It is a brand New Year! Perhaps you’ve been reflecting on the past year, or you’ve been thinking about what you would like to see in 2016 – these are all things that inspire changes in order to ensure you meet your new objectives. We’ve all been here (and will be here again in the future) as it is part of the human operating system to set goals for ourselves, to evolve to meet our changing needs, taking information from the past and present to apply it to the future. We conveniently use the beginning of each new year to do this, but it is not the only time…milestone birthdays or another type of change that is thrust upon us sometimes creates an imperative – giving us cause to pause and reflect, to assess what we want from ourselves, from life. Whether your goals are specific or more ethereal, simple or life altering one of the first things you need to affect real change is willingness.
“Where there is a will there is a way.” (An old proverb)
Notice that the quote does not say where there is willpower there is a way. Ever wonder about that? It is not because the word “willpower” hadn’t been invented when that phrase came into use. There is a vast difference between will and willpower, a gap we all experience. What follows are some of the broad tenants of both willingness and willpower to get you started on how these impact your ability to make sustained changes as you embark on your own path of evolution.
If you think about it, will is something that we do…well…willingly - without much effort or resistance. It is important to find examples of things you do you willingly to better understand how this concept (an act of willingness) supports you; this awareness helps in planning sustained change. Using myself as an example, having my first cup of coffee each morning is something I do willingly. I never miss it (when I am at home); I enjoy knowing that the reward for getting up early each and every morning is that I have a wonderful cup of coffee waiting just for me. Now, it is not just the coffee that has the willingness attached to it (although that is at the center). It is also the circumstance of the coffee…I am able to drink that first cup in silence each morning, at a leisurely pace, savoring every nuance of it’s rich flavor. I enjoy selecting the capsule, the cool feel of it in my hand…putting it in the machine, sensing it slide effortlessly into it’s perfectly designed compartment, the curious rubbery feeling of the “brew” button as I press it. I anticipate the machine going into action, the “grrrrring” noises it creates as it forces hot water through the capsule, hearing the hot liquid hit the bottom of the cup and the watery noises it makes as it fills. The rich smell of coffee hits me as it floats through the air soon after it’s release and all the sudden I have a cup ready to taste. I anticipate feeling the warmth of it against my hands and face as I lift the cup for that first sip. Ummmmmmm. It is the sights, sounds and smells I anticipate; a ritual, something I do without thinking, without having to plan or put effort behind it. It just happens in mere minutes every morning and I would miss it if I did not have this small touch point in my life. There are not many things I can think of, that I do everyday, that are effortless…but this is one. Contrast that to an act I feel SHOULD to do daily…like taking my vitamin. This is something I know is very good for me to do, I’ve read and understood the science behind it. I know I feel better throughout my day when I take it (hence the “should”). However, there is something about the NEED to take that vitamin every morning that requires planning and effort on my part, and it is the first thing I abandon on a morning when I am busy or late. I engage an act of willpower to take that vitamin, and while I return to it (re-engaging my willpower) to do it periodically I would not call my multi-vitamin consumption consistent. I can tell because out of a Costco-sized bottle with 365 pills in it I am entering year two of that same bottle…it is over a quarter full. Not consistent. Why the difference? Coffee is not necessarily bad for me (in moderation), but its nutritional value certainly does not rival that of a multi-vitamin. Since becoming an adult I have never missed a morning cup of coffee in any of the mornings I wake up in my home (and most of time when I am traveling although that one comes from a coffee shop) – it’s like a reflex (it is also non-negotiable). Yet I have to plan to take my vitamin each day (it is a choice, every time, one I don’t always choose to make). One is done willingly and the other by willpower.
What are your rituals? Your acts of willingness that you look forward to each day, or do consistently (maybe several times a week) without thinking or effort? What are the things that just naturally happen with consistency that you would miss if they were not present? Take some time to mentally walk through your day, or your week, and find these hidden gems that you may not be aware of. Write them down. You may have one or more and they will likely be different than my example above; they may also be things that take a longer time to do (like a daily run). Then, think about them for a moment, what is the context under which you fulfill these rituals for yourself (or perhaps it is something you do for others)? What does it give you? What is it on behalf of? How does it feel when you are not able to do it? These are important aspects to capture about your acts of willingness so you better understand them as they come into play to help you support sustained change in other areas of your life.
Now, take some time to do that mental walk again and pick out the things you do by willpower. Keep in mind there are things we do by will (not willpower) that are “adaptive wills”. Things like getting up with your alarm clock to ensure you get to work on time. Things we do ritually, but not effortlessly, to ensure we conform to what is needed in the here and now (getting to work on time so we will not be admonished or fired). These are good to be aware of too, but they are not the same as the things we do by willpower. Find an example of something you are doing by willpower in your life and ask yourself the following questions. What effort does it take to perform this act of willpower (i.e. not showing exasperation with other people in your life)? What is going through your mind as you contemplate this choice? What has you abandoning it? What is this on behalf of? How does it feel when you make the choice? How does it feel when you chose not to do it?
Understanding the difference between what things look like when they are a willing act for us, versus an act of willpower is important. I’ll always remember what a wise support group leader once said about willpower. Willpower acts like a muscle, and because it acts like a muscle it can get tired, just like any other muscle in your body. This explains why, at the beginning of the day, you are better able to make the right choices (no demonstrations of exasperation), but by 10:00 PM you may not be able to flex your willpower (several demonstrations of exasperation…maybe even some yelling or expletives). When your willpower muscle is tired you may do something you vowed not to do…like stay up late to watch one more show on TV…or go on-line to do some work from home during family/you time. It is not that you don’t have any willpower (it’ll be back up and running after it gets a break) or that you are failing. You’ve simple tired that muscle out and now it can no longer support you…and if it is your only support when trying to make a change then you are at risk for repeating this outcome. If I had assigned the time right before bed each night to take my multi-vitamin, that bottle would still be full. An act of willingness supports us, an act of willpower has the ability to help us see what making a change would feel like, and you do need willpower to stick with it to really explore something new. However, relying on willpower alone to sustain a change that you would like to make for a long period of time (or over a life time) is setting yourself up for failure.
Having a better understanding of your acts of willingness, and why/how they support you, will help you to see what types of feelings, practices and outcomes need to be in place for you to make a sustained change. To break this down, here is something else interesting about acts of will – when you look at what you do willingly there are usually 3 things tied to it that allow it to support you, encouraging you to keep doing it. To use my morning coffee example, three things are: 1. Knowing this is consistently time just for me (brief as it is). 2. A small structured ritual (the actual making of coffee) that I find comforting. 3. I get something tangible out of it – a consistently great cup of coffee that delivers wonderful flavor, aroma and caffeine. Dissecting this, I know that if I had to make coffee each morning with my family under foot, this would not be effortless. I know if the coffee taste experience were not reliable, I would not do it. Without those two pieces in place, the small ritual of making coffee would not be enjoyable – at all (all work and no pay-off). The constancy of these three things is what provides benefit to me. Pull one away and the other two may not be enough to sustain it. Go through and look for the pattern of three in your willing acts. Knowing this about yourself and your willing acts can help you to look for, plan for, and provide these same small structures (rituals or other supports) in your new changes, moving you off of willpower (after you’ve used it for exploration) and into willingness - giving you a far greater chance of sustaining the changes you want. You can sustain any changes you undertake when you make the right changes for the right reasons.
Need more inspiration? Here is a great TEDTalk from Jane McGonigal that takes this concept a bit further in a different context. https://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_the_game_that_can_give_you_10_extra_years_of_life?language=en