Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Nudges and Willpower

Plaguing me lately is why I don't take action which I know is beneficial to me, maybe even desired strongly by me. Worse, why do I take action which I know is detrimental?

Last night a recurring thought kept nudging me. My best solutions come when I'm sleeping, so I arose at 4 a.m.and acted on the nudge. "Get up, go to Tim Horton's and Google 'strengthening the will'." I've been curious about The Will for decades. One of the senior black belts in my dojo, had said, "My will is important to me as a spiritual being." I never fully grasped what he meant. But this morning, I acted on my urge, ordered a small coffee and a honey cruller, and found some interesting perspective.

One site described what I've been experiencing as I enact my mission. Without will, "You would start in the right direction, and then, because there was not sustaining power in the thought, you might turn and go in another direction." My passion is there, but my will is not and my attention wavers. "It is the will which holds your mental faculties in position relative to the creative power which does the desired work."

Or put another way the function of the will is to keep the imagination and action centred in the desired direction. Success of failure is contingent on mental control. There are other factors, for sure, but without focus fueled by will, none of the other foundations matter.

So how do you strengthen will power? Behaviour modification psychologists would tell you that there is no such thing as will power. I remember arguing with my prof about this at uni. He said it's all about avoiding trigger events that provoke the undesired behaviour, and cultivating or rewarding the antecedents which result in desired behaviour. Makes sense if you have a master or a trainer who can impose or direct. But what if you are your own master?

There are three ideas that I want to test:
  1. Exercise my will with small, repetitive, actions focusing on maintaining a certain mindset (so that I can feel the difference when will/desire are aligned and coordinated)
  2. Leave no task unfinished (so I'll have to shorten tasks I choose to be finishable in shorter periods of time)
  3. Start each day without hurry
3. Last idea first. I've calendarized a walk and journaling every morning starting at 6am. Today I'm ahead of schedule with a coffee and donut already munched. Now, researching, thinking, writing without hurry.

2. No task unfinished. My friend, Bruce Sellery, was coaching me the other day to help me complete some stuff I was avoiding. He gave me "fierce deadlines" of 20 minutes to complete a task which was mission-critical. I phoned him when I'd completed my task, then was told to do the next thing and agreed to another short deadline. The first task, I completed and felt GREAT. I immediately received positive results from it ("reinforcement" or "reward" for the behaviorists). The second task, was actually 3 tasks in one, and I only did 1 in the time I had. The other 2 are still undone and feel yucky, a drain, a black hole sucking my energy with no productivity to show for the spend. Hmm.
"Leave no task unfinished" is going up on my dreamboard as a reminder.

1. Exercise will. The article I read suggests "cultivating the feeling of contentment" while exercising will, and it gives full directions. In short, take a pile of 50 small somethings: pennies, thumb tacks, beads, whatever is small. "Drop them slowly and deliberately into a box one by one, with a feeling of contentment and satisfaction, declaring with each movement, 'I will to will.'" We're urged to watch our thoughts as we do this task as a form of working meditation I suppose. When complete, write our observations so that we can mark our progress doing this over 7 consecutive days.

I'll share my observations here. If you try it, or develop another exercise, please share how it works for you. I'll likely do more reading and research on strengthening my will, but first, I have a box of thumbtacks to fill.


Anonymous said...

Good article Marty. I believe that willpower is real. However, it's easy to get distracted from goals.

river rider said...

yes! it IS easy to become distracted. What's cool about this exercise is I'm starting to understand the dynamic of distraction. The Will plays "wack a mole" with those distracting thoughts. It's like a rudder steering. If the will waivers, the boat zig zags or does a flying jibe.