One of the most potent strategies for reaching a goal is to identify the obstacles ahead of time and to develop a plan to address each before they are encountered. We want to be optimistic, but we don’t want to be a naive optimist. The naive optimist ignores the obstacles in their way and believes that they will not confront any challenges while striving to accomplish their goal. The realistic optimist believes in their ability to accomplish their goal despite the obstacles in their way. They acknowledge and prepare for the obstacles which makes them much more likely to achieve their goal. We want to have faith in our ability to overcome obstacles, not naively believe we won’t encounter them.
Research shows that predicting how and when you might be tempted to break a resolution increases the chances that you will keep it.[i]When you are working on developing a daily discipline, ask yourself: “When am I most likely to be tempted to give in? What situation is most likely to get me sidetracked? What excuses will I give myself to procrastinate?” Once you have such a scenario mapped out in your mind, imagine yourself in that situation, what it will feel like, and what you might be thinking? If we are struggling to form a habit, it shouldn’t be difficult to imagine what situations will cause us to slip off our path, because these situations must have occurred for us to be struggling with forming the habit now.If you enjoyed this article, please LIKE and SHARE.
Why is imagining the situations that will cause us to fail such a useful tool for overcoming our willpower challenges? It’s because once we have identified them, we can anticipate them and develop a plan to either avoid the situation or mitigate the temptation. When you have a definite strategy in mind, imagine yourself doing it. Envision what it will feel like to succeed. The more you mentally rehearse your plan, the more likely you are to execute it successfully when the temptation confronts you.
While planning missions in the military, two things were drilled into us. The first was to keep our plans as simple as possible by avoiding unnecessary complexity. We were taught the acronym KISS, “Keep it simple, stupid.” Simple plans are easier to execute. Complexity is the enemy of execution. The second was to rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse. The simpler your plan is, and the more you rehearse it, the better you will execute your plan. Execution is critical. Plans do not produce results unless you execute them.
Gabriele Oettingen a clinical psychologist and author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, found that regardless of the goal, weight loss, obtaining a high-paying job after college, finding your soul mate, or recovering from hip replacement surgery, being a realistic optimist dramatically increases your odds of success. Realistic optimist recognizes the pitfalls that lay in front of them and develop a plan to address them. They don’t overestimate their ability to overcome challenges through willpower alone. They shape their environment and create if-then plans to shape their behavior. Realistic optimists have meals ready to eat in their freezer, they submit more job applications, they exercise more courage to meet potential romantic partners, and they create daily routines around rehabilitation exercises.[ii]
We must believe in ourselves, but one of the worst things we can do is underestimate the challenges we must overcome or overestimate our finite and fickle abilities to overcome them. Presuming that our willpower will always be adequate to the challenge of overcoming every temptation is folly. We need to recognize the challenges before we encounter them and develop a plan, based on proven strategies, to overcome those challenges. We should seek the advice of people that have done it.
Everyone struggles with procrastination, laziness, and overcoming distractions to make progress toward their goals. The bigger the goal, the more likely we are to be intimidated by it. The more likely we’ll be to procrastinate. When a reporter asked Earnest Hemmingway how he set about writing a novel, he replied, “First you defrost the refrigerator.” While I am no Hemmingway, the task of writing a book can seem overwhelming. To prevent the enormity of the task overwhelming me, I focus on writing the next paragraph or outlining the next chapter. A beautiful book about the joys, struggles, and rewards of writing is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. She describes writing as a gritty endeavor that requires courage to overcome procrastination born out of perfectionism to produce that “shitty first draft.” She says, “Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend.”
Her book’s title reminds me to focus on taking that next small step to produce that shitty first draft. I remember the story of Anne Lamott’s brother for which the book is titled. She recounts the story in her book: “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” Her father’s simple advice is something we can all use as a tool to stop procrastinating and take one small step, and then another.
It is a common mistake to think that our weaknesses are unique to us. They aren’t. Many of us wrongly believe that our weakness of willpower reveals a profound flaw in our character. It doesn’t. Frailties and imperfections are common. It is part of what it means to be human. They are so common that we marvel at and celebrate those that can overcome them. Weakness is a part of the human condition. We need to understand our limitations and develop effective strategies for coping with them. We all struggle with willpower, but most of us never seek a better understanding of it. The better we understand our human frailties, the better we can manage them to overcome our willpower challenges.
The only way to beat procrastination is to overcome the mental obstacles to starting. Marla Cilley, the creator of the 5-Minute Room Rescue, found an ingenious way to help us overcome procrastination. She suggests you commit to five minutes of work. For example, tell yourself, “All I am asking for is a five-minute commitment, after that we can stop.” Of course, after starting it is much easier to keep going. This same tactic can be applied to performing a workout when you just are not feeling it. Tell yourself, “let’s get changed, grab a cup of coffee, and warm-up for five minutes, and if we still are not feeling it, we can quit.” Once you get started, it is unlikely you won’t be able to finish the workout.
We have one brain but two minds. One mind is motivated by base instincts and strong emotions, the other is logic driven and focused on our long-term goals. Emotions are powerful. Overcoming them through sheer force of will is very taxing and can deplete our willpower reserves quickly, leaving us more vulnerable to the next temptation. Shrinking the commitment, by asking for only 5-minutes of work is a very effective strategy for overcoming our feelings. The more consistently we can overcome our emotions to do what is in line with our long-term goals the more successful we will be.
Consistency is the key to making progress. John Maxwell’s Power of Five provides a great example of the power of small persistent actions. He asks what would happen if you had a large tree on your property and you committed to taking five swings at it each day? The answer is always the same; the tree will eventually fall. It doesn’t matter how large the tree is. He has written over 70 successful books using the Power of Five. We are often intimidated by the large trees in our life, but if we just committed toward doing a little each day, instead of being overwhelmed by them we would achieve incredible results.
When it comes to writing, I subscribe to Steven King’s philosophy, “Don’t wait for the muse. As I’ve said, he’s a hardheaded guy who’s not susceptible to much creative fluttering. This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up.” I keep showing up. The worst thing we could do is judge ourselves too harshly and believe our weakness of willpower reveals a unique flaw in our character instead of what it is, ordinary human frailty.
The three most important things to understand about willpower is: (1) we need to get adequate sleep each night to begin the day with the maximum amount of willpower (2) our willpower depletes as our day progresses, and (3) the more self-control we are forced to exercise, the faster the rate of depletion. Stress and fatigue are the enemies of willpower. If you wake-up each morning tired, you’re already starting the day at a willpower disadvantage. Most people need at least 7.5 to 8.5 hours of sleep each day. Since our willpower is greatest at the beginning of each day, that would be the best time to schedule the tasks that require the most willpower. You’ll also find you have a lot fewer interruptions in the morning. The last strategy and perhaps the most important is to avoid taxing our willpower unnecessarily. We want to shape our environment to promote positive habits and discourage negative ones.
I have made writing a daily a habit, so it doesn’t require much willpower anymore. It is just a part of my day. Most times I can block out distractions and my ideas flow. Sometimes I cannot, but I keep showing up, determined and excited to make whatever little bit of progress I can make each day with the time that I can set aside. I write in the early morning hours because the rest of my day is filled with personal and professional commitments. I know that if I keep plugging away, I will eventually complete this book and the other books I have already outlined. The key to finishing is to develop the habit of starting again each day. I don’t rely on willpower to write each day; I rely on my morning schedule. I don’t struggle with the decision. I look at the clock, and when it says 4:30 AM, my mind says it is time to write. Routines reap results because they don’t rely on willpower, that fickle friend that is never there for you when you need him. Disciplined habits are our best friends. “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules.” Anthony Trollope
The more we rely on willpower as our strategy for success, the less likely we are to achieve our goals. The problem with willpower is that it depletes as the day progresses and leaves us naked to temptation. It is more useful to shape our environment to reduce temptations and distractions than to rely on willpower and grit. When we overestimate our willpower, we unnecessarily expose ourselves to people, situations, and environments that will tempt us to break our resolutions. “Research shows that people who think they have the most willpower are actually the most likely to lose control when tempted. For example, smokers who are the most optimistic about their ability to resist temptation are the most likely to relapse four months later, and overoptimistic dieters are the least likely to lose weight. Why? They fail to predict when, where, and why they will give in. They expose themselves to more temptation,” Kelly McGonigal.
The 1909 race to the South Pole illustrates the necessity to identify the challenges ahead of you, learn from the success of those who have gone before you, and not to rely too heavily on grit and determination to push through whatever obstacles you encounter. Two teams took-up the challenge of being the first to reach the South Pole. One group was led by British Naval Officer Robert Scott and the other lead by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.
Amundsen gave his people the best possible equipment, and paced their journey to ensured he gave his men plenty of time to rest along the route. Scott’s team was ill-equipped. Inadequate clothes lead to frostbite, and poor goggles lead to snow blindness. Amundsen used dogs to haul their provisions, while Scott used untried motorized sleds which quickly failed, forcing his men to carry their provisions on sleds.
At the South Pole: Wilson (left), Scott, Oates (standing); Bowers and Evans (sitting)
Scott pushed on and ultimately made it to the South Pole, albeit one month behind Amundsen’s team. Tragically, no one on Scott’s team would survive the journey back, while Amundsen’s team returned with no severe maladies. There are many reasons for the radically different outcomes, but ultimately it was Scott’s overconfidence in the grit and resilience of his team that caused him to underestimate the difficulty of their journey. His dying words illustrate this point. “Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.”[iii]
I don’t want to diminish their courageous act of perseverance, but merely wish to point out that it could have been avoided. Scott could have given his team a better chance of success if he had better identify the challenges and better understood the limits of human endurance. This program offers tools to make your journey more manageable, but certainly not effortless. You will have to demonstrate some grit and willpower, but much less than if you didn’t use the proper strategies. The mistake I want us to avoid making is relying too heavily on willpower.
A plan that relies too heavily on willpower is doomed to failure. We are foolish to subject ourselves to temptation needlessly. Willpower is a fickle thing that often leaves us during our time of greatest need. As Shakespeare put it, “we are devils to ourselves, when we will tempt the frailty of our powers.”[iv] We shouldn’t tempt fate by relying on willpower when an effective strategy could reduce or eliminate the need for willpower. The proven strategies contained in this program will give you the greatest odds of success. Why make your journey any more difficult than it needs to be? The best use of our willpower is the implementation of strategies to reduce our need to exercise it.
The distance between our goals and where we are is the journey before us. When we choose to spend time with people that exhibit negative attitudes and behaviors, we are deciding to put rocks in our backpack. If we are trying to eat healthier but choose to stock our pantry with junk food, we are choosing to make our journey harder. We are consciously choosing to put pebbles in our shoes. Many people say they don’t want to deprive their kids, of what exactly I don’t know, a lifetime of sugar addiction? I believe desserts should be an occasional treat, not a daily indulgence.
These rocks and pebbles won’t produce an immediate failure, but they will make failure inevitable. The extra weight will slow your progress, and the pebbles will grind away at your resolve with each step you take; until you eventually give up. When your willpower finally gives out, you’ll blame it for your lack of success, instead of your decision to expose yourself to the temptations unnecessarily. You are going to need grit and willpower, just like Amundsen’s team surely did to successfully navigate the South Pole, but they combined it with the right tools and strategies.
Save your limited willpower for the temptations you cannot avoid, instead of putting more in your path. You are going to be tempted at the office to eat the donuts, cookies, and birthday cakes on a regular basis. Our supply of willpower can vary significantly from day to day depending on how stressful our day has been. This is especially true as the day wears on, and our ability to exert willpower is depleted to almost nothing. If we get adequate sleep each night, we begin the day with a willpower reservoir that is fully restored like your cellphone battery. The more we use it throughout the day, the quicker it depletes. Ever notice that most of our bad habits occur late at night?
That is because our willpower has evaporated and all we are left with is our desire to seek instant gratification and relief from our stressful day. Shaping your environment by eliminating the temptations you will encounter in the evening is the most effective strategy you can adopt. The next most effective technique is establishing an evening ritual that supports your goals. Habits conserve our willpower because they don’t require our conscious mind to decide what to do. The decision is made automatic through repetition. Our primitive mind encounters the cue and executes the routine automatically.
Change agents often find that what appears to be a people problem is a situation problem. Instead of taking on the difficult task of changing our behavior through willpower, we can often tweak our environment and make change happen painlessly. Instead of relying on workers following proper procedures, safety engineers install guards and controls to prevent workers from taking shortcuts that put themselves at risk. They do this because they know that it is easier to tweak the environment; rather than to force 100% compliance with proper procedure as workers become overconfident and complacent.
I hope you’ll decide to become an optimistic realist. I hope I have convinced you that we cannot ignore the challenges in front of us or imagine a future in which they won’t exist. We must develop a plan that relies less on willpower and more on structuring our environment to make good habits easier and bad habits more difficult. Our environment profoundly influences our behavior, so it is only logical that we would want to shape it to promote good habits and discourage bad ones.
A realistic optimist anticipates the challenges that are outside their control so they can develop and rehearse a simple plan to address them. If you are struggling to exercise five days a week consistently, I want you to first ask yourself “why am I NOT going to train five days this week?” Then I want you to develop a plan that will allow you to overcome the excuses. Optimism is an excellent source of motivation, but naïve optimism is a recipe for failure that ends in bitter disappointment. I want you to believe in yourself, but I want that believe to be based on the world as it is, and not based on the world as you would wish it to be. I want you to be a realistic optimist.
Best wishes and best health!
[i] Kelly McGonigal, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, Avery; Reprint edition (December 31, 2013)
[iv] William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida Translation, Act 4, Scene 4
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