Learn Will Power Like Juggling

  • In Happy at Last I referred to an elegant experiment: Brain researchers taught a group of college students to juggle, all the while observing their brains with the latest hi-tech equipment. After three months of daily juggling practice, the researchers could see measurable growth in certain areas of the brain. After another three months of no practice at all, that growth had withered away. Will power, like juggling, is a skill you can learn, not something you're born with or without.  But if you want to get it written into your brain circuitry, you'll have to practice every day for a while.  Meanwhile, here are some tips to make it easier.

    Avoid triggers and distractions.  If you're an alcoholic, stay out of bars.  If you eat too much, avoid food shopping.  When you have to shop, go in with a list, rush in, and rush out.  If you watch too much television, don't sit in your favorite chair.  In fact, move it (or the TV) to another room.  If you’re trying to work at your computer, turn off your web browser and email (I actually will unplug my wireless connection, so I have to get up and go to another room before I can waste time).

    Avoid enablers.  These are people who make it easy for you to perform your self-defeating behavior.  People you go on a smoking break with.  People who join you in pity parties.  Explain to these people that you have to put some distance between you while you overcome your bad habit.  Your spouse may be an enabler, if he/she encourages you to be lazy or feeds you too much food.  Try to explain and enlist his/her help.

    It’s usually worse than you expect.  Remember it took three months of daily practice for the jugglers.  We psych ourselves up to go on a diet, for instance, by telling ourselves we can lose five pounds the first week.  When we don't, we give up.  Instead, prepare yourself for the long haul.

    But it’s not as bad as you fear.  Nobody died from starvation on a diet, and most people don’t really experience a lot of discomfort.  Same goes for giving up any bad habit.  You may have couple of rough days, but they don’t last.  And pretty soon you start to get some good feelings—pride, self-respect—from sticking with your regimen.

    Don’t try unless you’re ready.  All the times you've made a half-hearted attempt and given up have eroded your confidence and will power.  Don't try again unless you've really thought this through and are ready to go to the mat with your problem.

    Ask for help.  Make a public commitment—that in itself will help keep you honest—by asking everyone close to you for their help.  They might, for instance, avoid talking about food or wild parties while you're around.  They might be especially attentive, giving you some recognition for progress or sympathy when you're having a tough time.  Or join a group, if there is one for your problems:  AA and WeightWatchers are very effective, and the group support helps a great deal with your own will power.

    Stimulus control.  If you have trouble focusing, for instance, try this.  Work only at your desk and only work at your desk.  When you find yourself distracted or anxious or unable to decide what to do next, get up from your desk and give yourself a short break.  Take your misery elsewhere.  Don't try to work when you're not at your desk.  Eventually the desk (computer terminal, kitchen, easel) becomes a less dreaded stimulus because it is only associated with productive activity.

    Reward yourself.  You're doing something that will change your life, and you need to give yourself recognition.  You might want to give yourself a special gift or take a trip when you feel you've conquered the problem.  You might want to give yourself smaller daily or weekly indulgences as tokens for progress. 

    Baby steps.  Unfortunately for real therapists, Dr. Leo Marvin (What About Bob?) was right.  You have to learn to walk before you can run.  This will power business is tough.  Measure your success in inches.  You'll get discouraged, and you may even slip up sometimes.  Be sure to give yourself a lot of credit for every good day you have.

Stop Judging. Judging yourself is a highly destructive mental habit. The more you judge, the better you get at judging. But you don't get wiser, you just get more cynical. When you find yourself judging, change the subject.

Don’t obsess—distract.  Our brains are constructed so that we can't force ourselves not to think about something, especially a worry or a temptation.  You can't make a self-destructive impulse disappear by wishing it away, but it often works to make yourself think about something else.  Make a list of good memories that you can refer to when you need it; or a list of pleasant activities you can use as distractions—talking with a friend, a walk, a cup of tea, turning the music up real loud and dancing by yourself.

Don't let a slip kill your resolve.  Don't slip; but if you do, don't beat yourself up too much.  Too many people leap to the conclusion that if you fall off your diet once, you’ve ruined your chances for success.  That’s a rationalization for quitting.  Instead, remember that you're attempting a very difficult thing.  If you can't be totally perfect, it doesn't mean you're hopeless.  Nor does it give you an excuse for giving up.  Remember, you're committed to this for three months.

Savor the positive results.  Pay attention to your feelings as you get out from under that burden you've been carrying around.  You may feel freer, stronger, proud of yourself.  You may look better, have more time, and get more done.  Let yourself savor these feelings mindfully, with focus and pleasure.


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