deeply in denial or I didn’t find much of this chapter ringing true for me. I am the kind of person who does make choices to slack off, eat cookies, and ignore the piles of clutter… but then I’m also happy enough to own those choices. Yep. I ate that entire chocolate cake. It was awesome, too. Yes, I spent the entire day while the kids were at school napping. Maybe not the best choice for me, OK, but it felt good and I got what I needed from it. Maybe I suffer from inflated self-esteem?

It's funny--and cool--that Sonnet and I are finding different chapters to be eye-opening. Last week was "her week," and this week was mine! This chapter really helped me understand what is behind most of my willpower failures. When I look at Chapter Four of my copy of the book, there's practically more underlined in it than not!
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I tend to frame things in terms of "right or wrong." And I try to motivate myself by "doing what's right," but somehow that often doesn't work. The biggest reason for that, according to McGonigal? "If the only thing motivating your self-control is the desire to be a good enough person, you're going to give in whenever you're already feeling good about yourself" (p. 86).

As Sonnet puts it, The theme of this chapter, I would say, is summed up in this quote from the book: “We need to feel like the kind of person who wants to do the right thing.” Wants to, not has to. If you tell yourself that _____ is the right thing to do, you are going to talk yourself out of it. Moralizing is not going to get you there. ______ needs to be an action that helps you meet your goals if it is going to be something you can stick with.

"When it comes to right and wrong," McGonigal points out, "most of us are not striving for moral perfection. We just want to feel good enough--which then gives us permission to do whatever we want" (p. 83, emphasis mine).  

Wow--I do that! In the past, I've moralized the idea of having a decluttered house. It seemed like decluttering was a "good" or "right" thing to do. So why didn't I do it? "I can't be good at everything," I told myself. "I do a lot of things well. Keeping a clean house just isn't one of them. And that's okay." In other words, "I don't need to declutter. I'm a good enough person without doing that!"

And really, it is okay to have cluttered areas in my house! It's not a moral failing, though I've certainly attached enough guilt to it through the years! The problem is, I wasn't paying attention to what I really wanted. I've realized that I like living in an uncluttered environment. I was so stuck in the "right vs. wrong" cycle, justifying my "weakness," that I was robbing myself of something I really wanted! Now I'm moving towards what I want--not because it's "the right thing to do," but because it brings me more peace and contentment.

Let's delve more into how we use "good" things to justify willpower failures. Here's Sonnet:

Chapter Four talks about the hazard of moral licensing, where we feel so good about ourselves because of some real or perceived action that we give ourselves permission to behave badly because we’ve ‘earned’ it. There’s the related “halo effect” where we look for any reason to say yes to something we should say no to (It’s organic! It’s on sale! It’s for charity!) and then feel good about saying yes instead of feeling guilty. My mom tells a story from her childhood that is a great example of both these effects. When she was a teen, she decided one summer that she was going to swim every day in order to lose weight. She took the bus to the pool downtown with total devotion, but after weeks of swimming her weight wasn’t budging. What she hadn’t counted on? The bus route had her transferring at a stop right next to a doughnut shop, and she ate a doughnut every day on her trip. She ‘earned’ it because she was being good about her exercise (moral licensing) and because she is a diabetic, it was a healthy choice to keep her glucose up (halo effect.) I love this story, because can’t everyone relate?

When we feel good about ourselves, we tend to make less-than-positive choices. It's like we've already put a checkmark in our "Good" box on our personal report cards, and we don't feel the need to put another checkmark there. The scientific studies that support the "halo effect" and other types of moral licensing are so fascinating to me! Here are some examples:
  • "People who first remember a time they acted generously give 60 percent less money to a charitable request than people who have not just recalled a past good deed" (p. 84).
  • "Another study found that merely considering donating money to a charity--without actually handing over any cash--increased people's desire to treat themselves at a mall" (p. 85, emphasis mine).
  • "In one study, [researchers] reminded successful dieters of how much progress they had made toward their ideal weight. They then offered the dieters a thank-you gift of either an apple or a chocolate bar. Eighty-five percent of the self-congratulating dieters chose the chocolate bar over the apple, compared with only 38 percent of dieters who were not reminded of their progress" (p. 89).
  • And my personal favorite: "Researchers have found that if you pair a cheeseburger with a green salad, diners estimate that the meal has fewer calories than the same cheeseburger served by itself" (p. 99). That's quite a halo effect!
It's such a crazy trap--we do something good, or even think about doing something good, and then sabotage ourselves by "rewarding" ourselves with something completely counterproductive! Just being aware of this reasoning can really be helpful. But Wednesday we'll share more about the moralizing that goes on in our crazy heads, and practical ways to change that reasoning so that we can succeed in our willpower challenges!

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

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Willpower Experiment: Week Three

My friend Sonnet and I are on Week Three 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.

I've been keeping up with my willpower challenge, tackling one area of clutter each weekday. In each of the last two weeks, I missed one day, but then I picked up the habit the next weekday! Here are a couple of my recent successes:

The Plastic Storage Stuff Cabinet in the Kitchen
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I really wish I'd remembered to take a "Before" picture of this! I did take a photo (top) of the pile of stuff I dug out of the cabinet before I organized it and threw away much of it. And, as you can see, the area is now nicely-organized, and I can actually find containers with their matching lids!

 Beneath the Cabinet, and on the Countertop, in the Master Bathroom
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Once "Before" photo. But look at my bathroom countertop and cabinet! Wow. I know what I have and where it is, and I threw away a LOT of old hair products, makeup, and expired medications. This was a two-day project; that kept it from being overwhelming.

Sonnet's recap of Chapter Three is fantastic, so I'll get right to it, and then I'll write a quick wrap-up at the end. Heeeeeeere's Sonnet!

Wow. Last week was so difficult for me to just trudge through, and this week couldn’t be more different – the light is breaking through! At the same time this is a chapter just bursting with information and a whole lot of ground to cover. It became a challenge just to keep up with reading and understanding all of the concepts presented.

Let’s see. I guess the best way to break Chapter Three down would be to explain the theme. Chapter Three makes the analogy of our willpower function being like a muscle in the body. This analogy holds true in many different ways: the willpower ‘muscle’ can be fatigued through overuse, the willpower muscle needs fuel, the willpower muscle can be trained. If we want to be experts at utilizing our own willpower, it is useful to think like athletes, and treat our brain as if it were a muscle.

So that overview barely grazes the surface of this very in-depth and practical chapter, but at least it will help give you some context.

First: I found this chapter / week to be extremely useful. I felt like I was finally having some success. I was able to look back at the previous week and say my obstacles and frustration weren’t about the book really; they were about my situation. My parents (who, God bless them, tend to be critical) were coming to visit. I wasn’t feeling well. I was trying to round up a birthday party for my youngest child. I was PMS-y. All of those things combined to leave me at my weakest self, struggling just to keep my head above water. No one can exercise willpower in that situation, because there just are no resources left. This realization has been good for me. I’m able to look more kindly at myself, to not feel like a failure but like a person who endured a crummy week. Instead of saying in my head, “You couldn’t even write 15 minutes a day, you lazy git,” I find myself saying, “Wow, Sonnet, you made it through all that and survived intact. Way to go!” What a nice change!

So last week my argument was that we couldn’t do all these behaviors that increase our willpower – eating right, sleeping well, meditating, exercise – because if we were able to, we’d already have willpower. A line from this week’s chapter gives me the answer to this dilemma. “Committing to any small, consistent act of self-control… can increase overall willpower.” Small, did you get that word? In fact Dr. McGonigal addresses this directly by talking about a study where participants were asked to do one very small, very unthreatening task every day. Don’t clean out the entire closet, but maybe just look inside it every day. Say ‘yes’ instead of ‘yeah.’ Put one item in the recycle bin every day. These tiny tasks are easy to do, build confidence, and aren’t overwhelming. But just the act of doing them every day trains and strengthens your willpower muscle. It teaches your brain how to pause and check in before acting on impulse with something you want. So here is the answer to my confusion and frustration!


That’s it, that’s the secret. Really small. Like meditating 5 minutes a day, or writing down every time you walk the dog, or hitting the snooze just once instead of twice. Simple, easy efforts that you know you can do without feeling deprived or discouraged. Then do that act every day and – surprise! – your willpower will increase. You will find like magic that other acts requiring willpower, the big ones like jogging and cleaning the basement and eating kale, will start to come more naturally.

I found this to be true this week. I focused only on meditating, because I could do that. And I did manage it, all week. I also managed to write every day without much trouble, and to my surprise the house is less cluttered, the kitchen is cleaner, the dog has been walked, the laundry has been folded. Okay, I still ate a lot of junk and slept at odd hours, but hey. One step at a time. It really did work for me, when I had the physical resources to do it.

There are so many concepts in this chapter that I want to discuss, but for a blog post this would end up being far too long and I’d lose everyone. So I’ll leave you with some of the ideas just briefly so that you can mull them over yourself before we check in again next week.
  • “People who use their willpower seem to run out of it… trying to control your temper, stick to a budget, or refuse seconds all tap the same source of strength.” Like a muscle, your willpower only goes so far before it succumbs to fatigue. And it isn’t just your hard challenges that sap your strength. Everyday challenges we all face can really run our willpower muscle down, and we often end up exhausted and powerless by the end of the day.
  • “If you never seem to have the time and energy for your ‘I Will’ challenge, schedule it for when you have the most strength.” Your willpower resources are depleted through the day. For most people, their reserves are highest in the morning, so doing the thing that is hard for them is easiest then. Trying to go to the gym after work when you are empty and fatigued is setting yourself up for failure. Make a choice to schedule your toughest challenge when you have the most willpower.
  • Losing the ability to make willpower choices when blood sugar is low is purposefully chosen by evolution. Making long-term plans (i.e. willpower: choosing a greater reward in the future) would be seen by the prehistoric brain as a luxury, only available in times of plenty. If blood glucose is low, it tells the brain food is scarce and times are dangerous, so start taking risks to survive. Those impulse behaviors are the result of thousands of years of development perfecting a survival system… not a personal weakness.
There’s a lot to think about here, but it’s all good. If you’re still on the fence about doing a willpower challenge or reading the book, I’d suggest making this chapter a priority. Personally I feel like I am finally starting to see some real changes in behaviors that have dogged me for a lifetime. It’s surreal and wonderful!

Awesome recap, Sonnet! I only have a few things to add.
  • I'm glad I'm only focusing on ONE major willpower challenge right now. I have ideas of other challenges I want to tackle once I'm really on top of my clutter. But "if you try to control or change too many things at once, you may exhaust yourself completely" (p. 56). I'm keeping up with my decluttering, even though my schedule has been extra-busy the last two weeks...because I'm not trying to take on ten other willpower challenges at the same time.
  • In this chapter, McGonigal writes about finding your "I Want" power. Readers are asked to think about what they really want that can motivate them to succeed in their willpower challenges. She writes about someone named Erin who was trying to stop losing her temper when her kids acted up. I relate to that! Erin wanted "To be a better parent" but then she just felt guilty for not being a good enough parent! "Erin realized that an even bigger motivation was the desire to enjoy being a parent" (p. 75). Next time I'm tempted to yell at my kids, I want to think about how I'll enjoy parenting if I communicate kindly with my kids instead of acting like we're enemies! Maybe that will help motivate me.
  •  Harnessing my "I Want" power has been motivational for me in keeping up with my decluttering. I think about how much I enjoy being in my house when I'm not surrounded by clutter spots. I think about how good I feel when I complete one of my daily tasks. And I think about how wonderful it will be when we are ready to sell this house (if we ever decide to!), not to have to frantically declutter in a matter of weeks to get the house ready to show to buyers. I used to think, "I really should declutter." Now I want to declutter because it benefits me in so many ways!
This book is so powerful...and the next chapter is one of my favorites. Here's the title, just to pique your curiosity:

"License to Sin: Why Being Good Gives Us Permission to Be Bad"

Chapter Four was so eye-opening for me the first time I read it, and I'm looking forward to reviewing it again! See you next week for that discussion!

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