Willpower is Obsolete

Original Date: Feb 18, 2015

Willpower Is Obsolete.

 It’s a story we are all too familiar with.

We have an idea. A moment of inspiration.  We are determined to take on a new practice, a new routine, for our health, our happiness, or just for fun. Day one, we are all fired up, we accomplish our goals, we set the task and get it done.  You are probably feeling pretty good about yourself on day one.  Day two comes around, its the same scene.  You get it done.  There is a tiny bit less enthusiasm, but not enough to undermine your intentions.  You may even get a full week of this.  But chances are, in a short amount of time, something slips and you are back into your old patterns.  Let us look at this more closely… Is it hopeless?  Are we forever a slave to our habits?  How are we able to enact lasting and important change?

Willpower alone won’t make the change,
but there is something that will help you.

Let’s say, I want to begin a daily yoga home practice before work.  I set the alarm at 5:00 AM (yikes, that’s early, but I mean business).  I anticipate the wake up, I may even wake up at 4:30 and beat the alarm.  I get ready, am on the mat before the sun is up, and I am practicing away, I sit for meditation, maybe some mantra.  Then I am up getting breakfast ready before anyone else is awake.  Feeling good, and proud of myself.  By Day 3, why am I hitting the snooze button, and not getting up until after 6?  Sound familiar?  Do you want to know why this happens, and how you can get around it?

Its because willpower is a short term function of the conscious mind.  It is not a function of the deeper patterns of the subconscious mind. Our subconscious mind holds our samskaras- our habit patterns, and unfortunately our negative habits hold strong.  Willpower will help us become inspired and get us through the very early initiation of the new idea or habit we want to make.  But it isn’t going to hold out over the long run.  If you want to make a lasting change for your health or any goal you set for yourself, you need to change your environment and create a new ritual.

 What does this mean?  Let’s go back to our example:

You want to wake up early, but you end up hitting snooze and eventually, you are not up early, and back to your old habits.
So, first thing- change the environment.  You know you are likely to hit snooze, so make it so you can’t.  I heard a story about a man who wanted to make sure he wouldn’t hit snooze, so he bought a second alarm clock, and put it in his baby’s room.  He set the alarm by his bed 5 minutes earlier than the alarm he set in the baby’s room. If he didn’t get up, that other alarm would go off, and then the whole house would be up and not very happy (especially his wife).  In that way, he made a new habit, and eventually he didn’t need the alarm in the baby’s room.  If you don’t have a baby to help you with this plan, or if you think that is just too risky… move your alarm to a spot where you actually have to get out of bed to turn it off.  Then, you are already up, and can go about your day.

Its the same idea around food.  I personally know that if I don’t bring a tempting treat into the house in the first place, I am sure to not eat it.  When I am at the grocery store, I buy primarily from the produce department and the bulk bins, then I have plenty of fresh fruits and nuts for snacking. Or perhaps you anticipate an urge to snack on something midday, when it is undermining a new health goal.  First change:  Make sure the tempting treats are gone – candy bowl, or don’t go into the lounge with the cake etc… Then make double certain you have an alternative in place.  Your hot herbal tea, or fruit and nuts.  Indulge- get something very fancy that still meets your new health goal.  You will be more likely to avoid the bag of chips or brownie if you have made the new treat  even more appealing.   Environment changed, no need to depend on willpower.

Sometimes, changing the environment needs a little boost. 

In “The Creative Habit” by Dance Choreographer Twyla Tharp, she explains how she maintains her creative genius.  She creates rituals in her environment that help to trigger the new pattern.  Rituals help us to control the uncontrollable.  A ritual is a new pattern, that triggers the mind to expect the new habit or practice. Twyla explained about a business man that would take out a dollar bill and fold it like origami before a business deal.  It was his ritual, that soothed his mind and set the stage for his deal.

Its like having a winding down ritual for your kids at bedtime:  Bath, brush teeth, read a story.  It sets the stage for sleep.  My personal morning ritual for my yoga practice is make a cup of tea (usually lemon in hot water with a pinch of turmeric) and light some incense.  My body and mind are ready for a yoga practice as soon as I taste the tea!  When we were in India last year, this helped me feel comfortable in a foreign environment and helped to establish a morning routine.  I set out my mat on the veranda by the river, and took one sip of my hot tea, and my whole body knew what to do.  Then the practice itself becomes the ritual.

So the trick is to figure out where you are likely to give in over your willpower.  Where will you bend? Where is the weakness? You acknowledge it, and then you rethink how to work around it.  It might take some creative thinking, but your deepest inner seat of wisdom knows how to do this.  Then, make it special.  Light a candle, get a new mug that is just for your afternoon tea.  Make it something you look forward to doing and using.

Let me know where you found you are struggling, and what ideas you came up with to change your environment and make the new pattern.  Your initial willpower may fade, but your inner wisdom will guide you to a new pattern and willpower will become obsolete.