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How Clenching Muscles Can Boost Immediate Willpower

The human mind

Last month I posted about some interesting research being done in the field of embodied cognition–that is, how physical actions affect the way we think. The post, called “Can Just Grabbing a Pen Boost Willpower?” expressed my cautious interest in the idea that contracting muscles–for instance, by holding a pen tightly–could increase a person’s immediate willpower–that is, their ability to choose long-term goals over short-term goals, like losing weight over enjoying a piece of chocolate cake.

Five solid experiments
Since I had only had the opportunity to read an article about the work being done and not the original paper, I could only talk about the subject in a general and very qualified way. After I posted on the subject though, I was pleased to get an e-mail from Dr. Aparna Labroo of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, one of the paper’s co-authors (with Iris Hung), and she very kindly offered to forward me a copy of “From Firm Muscles to Firm Willpower: Understanding the Role of Embodied Cognition in Self-Regulation.”

After reading the paper, I’m able to express much better-informed enthusiasm for the idea. It details the methods and results of five studies conducted by the paper’s authors, each one examining a different aspect of how contracting muscles might affect willpower. The studies appeared to me (a well-informed layperson, but a layperson, so take my assessments with skepticism as needed) to be very well-designed psychological studies intended to provide meaningful, measurable data that tease apart the many questions this issue brings up.

How it works
To summarize the findings briefly, here are some high points:

  • Contracting a muscle when attempting a task seemed to boost willpower consistently in a variety of situations.
  • Which muscles were contracted didn’t seem to matter much: hand, leg, and arm muscles all seemed to work equally well.
  • The boost was only to immediate willpower with something being attempted at that moment, and it only worked if the person really cared about the long-term goal involved. For instance, contracting a muscle didn’t help people buy healthier snacks when they didn’t care whether or not their snacks were healthy; it only did so with health-minded individuals.
  • The willpower boost helped with a variety of situations, including helping others even when it was uncomfortable to do so, enduring discomfort, making healthier choices, and persisting with an unpleasant but beneficial task.
  • There wasn’t any indication that contracting muscles did anything to aid long-term willpower; the help seemed to come only at the moment it was being done.
  • The person benefiting from the willpower boost doesn’t have to know what’s going on for the effect to be realized.
  • Relaxing muscles or didn’t have any significant impact on willpower in either direction.
  • Most or all of the observed willpower boost seemed to come by way of self-talk. For instance, a person clenching a pen might think more positive or encouraging things than a person who was holding a pen loosely.
  • Simply knowing about a connection between clenching muscles and improved willpower seemed to help subjects in one situation exercise more self-control, presumably because they tried the idea out.

Of the many things we can do to boost willpower, this may well be the easiest I’ve yet seen, and while it appears to be effective for only short periods of time, very often that’s all we need. As Dr. Labroo has said, “this is no self-control magic pill.” However, it does seem like a useful tool to sometimes push things in the right direction just when a push is needed.

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Recovering After a Failure of Willpower

States of mind

We’re well into a season in which, for Americans at least, restraint isn’t very popular. We start out with a holiday that celebrates eating as much as possible, work up to a holiday that celebrates spending as much as possible, and cap it off with a holiday that celebrates staying up late and drinking.

All right, I admit that this isn’t the kindest or even most accurate depiction I could give of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, but the point is that whether or not you happen to celebrate any of these holidays, it’s likely you run into times when you don’t exercise the amount of willpower and restraint you would like to. Practically everyone does sometimes. Over time we can get better at exercising restraint even when we’re receiving messages to do otherwise, but what do we do to get back on track after losing our willpower for a while? Here are some specific things that can help:

  1. Don’t beat yourself up. Feelings of guilt, shame, frustration, disappointment, and depression are common after a failure of willpower. These are traps: avoid them. If you get caught up in destructive emotions, it will be hard to learn well and regain your focus. Identify broken ideas that aren’t doing you any good, then repair them: see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair.”
  2. Get smarter. After a failure of willpower, you have an ideal opportunity to learn from your mistakes. Start a feedback loop to figure out how to change your behavior next time, and keep using it to see how well your new approaches work. Your feedback loop (which could be journaling, talking with a friend, talking to yourself, etc.) will include a description of exactly what you don’t like that you did, what you were thinking when you did it, and some ideas for changing what you do in the future. It will also include acknowledgments of any good decisions you made.
  3. Look ahead. One of the best ways to do well with willpower is to prepare solutions in advance. For instance, if you ate much more than you wanted to at your last family gathering, you might want to plan what you’re going to eat before you go to the next one. See “How Preparation Enables Stronger Willpower.”

You might also be interested in reading “How to Recover When You’ve Completely Blown It,” which talks more about failure in general and its role in successfully pursuing a goal.

Photo by kharied

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Can Just Grabbing a Pen Boost Willpower?

The human mind

I just read a kind of strange article here, and I honestly don’t know quite what to make of it. The piece is a brief interview with Aparna Labroo, an Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Labroo publishes in the field of consumer psychology, and her PhD is in marketing. This makes me want to be careful concluding much from the results, because I frankly have no idea what kind of work goes into marketing doctorates and don’t know whether we should take research in the field of marketing just as seriously as research in the field of psychology when we’re talking about general human behavior. Tentatively, though, the conclusion seems very interesting.

What Labroo’s studies suggest is that people can increase their self-control simply by grabbing something. The idea seems to be that the physiological response to contracting muscles has some effect on willpower for immediate situations.

For instance, in one study, Labroo had subjects stick one hand in a bucket of ice water and see how long they could keep it there, a difficult but not harmful task. Some of the subjects held a pen loosely in the other hand, some tightly, and others were given no instructions about the pen. The ones who held the pen tightly, Labroo reports, had a significantly higher ability to keep their hand in the cold water.

One limitation I would point out here is that although the popular idea of willpower seems to be that of a struggle between something we want to do and something we “should” do, in fact people who are successful with willpower over the long term seem to be doing much less of that and much more of redirecting their thoughts. In other words, the ability to stand doing something unpleasant is useful for willpower, but not nearly as useful as the ability to refocus attention: see my article “Resistance Really Is Useless: Why Willpower Isn’t About Fighting Ourselves” for more on this.

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How to Harness Desire for Better Willpower

States of mind

Wanting something isn’t all there is to motivation: motivation requires knowledge of what you need to do, effort, and attention, for instance. Yet desiring something–organization, health, success, an achievement–is the most basic and essential ingredient of motivation.

I haven’t written much about the importance of desire in motivation because the connection seems so basic and obvious, but recently I’ve been realizing that desire isn’t as simple as it has seemed to me.

Desires change constantly
It seems we tend to think of our desires as being very consistent over time, but in truth they can expand to fill our whole attention or dwindle away to nothing in just a few moments. For example, a person might wake up in the morning with a firm resolution to start getting really fit, but by three in the afternoon, after a particularly wearing day, care about nothing so much as chocolate, or someone might be driven to rise to the top of her profession one week and perfectly content in her current position the next.

It shouldn’t be surprising that our desires change so much and so quickly: desire is influenced by both physiology (hunger signals, tiredness, the dopamine rush of a pleasurable experience, and so on) and thinking (for instance, admiring what someone else has achieved or daydreaming about the future). Our attention, physiological state, current thoughts, immediate environment, communication from others, and other factors can change from moment to moment.

The thing to take away from this realization that desires change is that sometimes when willpower falters, the root problem is that for that moment we just don’t care about the goal.

Affecting our own desires
Knowing that our desires change and that losing desire for a goal tends to cause willpower to go down the tubes leads us to the conclusion that sometimes we will want to influence our own desires. This sounds very strange: if we don’t want something, why would we expend effort to make ourselves want it? The key realization here is that what we desire at any given moment isn’t necessarily based on what will make us feel happy and fulfilled.

For instance, I might very much want to stay up all night and watch a Gilligan’s Island marathon, but being exhausted for the next day or several days combined with the negative thoughts and feelings from knowing I was sabotaging myself would not make me happy no matter how much I wanted to stay up.

In fact, it might be fair to say that getting what we tend to desire usually doesn’t lead to lasting happiness (see my article on lottery winners, “The Best 40 Percent of Happiness,” and my article on hedonic adaptation, “Why Long-Term Happiness Levels Tend to Stay the Same.”) The exception is when we desire something that provides long-term benefits, like health or rewarding work situations. Therefore being happy, fulfilled, and empowered often means changing what we desire.

How to change what we want
Changing our own desires may sound like a strange and tricky process, but in fact we do it all the time by focusing our attention. We may choose to read about Dr. Martin Luther King and begin to feel ourselves wanting to make a positive difference in the world. We may choose to walk into an electronics store to see what the new gadgets are and become possessed for the overwhelming desire for a 3D television. We may start reading about rollerblading and find ourselves wanting to get more active.

Other articles on this site talk about changing our environment and making good connections with other people to encourage ourselves toward our goals, and these are good external ways to influence our desires. But what it often comes down to is what we choose to think about. That moment of decision during which I have the choice “Stop in at the electronics store, or pull over at the park and go for a walk?” will change not only my environment but what I have available to focus on. The moment in the restaurant when I choose to look carefully at the “heart healthy options” on the one hand or “deep fried specialties” on the other will influence what I begin to be interested in ordering.

And the wonderful thing about changing our attention is that while it takes a momentary effort, when we do it we’re not yet to the point of strongly desiring something, so it doesn’t take the kind of complete reorientation we face when we already want something but know that it isn’t a good choice.

So while focusing attention and influencing our own desires won’t on its own provide all of the motivation we’ll ever need, it is one of the simplest and yet most powerful ways of altering our minds for our own benefit.

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Willpower: Available Right Now

States of mind

It’s easy to think of ourselves as trapped by emotions or ideas, but it’s interesting–and extremely useful, I would say–for us to remember that willpower comes down to making good choices, and that making good choices comes down to our state of mind, because at least in theory, we can get into an excellent state of mind with only a few moments notice.

Today’s post isn’t about the how of changing our emotional states, which is covered in many other articles on this site, such as “How Preparation Enables Stronger Willpower,” “How to Stop Having a Bad Day,” “Antidotes to bad moods and negative emotions,” and especially “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair.” Instead it’s about the what and the why: what does it mean to change our state of mind, and why is that important?

What makes up a state of mind?
State of mind has a number of components, including things like alertness that aren’t entirely under our immediate control. For instance, if I haven’t slept all night, I’m going to have noticeably less power over my ability to focus and think clearly.

But the key elements of our states of mind, attention and mood, are things we can influence. If our attention is set on the most beneficial subject available to us, and if we have brought our emotions into balance, then we’re generally in a calm, open state that allows us to make good choices.

For example, if I have the choice of washing the dishes or watching TV, and if I’ve resolved that it’s important to wash the dishes, then there are a lot of things that could affect my state of mind to make it hard to stick to my resolution. For instance, if I were depressed or angry, I might be having trouble caring about things like whether or not my dishes were done. If I were telling myself what I’d be “missing” if I didn’t watch TV or that I “should be able to have a break after the day I’ve had,” then I would be pointing my attention at things that would tend to prevent me from making good choices.

How we change our state of mind
Emotional states feel very difficult to shake sometimes, but in truth if our attention changes focus, our emotions can follow suit within just a minute or two. Changes of emotion aren’t immediate, though: a lot of our experience of emotions is physiological, and while our brain chemistry changes constantly, it takes a small amount of time for the chemicals to shift, as compared to our near-instantaneous changes of attention or thought, which involve sending electrical impulses through our brains.

So let’s say I walk through the door upset, distracted, preoccupied with wanting to watch TV, and telling myself that doing the dishes is self-punishment. Under those conditions, the dishes probably won’t get done unless I have a strongly-ingrained habit or something changes. But if I have enough time and attention to spare, along with the awareness of what I really want, I can change my state of mind. First I let go of unhelpful thoughts like “I’m going to miss the new episode of my favorite show!” and “I shouldn’t have to do dishes after my long day at work.” Then I will want to bring my attention to any subject that’s helpful, like remembering what it was like getting up the other morning to a gleaming clean kitchen. I’ll also want to use whatever techniques I have available, like breathing exercises, meditation, or music, to help me calm down, focus, and cheer up.

Under these circumstances, it’s possible for a completely different state of mind to surface, one in which I’m happy to be doing the dishes because that’s the exact right thing for me to be doing at the moment. If other kinds of thoughts get in the way of my experiencing that mood, I would need to deal with those individually, for instance by using idea repair.

We’re not always successful (at least, I’m not) at getting into a positive state of mind, but the important takeaway here is realizing that a positive state of mind is nearly always available, however uncomfortable or unhappy or cussed we may feel. The trick is to get better and better at seeking it out.

Photo once again by Stuck in Customs

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7 Ways to Find Supporters and Partners

Strategies and goals

Following up on my last article, “How Supporters and Partners Help Motivate Us,” here are some ways to find people to help your efforts toward reaching a goal.

  1. Friends and family. It’s not unusual to hide goals from friends and family members, especially goals to fix things in our lives that aren’t going well, for instance getting fit or decluttering. But specific friends or family members who are likely to be sympathetic to our aims–even aims we’d usually keep private–can provide a welcome source of encouragement, feedback, and in some cases inspiration. People you know who are working toward the same goal you are can be especially helpful.
  2. Local groups. The more common a goal, the more likely there are groups to help you succeed in it. Professional associations, Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, writers’ groups, and other organizations can be invaluable. In most cases, it’s preferable for the group to include or be run by someone who is already successful in the area in question.
    Three good places to find local groups are the yellow pages, local daily and weekly newspapers, and www.meetup.com, a free resource for finding and forming local groups.
  3. Cognitive therapists. Cognitive therapy can be particularly useful not only in helping work through emotional problems but also in clarifying goals and priorities, clearing away conflicts, and becoming more effective in life. Until relatively recently, far more emphasis in psychological research and practice has been put on people with serious difficulties than on what is now called “positive psychology”: building on strengths and realizing potential. In the last decade or two, this tide has begun to turn, creating much more awareness of therapy as a means to pursuing our better selves. Kari Wolfe contributed an article on this site that gives a good introduction to cognitive therapy, “What in the World is Cognitive Behavior Therapy?“.
  4. Professionals. Depending on your goals, there may be professionals who can help you succeed: organization specialists, fitness trainers, coaches, and others. Both with these kinds of professionals and with therapists, it’s worth putting a good bit of effort into research, as a truly bad fit can be worse than doing nothing at all, but a very good fit can yield benefits far beyond the expected.
  5. Classes. You may not necessarily need more education in the area of your goal, but if education is useful to you and available, getting involved in a class–whether it’s pursuing an MBA, taking a class offered through your local community, or even in some cases taking a course online–can provide connections to people who are care about your goal and can help you move forward.
  6. Online groups and forums. Online groups in many cases don’t offer nearly as much human contact as groups that meet in person, but they can be easy to access and are often large, active and knowledgeable. They can be a source of support and camaraderie online as well as a possible way to meet people who can become friends in person. One excellent example is the free online fitness and weight loss site, SparkPeople.
  7. Events. Events that focus on your goal area can be a great source of new contacts, ideas, friends, supporters, and colleagues.

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How Supporters and Partners Help Motivate Us

Strategies and goals

Recently a reader commented with this useful question: “How do I find people who can support me in reaching my goals, whether by encouragement, having the same/similar goal or even a goal of their own? Are there any tips you can offer regarding how to tell people that I’d like to work on a goal?” In this article, I’ll talk about how other people can fit into your plans for achieving your goals. In the follow-up, I’ll talk about specific ways you can find supporters and partners.

First, it’s worth mentioning some of the benefits of support and buddying up:

  • More resources for information and help
  • More reminders of what you’re doing and why it’s important
  • People to cheer you on and help boost your mood
  • An “audience,” people to witness your progress, making you less likely to just silently let your goal slip (although if you get very anxious about other people’s opinions, this may not be a good option for you)
  • Sometimes, models to emulate
  • Sometimes, companions to do things with
  • Opportunities to maintain a feedback loop, to make it easy to reflect on how you’ve been doing and how you could tweak your approach for the better
  • Increased social time in general, which even if it has nothing to do with your goal tends to improve mood (see “Want to Reduce Stress? Increase Social Time“).

People can help you in a variety of roles:

  • mentors are skilled at doing whatever you’re trying to take on and can provide specific help and guidance. A mentor could be a friend or family member who has already done what you’re trying to do, a specialist like a personal trainer or professional organizer, a therapist, a coach, a teacher, etc.
  • partners want to achieve the same goal you do and can get together with you to work on it. My belief, although I don’t know of any research to back this up, is that partners who are at about the same place you’re in work best, since you two are likely to face similar challenges, and you’ll neither be discouraged by the other person being far ahead of you or impatient at the person being far behind.
  • groups get together on a regular basis to share ideas, witness each other’s progress (or sometimes lack of progress, because occasional failures and setbacks are a normal part of pursuing a goal), offer encouragement, and otherwise help keep each other on track. Online groups generally offer discussion and support without meetings, which adds flexibility but takes away the structure of a regularly scheduled check-in.
  • role models can be people you know or people you’ve only heard of, and have achieved what you want to achieve. Role models offer the opportunity to learn how to successfully reach a goal and a clear reminder that it can be done.
  • supporters include anyone who can make a constructive contribution to your progress by helping to provide information, encouragement, or discussion.
  • competitors are other people trying to reach the same kind of goal as you who inspire you to work harder. Some of us respond well to competition and some don’t. If you’re someone who does, then trying to be the most successful person in your weight loss group or to get an agent before any of your other writer friends can be a good way to stay motivated.

There’s also one group to avoid: detractors. This includes anyone who will get in the way of you achieving your goal, whether or not they mean well. Anyone who encourages or excuses your bad habits, distracts you with things that prevent you from making progress, or actively tries to disrupt you through badmouthing, scoffing, unkind comparisons, or other tactics is worth avoiding if possible, keeping out of the loop if it’s not possible to avoid them, or ignoring if it’s not possible to keep them out of the loop.

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How Getting a Little Distance Can Help Willpower

The human mind

Maybe you’ve had the experience–I know I have–of doing something that at the time seems overwhelmingly important or irresistable but that later just seems … stupid. Or at least unnecessary and a bad idea. It doesn’t matter whether it’s spending a whole afternoon at work searching for an e-mail that will prove a point you’re trying to make, or heading out to the couch with a spoon and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s that will never be seen or heard from again, or staying up all night watching the Gilligan’s Island marathon instead of studying: our judgment of what to do in the moment often doesn’t agreewith what we’ll later decide we would like to have done.

So if we want to try to bring those two perspectives closer–that is, to be more comfortable doing things we’ll still approve of later–one key skill is getting a little distance. I’ll be more specific: when I say “distance,” I’m talking about three separate things: awareness, perspective, and mental separation.

Awareness
Being aware of–mindful of–what’s going on in our own brains is not automatic. It’s entirely possible–even easy–to think about something without paying much attention to the fact that we’re thinking about it. Thinking about thinking (“metacognition”) is a conscious process that we do more of when we encourage the habit and less of if we don’t make an effort.

Without noticing what we’re thinking about, we’re fairly powerless to change our thoughts. But when we pay attention to what our minds are doing, we have options: we can refocus attention elsewhere, think through consequences, distract ourselves, surrender ourselves, or take other steps to be more practical, consistent, serene, constructive, or however else we want to be in those moments.

Perspective
Perspective is the difference between “I’m going to die if I don’t get those shoes” and “I’d enjoy those shoes, but I’d rather spend the $200 on groceries.” Lack of perspective makes things that will detract from our happiness more attractive and makes things that will make us happier down the road seem dull and un-hip.

One way to get perspective is to think about all of the consequences of an action, not just the appealing ones. Another one, which helps me sometimes, is self-mockery. Mentally (or even out loud, if you can’t be heard or don’t mind) saying “Oh yes, I’m going to be in absolute torture every moment of my life if I don’t get an iPad!” (for instance) wakes up our critical thinking and often yields a “wait–I really don’t want that” effect.

Mental separation
Mental separation is the process of changing focus to another subject or another aspect of the current subject. If I’m being tempted to procrastinate on important work by reading a novel instead, mental separation means leaving off thinking about the novel for the moment and instead focusing on something more constructive, like what it will be like to present the project I’m working on to an appreciative audience, or how much I love my paycheck. As long as our focus remains unchanged, it’s difficult to change our minds about what we want to do, although perspective can help. When we let go of a slightly obsessive line of thought in favor of some other subject, the dangerous line of thought ceases to have nearly as much sway over us, and in fact it would take work to get back into that same way of thinking. (See “How to Multitask, and When Not To” for information about how changing what we’re thinking about requires us to reorganize our brains.)

Getting a little distance from overly eager thoughts about underly good things is an important component of being able to exercise willpower. Willpower is making good choices, and our choices are driven in large part by how we feel about the options. Switching to a healthier kind of thinking makes healthier options seem more appealing, and with no more effort than that move, we can improve our chances of going down the paths we really want to follow.

Photo by loungerie

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Two Years Without Coffee: How to Resist Temptation

Self-motivation examples

A little over a year ago I posted “Going a Year Without Coffee,” in which I talk about how my physiology seems to encounter a lot more trouble with caffeine than most people even though I really enjoy coffee. So while I had largely steered away from coffee for some time, it wasn’t until two years ago that I stopped drinking it at all (and stopped having chocolate, tea, and other sources of caffeine along with it).

And while I’m sure I’ll have coffee again from time to time in the future, last week marked two years without, and I thought it might be worth sharing the tactics I use to steer clear, because they’re the same kind of tactics a person can use to avoid other kinds of temptation.

Changing What We Desire
The ideal thing would be to simply not want whatever it is we’re trying to avoid. Surprisingly, this turns out to be a practical approach. Many of us are used to thinking of our desires as being out of our control, that if we’re being drawn to some french fries or to someone who’s a bad influence or to an irresponsible drink, we have the choice of fighting or giving in (or often, both). Yet there’s a different, much more powerful choice available to us: using thinking to redirect our desires.

The Wrong Kind of Attention
When I start thinking about having a cup of coffee, I’m generally thinking about one of two things: how enjoyable the coffee itself is or how I would like to feel more energy. In both cases, my conscious mental processes are directed toward things that will make the idea of having coffee more appealing. On reflection, it seems obvious that if I’m thinking about how much I like the taste of coffee or how energetic I might feel if I had some that I’d be much more likely to actually have some.

It’s easy to imagine that everything we know about a choice feeds into how we make that choice, but in reality, the things we consciously focus on play a much bigger role than everything else, which is one reason we might know exactly the same things from one day to the next but choose to work hard or eat smart the first day yet procrastinate or eat junk the second.

Thinking That Makes Good Choices More Appealing
So my usual habit when I start thinking about a cup of coffee is to jot down a few thoughts about what will happen if I do have some. One of the first things I usually think of is the grinding, day-long headache I’ll get sooner or later from the caffeine. While this isn’t my body’s only negative reaction to the stuff, and while it’s always delayed at least a couple of days, it’s a miserable time.

Not surprisingly, the more I think “coffee=terrible, day-long headache,” the less appealing that cup of coffee gets. This effect builds as I remember that while coffee gives me energy, it also makes it easier to feel jumpy or anxious. Having energy isn’t much good if I’m not in a good enough mood to use it well. As I carefully think over what the real results of my actions will be, the temptation looks progressively more shabby and unappealing.

Having a Little Time Makes All the Difference
The problem with this approach is that it takes time and attention. However, it doesn’t take a lot of time and attention, and if we have enough time and attention to be tempted by something, we probably have enough time and attention to reflect on what will happen if we let ourselves be sucked in by that temptation. It only takes a few minutes, and while it works best if you can write or talk about the things that will make you less attracted to that choice, even just careful thought can bring you there. The worst thing is to be tied up so thoroughly with something else that it’s difficult or unworkable to focus on good choices for a few minutes instead, although planning can help get us through these times (see “How Preparation Enables Stronger Willpower“).

Ultimately, not making a bad choice is easiest if we help ourselves dislike that choice. Focusing on the reasons the choice is bad in the first place help change our perspective so that we stop wanting things we don’t really want for more than momentary pleasure (see “The difference between pleasure and happiness“). To put it another way, the best way to resist temptation is to let ourselves be tempted instead by the things that will truly make us happy.

Photo by Beatriz AG

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Control, Direct Influence, and Indirect Influence

Handling negative emotions

Social circles of influence

In previous articles in this series, we took a look at Dealing With Problems That Can’t Be Fixed, asking When Is It Time to Make a Change?, and when it is that the best solution is Fixing a Problem By Leaving. In today’s article, we’ll look at the kinds of power we have to make changes happen.

Control
When we are able to make changes, it’s important to understand how much impact we can personally have. The most direct situation is control, when we can change something by acting alone. Most of the articles on this site are about situations where we can have some control, like organization, fitness, building new habits, and how we relate to other people. This category includes things that feel out of control, but where the real choices are within us. For instance, I was overweight for many years and didn’t feel in control of that situation. As I learned how to manage my own body better, though, I began to lose weight, and eventually lost more than 60 pounds. Although I wasn’t willing or able to take charge of the situation for a long time, the control still lay entirely with me.

Influence
Many of the situations we tend to worry about aren’t directly under our control, however, for instance how our friends and partners treat us, whether or not we receive promotions or contracts, or how much help we get from others. Problems with situations like this can often come up in our minds as should statements, such as “I shouldn’t have to do this without help!” or “I deserved that raise!” or “It’s not fair that it’s raining the weekend we were supposed to go camping!” (A note: “should statements” don’t necessarily contain the word “should”. A should statement is any thought or declaration declaring a need for someone or something else to do or not do something.) Should statements are a common example of a broken idea, a type of thinking that creates unnecessary trouble. To regard situations where we have influence only and not control in a healthy and constructive way, it’s important to come to terms with the possibility that things may not turn out the way we want them to.

Direct influence
Situations where we have influence come in two flavors: direct influence and indirect influence. Direct influence means that we can take specific steps to try to get the thing done. For instance, a person who wants a raise can usually go to his or her boss and request one, and someone who wants to be treated better by another person can confront that person.

Indirect influence
Indirect influence means that we can only take actions that encourage the results we want, but can’t control them or even push for a decision. Some examples of indirect influence are practicing more in order to have a better chance of winning a talent contest or writing letters to a representative to encourage a particular vote.

Social influence diagram by Bruce Dupree, via Anne Adrian.

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