Why Behavioral Change is Hard and What You Can Do About It

Adventure Time - "Dude, sucking at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something." by Jake the Dog.

Want to make a big change in your life? Maybe you want to get fit or commit to learning a language or instrument, or even to start meditating.

At some time or another, everyone sets goals they hope to attain someday that will require significant changes to their lifestyles. Unfortunately though, most will fail to achieve those goals.

Every new year, gyms are crowded with well-intentioned “resolutioners” who want to become healthy, perhaps lose some pounds, and be a better version of themselves in the new year. By February the number of those who stick around will be halved, then by March that number halved again. Only a very small percent of those who started will stick around.

Motivated by Negative Emotions

A lot of the people at the gym are motivated by the things that make them upset or by a negative conscious. They’re upset about being overweight, feeling guilty for not exercising as often as they should.

The same goes for many other pursuits, even learning instruments – they focus too much on what they can’t do, or the guilty feelings for missed practice sessions.

Studies have shown that those seeking to make long-lasting changes are most successful when they are self-motivated and founded in positive thinking.

So don’t focus on the negatives – focus on the good that will come from that change, on how good it feels to know you’ve hit your targets along your way to that goal. Focus on the wins you have had – it’s better to exercise once a week for 15 minutes, than not at all.

Your inner dialog effects your success rate, your confidence and your moods. The more you can make it a positive voice instead of a negative one, the happier and more successful you’ll be.

Visualizations and personal mission statements have been shown to help people succeed in their goals and in changing the tone of their inner voice.

Practice visualizing succeeding in your goals and make time at the beginning of your day to recite your personal mission statement, like “today will be a productive day – I’ll practice Spanish and go to the gym.” Or “I’m hardworking and make awesome videos – I dedicate myself to making the best videos available.”

“The most successful people recognize, that in life they create their own love, the manufacture their own meaning, hey generate their own motivation.”
– Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Take on More than You Can Handle

Your willpower is finite and so is your time. Taking on too many goals at once will not only drain your willpower and motivation, but will lower your focus and ability to devote time to meet those goals.

Once one thing fails, it’s easy to slip into a negative mind-set and let it all fall apart.

People who seem to be able to “do it all” and “magically have time for everything” didn’t start out that way – they built it up slowly.

To ensure your goals will be successful, start with just one or two and add to it as you feel able to. Once meeting your first couple goals is so easy and habitual that you do it without even thinking, then you can add more.

Stay in Your Comfort Zone

A lot of changes will require that you do something uncomfortable. They will make you do things you don’t normally do, in the name of making you into a better person.

Practicing a language requires you get out of your comfort zone – you’ll eventually need to go out and practice speaking with other people.

Eating healthy foods, hitting calorie and macro targets, exercising all require that you get out of your comfort zone. It’s just easier to not do those things, and eating ‘bad foods’ make you feel really good right now.

An simple way to address the comfort zone issue is to break it up into small, swallow-able chunks and to congratulate yourself on the successes you do make.

Practice speaking in your target language for just a few minutes, and build it up from there. Same goes for exercising – don’t try to go all out and lift or run for an hour. Eating healthy food all day isn’t easy for everyone, so start with just one meal.

Once those small commitments aren’t painful anymore, then you can increase the time or difficulty.

“We avoid risks in life, so we can make it safely to death.”
-Philosoraptor

Make Things as Hard as Possible

Sure, you can keep track of how much you’ve spent on ‘entertainment’ in your head. And you can remember to practice playing your ukulele for fifteen minutes a day if it’s hidden in it’s case and tucked in the closet, right?

Right?

Nope.

We aren’t perfect, so the more we can make change easier to do than to not do, the better. Rather than fully putting away your instrument after practice, keep it somewhere in the open where it is easy to see and think “Yeah, I’ll just grab it and practice for a few minutes.” The hassle of taking something out of it’s case is small, but enough to discourage someone from doing it.

If keeping to a budget is difficult, forcing yourself to only spend cash on your entertainment will eliminate the need for (often wrong) mental math and keeps you on track to that big goal.

If you want to exercise early in the morning, keep your exercise clothes out ahead of time – set them out before going to bed so that it’s in your way and easier than not to put them on and go work out. Put your meditation and language-learning apps on the front screen of your phone so you’ll have that many fewer steps to comply.

Vague, Un-actionable Goals

We’ve talked a lot about how having vague goals practically ensures failure. When you have a big goal like “lose weight,” “learn guitar” or “become financially independent” it’s incredibly easy to become overwhelmed by the enormity of the task and paralyzed by not knowing what to do.

Take the time to make your goal specific and then explicitly list out the steps required to achieve that goal – this will go a long way to ensure your success. Once you’ve completed the goal and actions-to-goal sheet, put it somewhere easy to see and take a look at it from time to time to remind yourself that your goal is doable, and you know exactly how to do it.

Breaking down big goals into smaller, mini goals will help not to feel overwhelmed and will give you clarity. You know what you need to do and you know you can do it. The only thing is to actually do it.

Don’t Build New Habits

One of the easiest ways to achieve a goal is to incorporate it into who you are, to make it a part of your habits and being. Unfortunately, many people don’t take the time to do this. We want to skip the hard work of change and just reap the benefits – but it doesn’t work like that.

If your goal is to workout three days a week for an hour per session when you haven’t set foot in a gym for the past year, starting there is likely to fail. Going to the gym three days a week is something you aren’t used to doing and the time commitment will wear you out.

If you want to make meditation, language practice or instrument practice into a daily activity, the same idea applies – jumping into a huge time commitment will wear down your willpower.

Instead of taking on a big commitment that is a huge change, start with a small change. Meditate or practice for just five minutes per day. At the beginning, five minutes may seem ridiculously easy, but the point is to make the act of practice a habit. Once that is down, you can slowly increase the time.

Don’t forget to track your progress toward those habits, too. Using the Seinfeld chain method, keep a piece of paper on a wall and mark it for each day you successfully complete the goal task. Having a visual reminder of your successes will keep you positive, motivated, and ingrain this habit.

Focus on the act of complying, not with the results. Making the task become a habit and a part of your lifestyle will ensure not only success, but sustainable success. Results will follow.

Don’t Identify Triggers

Have you ever had a day when something is just off and when one thing is off it spirals downward until everything has gone wrong and you just give up?

Sometimes it’s easy to point to what went wrong – but often it’s not so easy. Say you went over on your calories at lunch and beat yourself up over it, then by dinner time thought, “ugh, I screwed up. Forget it, let’s eat pizza for dinner.” Maybe you did this consciously, maybe unconsciously.

Keeping a journal during your change and having regular check-ins once or multiple times per week will help you to identify triggers that caused you to de-rail your progress. Once you can identify those triggers, then you can work on creating a plan to deal with them. If you went over your calories at lunch – remember that it’s not a big deal, keep your dinner to what you planned. Remember that there will be bumps along the way.

Change is a Process

Changing your habits and behaviors is hard work. Humans are complex and even under ideal circumstances, they can fail.

You don’t exercise once and suddenly become a gym-rat or play guitar once and suddenly become a riff-master. It takes patience and persistence. Learn to love the process and the results will come.

The key to successful change is simple though: don’t give up. The path to successful change is never straight and often requires starting over and over. But that’s okay – failures are a way to start again with more knowledge than before (what worked? What didn’t?) Take a break if you need to, but then get back to it.

It requires an immense amount of courage to get out of your comfort zone and to become more than average. If you have any major changes you want to make in your life it’s important to remember exactly what you’re doing - you’re trying to become more than average. To become awesome – or epic.

If it were easy, everyone would be their ideal selves.

“The higher the mountain, the more treacherous the path.”
– Frank Underwood

How Mindful Meditation is a Workout for Your Brain

Meditation

You don’t need to be a monk to meditate, nor do you need a huge time commitment.

For the longest time the idea of meditation always conjured up images monks sitting cross-legged on mountaintops, cliffs, under waterfalls or some similar wilderness space all while being completely silent for hours on end. I thought it was a spiritual thing and the benefits were all just myths or pseudoscience.
However a growing body of studies caused me to take a second look at it and since experimenting with it personally, I highly recommend everyone give it a try.

What Is Meditation

There’s several different ways to meditate, however most of the scientific research focuses on mindful meditation, or Zazen (literally: seated meditation.) As such, that’s what we’re going to focus on in this article.

In mindful meditation, you focus on one specific thing – it could be a sensation or your breathing. The point is to focus on this one thing and when you catch your mind wandering, you gently bring it back to that focal point.

We train our bodies in a gym – doing reps to increase our strength and cardio to improve heart health. Meditation is like going to the gym, but for your brain. Unlike a gym, it’s cheaper and doesn’t require any fancy clothes and doesn’t have any potential for worrying about how you look in front of others.

Zazen is not so much about spirituality as much as it is about training your concentration and attention – the ability to be present, quiet your mind and focus on one thing.

Our brains have to process a lot of information – this information is like confetti being released from a ceiling and you are your brain trying to grasp on to each of them. Our attention is everywhere and it decreases our focus, productivity and increases our stress levels. With meditation, we learn to slow down and control that flow of information.

Meditation Works by Literally Changing Your Brain

Technology has enabled scientists to get a better understanding of what happens in our brains when we meditate and how it affects our brains. Thus far have been absolutely fascinating.

Using fMRI scans one of the biggest things scientists have learned is that it causes a decrease in beta waves, meaning our brains stop or slow down processing information.

In addition to controlling the flow of information, it also increases gray matter which has a huge impact on our lives, as I’ll describe below.

What Does This Mean For You?

Increased Focus

During mindful meditation, we are practicing holding on to a singular focus and bringing it back when our mind drifts – this practice enables us to be better at focusing even when we are not meditating.

Decreased Anxiety

This was a huge one for me, as I am prone to trouble with anxiety. Consistent meditation loosens the connections of particular neural pathways in the prefrontal cortex – commonly called the “me center.” This part of the brain processes information relating to ourselves and our experiences.

Typically, the neural pathways from bodily sensation and fear centers to the Me Center are strong – when you experience a negative or upsetting situation a reaction is triggered in your Me Center that makes you feel scared or under attack.

Meditation loosens these connections, meaning our reactions are more toned down and under control. Something
that would have previously lit up the Me Center would barely register.

As this connection is weakened, the connection in our Assessment Center is simultaneously strengthened. So, when we encounter a scary situation, rather than being gripped by fear and anxiety we are able to calmly and rationally assess the situation.

Decreased Stress

Meditation also helps reduce stress – part to lowering anxiety, but also in part by helping us perform while under pressure.

Increased Memory

One of the more fascinating discoveries is that meditation can help improve memory recall. Multiple studies have found that those who meditated were able to focus and remember facts better than those who did not.

Increased Gray Matter

Meditation has also been linked to increased gray matter in the hippocampus and frontal areas of the brain. More gray matter can lead to more positive emotions, longer lasting emotional stability, less stress, and heightened focus. Even ore, it’s linked to diminished age-related effects on gray matter and reduces the decline of our cognitive functioning. How cool is that?

Not enough for you? How about increased creativity, lowered blood pressure, reduced pain, increased compassion, confidence, well-being and overall quality of life. If you suffer from anxiety or depression meditation is one of the most powerful things you can do to help.

Meditation is not a cure-all for every ailment, however it is incredibly beneficial. So why not give it a shot?

How to Meditate

In order to glean the highest benefits of meditation, you need to integrate it into your lifestyle. You’ll benefit from just two minutes a day, or if you are ready to jump into it, meditate for between 10 to 30 minutes.
You can go it by yourself, or you can use an app to help. I’ll explain both ways for you here:

On your own

  • Find a comfortable, quiet place and sit. You can sit on the floor or in a chair – whichever doesn’t matter. As long as your back is straight, you are comfortable and there will be no or limited distractions.
  • Rest your hands on your thighs or rest them together in your lap.
  • Close your eyes, and take a few slow, deep breaths. Notice any sensations you feel – the sensation of your back against the chair, your feet on the floor, the weight of your body on the cushion. Notice your muscles in your face, shoulders, stomach, and legs. Don’t try to change anything, just notice it.
  • Take another deep breath and relax your facial muscles. With another breath, relax your shoulders. Go on from head to toes.
  • Just breathe. Focus on your breaths, flowing in and out. The only thing going on in your mind should be “breathe in, Breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.” Count your breaths up to ten, and then restart.
  • It wont take long for your mind to drift, to start thinking about the things you have to do today or anything that troubles you or excites you. This is natural. Acknowledge it, don’t chastise yourself over it and bring your focus back to your breath. Pick up where you left off.
  • At the end of your meditation (you can set up a timer) take a final breath, and bring your attention back to the room. Notice how you feel now. Slowly open your eyes.

As you progress, this process will become a lot easier. After a couple of weeks meditation you’ll begin to reap the benefits – a sense of calm and control, increased focus and less stress, among the many others.

When you meditate is up to you, however I highly suggest making it a part of your morning routine. I like to call it my start-up process. I have found that doing it first thing assists in feeling calm and focused throughout the day. However, you can also meditate before bed or midday – and you should if you are feeling particularly stressed. Just take a ten minute break to meditate.

Meditation with Apps

Calm

Calm is my favorite app for meditating. With it you have two options: guided meditation or a timer and doing it yourself. Two of the sets of guided meditation are free, while the rest are accessible for between $0.83-$1.66 per month.

The major benefits to Calm for me are the background white-noise options – you can listen to babbling brooks, a sunny meadow, or rain on leaves. I’ve found personally that having some form of white-noise while I meditate helps me keep that singular focus.

Calm App

Calm’s main screen.

Calm App

Calm’s Guided Meditations.

Additionally, you can choose the noise to signal the end of your session from a pre-set selection. I like them because most of them are non-jarring noises like a singing bowl or harp. Or, you can have no noise set.

Furthermore, Calm logs your sessions and helps keep you motivated.

Breathe

Breathe is a little bit different from Calm in that before you get to the meditation it forces you to take note of your current state by asking you some questions such as how you are feeling mentally and physically, and what words you’d use to describe them. From this, it offers up suggestions for guided meditations or you can go it yourself with just a timer.

Additionally, it has options to help teach you how to meditate, a list of guided meditations if you’d like to skip straight to one, and to see your progress.

Breathe App.

Breathe’s Main Screen.

Breathe App.

Breathe also teaches how meditation works.

Honorable mention: Headspace.

Headspace is also a cute little app that also teaches you about meditation and how to meditate. I like the app, however I feel that its use is stunted – your only option is to use the first 10 guided meditation sessions before you have to pay for more. There’s no option for “just meditate _ minutes.” However, if you like it the full version is not expensive at all.

Challenge

So here we challenge you to try meditation for just one month. Using the setup below, make this a part of your lifestyle by implementing it small chunk by small chunk:

  • Week 1: Meditate just one minute every day.
    Commit to just sitting down and taking one minute out of your day to meditate. Just one minute. You can do that, right?
  • Week 2: Meditate 5 minutes every day.
    Now that you made it through a week of one minute, time to increase the work. Try for just five minutes each day.
  • Week 3: Meditate 10 minutes every day.
    Again, if you made it five, you can do ten.
  • Week 4: Meditate 15 minutes every day.

Note and observe any differences you felt before and after meditation.

If you take up the challenge, come back and tell us how you felt in the comments below! If you are a seasoned veteran, we invite you to share your thoughts and tips as well.

Photo Credit: Sebastien Wiertz

Dominate Your Year with the Epic Annual Review Guide

Epic Annual Review Guide Cover

Cover of The Epic Annual Review Guide

New Years is coming up quickly and it’s that time of the year again that people begin making resolutions and goals to make themselves and their lives better. While I support people making goals and changes for the better, more often than not their efforts fail.

It’s common for folks to say “This year I’m going to get fit!” or some similar type of goal. On January 1st they get a gym membership and are excellent at keeping to their schedule for the first couple weeks, possibly even a month or two, but by March most of them have lost sight of their goals and are paying the gym for a membership they don’t use.

I used to be one of those people. There’s no shame in it.

But I wanted to be better – I was sick of the failures and tired of restarting the same goal over and over. After a lot of research and stumbling upon some awesome products, we’ve developed our own system for setting and attaining goals. One based on our research that looks at the big picture and breaks it down into a system to dominate life and goals.

The Annual Review: Our Goals, Productivity, and Habits System

What is an annual review? It’s a process of looking over the previous year and examining successes and failures, setting new big goals, and then planning the upcoming year taking into account the lessons learned. However, we like to take it one step further.

It’s not a secret that we are productivity junkies – we have a lot that we want to do and learn, so it makes sense that we would invest time figuring out how to most efficiently succeed in attaining those goals. Our guide includes not only the process of learning from your previous year and planning out the next, it also includes productivity and habit systems to help ensure those goals get achieved.

Adam likes to do his yearly review around his birthday in August, as that is a more “true” year in his opinion. I don’t really have a preference, it’s just a happy accident that my birthday falls near the end of the year, so I usually spend the first week of December looking over how my last year has gone and planning the next.

When you choose to do your annual review doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you have a clear, organized game plan to conquer your goals and live an epic life.

So we thought it might be helpful to others to share our process. It’s based upon, and inspired by, Chris Guillebeau’s Annual Review – but somewhat more complex. In addition to the guide we’ve included a bunch of worksheets to help you organize your thoughts, set better goals and dominate them.

Conquer Life with The Epic Annual Review Guide

For me life is continuously being hungry. The meaning of life is not simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer.
– Arnold Schwarzenegger

We all have goals and projects we want to complete. Things we want to do, things we want to make, things we want to become. The annual review takes a systematic approach to setting clear, measurable goals and then dominating them. Why not dominate life?

Achieving big goals and dreams can seem like a daunting task – but that is exactly what makes them so awesome, right?

The key to being successful in completing big goals or projects is breaking it down into smaller, easy to achieve steps and then following up with daily action toward those steps.

Everything needed for success is included in the annual review. Our system for conducting an annual review takes a look at life, who you are, where you’ve been, and where you want to go. Then it breaks down those goals into small, easy to swallow chunks. Finally, using a variety of methods and habit-building techniques, we ensure that progress is made daily toward those goals.

When you complete a big project it’s important to look back at the process as a whole. What worked? What didn’t? The same is true for when you fail. When you take the time to examine how things went and to point out what worked and what didn’t, you’ll have an advantage the next time you take on a project and doing an even better job.

So why not apply this to life? This is exactly what we do in the first part of the review. Then we look at what we want to achieve and create systems using tactics we know work, like building habits, along with applied lessons learned from previous successes and failures.

Dominate Life with the Free Guide

Ready to be epic conquer your goals? We’re giving this away for free, forever. You can get the guidebook, plus additional worksheets to help you work through your goals and implement systems for success below.

Don’t be good – be great.

Get the PDF – if you lovely folks want we’ll turn it into a Kindle or iBooks file too. Along with the files, get access to the worksheets here.

If you run your own annual review, let us know what you think – especially after your year has been completed. Did you do more? Did you achieve your goals? What worked? What didn’t? Would you do it again? Leave a comment letting us know!

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