Friday, August 10, 2012

Bulk Up Your Willpower

I'm asked often by readers, "How do you find the motivation?" or "How did you get into it and stay into it?" 

When I was strictly running, it was damn hard to find the motivation to run sometimes. Sure, I had tons of little tricks that helped me out, but I think it was my willpower. Over time, I've developed rituals. Things that become habitual and methodical require less thought and therefore, less strain on our willpower reservoir. CrossFit is so much more fun that running, I look forward to it like a fat kid looks forward to cake. It isn't a chore, it's my power hour, it's where I go to refill my fun tank. 

There are so many things that drain our willpower, it's no wonder that by 4pm we want a brownie the size of Kansas, and that when we get home from work, no! We don't want to go to the gym. We don't want to lace up our shoes for hours slogging more miles on the road ..

So, in an effort to stop talking about myself and use my blog for good, I want to share with you an article that I think we could all do with reading, "A Master Plan for Taking Back Control of Your Life."

Here's the problem we face, every day of our lives. Nearly everything that generates enduring value requires effort, focus, and even some discomfort along the way.  At the same time, we're deeply wired to avoid pain, which the body reads as mortally dangerous, and to move toward pleasure, the more immediate the better.We're also exposed to more temptation than ever. The world is literally at our fingertips, a few keystrokes away. It's forever beckoning us, like the Sirens singing to Odysseus, who lashed himself to the mast of his ship to resist their call.    

The sirens sing to us, too: Have the dessert. Skip the workout. Put off the hard work. Surf the web. Check your email. Indulge your whims. Settle for the easy way out. 

Thanks to researcher Roy Baumeister and others,  the evidence is clear that we have one reservoir of willpower. It's a highly limited resource, and it gets depleted by every act that requires its use.

So how do we take back control of our lives?  What follows are the key moves we can make. It's not all or none.  More is better, but each one will help. 

1. Make more of your behaviors automatic. 
Because our willpower is so limited, our best defense is to rely on it less. Here's how the brilliant mathematician Alfred North Whitehead put it: "Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them." A ritual is a highly precise behavior that you perform over and over, at a specific time, so it becomes automatic and no longer requires much willpower to get it done.

2. Take yourself out of harm's way. 
You can't easily lash yourself to a mast, but you can selectively avoid temptations. If you want to lose weight, it makes sense to remove your favorite high-calorie foods from the shelves, and to tell the waiter at restaurants not to bring the bread.  If you want to get challenging work done, turn off your email entirely for designated periods of time rather than try to resist its Pavlovian ping.  

3. Whatever you feel compelled to do, don't. 
The more powerfully driven you are to take instant action, the more likely you shouldn't. When the pull is intense, it's likely you've activated your fight-or-flight physiology. That's great when you're actually facing a life-or-death situation and need to react instantly. In most life circumstances, it serves you better to reflect before you react.

4. Sleep as much as you must to feel fully rested. For nearly 98% of us, that means at least 7 hours a night. "Fatigue," said Vince Lombardi, "makes cowards of us all." Specifically, it undermines our capacity for self-control, and we're more likely to default to instant gratification.  The best sleep ritual is not just to choose a precise bedtime, but also to begin winding down at least 30 minutes before turning out the lights. 

5. Do the most important thing first in the morning. 
That's when the vast majority of us have the most energy and the fewest distractions.  Our energy reservoir diminishes as the day wears on, which is why it's so difficult to get to the hardest work late in the day. Conversely, the more focused you are, the higher the quality of work you'll do, and the more you'll get done. I often get more important work done during the first 90 minutes of the morning than in the rest of the hours of the day put together.

6. Eat energy rich foods in small doses at frequent intervals. 
Food – specifically glucose – literally fuels willpower.  Unfortunately, the body can only make use of a limited amount at any given time, so we need to refuel at least every three hours.  Sugars and simple carbohydrates provide a surge of energy that doesn't last, while lean proteins and complex carbohydrates provide a steadier, more enduring source of energy and therefore willpower.

7. Do one thing at a time. 
With so much coming at us so relentlessly – emails, texts, people, and information – we assume the only way to get to it all is to juggle multiple tasks at the same time.  In fact, moving between tasks creates something called "switching time." When you shift attention from one focus of attention to another, the average time it takes to finish the first task increases by at least 25%.

8. Work in sprints. 
Human beings aren't meant to operate like computers, at high speeds, continuously. Rather, we're designed to pulse between spending and renewing energy. The ultradian rhythm refers to a 90-minute cycle inside us, during which we move from a state of higher physiological arousal progressively down towards fatigue. Focus intensely, ideally without interruption, for no more than 90 minutes at a time. Then take a real break, for at least a few minutes, to relax emotionally, give the mind a rest and physically recharge.
Above all else, it's critical to ground yourself in deeply held values. Knowing what you stand for is a uniquely powerful fuel for behavior, especially when the going gets tough, and the temptation is to take the easy route. If you're clear about who you want to be in any given situation, non-negotiably, the songs of the Sirens aren't so alluring.

What about you? How do you stay motivated and 


  1. This is good stuff! I try to stay motivated by having a friend doing the same thing I, eating plan, etc. That way we can keep each other on track! :)
    Jamie in Arkansas

  2. Great article. I'm trying to stay motivated to lose almost 20 more pounds and it is difficult to do while going to school full time and chasing a toddler around. I'll have to file this away for future reference!

    1. Good luck Erin! I remember the days of trying to finish up school and juggle my kids and working out. I refused (and couldn't afford!) to rely on a babysitter to get the exercise done. If you don't have one, a jog stroller could be your best bet. I found a used double jog stroller and actually trained for a marathon with one. It required me to prep well the night before, making sure my water, the kids water, snacks, sunglasses for them, blankets, etc. were all ready to go.

      But the key is NOT to feel guilty. I would have people without kids, or parents who didn't make their kids their priority tell me that I was making excuses. Just do what you can do! My kids are older now and I combine walking the dog with my running after I drop them off at practice. I still can only get about 20 minutes done as I often have to leave to pick someone else up or drop another one off at a different field, but at least it is something!

  3. I'm big on registering for races or events because after shelling out the cash, I feel like I really need to make the race worth my while.

    PS Purchased an intro unlimited month + foundational classes at a box near me. After I finish marathon training, I'm gonna check it out to see what all the fuss is about :)

  4. I'm intrigued by cross fit, but too intimidated to join. I feel as if I missed the start of the learning curve or fad, and by now, everyone is too far ahead to join in.

    1. No way, girl! Everyone currently doing CrossFit, with the exception of Rich and Annie (this year's world champs), we ALL have someone ahead of us. Every box scales, and I know our box won't even LET people try the hardest level of the workouts until they've been coming for a few months.
      Most CrossFit communities are very supportive and encouraging. I have had days where I finished dead last and everyone cheers for me to finish strong! Find a good place in your area and give it a shot - many offer a "ramp up" or "essentials" series for newbies. Less intimidating since everyone else will be new, too!

    2. I'm not sure where you're located Kellie, but 95% of the CrossFit population are just a bunch of normal folks! :) They all have day jobs, kids, and drink beer. The 1% that we see competing at the Games every year is NOT your average CrossFitter, and shouldn't be the standard!

      Our box is so supportive and community based! Everyone is on different levels, but we have a lot of folks that are brand spanking new, and they're already going from assisted pull ups to regular pullups! You just have to start to see how you'll like it, and I promise you, it'll change your life. :)

    3. Do it!!! I was so scared when I first started, but I've been going for almost a year now and I wouldn't do anything else, it was the best decision I ever made to step into that gym for the first time.

      Yes, it is seriously intimidating, but the people are fantastic and it's so motivating when you see progress in yourself and also in the friends you'll make there. I just managed to do my first handstand push-up last week, after watching other people doing them and thinking that there is no way in hell I could ever do that! It is truly life changing and has increased my self confidence so much since I started.

      Good luck! :)

    4. I'm in Portland, Maine and have only been able to locate 1 location that is close enough to me to go. I swung by and it was all really young folks, early 20's.

      I'm nervous because I lost my eye last fall, and have terrible depth perception, so am SUPER clutzy! Wiped right out during my race today because I didn't see a rock in the trail. I feel that I may be a hinderance to those around me.

    5. Ahh I can see why you would be nervous, but I think if you keep going and get to know some of the super young folk and let them in on your clutziness then you'll make some friends who'll have your back and look out for you so that if there's a rock on the trail, they'll let you know about it before you're tripping over it! There's a hearing impaired guy at my gym and we've all become experts at miming the exercises if he can't lip read what's going on :) I hope it works out for you, it is truly worth it. Good luck :)

  5. Thanks so Much for sharing this with us!!!! I feel like every single one of those tips applied to me!

  6. I LOVE this article! I'm going to share it on facebook and with my client in print (I'm a personal trainer). Thanks so much for this!

    @ Kellie Battaglia - I was the same way you are with CrossFit BUT...after reading this blog I decided I had to try it! I went to my local box and discovered a group of individuals just trying to do the same thing I am - get and/or stay in shape! I also discovered a group of people who are a great support group for me and my fitness journey!! I encourage you to give it a try! I LOVE it now and plan on getting my CrossFit Cert. next year!!

    Still LOVING your blog! Keep it up!

    1. Thanks for the encouragement! I have seen what it can do for others and am highly intrigued. My husband is a martial artist and has a lot of the gear I would need in our basement, but I need that gym atmosphere.