Search

Nicole Arnold's Adventures

My impressions as I boldly go where I have not gone before.

Tag

willpower

How Puppies and Sex are Teaching me About Willpower

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?

What Happens When the Threat You’re Fighting is You? (Week 2 of The Science of Willpower Course)

I believe that many people can recite a fight/flight theory of emotional response, regardless of their background.  It comes up everywhere – at the doctor’s office when talking about stress, anxiety or weight gain or at your child’s school when learning about schoolyard behaviour or child/parent communications. The term is tossed around pretty casually.  Many know that fight/flight is a physiological fear response that could save our lives.  We understand that we’re seeing mortal threat in interactions that are not actually mortally threatening and that the regular cortisol production that come with lots of flight/fight reactions is bad for our health.  Many of us even know that our adrenal glands and amygdala are involved in this process.  We don’t even need to be arm chair psychologists to have this awareness – we can be teachers, high school students, parents, organizational leaders, you name it.

In my case, I read and talk about fight/flight responses daily (to the joy of my husband, kids and clients).  This might explain why I glossed over the critical fight/flight message in Week Two of Kelly McGonigal’s Willpower program. (See last week’s blog to understand why I’m talking about this at all.)

I glossed over the section where she compared resisting a slice of cheesecake to fighting a sabre tooth tiger and I focused on the part where she explained that our fight/flight responses suppress our impulse control. That was enough to bring to mind the past few conversations I had when I felt threatened and could almost watch the words come out of my mouth before I considered the damage they might do.

Thus, it wasn’t until later that I had a flash of understanding, when I was attempting to escape one of my thoughts.  You know how it goes: “I will put this cookie into my mouth before I contemplate whether I’m hungry, whether I need it or whether I’ll regret it later.  See – I’m eating it, what are you going to do now?? Eat another cookie, maybe?”

I got it!  The threat I’m facing is MY thoughts.  Not another person.  Or a saber tooth tiger.  Me.  My thoughts.  The ones that aren’t aligned with my goals and values.

When I’m wrestling with self-control, I’m often trying to flee from my thoughts. The very process makes me physically uncomfortable – my heart starts beating faster, my stomach feels uneasy, I feel unsafe. No wonder I seek numbing behaviour in those moments!

It’s a paradigm in which I am always the loser. Even if I have won, I have lost. Even if I have escaped, I have also been deserted – cause it’s all me. There is nothing about this kind of thinking that builds my will-power or self-control. When I position myself as threatening or something/someone I want to escape for, then it’s hard at the same time to believe I’m worth fighting for.  No wonder that kind of process is exhausting.  It’s also so divisive.  I feel best when I feel whole and this kind of thinking is the opposite of that.

The antidote to fighting/fleeing is pausing/planning. I find it energizing in the same way that I find the fighting/fleeing tiring. As soon as I start to ask questions, a smile automatically forms on my face.  It surprises me every time. As soon as I slow down, I suddenly am aware of my breathing and then I slow down even more. When I ask questions, I gain perspective. I remember what I planned.  I think about what I want. Everything feels manageable in a way it didn’t moments before.  I feel more acceptable in a way that I didn’t feel before. When I’m not fighting my thoughts then I can try to understand them. If I’m fighting them, then I’m just trying to annihilate them or run away from them.

The thing about changing habits is they come up every day! I can’t run away from them.  I need to problem solve my way out.  There’s nothing problem solving oriented about fighting or fleeing.  But pausing and planning is the essence of problem solving.

Kelly McGonigal has some clear direction about maximizing the potential for shifting from Fight/Flight to Pause/Plan.

First, I need to have the most important base resource: sleep. I am finding more and more that when I have less than 7 hours of sleep that I am more likely to be in a headspace where I don’t remember my current goals, my plans, why I like the people in my life or if I have every achieved anything of value, EVER.  It’s very hard to orient myself toward my aspirations in moments of fight/flight when I have no energy and can’t remember why I want to aspire at all.

McGonigal says that one way (besides sleep, which is critical) to get energy is to increase physical activity – by any amount at all. I have taken this seriously the past two weeks and have incorporated two 10 minute runs into my week. (Full disclosure: this was actually a Sweet Spot tip, but it has been reinforced by reading The Willpower Instinct.) I feel amazing after these runs and I’ve reduced the barrier for getting out the door, as it’s really hard to tell myself that I don’t have time or energy to run for TEN minutes.  It builds up my reserves in incredible ways – being outdoors, keeping my promise to run and exercising my heart and lungs.  McGonigal went out of her way to emphasize that research keeps showing that even the smallest intervals of exercise make significant differences in our physical health and our emotional resilience.

Another tip that McGonigal provided is to simply find time to relax.  The essence is to give my body a chance to do the opposite of what it does it Fight/Flight mode.  To practice being in relaxed mode.  In Fight/Flight mode I breathe quickly, zero in on something specific and tense my body for combat. Taking time to relax – even for 5 minutes – helps me practice breathing deeply and unclenching my mind and body. My body could use the training.

I love how much this course feels like training – training my mind and my body (as if they’re different entities) to help me do what’s best for me.  The more I train like this, the more I understand our minds/bodies as being designed for this kind of practice.  I understand it this way because the feedback loops are so powerful.  Doing this kind of work produces such strong results and good feelings.

Help! (and maybe it will help you too)

 

I’ll cut right to the chase. I’m at the lowest weight that I’ve been in twelve years or so, but I don’t want to stop losing weight – so much so that I’m looking for help to keep my momentum going.

I love the idea of ‘returning’ to the body that I had in university. Or at least my 44 year old, post three babies, version of it. I’m well on my way there – I’ve lost about 40lb. in the past year, 30lb. of that since I started following a ketogenic based food plan in July. Yet, while I feel wildly successful about this change and very happy about fitting into clothing that I had almost given up on every wearing comfortably again, I’m scared of stalling.  Worse than that, I’m worried about boomeranging back to my state before of feeling uncomfortable, out of shape (well, a rounder shape) and demoralized about my ‘inability’ to stay at a healthy weight in my adult life.

This past Saturday night, my friend Rachel inadvertently gave me a plan (she joins the ranks of Ian, who inspired me similarly last week). We were talking about eating and weight loss and she said that it is an area that she has little willpower.  Well, I have the book for that! (I have a lot of books and sometimes I even read them.) The book is called The Willpower Instinct, How Self Control Works, Why it Matters and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal, PhD.  She is trained as a Health Psychologist and her course, The Science of Willpower, at Stanford University has attracted thousands of people to change their thinking about willpower.  My biggest take home from McGonigal’s book is that willpower is like biceps. We all have them and if I want to have stronger willpower, I need to exercise the muscles involved (in this case, brain areas).

This is where you come in. Everyone knows that if you want to do something, it’s easier if you have other people to do it with (my husband is snickering when reading this, I’m sure of it).  So, join me by also pursuing a goal or simply by cheering me on.

Is there a goal that you have that you think requires willpower to achieve?  It could be weight loss, like me.  It could be preparing for a 10km race; reducing your phone addiction; increasing your workout time; spending more time with your family or spending more time by yourself.  Something that you have tried to do a few times and don’t feel that you’ve been successful at (yet).

Here’s my plan: I’m going to follow Kelly McGonigal’s 10-week Science of Willpower course. If all you do is read my blog each week and cheer me on, I’ll be very grateful. I believe that will be enough (for my own success and possibly as well to spark some motivation for you). However, if you also have a goal that you want to pursue over the next 10 weeks, hop on board and we’ll work on it together. If you’re keen to read the book, feel free to pick it up.  If you’re like my friend Ian and would rather read the article, then I’m going to provide the ‘Coles Notes’ version of the book in weekly segments, personalized to my own goal (this is a pretty selfish post, if you haven’t figured that out yet).

Week One Highlights

  • It is best to pick one specific challenge that you want to focus on. McGonigal divides willpower challenges into “I won’t”; “I will” or “I want”.  Being an overcompensater (a word I just made up), I have formulated my goal with all three:

I won’t eat compulsively

I will eat mindfully

I want to have a healthy, strong body

  • Take on this project as a scientist. It is not all or nothing. It is not about success or failure. I will be focusing on increasing my capacity to exercise my self-control when eating and try to uncover what my stumbling blocks are and where my strength already lies. Curiosity and openness are key.  Thinking in terms of success/failure are barriers.  Scientists set goals but are looking to discover and learn.  That’s what I want to do.

scientist

  • I am training my brain. I can’t expect to run a marathon just by setting the goal and having the desire. The same is true for willpower.

Here are the two brain training exercises for Week One of the course:

  1. Try this for one day: Increase your awareness of the decisions you’re making related to your goal. For example, if you want to spend more time doing physical activity, pay attention to the choices you’re making in that area for as you move through your day. Write them down or put them into your phone. You’re a scientist – collect data.
  2. Practice mindfulness meditation for 5 minutes each day. Mindfulness builds strength for a lot of heavy lifting in our brains. It gives us perspective and it gives us focus. Just the same way I need to increase my cardiovascular capacity and my quad strength to run long distances, I need to increase my perspective taking and focus abilities to gain more self-control (aka as willpower).  There are a ton of mindfulness practices all over the Internet.  Here is one of my favourites.

Thank you in advance!  See you next week for Week Two.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑