“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.
One of the most potent strategies for reaching a goal is to identify the obstacles ahead of time and develop a plan to address each before they are encountered. We want to be optimistic, but we don’t want to be a naive optimists. The naive optimist ignores the obstacles in their way and believes that they will not confront any challenges. The realistic optimist believes in their ability to accomplish their goal despite the obstacles in their way. They acknowledge and prepare for the challenges, which makes them much more likely to succeed. We want to have faith in our ability to overcome obstacles, not naively believe we won’t encounter them.
Research shows that predicting when, where, how, and why you might be tempted to break a resolution increases the chances of keeping it.[i] When you are working on developing a daily discipline, ask yourself: “When am I most likely to be tempted? What circumstances are most likely to sabotage my progress? 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.
Why is imagining the situations that will cause us to fail such a helpful tool for overcoming our willpower challenges? It’s because once we have identified them, we can 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.
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. A simple well-rehearsed plan has the greatest odds of success. Execution is critical. Plans do not produce results – execution does.
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 optimists recognize the pitfalls that lay in front of them and develop plans to circumnavigate 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, submit more job applications, exercise more courage to meet potential romantic partners, and create daily routines around rehabilitation exercises.[ii]
We must believe in ourselves, but the worst thing 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 is folly. We need to recognize the challenges before we encounter them and develop a plan based on proven strategies. We should seek the advice of people that have done it. Everyone struggles with procrastination, laziness, and distraction. 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 project from 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.
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 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.
We have one brain but two minds. One mind is shortsighted, fueled by powerful emotions, and motivated by base instincts. The other is future-focused and logic-driven. Emotions are powerful. Overcoming them through sheer force of will is difficult, and it depletes our willpower, leaving us more vulnerable to the next temptation. Shrinking the commitment by asking for only 5-minutes of work is an excellent strategy for overcoming our feelings. The more consistently we can overcome our emotions, 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 to doing a little each day, we would achieve incredible results. Habits make success inevitable.
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.” 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 it will erode. 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 7 ½ to 8 ½ hours of sleep each day. Since our willpower is greatest in the morning, that would be the best time to schedule your willpower challenges. 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 habit, so it doesn’t require much willpower. 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. 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 5:00 AM, my mind says it is time to write. Routines reap results, and they don’t rely on willpower, that fickle friend that is never there for you when you need him. A disciplined habit is your best friend. “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules.” Anthony Trollope
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[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)
[ii] Heidi Grant, Be an Optimist Without Being a Fool, Harvard Business Review, MAY 02, 2011