I spent last New Year’s Eve in a hospital room. Not an ideal way to celebrate the turning of a year, but it did offer a sobering view of my current priorities. And my progress over the year prior.
I wasn’t happy with the results. My priorities had become shallow. I’d drifted into a life of comfort instead of one of courage. There was no major fall-off, just a series of seemingly minor decisions that took me further from the path I wanted to be on.
Each day had taken me a little further off course. Each day that distance compounded. And soon, I was somewhere I no longer recognized.
It’s easy to want a change. It’s easy to make resolutions. I’d done both. But more often than not, new practices didn’t stick. They’d fall by the wayside, slowly ignored and then soon forgotten altogether.
We all start with the best of intentions. We’re looking to make real improvements. Maybe we want to finally start that business of our own. Or learn some new skills. Maybe it’s just committing to a healthier lifestyle. Regardless, most of us have a desire to improve some facet of our life. And if statistics on New Year’s resolutions are any indication, most of us also aren’t wildly successful in accomplishing them.
In the time since, I’ve learned that it’s not a matter of effort. More work and working harder are rarely the answer.
It’s not that we aren’t trying hard enough. We’re just going about it in the wrong way.
Is Willpower the Answer?
A lot of studies show willpower to be a finite resource. That we start with a fixed amount and it dissipates as we go through our day.
At first glance this makes sense. We use our willpower to fight off our daily temptations. It’s what keeps us from gorging out of every candy dish we pass or throwing an emotional tantrum when we don’t get our way. This tires us out, leaving us more susceptible to that short-term emotional mind that’s just looking to maximize this moment’s pleasure.
Which also explains why happy hours are at 5:00pm and not 9:00am and why it’s so easy to fall into a big bowl of ice cream at the end of each night.
We use willpower to wage these internal battles. Our short-term emotional mind is looking for instant gratification. Our long-term logical mind sees the better choice, but needs to overpower that near-term temptation. All of which adds to our daily strain. And uses up that critical willpower.
In these cases, willpower does indeed act as a finite reserve. With this mindset, it’s not surprising that we struggle to stick with new practices. If we’re pinning our hopes on a constant strength of will in the face of adversity, regression is inevitable. Eventually, we’ll always drain that willpower tank and start the backward slide into old behaviors.
It doesn’t need to happen this way.
Settle Our Internal Battles
On January 31, 1985, P. W. Botha, then president of South Africa, offered to release Nelson Mandela from prison if he “unconditionally rejected violence as a political weapon.” At this point, Mandela had been in prison for 22 years, the first 18 of which involved hard labor in the lime quarry on Robben Island. As Mandela had long since embraced the philosophy of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest of Botha’s suggestion, it would have been understandable if he’d decided that he’d done his part for the cause and agreed to terms.
Yet faced with the prospect of an immediate release or continuing with the struggle, Mandela demonstrated extraordinary conviction by rejecting the president’s offer. He’s quoted to say, “Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts,” and “I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free.”
Does anyone believe that Mandela managed this level of fortitude through willpower alone? Could he have demonstrated this level of inner strength if he was fighting some internal battle?
We practice commitment when we have a unified mind. We need to fully believe that this is our path. Otherwise we’ll be draining critical willpower fighting these internal battles. And we won’t have the inner strength we need to hold to our convictions.
We don’t run out of willpower because there’s a finite limit. That’s merely the effect.
We run out of resistance because we’re constantly fueling an internal battle. In these cases, we waste our energy on internal debate because we’re not of one mind.
Mandela was fully committed to sacrificing everything for the ideal of a democratic and free society. His mind was unified towards his vision. And the temptation of a compromised release wasn’t a temptation at all.
Fully Commit. Or Don’t Start.
“True freedom is impossible without a mind made free by discipline.” – Charles Van Doren and Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
How dedicated are we to this improvement? Are we willing to commit to it as part of our identity?
When we fully identify with a new change, we stop draining our willpower reserves. We stop wasting energy on fighting these internal battles.
Do you want to be a writer? Someone committed to writing sets aside time to write every day. She regularly posts her work and actively seeks out criticism. She isn’t afraid of criticism, she relishes the opportunity for further improvement. She swallows her pride, asks for help, and responds with the confidence of someone who’s honing her craft. And each day’s work reaffirms that identity.
Do you want to live a healthier lifestyle? Someone committed to their health schedules time to exercise every day. He uses this daily discipline to eat healthy. He stops hanging out with people who are a poor influence. He doesn’t fight temptation every time he drives past a Dunkin Donuts because he’s committed to a better life.
When we fully identify with an improvement, temptations don’t drain our willpower, they strengthen it. Each action reinforces our new identity. It further anchors us into our commitment. Making the next decision that much easier. Because that’s now who we are.
As Jocko Willink writes in Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual, “When you are on the path you want to stay on the path.”
How Committed Are You?
In Leading Change, John Kotter gives us a playbook for managing organizational changes. When implementing change initiatives within companies, an often overlooked failure point is that we claim victory before we’ve anchored it within the company’s culture. As Kotter says,
“When the new practices made in a transformation effort are not compatible with the relevant cultures, they will always be subject to regression. Changes in a work group, a division, or an entire company can come undone, even after years of effort, because the new approaches haven’t been anchored firmly in group norms and values.”
Changing a behavior is relatively easy. Changing a set of values is much more difficult. If a new behavior doesn’t fully align with our values and our priorities, it won’t have the power to change them. At best, it will be a short-term novelty that we cast aside when a higher priority comes along.
So how committed are you to making a change? Does it align with your values? Can you make it a top priority?
If not, it won’t stick. It can’t. Life will happen and it slowly falls lower on our list of priorities until it’s just a distant reminder of some long past aspiration.
The alternative is to secure our improvement in our values. Fix it within our identity. Make it a practice that we prioritize every day. And let it anchor within our culture.
Discipline Requires a Unified Mind
“Whether our action is wholesome or unwholesome depends on whether that action or deed arises from a disciplined or undisciplined state of mind. It is felt that a disciplined mind leads to happiness and an undisciplined mind leads to suffering, and in fact it is said that bringing about discipline within one’s mind is the essence of the Buddha’s teaching.” – The Dalai Lama, The Art of Happiness
The traditional advice of using life hacks to override our impulses is not a sustainable solution. Short-cuts and hacks won’t bring us the long-term success we’re looking for.
We cannot implement permanent change while facing these internal battles. Through life, one constant is that things will eventually get difficult. And if we want to stay strong in the face of that adversity, we need to have a unified mind.
When the time comes that we’re emotionally spent and we don’t think we can keep at it, we need our logical mind to carry us through.
When the moment happens where we logically rationalize a break or a cheat, we need our emotional sense of identity to keep us on the path.
Let’s fully commit to our improvements. Let’s stop wasting energy on these internal debates. And if we’re not fully committed, let’s stop wasting our time. We can better use that energy somewhere else.
Decide what’s important. Decide to commit. And use each choice to reinforce this identity. Then we can finally turn those improvements into permanent changes.
Because. That’s. Now. Who. We. Are.