Fitness & Motivation Lessons from Pokemon Go

A Wild Pikachu Appears by Sadie Hernandez - Pokemon Go

Unless you’ve been stuck inside Rock Cave for the last few months without an HM05, you probably know about Pokemon Go. As a side-effect of its wild popularity, people have been touting it as being one of the most successful fitness apps to date and some have even been suggesting it’ll have a big effect on fighting obesity.

While I think it’s being a little optimistic to think a little extra walking is going to get everyone fit, it definitely is getting otherwise sedentary people out and moving around – so what is Pokemon Go doing so differently from the Fitbits, Jawbones, VivoFits, et al. that never sparked nearly as strong of a fitness craze as expected? Moreover what lessons on motivation and taking control of our own fitness can we take away from its successes?

Pokemon Go vs. Fitbit

When Fitbit launched people thought that it would have a huge impact on lowering obesity rates and helping to improve overall fitness levels. Gamification (adding game elements like scoring and competition to encourage user engagement) was, and still is really, a hot and exciting method for getting people to do things – particularly in conjunction with the growing quantified self movement. Fitbit ticked both boxes. It provided a solid game element in trying to score your recommended 10k steps per day, providing badges and rewards for meeting goals, and in allowing you to compete with friends, and it gathered enough data on steps, stairs climbed, calories burned, sleep quality, weight change, etc. to be a solid entry in the self-quantification realm.

It’s done well, but it never took off quite like Pokemon Go has. I think the key reason being the Fitbit focuses on gamification, while Pokemon Go approaches things from the opposite direction with ‘fitnessification’.

Alright, I made that word up for lack of a better one and it needs work – the point is that while Fitbit attempts to make fitness into a game, Pokemon Go takes an existing game and plugs in a fitness element.

This might not seem like an important distinction, but it makes a noticeable difference. No matter how many game elements are included in the Fitbit system, your overall goal is still to walk. You can look at it as getting 10,000 points per day if you want, but you know you’re doing it for fitness. Sure the badges and the competition and things motivate you, but beneath that you understand the point is to get you to walk.

Pokemon Go is the opposite. The point is not to walk, that’s just something you tend to have to do in order to play the game. Your goal is to catch Pokemon, take gyms, things like that. The fact that you have to be up and moving around most of the time to accomplish that is secondary.

This is a much better approach to things, because in the end what people care about is having fun. Things like Fitbit, Fitocracy, Duolingo, or HabitRPG attempt, to varying degrees of success, to inject the fun of a game into a productive activity. That certainly helps, but it will never be as successful as injecting a productive activity into a game.

Wii Fit did an alright job of helping people take some steps toward fitness, but in the end it fell to the same problems – the design of all the games was built around making fitness fun, rather than starting with something already fun. After a while people just tire of it and it gets relegated to the closet.

Imagine if you took something like Final Fantasy VII but changed the battle mechanics so that you had to do push-ups or squats to win battles. You wouldn’t play that game to get fit, you would play it because it’s a good game. You would do a ton of push-ups and squats too, not because you think you should exercise but because Sephiroth murdered Aerith and is killing the planet and that bastard has to pay.

Lots of people would probably wind up in the best shape of their lives too.

So, assuming you’re not a game or app designer, what’s the takeaway here?

The Secret to Staying Motivated

If you’re struggling, rather than approaching things like Fitbit and trying to inject fun into your fitness routine (or whatever you’re trying to improve) take the better route – find something fun that also has some small element of what you’re trying to improve in it.

If the prospect of going to the gym or out for a daily run makes you want to crawl back into bed then why force yourself to do those things just for the sake of progress when there are fun options out there? Take a martial arts class, a dance class, a parkour class, go rock climbing, or kayaking, or swimming, go play basketball, or tennis, or even something like tag.

Are these things necessarily going to get you in the same kind of shape adhering to a well-structured strength and conditioning program would get in?

Almost certainly not.

But Pokemon Go alone isn’t going to have anyone dropping a hundred pounds and running in marathons either. Small progress is something though and – unless you’re missing out on potentially better progress by stressing over the small stuff – that small amount of progress is leaps and bounds better than making no progress at all.

Embracing this mindset will make it much easier to continually make some kind of progress in your goals. Any time you’re trying to think of some way to make something you don’t want to do but feel you need to do into something fun, change the equation around and try to think of or create something fun that contains aspects of your goals.

Do you have any examples of other ways to incorporate learning or fitness goals into games instead of the other way around? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Sadie Hernandez

Stop Outsourcing Your Purpose in Life

Outsourced Sewer by Ed Yourton

Some things should definitely not be outsourced.

Just about everyone would say they want to find their purpose in life.

Sites like LifeHacker, TinyBuddha and the like are full of articles on it, books like The Purpose Driven Life consistently top the sales charts in the relevant categories – everybody seems to be desperately trying to figure out the plan that’s been laid out for them.

I think they’re completely missing the point.

Outsourcing Your Purpose

Nearly all of the advice given on the topic of life purpose is based around the idea of outsourcing your meaning in life. The language is always structured around the concept of ‘finding’. It’s always about ‘finding’ your life’s meaning, ‘discovering’ your purpose in life. The idea from the outset is always that your purpose in life is out there, pre-determined, and it’s your job to figure out what it is.

When we’re talking about material coming from authors with a religious bent, like the previously mentioned best selling The Purpose Driven Life it’s a little more understandable – no less awful, but understandable. Even from sources not overtly religious the topic is often couched in the language of pseudo-scientific, spiritual woo.

The general theme of it is that you have some purpose in life (determined by some deity, the universe, or whatever) and you need to find it or figure out what it is. Your agency in the matter is largely removed. The determination has been made and it’s your job to divine whatever result has been chosen for you and follow it. It’s destiny.

We’ll leave out for the moment my position of methodological naturalism and the fact that I’m an atheist. Obviously, given the fact that I see no evidence to convince me of the existence of souls, spirits, or any gods, the idea of some ‘higher power’ handing down anyone’s purpose in life is illogical to me. I’m going to humor the notion for a moment though to make a point.

Let’s assume that there is sufficient evidence for some higher power. I still can’t fathom why people can’t see how awful it would be for said higher power to be assigning people their purposes in life. What if said higher power assigns you a purpose in life you don’t care for? What if your parents determined your career and you had no option of changing? What if you lived in a strict caste system? This idea of having your purpose chosen from you from birth may be comforting to some in the sense that it takes a measure of responsibility off your shoulders, but when you stop to really consider the implications it’s awful.

You could certainly argue that your deity of choice would never make someone’s life purpose something they didn’t love, or that loving it is the nature of your life’s purpose, which is fine if we’re getting into the New Agey spiritual stuff. It’s easy to point to things like The Purpose Driven Life to show that some people think you may be assigned a purpose you don’t necessarily like. I’m not going to argue the theology of it.

Even if I grant that premise, I can’t guarantee that there’s anything I will love doing for my entire life. Tastes and opinions change, and while some may have something they can do for the rest of their life with satisfaction I cannot claim that everyone has something that fills that category for them.

So higher power or not, when we talk about ‘finding’ purpose or meaning in life it robs us of the agency of choice. It sets us up to think that our lot in life has been determined, that the rails have been laid and all we’re doing now is trying to find the right set to follow. It is outsourcing the determination of our purpose in life to en entity outside of ourselves – even if that entity doesn’t actually exist.

I find that notion abhorrent.

Choose Your Own Purpose

Life has no inherent meaning.

What’s so wrong with that?

We live in an unthinking, uncaring universe. There is no larger reason why you exist. There was no purpose for which you were born. You have no cosmic significance. Disabuse yourself of this idea that you are special or important in any way that isn’t manufactured. This is a very entrenched idea societally, so I’ll say it one more time:

There is no inherent meaning of life.

That’s a great thing, because it leads to two subsequent conclusions. The first is that if there is no inherent meaning to life, if there was no purpose for which you were born and no destiny for you to fulfill, it means that all meaning and purpose that there is in life is purely constructed – manufactured by ourselves and others. The second, which follows from that, is that if all meaning in life is manufactured rather than pre-determined we get to choose our own purpose in life.

Your purpose in life can be absolutely anything at all. You can choose to make whatever you want your purpose in life – make not find – and you can change it whenever you want. You could have a new purpose in life every year if you wanted. It’s entirely up to you to determine.

Why is this distinction important?

I’ve met a lot of people and read the accounts of even more who are entrenched in this idea of having some higher purpose in life that they need to find in order to be happy. Even the non-spiritual types express it as if they’re searching for some eureka moment where they hit on something that they feel like they could devote their life to in order to be happy.

Even though they don’t seem to recognize it as a relinquishment of control I see it drive people crazy. They start beating themselves up or begin to get downtrodden and depressed over the fact that they can’t seem to find this one magical thing they were ‘meant’ to do in life. They feel like until they find this one magical thing to give their life purpose they’re living an empty, pointless existence.

The whole time they’re excoriating themselves over their inability to figure out their purpose, they’re completely blind to the fact that they have the power to choose their own purpose. As soon as you realize that you and you alone have the power to create meaning in your own life it frees and empowers you to take charge of things.

Of course, once you come to this realization you may still have some trouble developing the self-awareness to determine what things actually make you happy right now for you to pursue. That’s fine. That’s a topic deserving of an article all of it’s own. Several, actually.

The important thing for now is to cultivate the understanding that your purpose in life is whatever you make it, whatever you choose it to be.

Have anything you’d like to add? Do you disagree entirely and think we all have some set purpose from birth? Let us know in the comments!

Photo Credit: Ed Yourdon

The Tetrapharmakos – An Ancient Cure for Modern Problems

Epicurus vs. Epicurus by AHM

When it comes to philosophy, I tend to gravitate toward the practical side. While I’m certainly interested in a lot of the more abstract areas it’s the parts of philosophy that I can apply to my life right now in order to improve it that I prefer to focus on.

To that end one piece of the Epicurean school that I think has added a lot to my daily life, or at least my attitudes toward it, is the Tetrapharmakos. Even though it was originally created in the 2nd or 3rd century BCE, the ideas it puts forth are just as applicable today.

What’s the Tetrapharmakos?

The Tetrapharmakos originally referred to a certain combination of ‘medicines’ (wax, pitch, tallow, and resin – not something I’d recommend trying) common in ancient Greek pharmacology. The word means ‘four part drug / cure’ in Greek, and Epicurus took that name for his philosophical version considering it to be a four part cure for healing a person’s emotional maladies instead of their physical ones.

Epicurus’s Tetrapharmakos consists of these four (slightly paraphrased) points:

  1. Don’t fear gods.

  2. Don’t fear death.

  3. Truly good things are easy to get.

  4. Truly bad things don’t last.

Let’s go through these points and take a look at how they’re still applicable today.

Don’t Fear Gods

In Epicurus’s time there was a societal division between Greeks who saw the gods as being literal beings that concerned themselves with the affairs of mortals and those (like Epicurus) who considered the gods to be more abstract concepts describing a state of bliss completely unconcerned with the affairs of humans. His essential argument was that gods are by definition perfect, and a perfect being isn’t going to care if you sacrificed a goat in its temple this week or not.

As noted in my personal philosophy I remain unconvinced there are any gods, or anything supernatural for that matter, in existence. I also remain unconvinced I (or anyone/anything else) has a soul, spirit, or whatever ill-defined word you want to use for that concept.

Why is this important? While it doesn’t always, belief in gods can cause a lot of harm. Furthermore the fear of gods specifically, and the fear of punishment by those gods after death can cause enough psychological harm in people that there are specific organizations out there to help people recover from that damage.

Epicurus believed one of the biggest obstacles to happiness was anxiety, and fear of gods and eternal punishment is a huge source of anxiety in people. Here in the U.S. where Christianity is most prevalent fear of punishment in Hell, both of the individual and their loved ones, can cause real stress. When you realize there’s absolutely no evidence that any of those things are real and that they probably don’t exist, it makes it easy to let go of that fear. It also helps set up the next point.

Don’t Fear Death

It’s part of the human condition to fear death. It’s probably one of the most ever-present and strongest anxieties of all for most people. Obviously for Epicurus, this was a problem since he considered fear and anxiety the biggest obstacle to finding happiness.

Epicurus’s position was that there’s no reason to worry so much about death because when we’re alive death isn’t here yet, and when death comes we no longer exist to experience it. To put it another way reminiscent of something Mark Twain would say centuries later, there can be no ‘unpleasantness’ to non-existence because you have to exist to experience something unpleasant. In the same way that you have no experience of anything before birth, you’ll have no experience of anything after death.

Being dead will be just like the state you were in during the billions of years that came before your birth – non-experiencing non-existence.

We’ve already established that there’s no evidence for any kind of afterlife or existence past death, no punishment or eternal torment to worry about, so there’s nothing there to be worried about.

Why is this important? Being in a state of constant worry about what’s going to happen to you after death can cause all the same kinds of crippling anxiety as the belief in gods we talked about above can. It’s an ever-present, background fear in a lot of people and that directly detracts from their happiness and quality of life. Letting go of this fear makes it easier to be happy.

Does that mean you should be reckless or want to die? Absolutely not. There is definitely harm in death in most cases, even if it’s not to you directly (missed opportunity to do good, emotional or financial harm caused to friends and family, etc.), so seeking death is still generally a bad thing. It just means that there’s no reason to live in constant fear of it. Don’t let the fear of something that is inevitable and not unpleasant in the long term ruin your life and cause actual unpleasantness now.

Truly Good Things Are Easy to Get

Mimicking (and possibly influenced by, though I’m unsure of any evidence supporting it) some of the ideas of Buddhism put forth between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE Epicurus asserted that excessive desires led to more harm than good. By extension of this he claimed the things that are truly ‘good’, those things that will truly make a person happy, are all easy to acquire regardless of your situation.

In general, I agree with this idea. As long as a person keeps their desires in check it’s relatively easy to fulfill the range of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Basic shelter, safety, companionship, and self-expression can all be had for relatively little effort by a majority of people.

I will put in a caveat here though that in modern times (and likely even back then, but Epicurus may not have been aware enough of it) situational and economic disparity can make it harder for people to get even the basics they need. I recognize having been born a white male in a middle class family there are certain things I’m susceptible to taking for granted. Accounting for that, there’s still things to gain from this idea.

The first is that your most basic needs, things like food and shelter, are technically easy to get. Now some might take this the wrong way and think the point is that even if you’re living in a cardboard box under a bridge you should be happy with it. I don’t see it that way. To me it’s a dual reminder both to not stress out over the fear of losing material things and to always hold a yardstick to the things I really desire to make sure they’re really important.

Some things are genuinely worth putting a lot of effort into, but it’s easy to stress out over meaningless things unintentionally. Reminding yourself that most truly good things are easy to get also helps encourage you to find peace with what you do have even if it’s less than what you’re striving for.

Truly Bad Things Don’t Last

This too shall pass.

In general, seriously terrible things tend to be acute whereas the chronic bad is often milder by comparison. This, Epicurus suggested, meant that you shouldn’t fear terrible things happening because they’ll always pass. On the inverse, things that don’t show signs of passing for a long time are likely things which you can find the strength to bear.

Don’t misunderstand this to think Epicurus was suggesting everything gets better in what would likely be the modern sense of the idea. Sometimes the end to that terrible suffering is death. Again, with no afterlife though there’s no need to worry about additional suffering after death – just impartial non-existence. That’s probably not the most comforting thing to everyone, but personally whenever something bad happens it’s always a comfort to me knowing that it won’t last. Recognizing that in a (relatively) short span of time you and everything and everyone you’ve known will be gone makes it easy to let go, and once you let go and stop being bothered by things they tend to get easier to handle.

These four principles probably aren’t going to solve every philosophical or existential problem you’re going to struggle with in your lifetime. Hell, it might not solve any of them, but I know I’ve found a lot of good in them when applied to my attitudes toward life in general. I encourage you to take whatever’s useful and don’t worry about the rest.

Do you have anything to add? Any other way you interpret anything in the tetrapharmakos here? Share with us in the comments! I’d love to hear them.

Photo Credit: A.H.M.

Thoughts on Fat Pride from a Formerly Fat Fit Guy

Fat Boy by James Marvin Phelps

Fat Squirrel cares little about your opinion of him.

I grew up as a fat kid.

Through the majority of my childhood I ranged from what might be considered chubby all the way up to full-blown obese in my teen years. At one point I was even inching up on the 300 pound mark. While the argument could be made that as a male my experience was less severe than what a female would have been subjected to I can still say I know what it’s like physically, psychologically, and socially to be a fat person.

My experiences during that time, and the time since then in which I’ve become more fit and healthy than I’ve been my entire life, are why all the attention I’ve seen lately being given to fat pride bother me. As someone who’s been in both worlds, I thought it would be helpful to express my thoughts on the subject.

Fat Shaming, Female Body Image and a Disclaimer

Rustled Jimmies Everywhere

I am fully aware that this is going to rustle some jimmies.

I want to make it very clear from the outset that I’m not advocating fat shaming here. I don’t think that the portion of the ‘fat acceptance movement’, as some people in that camp like to be called, that is against fat shaming, negative body image, or self-loathing is a bad thing. I 100% support that part of it.

I also want to recognize for a second time that, in general, this usually gets painted as a feminist or at least feminine-centric issue. Being a male, that means that my commentary is going to be coming at least a little bit as an outsider looking in. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m speaking authoritatively on the female experience because I can’t. Unfortunately, because of how generally fucked up the U.S. sociocultural environment is when it comes to female body issues I can’t get away from addressing these things in relation to this topic.

Lastly, I want to note these are just my thoughts on the subject as someone who spent most of his life in the obese category – you can think whatever you want about it. If I severely rustle your jimmies you’re welcome to leave a comment to let me know what you think.

What’s the Fat Acceptance Movement?

Before I give my understanding of all this fat acceptance stuff I want to give you a few links in the interest of fairness / just in case I’m totally misunderstanding something. I have better things to do than beat up on a straw man. So here, here, here, and here are four quick examples I found.

To my understanding the general idea is to be proud of being fat, to embrace it in order to make it a positive thing overall. It’s no secret that in the U.S. the media deifies a particular body image for both men and women that is, for the average person, at best unrealistic. This is exacerbated by the prevalence of digital editing and overall Photoshoppery that these ads are subjected to after everything else.

They rail against the psychological and physical harm this causes and argue that as a society we shouldn’t consider there to be anything wrong with being fat. To subvert the cultural standard that being fat is negative they suggest embracing it and taking it as a personal point of pride.

Hanging on to this though, as can be seen in a couple of the links above, is a related idea that trying to lose weight is either harmful, misguided, entirely impossible, or all of three combined.

The Parts of Fat Pride That I Like

The foundational message is one I can both relate to strongly and agree with – cultural ideals when it comes to body type are unnecessarily unrealistic and seriously fucked up.

If someone is overweight they should never be made to feel lesser for it. Asking people to measure up to images that have been heavily doctored and then loading them with oppressive amounts of guilt and shame when they inevitably fall well short of that is blatantly wrong.

Additionally a lot of our cultural ideas about why people become fat (they lack willpower, they’re lazy, no self-control, etc.) are flat out wrong.

Weight change and fitness are not a willpower issue. Very few people are overweight because they choose to be, or because of some fault of their own. Now, I don’t hold them entirely inculpable either, I think things like food addiction are too often blown out of proportion and used as a scapegoat. The reality falls somewhere in the middle, they’re not 100% at fault for being fat but they’re not 0% responsible for their condition either. (Sorry, if you want things with clear cut answers the fields you’re looking for are mathematics or physics, not biology.)

For all those reasons I find fat shaming reprehensible. It’s clear cut abuse and bullying. From that standpoint, I wholeheartedly support anyone who wants to stand up and say, “Haters gonna hate. Fuck you all. I like myself the way I am.”

That being said…

The Parts of Fat Pride I Despise

Tagging along with all the things I can support are some things that I’m vehemently opposed to. The primary one being an insistence that no one can lose weight or become fit long term and therefore no one should try.

Within several of the links I shared above as examples and in others I found while digging around I found it asserted repeatedly that not only is there no way for people to lose weight long term, but that it’s overall more unhealthy to try to lose weight than it is to remain overweight or obese.

As someone who has lost weight and become fit and healthy and stayed that way long term, as someone whose job it is to help other people do the same, it bothers me to hear people claim it’s not possible and work to deter people from trying.

Many of the sites making these claims cite the abstracts of flawed studies and meta-analyses to support their claims making them appear more credible to people who won’t bother to pay to read the study or who aren’t knowledgeable enough to note the flaws in the methodology. This can lead people who might have been considering making a positive change in their lives and starting the process to lose weight and get fit to instead decide not to bother.

I find this kind of active discouraging of people to improve their lives just because you don’t think it’ll work reprehensible.

My Overall Thoughts

Personally, I equate being overweight or obese with smoking cigarettes.

Culturally, as of late anyway, smoking is probably more publicly discouraged than being overweight, but I still draw a lot of parallels between the two. Most people recognize that both smoking and being overweight are generally detrimental to your health. Regardless, people are still overweight and people still smoke.

This is primarily because neither is always a ‘choice’ in the purest sense. Environmental, familial, cultural, and economic factors can predispose individuals toward smoking and/or obesity. Once you’re on the path to either, it’s extremely hard to get off of it. You can’t tell someone who is addicted to cigarettes to just ‘quit smoking’ and expect them to do it. It’s not strictly a willpower issue. In the same way you can’t just tell someone who’s overweight to ‘eat less and move more’ and expect them to get in shape.

I have family members who smoke. I care about them, so I’m always there to help and encourage them to quit. That doesn’t mean I badger them, ridicule them, or generally behave like an ass toward them if they don’t want to quit. It is, ultimately, their choice (issues of addiction and agency come into play, but we won’t go into that right now) whether they want to quit or not.

I have family who are overweight and I treat them the same way. If they want to make a change and lose weight I’m there for them. If they don’t, I’m not going to push it or shame them as a result.

I fully support any efforts to empower people to stand up to societal norms that are often at best arbitrary and at worst directly harmful. Hell, the general ethos of this site is one of embracing non-conformity. But we should also encourage people to take their health into their own hands rather than telling them that any attempts to change themselves would be futile.

Where do you stand on this? Leave a comment and let us know.

Photo Credit: James Marvin Phelps

Willpower, Discipline, and Obedience: How to Do What You Set Out to Do

Yeva and a Sausage 2 by GG Vogman

Does willpower keep the dog from eating the sausage, or obedience?

I’ve written a lot about willpower and discipline in the past because it’s a subject that fascinates me. Consider this, with the Internet it’s possible to find step-by-step instructions on how to do nearly anything. Practically anything you could ever want to do is right there, so why don’t people do it? If you’ve always wanted to speak Portuguese or play the guitar, why can’t you yet? Why aren’t you working toward that?

It’s because you don’t put in the time? And why don’t most people put in the time? Because they lack the discipline.

All the other pieces are in place for you to do whatever it is you’ve always wanted to do – the last thing is for you to have the control over yourself necessary to follow through with it.

By understanding willpower and obedience, you can do just that.

A Different Way to Look at Willpower

Willpower can be something of a tricky subject depending on how you approach it.

On one hand it’s generally accepted that it’s a finite resource, if you try to exert too much of it you eventually run out and the best way to get more is to exercise it with gradually stronger challenges like a muscle.

On another hand some research would suggest that effect is largely a result of how we perceive things. That would mean the best way to get more willpower is to firmly believe you’ve got more.

What both of these ideas have in common is that they view willpower as the ability to do something in the moment contrary to your innate desires. You want to eat that entire pint of ice cream, but you know it’ll put you over your calorie target for the day so you exert your willpower to not eat it. You want to screw around on Facebook or Reddit instead of getting to work, so you exert your willpower to force yourself to be productive, etc.

This is the common perception of what willpower means, if someone gives in to their momentary desires they’d say they lack the will to resist the temptation.

I think there’s a better way to look at it though. Rather than seeing that as a lack of will, it’s more a lack of obedience.

Willful or Obedient?

As an easy example of what I mean, I’ll use someone who smokes. Let’s call him John.

John, as noted, smokes cigarettes. John would also like to quit. He tells himself he has made the decision to quit, but then a few days later lights up a cigarette and starts smoking. If asked why he’s smoking even though he said he quit, John would attribute this akratic behavior to him not having the will to resist the urge to smoke.

Is that really the case though?

I would argue that it’s John’s will that causes him to smoke at that moment. In this sense your will is that which manifests your desires in the moment. John desired a cigarette and was willful enough to bring that desire to fruition.

So if will is the force that manifests your current desires, why does John’s will cause him to smoke? Isn’t it his desire to quit smoking?

No, actually. At least not in the moment, it’s the desire of his past self to quit smoking. Even then, technically past John didn’t even make a decision to quit smoking, but rather just had an idea that he’d like to quit. What’s the difference?

A decision is defined by action, whereas an idea doesn’t require any. Past John declared that he was going to quit smoking, but didn’t actually take any action at the time. That means he just had an idea about quitting smoking, he left the decision – the action to be taken – up to future John.

Eventually we arrive at John right now who must make a decision, does he bow to the will of past John and refuse to smoke, or does he follow his own will and have a cigarette?

Imagine for a second that rather than John deciding he shouldn’t smoke anymore someone else, his wife for instance, told him to quit. Later that day John finds that he wants to have a cigarette, clearly in this scenario if he has one he’s expressing his own will and if he doesn’t he’s being obedient to the will of his wife.

What then is the difference between that and the struggle between past John and current John?

The issue isn’t that he lacks the will to overcome his desires, it’s that he lacks the discipline to remain obedient to the will of his past self. It’s much harder to see this in decisions we make ourselves, because in general we consider our past selves and our current selves to be a single entity.

In the end, there is no appreciable difference between past John telling current John not so smoke and John’s wife telling John not to smoke. In either case John must either obey and not smoke, or exercise his own will and have a cigarette.

Becoming Disciplined

So if this is the case, shouldn’t we be able to find a model somewhere of people who are more able than most to complete a plan they made in the past irrespective of any desires they have in the present?

As it turns out, we do have an excellent model of this – the military.

People who have gone through military training are often held up as an example of people who have a great deal of self-control, discipline and, in the traditional sense, willpower. They’re considered more able than the common person to accomplish something the set out to do.

However, the military clearly doesn’t operate by encouraging its members to be willful. On the contrary it teaches you to obey the commands given to you nearly without thought. One of the apparent purposes of basic training is to crush recruits and beat them down physically and psychologically until their will is broken. Drill sergeants do not exist to encourage recruits to be willful.

Once your will has been broken down and your instinct is to obey the orders of others, it becomes easy to obey the orders of your past self.

That being the case, if we want to do what we set out to do in the past (get fit, learn a language, finish a project, etc.) than we need to develop military style discipline. The most obvious answer for how to accomplish that – aside from joining the military – is to mimic their methods for instilling discipline in recruits.

The easiest way to start is to choose one small thing to do everyday that you know, in the moment when it comes time to do it, you aren’t going to want to do.

At first this should be something small and insignificant, my personal favorite choice is the freezing cold shower.

Commit right now to taking a freezing cold shower tomorrow morning. Do you know what’s going to happen? Tomorrow you’re going to stand in front of the shower, turn it as cold as it can get, and then you’re probably going to panic.

You know it’s going to be cold. You know it’s going to be awful. You’re going to want to back out, to do it another day, you’re going to tell yourself it’s a stupid idea. At this point you’re either going to be willful and crank the heat back up, or you’re going to do what you said you would and get in that cold shower.

The key here is to obey without giving yourself the chance not to. To condition yourself to ignore that urge to disobey and just jump in the shower. The first day is going to be the worst. After that though, it’ll get easier. Before long there won’t be any struggle at all anymore.

By continually doing exercises like these, starting small and then working on to bigger things, you can eventually overcome your will and develop the discipline to obey your past decisions no matter how badly you want to violate them in the moment.

Once you can do that, you can pretty much accomplish anything you want.

What do you think? Is willpower more about having the strength to ignore your desires, or having the discipline to obey the desires of your past self? Is there a real difference between the two? Let us know in the comments.

Photo Credit: GGVogman

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