During my senior year of college, I took a poetry workshop class. Each week, two different students submitted a piece of work for the class to critique, and by the end of the semester, we submitted a collection of work for the final grade.
The class cemented what had become my growing suspicion that I was terrible at poetry. One of my submissions for the class included these brilliant stanzas:
The sun is shining, the grass is green
Last time I checked I still had a spleen
I am happy.
I saw two lovers kiss on my way to class
A kid on school bus flashed me his a**
I am happy.
A fellow classmate suggested that this poem was exactly why people didn’t write about happiness.
The class felt like such a strain that I put off the writing at every opportunity. By the time my portfolio submission was due, I had little to work with, and no cover poem. So I opted for honesty and wrote the following piece:
Meant to write a poem.
But the weather hasn’t been
for writing poetry.
I thought it was witty and maybe a tad clever, but my professor saw it for what it really was. A shoddy last minute effort at my portfolio. She was kind to give me a B.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve talked a lot about willpower - about decision fatigue and ego depletion and how willpower is a finite resource. So what is the solution to making better and healthier decisions at the end of the day, when your willpower is depleted? Here is a quote from the book I've been referencing (Willpower):
“Successful people don’t use their willpower as a last ditch defense to stop themselves from disaster, at least not as a regular strategy.”
The writers of the book suggest that folks who use their self-control to not to get through crisis, but to avoid them, have more success (defining success is another matter altogether). Taking your car to the mechanic for regular maintenance before it breaks down, giving yourself enough time to finish a project so as not to stress yourself out - playing offense instead of defense.
When I got to this part of the book, I laughed out loud.
I’m such a procrastinator that years ago, when I wrote a weekly newspaper column for the local paper in Pennsylvania, I titled the column “At the Last Minute.”
The column was due every Monday evening, sometimes I could push it until Tuesdays, and every week I’d start sketching out an idea on Thursday and then completely ignore the work until Monday night, when I would literally stand on my head looking for ideas, and writing and re-writing and finally submitting whatever I had.
Not unlike these blog posts really….:-)
So how do chronic procrastinators like myself learn to, as the book says, play offense instead of defense? (And these suggestions come straight from the book)
1.Know your limits
Willpower is a limited resource and it’s depleted and used in more ways than we realize throughout the day. Walking past your co-workers candy dish 25 times throughout the day and never indulging - dealing with computer or technology issues- going to the gym when you don’t want to - getting out of bed when your body needs more sleep - these all affect your willpower. Recognizing that you are going to be out of willpower by the time you go out with friends for dinner that night might help you better prepare to make a nutrition choice that is on par with your goals. (One suggestion in these situations is to order first, so as not to be influenced by the decisions of those around you.)
2. Make a to-do-list
This is one habit I've always done, and I find that it helps a little. When I don't make a list to get things out of my mind and on to a piece of paper, you can find me pacing the gym and muttering things under my breath. The gym is a stimulating environment, and I use a lot of willpower to just focus. Making a list helps me to get my tasks on paper and out of my head, freeing up my unconscious.
3. Don't forget the basics
As it turns out, our unconscious is also affected by subtle cues such as a clean desk and a made bed. Although we might not care about whether your bed is made or your desk is clean, these environmental cues subtly influence your brain and your behavior, making it less of a strain to maintain self-discipline.
4. Pick your battles
We can't control or predict the stresses in our life - the loss of a job - a breakup - a sick family member, but we can use the calm periods to play offense. We can use the less crazy times in our lives to make new changes, to start a new exercise program or make some nutrition changes or learn how to knit.
I have a friend who was just laid off from her job. With such a major life change on her plate, now is not the time to try to make other big life changes.
5. The nothing alternative
I've used this strategy quite a bit in recent weeks, especially with writing. When I commit an hour to writing, I don't allow myself to do anything else with that hour. I'm allowed to not write - I can pace the room, pet my dog, scream at him in horror for eating a cricket - but I'm not allowed to do anything else - like check social media or email or Amazon.
I love the authors' suggestion of playing offense, even though it's not something I always do very well. We used a habit-based approach in making changes to nutrition and exercise, trying to focus on what habit a week, or even per month to help keep the process less overwhelming.
The line is clear - write or do nothing. And as the author's suggest, the most lasting technique for conserving willpower is building a habit.
Learning to plan ahead, whether that's stocking your refrigerator with healthy foods, removing the tempting food from your house, or putting your gym bag on your front seat in the morning on your way to work, can help you conserve willpower and make the changes you want to make.
Sometimes you're going to come up short. Be kind to yourself in those moments though, ok?