Monday, March 11, 2013

The Willpower Experiment: Week Eight

My friend Sonnet and I are on Week Eight 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. This week we're covering Chapter Eight, "Infected! Why Willpower is Contagious."

First I want to make something very clear to you.

Daylight Savings Time is stupid.

Now, my future self may disagree, when I gain an hour of (potential) sleep in the fall. But today, one day after losing an hour, I stand on my premise that Daylight Savings Time is stupid.

Clearly I'm tired today. And I think it's a good time to talk about what I'm learning about succeeding in my willpower challenges when life is extra, well, challenging...when I'm tired, blue, stressed, etc. Then we'll jump into the new content from this week's chapter.

Last week I wrote about a mini-challenge I've taken on: getting up with my alarm each morning. I did great last week with my double motivators (moving my alarm further from my bed, and telling myself that if I slept in, I'd have to take a day off Facebook.) But then we had the time change, and last night I went to bed about an hour "later" than usual. So this morning when that alarm went off at 6:30, my body told me it was 5:30, and I really wanted to stay in bed!

I spent almost 15 minutes arguing with myself, but I did eventually get up, which I counted as a willpower win! How did I convince myself? I asked myself what would make me feel better later today--getting up and walking (which I normally do on Mondays), or sleeping an extra hour. I knew I was more likely to benefit from getting up and exercising, and, sure enough, I was very glad I'd walked today. Yes, I'm extra-tired now...but that should help me go to bed at an earlier time tonight, which will help me adjust more quickly to this time change.

Thinking about what's good for my future self...that's a skill that I am building, thanks to this book! It was really cool to see it "work" in a practical way.

But that leaves me with this extra-tired feeling, which means that my motivation to do anything productive today tends to be lessened. So when it came to my main willpower challenge, decluttering, I gave myself permission to do only a very small spot. Specifically, I reorganized one very small plastic bin in my linen closet (a multi-day project I'm currently working on.) It took about 5-7 minutes. I proved to myself that I was still committed to my goal, and 5-7 minutes worth of work is better than none. I like this strategy of doing a little of an "I will" challenge, instead of doing none, when my resources are in some way depleted.

On to Chapter Eight. I'm going to let Sonnet take the lead, and I'll chime in occasionally with my thoughts. As always, Sonnet's words are in bold.

When it comes down to it, we all just want to be liked and accepted as a part of our social group. That’s it – this truth is the message behind Chapter Eight in our Willpower series. Humans are social animals, and being accepted and valued by our society is probably one of the biggest motivators we have.

What does this mean for willpower? Well first, we tend to do what everyone else is doing. Group think at its finest! It’s not always a bad thing, and even if it was, it is our instinct – we can’t always escape it. Don’t believe me? Then why do political poll numbers sway the undecided? Why do we click on the “most read stories” link on news websites? Why do we read bestsellers and see box office hits instead of bombs? Because everyone else is doing it. Second, we can use this instinct to motivate ourselves. If we think we will lose social standing by making poor choices, we’ll be less likely to make those choices. Or alternately, if we can attach a feeling of pride or being upwardly social mobile to making positive willpower choices, we’ll almost certainly stick with the good choices. Put another way, in a modern world where everything is open for social media scrutiny, we’re all hoping for ‘likes’ on our actions.

One thing that interests me is that sincerely-held religious belief can help us in our willpower challenges. When Christians are asked to think about Bible passages that encourage health "such as 'do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat' (Proverbs 23:30, NIV)" (p. 198) and then to consider whether or not their lives line up to the Bible they believe in, it helps motivate them to make better choices. I like this type of motivation, if it stays positive. In other words, I want to think, "Wow, it feels great to live my life in a way that is pleasing to God and that matches my beliefs!" rather than, "Ooh, I don't want to displease God by making hypocritical choices."

I have a pet peeve about this chapter. When a negative behavior is reinforced by a social group, the term ‘epidemic’ gets used because of the way actions can spread like a virus. I confess, I hate this term, especially because it so often gets applied to obesity. I’m pretty darn fat thanks to a variety of endocrine disorders, and I have spent a lifetime trying to reassure people that hugging me will not give them ‘the fat.’ That I am not contagious. I’m not saying this tongue in cheek – there are people, many people, who will outright refuse to touch me because of my size. I’ve been refused services from professionals such as massage therapists and doctors before because of it. Look, touching my body isn’t going to spread obesity germs onto you, I promise. And talking about it this way doesn’t help. In this chapter Dr. McGonigal even refers to other contagious willpower challenges…. like depression. Since when is depression a willpower challenge? It was a disease last I checked, and treating it like something you can will yourself out of is aggravating.

I agree with this, Sonnet, now that you point it out! I think it would have been more effective to talk about how specific behaviors (such as overeating or having a negative attitude) are contagious, rather than conditions (obesity, depression) being contagious. On the flip side, eating healthy food and having a positive attitude can be contagious too.

My issues with wording aside, I decided to take a look at the experiments for this week. My challenge is to stop procrastinating and write just 15 minutes a day, every day. Now, this week’s challenges focus on your social group, and with writing I don’t have a very social group. It’s kind of just me and my laptop. So I am changing things up a bit for this week, changing my challenge and my time frame. This weekend my parents are coming to visit, which is wonderful – they are incredible grandparents and it will be fun to have them here! When they are here visiting, however, I know I always adopt their laid-back attitude about junk food, and I usually gain several pounds every long weekend they visit. The candy flows free, and I notice even my young daughters gain weight. We have a great time together, but this is a good example of social behavior impacting a willpower challenge.

So, my plan is to use some of the ideas presented in this chapter to mitigate the issue, and I’ll check back in next week on how it went.

First off Chapter Eight suggests creating an ‘immune response’ to social contagion by spending some time at the start of every day to simply think about your goal and how temptation might happen during the day. Make a plan. I can do that. Goal: stick to healthier, whole foods and minimal processed foods and sugar over the weekend.

Part two of having a plan is to help my kids with the goal. Conveniently, March is “March Into Fitness” month at their school and they are filling out daily charts where they are trying to eat 5 fruits and vegetables a day and to get one hour of physical activity a day. I can use the charts to remind my kids of their goals, and if they are eating their 5-A-Day they won’t be as tempted to overdo it on sugar.

Finally another technique from the book is to bring to mind a role model when you are in need of a willpower boost. It’s funny, but as I was thinking through my friends I was surprised to consider how few of my friends I eat regularly enough with to really know their food habits – closely enough to consider them role models anyway. Obviously my girlfriends and I need to go out more! In the meantime, I’m choosing author Michael Pollan as my role model, of the famous dieting quote, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” I think that’s so reasonable, it inspires me.

Alright, that’s my plan. Everyone will be here through next Tuesday so on week 10, I’ll let you know how it worked out!

I think it's really cool that you found a specific way to put this chapter into practice, Sonnet, and I'm really looking forward to hearing how this week goes for you!

I had some trouble relating my specific willpower challenge (decluttering my house) to many of the principles in this chapter. I don't know anyone else who is currently tackling this willpower challenge, and I'm not even sure I want a role model. I tend to look at people who are naturally clean and organized, and I feel ashamed and guilty, so I don't want to focus on them! It's been so helpful to me to focus on myself, and how much this new way of living affects me positively.

However, I appreciate McGonigal's point that we can be positively affected by others who are tackling different willpower challenges than we are. She also points out the benefit of making our goals public. Sonnet and I have both been staying consistent with reading and reviewing this book--and maybe more consistent with our challenges too--because we know the other person is counting on us, and because we've made our commitments public!

A couple of other things that caught my attention in this chapter...
  • When McGonigal is discussing how likely we are to "follow the herd," she points out, "In the classroom, I find that just about every student believes that he or she is the exception" (p. 197). Guilty!! In fact, when I read that, I'd just been thinking, "Maybe this chapter isn't really 'hitting' me because I'm really not that affected by what others do!" But McGonigal points out that "we cannot separate ourselves from our social instincts" (p. 197). In other words, I'm not the exception, and neither are you! So I'm going to try to be more aware of how I'm being positively and negatively affected by the actions and attitudes of those around me.
  • After reading Sonnet's comments (above), this quote rang so true to me: "Willpower 'failures' like addiction, obesity, and bankruptcy often come with a stigma in our society. We may wrongly assume that a person is weak, lazy, stupid, or selfish, and convince ourselves that they deserve to be shamed or excluded from the tribe. But we should be especially aware of shunning people who do not control their behavior in the way we would like. Besides being a pretty cruel way to treat people, it is a lousy strategy for change" (p. 205). What a great reminder!! Not only do I not know the whole story behind what appears to me to be someone else's willpower failure; I also have plenty of true willpower failures of my own! While I might occasionally need to separate myself from someone who is influencing me badly, I want so much to interact with others in a nonjudgmental way and to support those around me.
Next week's chapter is one that was immensely helpful to me the first time I read it! It's called "Don't Read This Chapter: The Limits of  'I Won't' Power." It's a great one. 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.

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