Monday, January 16, 2012

Willpower (some patience required)

I’m a very busy person. So are you. So is just about everyone I know. We all have a million and three things on our plates at any given time and yet, this time of year, we all start thinking about what extra hobby, skill, or goal we can add to our heaping platters. Maybe we also start looking at what we can trim, but mostly when we talk about resolutions, we’re talking about what to add, what to do more of, what to become better at.

I’m a fan of goals. More than that, I’m a fan of achieving goals. I learned a long time ago that when I set a goal for myself, it’d better be achievable because I will race head-long toward it whether it’s realistic or not. If I’m going to have a prayer at hitting my target, then I need three things from my goals: they must be realistically achievable (meaning, within my power and not dependent on unpredictable external factors) goals, quantifiable goals, and goals I have some passion for. If any of these isn’t present, then I’m doomed from the start. Essentially, though, I like my goals to look a lot like self-fulfilling prophesies.

But there’s definitely something intrinsically exciting about setting a goal for yourself. There’s something exhilarating about setting your sights a little higher and telling yourself you’ll make it. It’s a little like making a wish and letting yourself believe it will come true.

At the start of week three of 2012, I’m betting some of us are starting to feel the strain. Some of us are starting to slip up and some of us are probably starting to wonder why we thought we could do any of this and begin abandoning all hopes of being the better person we thought, for one! shining! moment!, we could be. Bring on the hair shirt! I’m a loser, again.

But! This isn’t necessarily true. There’s a real possibility that you’re just tired.

At the beginning of the year, I was listing out my new projects to a good friend and my intentions toward each. This friend, who knows me Very Well, sent along this link to an NPR interview with Roy Baumeister, and it’s really changed how I approach new projects in general.

He proposes that our willpower, the thing that is the driving force behind any goal we make, is like any other muscle. You can use it, but it has a finite amount of juice and once you’ve tapped it out, that’s it. No more willpower for you. You might know that it would be better for you to get your butt in the chair and write another 500 or 1,000 words, but it’s just not gonna happen once that muscle's been exhausted.

Let’s highlight this thought: willpower is a finite resource.

We use our willpower a lot. We use it to get out of bed on time, to get to work, to get the kids to school, and to carry out everything we must do in a day. That leaves us with a diminished amount by the time we’ve found a spare minute to work toward achieving one of our many goals. In my world, this means that I need to take it easy on myself when at the end of the day, I choose an hour reading over an hour writing.
But, wait! There’s more! He also suggests that like any other muscle, willpower can be strengthened until it’s the THE HULK OF WILLPOWERS and you can DO ALL THE THINGS. --> slight exaggeration

To break this thought down a bit more, let's say you start your day with 100 willpower points. Getting yourself out of bed on time, presentable for work, and in your desk on time costs you 20 WP points. Doing your job at the level of awesome you require costs you 50 points. Running a few post-work errands costs you 15 points and getting yourself home and fed costs an additional 5.

That's a total of 90 willpower points spent just on living your daily grind! And now you've got 10 left over to attach to your many goals. What's a person to do? It looks like you're defeated before you've even begun, so why even bother?

But here's the trick. You apply those 10 willpower points to the project of your choice (maybe that's eating a healthy dinner every night, maybe it's putting in some creative time, maybe it's reading more) and make that a non-negotiable item in your daily willpower count. Let's say that cooking a divine meal costs you 15 willpower points. Don't get to the end of that meal and feel defeated that you have absolutely NO energy left for your other endeavors. Get to the end of that meal and consider that you've just exercised your will past it's point of exhaustion. Remember the points? That dinner took us to -5! FEEL THE BURN.

And, all things being equal, tomorrow will be easier.

This might be the coolest idea I’ve encountered in a while and if you’re like me and you use metaphor constantly in your understanding of the world around you, then you’re probably already creating a willpower exercise chart in your mind.

The other side of this idea is that it’s ultimately self-defeating to expect that simply because it seems possible to do all the things on your list of resolutions doesn’t mean that it is. At least not right away and perhaps not all at the same time. Trying to do too much (changing your diet and exercise habits on top of getting up at 5am to write a thousand words on top of resolving to read two books a week) can wear your willpower out lickety-split!

We can build up to being superhuman, but it’s probably important to remember that creating change takes sustained effort and, most often, a little slack and a few stumbling blocks. I, for one, am going to stop reading low points as failures, but as the moments I spent all my willpower points on other things in a day. No beating myself up. Instead, I’ll resolve to add a few more reps to my willpower set the next day.

This year, I’m going to stretch my linguistic skills and learn German. Also, boxing. I plan to become an expert on aquifers and water systems, give myself an overview of cutting edge physics, and learn how shotgun rounds are made. I also plan to draft at least one novel this year and to continue playing the cello. It’s a tall order and a mix of old and new things, but they’re all within the realm of the possible.

Assuming I can create the willpower to sustain it.

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