Training for What You Want
By Joel F. Wade - November 07, 2012

Last week I asked you to define three things: Something you want to stop doing, something you want to start doing – or do more of and a longer-term goal that you want to reach. Today I want to give you the beginning of a training regimen that will strengthen your ability to achieve those three things (also largely courtesy of Kelly McGonigal from her book, The Willpower Instinct).

Whenever you strengthen your capacity for willpower in a specific way you strengthen your capacity for willpower in general. Since there are three different applications of willpower, reflected in three different parts of your brain, let's practice strengthening each of these.

In order to strengthen your capacity to stop yourself from doing what you don't want, practice stopping a few simple behaviors – they may be related to what you decided to stop from last week's column but they don't need to be. The key here is to keep these simple, and relatively easy to do.

Here are some examples of things you could practice:

  • Don't swear, say "yes" instead of "yeah" or find some other bad habit of speech that you can stop.
  • Use your non-dominant hand for a daily task like eating or opening doors.
  • Put a jar of candy where you will pass it regularly and commit to not eating any.
  • Don't eat sweets for a snack; instead, eat some nuts.
  • Determine a maximum amount of TV time you will watch on a given day and stick to it.

These are suggestions. Feel free to come up with your own but keep it simple and easy to practice daily.

In order to train yourself to do new, good habits, practice doing some positive behaviors. Again, these may be related to what you decided to strengthen or not. What's important is that you train yourself to do new things on purpose.

Here are some examples:

  • Practice meditating for five minutes each day.
  • Practice slowing your breathing to between four and six breaths per minute for a few minutes each day.
  • Find one thing in your house each day that needs to be thrown out or given away.
  • Do five minutes each day of exercise that you would not have done before.
  • Read a chapter or a few pages more of a good book than you otherwise would have.

In order to train the part of your will that allows you to plan and seek long-term goals, practice keeping track of a behavior that you currently do:

  • Weigh yourself daily.
  • Keep track of what you spend each day.
  • Track how much time you spend on non-productive Internet activity or watching TV each day.
  • Get a pocket pedometer and keep track of how many steps you walk each day.
  • Keep a log of what you eat each day (include those little snacks that seem like nothing).

Now, let's look at that goal of yours. In addition to practicing keeping track of behavior, in order to elicit the motivation to stick with your plan and your training – especially when you feel weak – and to see yourself through to success, think specifically about three things:

  1. How will you benefit from succeeding in reaching this goal?
  2. Who else will benefit if you succeed in reaching this goal?
  3. Imagine that working toward this goal will get easier for you over time if you are willing to do what is difficult now.

There's more that you can do, of course, but this is quite a good several weeks' work. The main principle to understand is that willpower is something that you grow and build. Your willpower gets stronger with use and atrophies with disuse.

Your brain in many ways holds the template for your habits. There is nothing magical about this; we all develop habits over time. Some of them were formed from early childhood; others we learn and practice as adults. The habits you feel you have to work against in order to live the life you want are not your enemy, not some evil curse or mysterious instinct you are destined to suffer with forever; they are patterns you have laid down in your own brain over time.

Your habits are just the things you have practiced over and over and over again. You can change them by first choosing one at a time to focus on – it's not possible to change everything all at once – and then by noticing the habit when you do it, being aware of your reactions and behaviors, accepting that this is your habit right now and then practicing a new habit that will replace it.

This takes time, energy, patience, compassion and willpower. It also takes a decision to do it and a commitment to keep at it. It can also help to have a friend or a coach who will hold you to it, remind you of what you're aiming for and keep you on track – that's, of course, what I do for my clients but there are other ways of getting this kind of support.

My suggestions above are designed to help you to train for the changes you want to make in your life. Just as an athlete does conditioning exercises and drills in order to prepare for the actual competition, these exercises above will get you in shape for stopping your bad behaviors, doing more of your good behaviors and focusing, measuring and successfully reaching your long-term goals.

Practice these every day for a few weeks and I think you'll find that the other activities you do that require willpower will begin to come more naturally to you.

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