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Finding the Perfect Attitude for Willpower, Part II

States of mind

In the first post in this series, I brought up the question of a perfect approach to willpower, some kind of zone we could get into that would make us automatically able to make the good choices we want for ourselves–exercising more, dealing better with people, eating healthier, working harder, stopping dangerous behaviors, or anything else. Lately I’ve gotten a glimpse of a frame of mind that is something like that zone, a frame of mind that has been making willpower much, much easier for me. Unfortunately, it’s not a single, simple change–but the pieces of it are ones we can master. Here are the ones I’ve been able to puzzle them out so far, and though I’m talking mainly about weight loss, the principles are the same for any other willpower challenge.

1. Resignation
This might seem like an odd thing to emphasize, but it’s become clear to me recently just how essential resignation is. Resignation is saying “OK, so this will be painful or inconvenient or unpleasant sometimes. I can deal with that.” Resignation is saying “I’ll embrace hunger, or loneliness, or whatever the challenge is for me, and find out what there is in it I can enjoy.”

Ineffective fad diets often claim they can help you lose weight without going hungry, or while still eating foods you love. It’s not impossible to lose weight without going hungry very much, or while eating foods you love, but it’s much easier if you’re willing to eat food you find boring, dull, and insufficient. If that sounds joyless, consider: what’s the best source of joy anyway? Yes, it can occasionally be delightful to eat a doughnut, but more often it’s just vaguely pleasant and we don’t pay that much attention anyway. Feeling successful, healthy, strong, and capable, however, pays off in joy consistently.

2. Going toward, not running away from
To eat well, it’s much easier to focus on getting healthy food than on avoiding unhealthy food. To quit smoking, it’s much more motivating to focus on how many non-smoking days one has had so far than on missing smoke breaks.  The more we think about things, the more our brains automatically configure themselves to be ready to do those things. If we spend a lot of time thinking about activities we’re trying to stop or do less of, it will make it harder to avoid them. Instead, we can focus on things that carry us forward.

3. Consistency and commitment
I don’t know how much this is my particular personality and how much this is true for most people, but it’s far easier for me to stop doing something I’m used to than to do just a little of it. For example, in 1985, concerned about environmental impact and mistreatment of livestock, I stopped eating meat, seafood, and poultry. I continued as an ovo-lacto vegetarian for more than 20 years, at which point I found that there were health issues for with my diet as it was (notably, it turns out that I’m allergic to soy and needed to reduce cholesterol consumption), and I added seafood and poultry back in. Vegetarianism was sometimes inconvenient, but it was never difficult. Similarly, I go years at a time without having any caffeine–coffee, chocolate, most sodas, etc.–because my body doesn’t handle caffeine well. That hasn’t been hard either.

By contrast, it can be very hard for us when we try to ration unhealthy foods or TV watching or Internet usage. Rationing seems to encourage us to think more about the things we’re trying to minimize, which as I’ve mentioned causes trouble. So the most successful attitude toward healthy eating for me has turned out to be “I’ll try to make healthy food choices every time.” Yes, there will be situations where I don’t have many good choices, and there may even be situations where I choose something less healthy because that’s the choice that makes sense to me at the time, but my practice now is to stop myself before any “recreational” eating choice and see if I can’t find a perspective that makes me happy to skip it. Not that this is always easy: more on that below.

4. Awareness
In order for me to make good choices, I have to realize it when one of those choices is in front of me. If I have four pieces of pizza in my belly before I remember to think about what I’m eating, then it’s already too late. Accordingly, the first thing I practice is being aware of making a choice. The second thing I practice is being willing to think about my motivations for making good choices. It shocks me how often I’ll realize I’m in a situation where I need to make a good choice and my first inclination is to not think about it. When I get past that and focus my attention on what I’m trying to achieve in my life, it becomes much easier to make the good choices. It’s when I don’t notice the opportunity or do notice but don’t allow myself to think about it that I run into problems.

5. Knowledge
I should say that any positive change needs to be founded on real knowledge. Meaningful facts–whether it’s calorie counts for eating well, knowing that people who have tried to quit smoking before are more likely to succeed when they try again, knowing what markets are available for the novel you’re working on, or really understanding the question of cardio versus strength training–facilitate reaching our goals, while lack of information gets in our way. For instance, if I try to lose weight but don’t realize that some of my “diet foods” are high in calories, I’m very likely to give up, because I’ll see I’m not making any progress.

So those are the pieces–at least, the ones I recognize so far. In the third post in this series, I’ll talk about how these pieces fit together and what it feels like to be fully engaged in changing a habit for the better.

Photo by sean dreilinger

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Black belt

Self-motivation examples

I’ve always been interested in the martial arts, ever since I lingered over ads offering the secrets of judo in the backs of comic books I read as a kid. There’s a kind of promise in martial arts that it’s possible to do things with our bodies that are very nearly magical. This is the same reason I’ve been drawn to the psychology of self-motivation, because just as I’ve been learning and practicing the basic skills of Taekwondo (stances, blocks, kicks, sparring techniques, etc.), over the past several years, in that same period I’ve also been learning and practicing the basic skills of self-motivation (feedback loops, idea repair, visualization, reframing techniques, etc.). And it turns out that training in self-motivation can achieve things that are also very nearly magical.

Friday night, in Burlington, Vermont, I tested successfully for my first dan black belt in Taekwondo Chung Do Kwan at the Blue Wave Taekwondo Association‘s Winter Camp. This was a big win for both my Taekwondo training and my self-motivation training.

In some ways it seems as though my self-motivation training was completely unnecessary: as I describe in this post, I love training in Taekwondo even though it’s effortful, sometimes inconvenient, and occasionally painful. Since I love to do it, why would self-motivation be necessary?

But that’s a trick question: the key to self-motivation is to love what you do, whether that thing is getting your personal records in order, writing about the psychology of self-motivation, crafting a novel, or doing the dishes. This sounds both simple and useless: sure, we get things done when we love to do them, but if we don’t love to do them, we’re out of luck, right?

But of course my sense of things is that we’re not out of luck at all. It took a conscious shift in attitude every time I dragged my tired butt up the steps to the third floor Taekwondo gym after a long day at work over the past few years, changing my thinking from “I’m too tired to work out” to “I work out whether I feel tired or not.” And it’s been improved by mindfulness, like when I had begun my testing Friday night and consciously brought myself to realize that while there was definitely pressure to do well (especially from myself), I was having the time of my life. I had told people before testing that I wasn’t nervous yet, but that I thought I would be at testing. As it turns out, I wasn’t nervous. I screwed some things up (though fortunately not badly enough to threaten my succeeding), but when something did go wrong, I just did my best to collect myself and move forward. I may have been a little hyper, and my attention was certainly scattered at times, but I wasn’t nervous: I was profoundly content.

The secret about learning to love doing something–like testing for black belt or starting a workout when you’re really tired–is that even things that seem unappealing to us at first, if they’re really furthering goals we care about, tend to become more interesting and enjoyable once we resign ourselves to doing them and get started. Loving to do something sometimes comes naturally, sure, but a lot of the time it takes work, which comes in the form of using the skills and practices I talk about on this site: idea repair, feedback loops, visualization, identifying mental schemas, and so on.

The phrase “black belt” is often used to mean mastery, but in Taekwondo at least, becoming a black belt is just the beginning. As my instructor, Master White (who is profiled here and who also tested on Friday–incredibly, for his seventh dan black belt) says, “black belt” means that you’ve gotten down the basics and are ready for the real fun to begin. And although I think the real fun began long ago, I am definitely ready.

Photo by Mr. Lloyd Blake, via Mrs. Carrie Blake

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Specific Steps We Can Take Toward Accepting and Moving On

Handling negative emotions


In a recent post, I talked about the importance of being able to resign ourselves to certain truths in our lives if we want to move forward. To put this another way, sometimes our ideas about how things “should be” holds us back, and accepting the world as it really is can free us of those ideas. Here are some specific areas where acceptance can help lighten the load. Probably none of these will be new to you, but learning to accept them better is the kind of thing that can benefit any of us.

There will always be a certain amount of suffering in the world, and some of it will come to each of us–but we can help alleviate the suffering of others and can work toward being able to take it in stride when suffering comes directly to us.

The world outside us won’t always be the way we want it to be: people will drive dangerously, decisions will be made that we don’t think are best, and sometimes people will be treated unfairly or unkindly. However, we ourselves can strive to do things as much as possible the way we would want others to do them.

There are limitations to how much we can change or fix in our lives at one time, and there’s no single, magic solution to all problems.

Striving to do something difficult will usually mean some failures along the way. Failing is a normal part of the process of reaching a goal. Major life changes rarely can be accomplished overnight and without a few setbacks.

In order to get to what’s really important in our lives, sometimes we have to let go of things that are less important, for instance plans we might have had or desires we meant to fulfill. Letting go of unimportant things pays off handsomely in giving us resources and attention to focus on the important ones.

A technique called “cognitive restructuring” or “idea repair” can aid constructive thinking in these areas. You can find more information about this process in my posts on broken ideas.

Photo of Brisbane traffic by neoporcupine


Why Self-Reliance Requires Surrender

States of mind


Terms like “resignation,” “surrender,” and “submission” are practically cuss words in Western culture–certainly in America, anyway. Americans are brought up to believe that we should never give in to anybody, never submit to anything, and always be in control. We’re led to believe that strength always requires this kind of control, and so we tend to think of things like drug trafficking, terrorism, and our own habits as things we need to wage war on rather than things we simply need to find solutions to. Drug trafficking and terrorism are way, way outside the scope of this site, but there’s a crucial lesson about habits here. That lesson is resignation: to truly conquer bad habits, we need to surrender to our own best choices.

The kind of surrender we’re talking about here isn’t the kind where you give up your will to another person, or another force, or someone else’s ideas: instead, it’s letting go of things that may feel comfortable or at least familiar but that are holding you back, like broken ideas, and being willing to make new choices. It’s giving up the things we think we want, when necessary, to achieve the goals that are actually most important to us.

One example that many of us struggle with on a daily basis is priorities. If a person honestly has more things to get done than they’re able to handle, as many of us do, really taking control of the situation requires, strangely enough, letting go of some control. To put it plainly, if I have more to do than I can accomplish, then I’ll be able to handle things best if I resign myself to the fact that certain of those things aren’t going to done–and use that new point of view to make sure the most important items will get done.

fallingFailing to resign ourselves in situations like that means that the things left undone are determined by whim and chance instead of by choice. If I “need” to practice some music, buy some new shoes for my son, exercise, answer some e-mails, and look up a new book I heard about, yet don’t have time for all of those things, then I run the danger of running out of time and (for instance) not getting the shoes and not exercising. As a matter of fact, I may naturally gravitate toward the least important and most immediately appealing of those things, like playing the music and surfing the Web reading reviews of the book. When I explain why I didn’t exercise or buy the shoes later, I may say “I just ran out of time.” Yet in actuality, not resigning myself to the time limitations in the first place meant that I really would have been choosing to do the less important things over the shoes and the exercise. If I resign myself to not having time to learn new music and buy new books, I might get done everything I actually need to get done, and while this may seem less appealing in the moment, over the long term I’m likely to experience more pleasure and more happiness because of having made these seemingly less appealing choices.

Which leads us to another important place for resignation: easy pleasure now versus happiness in future. For instance, I regularly do push-ups, building up my strength both for general health and as part of my Taekwondo training. In the moments I’m doing them, push-ups are hard to enjoy: they make me breathe hard and cause my muscles to strain in a way that feels suspiciously like mild pain. Yet if I don’t resign myself to experiencing this mild pain, then I’ll tend to avoid push-ups most of the time and won’t experience the pleasure of having that strength and being able to do the things push-ups allow me to do (even if that’s mainly just more push-ups).

Another kind of resignation that can make a world of difference in self-motivation is resigning ourselves to take responsibility rather than putting the blame outside ourselves. For instance, if a person has major financial problems but fails to take action because they feel those problems are mainly other people’s faults, they’ll most likely continue to have financial problems. It’s giving up that excuse of blaming outside conditions and resigning ourselves to take responsibility for our own lives that enables us to have some power over our situation.


There’s a surprising and wonderful side effect to resignation, too: it makes unenjoyable things more enjoyable. When I resign myself to doing push-ups, I’m no longer telling myself “These are hard. These are painful. I don’t want to do these.” Instead I’m saying “Time to do some push-ups. I can manage this.” This doesn’t make the exercise any more physically comfortable, but it frees up my attention to focus on things like the power I’m feeling in my muscles and the joy I can take in increasing my personal record, doing a few more push-ups than I’ve ever done in one go before. There are elements to enjoy in virtually any seemingly unenjoyable step to a worthwhile goal. Even hunger can bring a smile to your face if you resign yourself to a little of it (in a healthy context) and begin to experience it as the sensation that often goes with your body burning stored calories–and I say this from experience. But more on enjoying the unenjoyable in another post, because that’s a big subject.

So how do we know when to use resignation in our lives? Resignation is needed whenever we know what we need to do but are having trouble bringing ourselves to do it.

Resigning ourselves, as much as it sounds like knuckling under, is really much more like bravery than cowardice. We can go out and face the dangers that worry us and surrender ourselves to the possibility that we might be hurt, might have to go through something difficult, or might fail; or we can hide and hope that things will just somehow work out, often ensuring hurt and difficulty and failure. Surrender here means not giving up what’s important, but giving up what isn’t: more often than not we need to give up things we think we want in order to get the things we really want.

Chess photo by Some nutter called Mark Grimwood
Letting go picture by niko si
Diving picture by mcescobar1


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