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.

1 comment:

Call Me Cate said...

Still very much enjoying the process of following along. And it doesn't hurt that you two are writing and decluttering, two areas so very near to my heart. Though not calling them willpower challenges, I'm still working on making a few other things in my life routine. Once those are more "normal" for me, I definitely intend to get back to my decluttering. I keep making progress on that one in bits and pieces. Oh, the plastic storage. How I loathe it. I gave away so much of ours recently - practically started a brawl in the neighborhood over it.