Oscar Wilde said, “I can resist everything except temptation.” We often give up on personal growth because we have had a history of failures and have learned we are helpless against the prowess of a venial sin or maladaptive habit. Try the white bear challenge, stop reading and try not to think of a white bear for five minutes. It is hard to control even simple thoughts.
To acquire willpower one must develop self-awareness. It is the necessary precursor to self-control. Mohammad Ali once said, “I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee you can’t block what you can’t see.” One must detect and understand a behavior before you can control it. During the summer of 2014 I had the idea that I could compete against a young 285 pound Russian Olympian in judo. I have been a judo player longer than this young man has been alive. So one day when I was full of youthful delusion I jumped in full of positive expectations and a complete battle proof plan. It was my good fortune that next morning I was scheduled to work in my orthopedic practice since I spent a good deal of that day being a patient.
Somehow on that day my self-awareness and self-evaluation skills had betrayed me terribly. Self-awareness is the process of comparing myself to a set of standards. I made the mistake of comparing a feeling standard rather than something more empirical. Such an objective experience as a defeat provided an immediate increase in self-awareness and self-reevaluation. Objective feedback and measures are the essential tools for increasing self-awareness, which leads to self-reevaluation and gives you the foundation for increased willpower. Self-observation is critical to self-control, therefore self-monitoring in and of itself will begin to generate change.
There are tools that can assist you in providing self-quantification. Tools like Weight Watcher’s food and exercise point counter, Fitbit clip, BodyMedia, Zeo the sleep coach, or mint.com for finances or RescueTime for time management on the computer. There are many new gadgets and phone apps for mood, thought and behavior tracking like Moodscope. You must track and monitor your behavior objectively, which is step 1.
For those of you who are religious you already have more willpower than the average non-religious person. By the mere fact you practice a behavioral structure like religion you are exercising your willpower muscle. If you workout regularly or work a challenging job 40 hours a week the same is true for you.
Step 2 is a behavioral action plan for your daily short-term goals. A small daily activity is much more powerful than a spasmodic Herculean effort done over the weekend. To add additional power to your plan make it public and share your tracking information related to your long-term value. I competed in front of thousands and it always made me push harder than when I was just fighting in the gym. You could even make a contract with yourself at stickK.com.
To develop a solid action plan, answer the following questions:
1. The changes I want to make are:
2. The most important reasons I want to make these changes are:
3. I plan to do these things to reach my goals:
4. The first steps I plan to take are:
5. Some things that could interfere with my plan are:
6. Other people could help me in changing in these ways: Who? How?
7. I hope my plan will have these positive results:
8. I know that my plan is working if:
A good value-directed plan is not only useful to do what we want to do but is also helpful to keep us from doing what we don’t want to do. A tremendous amount of energy is lost to cognitive rumination or procrastination. This psychological phenomenon is referred to as the Zeigarnik Effect, when uncompleted tasks and unmet goals tend to get stuck in one’s mind. A way to test this effect is to listen to a randomly chosen song and shut it off halfway through. The song is likely to run through your mind on its own at odd intervals. If you finish the song your brain will let go of it. Developing a plan resolves the Zeigarnik Effect.
The bottom line of your ability to achieve change rests on training and strengthening your willpower by breaking through the “comfort zone.” This step will require an acceptance of discomfort (for at least five minutes) to practice the new behavior instead of the habituated behavior. Strengthened willpower can direct my behavior and maintain a course of new behavior. Achievement is about having exercised enough willpower to be willing to experience distress as one maintains a course of action, which is called grit.
Research indicates the elements of achievement can be understood as the formula, Achievement = Skill × Effort:
1. Fast. The speed of thought about a task reflects how much of that task has been practiced until it has become a habit.
2. Slow. The executive functions like planning, checking your work, calling up memories, and creativity are slow processes. Slower is faster when it comes to these cognitive skills. By doing the other tasks efficiently you have time for the activities which cannot be shortcut.
3. Rate of learning. The faster you learn the more you will know about the task.
4. Effort = time on task. The amount of time you spend on the task determines how much skill you are bringing to the task.
As we consciously and intentionally apply our public action plan we can begin to create new neuronal pathways in our brain. When we practice the behavior daily it will begin to become a routine and shape the rhythm by which we live. A new style of life will emerge based on skills that can be applied to other troublesome spots. I hope this information assists you in your growth and development.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Republic of Korea