Willpower fits in your pinky finger. Hold up your hand and look at that finger. Now try to pick up your backpack with it. It's not much of a much, is it? Whenever I hear people saying that they wish they had willpower, I know they have no idea what willpower is. Willpower barely exists.
Willpower is so scanty it's like a paper towel. It can be used for tiny jobs, but not for anything serious. I don't expect to mop the floor with one, and I definitely don't expect to use one during a plumbing crisis or natural disaster. I recognize that it's designed for a specific purpose, and that is not a life-changing, earth-shattering kind of a task. Willpower comes in wisp-thin little perforated sections. There's exactly enough of it to handle brief spills.
What can willpower do?
Allow you to clap your mouth shut milliseconds before blurting out a hurtful remark
Restrain you from slapping your child
Push you past the entrance to the cookie aisle, but only if you don't look back
Tie your workout shoes
Stand your sorry self up out of your chair
Dial a phone number that you don't feel like calling, but you have to
Pour that drink down the sink, but only one time
Force out a gracious apology
Never expect willpower to get you any farther than fifteen seconds. If you're a driven, ambitious person, you can work up to about two minutes.
What do I know about willpower? I've done things that people think require willpower, but I know they don't, because I have none. I once ate half a pan of brownies at a social occasion, and there weren't enough for everyone, and another guest called me out publicly for it. I have no excuses because there are none. There were brownies. I saw them. I ate them. Then I ate more. If there was a second pan, I might have eaten those as well. I would have eaten them in front of a crying child. I know, because I once ate a donut with sprinkles and pink frosting in front of my crying niece, and there weren't any more donuts. I didn't share. Not even a bite.
I don't act like an out-of-control, selfish jerk around sweets anymore. It has nothing to do with willpower, because, again, I have none. I changed my mind.
I lost thirty-five pounds because I changed my mind about deprivation. I thought it out and I decided that I now had enough money to access whatever food I wanted, 24 hours a day. Therefore, I could pass up enticing treats without FoMO. If I really need a brownie or a pink-frosted donut with sprinkles, I can get one, I can store them in my freezer in case of Donut Emergency, or I can make my own. My heart will not break if there are still desserts sitting there and I am not putting them in my face.
I became a marathon runner because I changed my mind about my history of chronic pain and fatigue. I thought it out and decided that doctors don't know everything. I knew that fibromyalgia isn't fatal. I already knew that I could handle intense pain on a daily basis. How much worse could it get? It turned out that distance running drastically increased my pain threshold, helped me resolve my sleep issues, lowered my anxiety, and brought me happiness I never knew was possible. Willpower had nothing to do with it because willpower could only get me into my socks and shoes.
I got my drivers license at age 29, after failing the test twice, because I changed my mind about driving. I thought it out and decided that I needed to be able to operate a vehicle if I was on a backpacking trip with friends, someone got injured, and I was the only one able to go for help. I changed my mind about being a passenger and sitting passively while someone else handled the burdens of driving, which are many. Driving is one of the worst, most annoying and stressful things to do, but I can do it now. Willpower never would have gotten me there because I loathe driving. I convinced myself that I needed to be responsible and accountable and learn it.
I force myself to do things, not because I have an iron will, but because I changed my mind about chronic procrastination. The moment I feel the feeling of I DON'T WANT TO or I DON'T FEEL LIKE IT, that is my trigger to jump on it and do it. I decided that the feeling of resistance is a clear sign of something valuable and important for me to do. If I feel that I don't want to do it or I don't feel like it, this means that I feel I must. Otherwise, it wouldn't even cross my mind. I don't have to whine that I don't feel like riding a donkey or I don't want to play the tuba, because those activities are irrelevant to my interests. I don't feel like looking for a new dentist and I don't want to mop behind the toilet, but I like it even less when I don't do these things. Having a necessary task using up my mental bandwidth is a way of annoying myself. Might as well get it over with and go back to thinking about condors.
Once I've decided that something is important to me, I'll make it happen. I've never failed at getting desserts into my face or staying up too late so I could finish a book. I have all the persistence, focus, attention, cognitive skills, and emotional wherewithal to make those things happen, even when they're logistically complicated. I have the resources to get things done, WHEN I WANT TO. The only way to want to do something is to talk yourself into it. You have to sell yourself on it. The way to do that is to start by humbly admitting that not everything in your life is perfect, that small changes in certain areas might be nice to try for a while. Changing your mind for the sake of changing your mind is good discipline. There's no commitment. You can test out a new idea without letting it change your personality. You can sample it. You can pull it over your head, and then whip it off again if it doesn't fit or it isn't your color. Practice, though, has a tendency to demonstrate very clearly why changing your mind is easy, obvious, and gratifying.
Why didn't I figure this out sooner?
If only I'd known then what I know now.
Change is easy for me now, because I know how to learn new things. It starts with resistance. Then comes reluctance. After that is awkwardness. Then there's a very long period of not even being mediocre. A year later, there's competence. By the time I've decided to move on to something new, what formerly seemed to require willpower is now ordinary routine. I did it when I went back to school and got my degree. I did it when I learned to drive. I did it when I learned how to lose weight. I did it when I trained for a marathon. Now I'm doing it with public speaking. I'm already considering what dreadful, obnoxious, willpower-requiring thing to take on for next year. The secret is that willpower has nothing to do with anything. It takes changing my mind, and that takes curiosity, imagination, and an adventurous spirit.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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