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This morning my alarm went off as scheduled. I squinted my eyes part-way open and took in the dark room and the cold rain pattering against the window. It was a dreary day, but it was warm and cozy under the covers. As I reached out my finger to turn off the alarm, a faint thought tickled in the back of my mind: “You ought to get up and write this morning.” Then immediately a louder thought followed it: “But it would be so nice to stay warm and comfortable under the covers. Just a little longer. No rush.” An hour later I finally climbed out of bed and began to work on the writing assignment I had scheduled . . . this blog post on willpower!
Yeah, the irony is not lost on me.
We’ve talked in previous posts about helping our children understand how the will works and working with them to strengthen their wills so they can choose to do what’s right even when they don’t feel like it.
Today let’s talk about ourselves. Our wills. My will. Obviously, it needs some work. My guess is, so does yours.
And Charlotte Mason gave us a great incentive to persist in that work when she made this observation:
“The will of the child is . . . weaker in the children of the weak, stronger in the children of the strong.”(Home Education, p. 103)
In other words, parents with strong willpower tend to raise children with strong willpower; whereas, parents with weak willpower tend to raise children with weak willpower. Interestingly, that observation has been confirmed by recent scientific research.
If you think about it, parents with the capability to do what they know is right even when it’s hard are going to expect their children to grow in that ability as well. They will model it as an integral part of daily life. And because those parents are aware of the vital role that willpower plays in their success in life, they will be tuned in to it and on the lookout for opportunities to deal with it in their children, rather than ignoring the will or simply hoping the child’s willpower somehow improves on its own.
So what we want to talk about in this post is How. How do we as adults strengthen our own willpower?
You remember that Will is the gatekeeper. He stands at the gate of our minds and decides which ideas are allowed in to influence behavior and which ideas are rejected.
There are two ways to strengthen Will so he can make good choices every time: feed him and give him exercise. Those are the same two ways that we talked about in order to help our children strengthen their wills.
We need to make sure we are feeding ourselves the ideas that will most help us as we live each day. Stop and consider what ideas you regularly take in through books, podcasts, blogs, shows. Determine whether those ideas are stimulating you to make good choices with your time and energy, to focus on the things that really matter, to discern between good and better or between harmful and beneficial.
Will depends on those ideas when he makes his choices. So take a good look at what you are feeding him.
Second, exercise your will. And this is where I want to spend most of our time today. The way for Will to grow strong in making good choices is to practice making good choices. And that seems to be where many of us struggle—in the day-to-day exercising of Will. So let’s get really practical.
Let’s look at eight tips that can help you practice good choices and increase your willpower.
1. Be aware of what tires your will.
Recent research has revealed what drains Will of his strength as he stands at the gate, trying to make good decisions.
First, the effort required to make the decision. If it’s a huge decision with lots of factors involved and potentially heavy consequences at stake, Will is going to tire easily.
Second, Will’s strength level can depend on how difficult he perceives the action to be. Try an experiment with me for a moment. Are you ready? OK. Make a conscious decision to do a long blink: close your eyes and count to three before you open them again.
How hard was that to do? Chances are you didn’t have a huge struggle deciding whether you were going to do that long blink or not, because I didn’t ask you to do a difficult thing. I didn’t ask you to stand on your head or run a marathon. The more difficult Will perceives the action to be, the weaker he feels. Now this is an important point, and we’ll come back to it again later.
Third, Will finds it hard to make a good choice if he thinks there is a negative effect associated with that choice. That’s why it can be hard for a person to admit when she did something wrong. Saying the words is not physically difficult, but the person fears the negative effects that may come as a result of saying those words. So Will weakens and hesitates.
And two other factors that can make it harder for Will to do a good job are fatigue and low blood sugar level. If you are tired or hungry, Will is going to feel weaker.
I think all five of those factors were affecting my choice to stay in bed this morning. But it helps to be aware of those five things that can potentially drag our willpower down. If we know about them, we can more easily recognize them and take steps to deal with them, rather than get blindsided and have no clue why we’re struggling.
2. State your choice as what you will do.
Whether you are working to stop doing something you know you shouldn’t or to start doing something you know you should, try to state the choice and think about the choice as “I will” rather than “I will not.” For example, “I will use a kind voice” rather than “I will not yell”; or “I will get out of bed when the alarm goes off” rather than “I will not hit the snooze button.”
You see the difference. You move toward what you focus on, so it can be helpful to think in terms of what you will do rather than what you will not do.
3. Focus on the ideas behind the actions.
In your actions, you want to focus on what you will do. But keep in mind that making a good decision runs deeper than just the action. Behind every action is an idea that it represents. The action of using a kind voice represents the loving relationship you want to have with your children and the calm atmosphere you want to set in your home. Those are important ideas; ideas worth choosing.
Keep in mind that every time you say Yes to one idea, you are also saying No to its opposite. When you say Yes to the idea of kindness setting a loving and warm atmosphere in your home, you are saying No to the idea of living in a harsh and critical home; you are saying No to the idea of wounding your child’s spirit with your voice. Sometimes, remembering those powerful ideas can be the motivation we need to choose wise actions in the moment.
4. Think about the movements of your body.
This may sound a little strange, but hear me out. Just about every choice that Will makes depends on your moving at least one part of your body in order to carry it out. A choice about what you will eat, for example, is directly tied to your moving your hand, picking up the food, and putting it into your mouth. A choice to get up when the alarm goes off is directly connected to sitting up, putting your feet onto the floor, and standing up. I encourage you to think about which parts of your body are involved in carrying out the choice that you want Will to make.
When I was trying to break a bad habit of snacking every night before bed, I remember sitting in my recliner and focusing on not moving my feet. My emotions were telling me to get up and go to the kitchen to grab some potato chips. Will reminded me that I had decided that “I will eat my final food of the day at supper,” but he was weakening fast in the face of a lot of strong emotions. I knew that if I was going to give in to my emotions and eat a snack, I would have to get up onto my feet, walk to the kitchen, reach for the bag of chips, and intentionally use my hand to pick one up, and put it into my mouth, chew, and swallow. Right? Those were the actions involved in that choice. So I simplified the choice down to one body movement: “Don’t get up, don’t move your feet.” Once I thought about it that way, the choice didn’t seem as difficult. All I had to do was stay in my chair. I could do that.
5. Distract yourself when you’re feeling weak.
While I was sitting there trying to stay in my chair, I looked around for something else to think about—something that would be enjoyable and hold my interest, so I could go somewhere else in my mind. Modern research has confirmed what Charlotte Mason recommended, and that is, when you feel your will weakening, take a few minutes—15 minutes will work—to think about something else or to go do something else that refreshes you. Often Will can regain his strength when he gets that short break.
6. Put distance between you and a poor choice.
Distance is another way to help your Will make the right decision, especially when you are trying to avoid something. Physically moving away or staying away from a poor choice is effective. Again, intentionally moving your feet or your eyes. Just that movement can be a great action to focus on, because it’s not that hard to do. Remember that Will gets weaker as the decision gets bigger and more difficult.
If you can’t physically move away from the poor choice, try moving away mentally. Try to think of it in non-personal, unattractive terms. Those thoughts will help you emotionally distance yourself from the object or action.
7. Be aware of self-talk.
All of us talk to ourselves. From the moment you wake up in the morning, thoughts are coming at you. Some of you struggle with a harsh inner critic who degrades you about everything. Others of you have a hard time finding the line between who you are and what you are feeling. You are almost enveloped by your emotions and live with what seems like an internal drama queen. We’re all different. But we can all practice reminding ourselves of what will be most helpful. When you feel your will weakening or when you are facing a tough decision, try to mentally rehearse what you have to gain from doing what you know you should do. Remind yourself of the good idea that you are saying Yes to. Those great ideals, that we often lose sight of, are often disguised as small choices every day. Charlotte said,
“Great occasions do not come to us at any time of our lives; or, if they do, they come in the guise of little matters of every day.”(Ourselves, Book 2, p. 142)
So preach that to your soul. Use self-talk to your advantage.
8. Set small goals to gain momentum.
As I mentioned before, Will can become overwhelmed when faced with what he considers to be a difficult choice. The bigger and harder the choice, the more overwhelmed Will becomes.
So don’t make it so hard. Select just one choice to work on first: make it small and be specific.
Maybe you need to work on pre-reading all the books that your older students will be narrating. That can seem like a huge task when you look at the stack of books and your busy schedule. But let’s pare it down into a smaller task that doesn’t look so threatening. And let’s use Charlotte Mason’s student motto as our guide. You know it: I am, I can, I ought, I will. It’s a great motto for life, by the way, and it can help us think through the best ideas in these situations.
I am—”I am my student’s parent and teacher. I am responsible to give him the best education I possibly can.”
I can—”I can read. I can think. I can bring ideas to the discussion.” It’s not that you’re physically unable to do this. You can do all the actions required.
I ought—Now you get to the issue. What is it that you know is right, even though it may be hard? “I ought to pre-read his school books.” Then always follow up that “ought” statement with “because.” If you don’t have a good reason, or several good reasons, behind what you are purposing to do, you will falter when it becomes difficult. So, “I ought to pre-read his school books, because that will feed my own mind on great ideas; because I will be able to enter into intelligent discussion with my student; because I will be able to hold my student accountable for self-education.” Think of all the reasons why you ought to do this action.
Now, too often we get this far—”I am, I can, I ought”—and then we slump down in our hearts and resignedly say, “I wish I did.” And that’s the end of it.
But that’s not the motto. The principles that Charlotte’s view of education was founded upon, the epitome of a wisely educated person, is summed up in “I am, I can, I ought, I will.” As Charlotte said,
“The man who can make himself do what he wills has the world before him.”(School Education, p. 20)
The woman who can make herself do what she wills has the world before her. So move on to “I will” and state your action choice. And remember: the smaller, the better.
“I will read one paragraph and narrate it to myself every day.” That’s all. One paragraph. That doesn’t seem so hard, does it? Your will doesn’t think so either. So you’re off to a good start right away. And most likely, once you get started reading that paragraph, you’ll find it pretty easy to keep going and read another paragraph or maybe a whole page. And that’s fine; you’re allowed to read more, just not less. Your goal is one paragraph every day.
That hurdle doesn’t look so high. You see, often it’s that first hurdle of getting started that looks so large. But usually, if we simply take a small step toward it, it doesn’t seem so high. If you can say a mental Yes to the idea and get moving, you may be surprised how easy it is to keep going.
And that’s the key to growing stronger in willpower: consistency. Making the right choice this time. And then this time. And then this time. You can do that. Keep Charlotte’s motto close to your heart. Let it spur you on.
I am, I can, I ought . . . I wish I did?
No. I will.
So tomorrow morning when the alarm goes off, I want to . . . no, I will move my feet to the floor, stand up, and walk into my day.
How about you, my friend? What action comes to your mind?
You can do it.
You know you ought to do it.