I realize that puppy training and sex don’t seem like they go together – but I bet anyone who has had a puppy and tried to have sex while caring for said puppy understands that they can have a negative impact on one’s sex life.  It’s a little like trying to have sex when you have a baby.  Except the baby doesn’t stand by the side of your bed barking.  Or jump on the bed. I don’t remember what our strategies were when my husband and I had our babies and our first puppy. Truthfully, so many of my memories are hazy from 2001-2010 (sorry, kids).  But now, with two Psychology degrees, countless psychology books and a growing number of train your puppy books (which really read like psychology books) under my belt, I have a keen sense of the power of training. That was really handy for Week Three of my The Science of Willpower course. It’s all about training. I’ll explain and then get back to what this has to do with sex and puppies.

In the book, The Willpower Instinct, How Self Control Works, Why it Matters and What You Can Do to Get More of It Kelly McGonigal, PhD. explains how our willpower is related to our resources. The bad news is that research has shown that when I apply my willpower strength in one area (like getting myself out the door to run) that I will have less strength for the next test of my willpower.  So, it wouldn’t be a good idea to come home from a run and open the fridge and contemplate what I could eat for dinner.  I’ll be less likely to make choices aligned with my current willpower goals of:

I won’t eat compulsively.

I will eat mindfully.

I want to have a healthy, strong body.

Willpower gets depleted.  Essentially because it requires resources from our brain and these resources are not infinite.  Furthermore, when our brain senses the depletion of resources, it puts up the equivalent of a blockade for giving up more resources – even when there are more to give. Pretty rough, right? It definitely explains a lot of choices I’ve made over time – like why resisting saying how I feel has often been followed by eating something that I swore that I wouldn’t touch.

The good news is that we can expand our willpower reserves – so even though they remain finite, we can increase the amount. Furthermore, if we practice pushing back against some mental resistance, our capacity to override our initial instinct to ignore our  goal increases. I first experienced this running. The first few (okay, way more than that) miles that I attempted, my body responded by crying out, begging for me to stop.  My legs felt heavy.  My lungs burned. Everything thing in me cried out for me to walk. But I was determined to train for my first 5km. I loved the idea of identifying as a runner and I had a fantasy of having a runner’s body. So, I pushed past the heaviness and the burning. I responded to the cries to stop with encouragement.  I developed many strategies to push through. Two decades and many, many miles later, I don’t exactly identify as a runner or have a runner’s body but I know that there is a difference between sharp pain or exhaustion and discomfort.  So, I push through the discomfort and experience the satisfaction and often euphoria of triumph. I’ve learned. I changed my thinking and increased my capacity to run.  I was able to take that thinking into Crossfit gyms and hot yoga studios. I believe that increased capacity to push through discomfort and pursue satisfaction and euphoria helped drive me to leave professional fundraising and go back to school full-time to study psychology seven years ago.

I think that Kelly McGonigal is teaching that the recipe is to articulate an intention (I want…I will…I won’t) for something that is important to us and then use that as fuel to override our initial discomfort and expand our capacity to pursue our goals. The key is, it needs to be salient enough (that’s psych-speak for REALLY matter) to shine a light on our thinking in critical moments and lead us to take the uncomfortable path.

Which brings me back to sex.  I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to make sure that sex is a central part of my marriage.  Easier said than done, right? Happily, I work from home and my husband works close to home, so sometimes we have non-working lunches.  Enter the puppy. This is a good time to confess that despite my training credentials, I’m a sucker for the puppy. Especially when she wants attention and for some reason especially when she wants to cuddle on our bed. However, when she stood on our bed earlier this week barking for attention, I knew what I wanted (uninterrupted time with my husband) and I knew that I needed to move through Lily’s and my discomfort and increase her capacity to self soothe.  So, I firmly (despite my husband’s useless laughter and serious skepticism) kicked her off the bed and directed her out of the room. It took some time, effort and muffling of my husband.  But it worked.  I’ll end that story there…

So, what have we learned (besides to ring the doorbell when visiting my house midday)? I’ve learned that willpower is a diminishing resource, so that I need to be mindful of my actions – particularly after I’ve expended a fair amount of willpower in one area. I think this can be managed with planning.  Thus, if I know that I’m going to be working on my website for the morning, which often takes a ton of will to start and then stay on task, that I will benefit from planning my lunch beforehand and even measuring out the portions before I get started, when I have an untapped amount of willpower.

I have also learned that the power part of willpower is expandable by practice and that my motivation to practice is rooted in how important my goal is to me. At the very least I need to articulate a goal – but I find that is usually not enough. I need to really think about why the goal is important to me, how it is aligned with my values and how pursuing it will benefit me.  It’s important for me to remember that it’s not the goal achievement that will benefit me (even if I think it will), it is the value of pursuing the goal that I need to understand. Then I will be far more likely to move past discomfort to get to the benefits.

Who knew that getting a puppy would teach me so much about willpower training?