What the Heck is “Willpower”?

willpower “People who have better control of their attention, emotions, and actions are better off almost any way you look at it. They are happier and healthier. Their relationships are more satisfying and last longer. They make more money and go further in their careers. They are better able to manage stress, deal with conflict, and overcome adversity. They even live longer. When pit against other virtues, willpower comes out on top…If we want to improve our lives, willpower is not a bad place to start.” – Kelly McGonigal

But what IS “willpower”? I don’t know how to measure it or boost it. Can I take a pill for that? Do I chant a mantra? Does “low willpower” explain why I’m not running marathons?

Everyone I work with in therapy is looking for a change, and most of them know it’s going to take something suspiciously like “willpower”. Most of the time, they also know most of what they’re going to have to do to have the life they want to live.  What they aren’t always sure of is how to harness that drive, how to create new habits, how to keep going when you give and give and don’t get back.   I don’t have the exact answer, either.  What I can tell them (and what I remind myself) is that changing circumstances requires changing behavior. Changing behavior requires motivation. THAT I know how to do!

A wise friend of mine always says, “Boredom lies in the motivator.”  I would add that “Inertia lies in the motivator.” What can motivate us to do the very hard work of changing our habits and learning to step back from the mind chatter bossing us around?

Values! When we tune in to what truly matters to us, it becomes easier to take the steps we know we need to take. Who do I want to be in the face of this? is the most important question to answer. Once we know, we have a guiding light and compass. Suddenly, the spaghetti squiggles on the map become clear paths, beckoning us forward.

That doesn’t mean the journey will be easy, or that we won’t sometimes get confused about which value we need to honor at any given moment.  Spend time working on an important project, or spend time with my family?  Go to dinner with a friend and reconnect, or get in that workout?  If we can find a workaround, great! Creative thinking goes a long way toward honoring our values.

Bottom line, the only way I can wrap my brain around the concept of “willpower” is by looking at what people DO. Willpower, to me, means acting in line with my values, even when it would be much easier to do something different.

When I wait to eat my brownie until my work is done, or skip eating the brownie altogether (but that’s no fun!), that takes “willpower”. When you work out, even though you don’t feel like it, that’s “willpower”. When you persevere to achieve something that matters to you, and turn down the volume on your mind chatter yelling,  It’s not fair! , You can’t do that! , It’s not worth it! or any other helpful hints, that’s “willpower”.

Tune in to what matters most, and the reason-giving and excuses just don’t hold water.  Willpower is doing what matters no matter what.  What matters right now? Do it!


Coulda, Shoulda…Enough of It!


That the birds of worry and care fly over your head, this you cannot change,  but that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent.  – Chinese Proverb

Today I’m sharing a post from Daylle Deanna Schwartz’s blog: Lessons from a Recovering Doormat. She talks about “Could vs. Should”  and highlights the importance of changing just a few letters in that word.

Daylle makes some nice distinctions between the viewpoints when we use those two different words:

I should…” sets us up with expectations, duties, perfectionism, and guilt when we don’t meet all those self-imposed goals. (And look out for Should’s cousin “I’d Better“! Semantics. Same idea.)

I could…” sets us up with choices. We may still decide to do the thing we thought we “should” do, but it feels better, doesn’t it?  Remember when you were little and kids would say, “I’ll do it because I want to but not because you tell me to!”  Usually said in a snotty tone, but look at the message: self-empowerment!

We are always making choices! I’m about to quote you some Rush here (?!?) “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Thanks, Geddy Lee! And you thought all he sang about was the Great White North…

Anyhow, the happy smiley sunshine is here to remind us that when we take responsibility for our choices, we feel a little bit more free. And when we feel a little bit more free, we feel happier.  Of course, you know that the entire purpose of your life is not to feel happy 100% of the time, but it never hurts to up our Happiness Quotient on any given day.

The Chinese proverb I picked as a reminder that when we say “could” instead of “should”, we let worry fly on by rather than sticking with us unnecessarily.  We turn the volume down on that non-stop chatterbox in our heads, telling us all the things we SHOULD be doing, and all the ways we’ve failed everyone we’ve ever known, in ways large and small. What, your chatterbox doesn’t say that? Uhh….heh heh. Yeah, neither does mine…

“Should” isn’t necessarily a horrible word.  Many times, it connects us with our values, which is a good thing. But sometimes, we say it when we are beating ourselves up, or holding ourselves to some standard that might not even be what we, in our heart of hearts, want for ourselves.  So don’t think you must banish the word from your vocabulary; that’s just setting you up for more perfectionism and striving. But let’s be mindful of the phrases we tell ourselves and others.

I could get back to work now, since I’ve taken a lovely short break. And so I will. Because I want to!

Gretchen Rubin’s “Loopholes” – One Coin


“If ten coins are not enough to make a man rich, what if you add one coin? What if you add another? Finally you will have to say that no one can be rich unless one coin can make him so.” – footnote about the “Argument of the Growing Heap” in Erasmus’s Praise of Folly

While taking a little break today, I ran across Gretchen Rubin’s series of blog posts about “loopholes” – you know, those little excuses people find not to follow whatever healthy habit they’ve vowed to acquire.  What, you don’t have any loopholes? Me neither (smirk). But we can read about them, all the same.

All the loopholes are interesting, but I liked this one the best, because it fit in with what we’ve discussed before about what I like to call “the power of accumulation.”  I probably didn’t make that phrase up, but let’s pretend I did.   It works like the story above, in either direction:

ONE little chocolatey mini cupcake that I had to eat or someone would throw it away? (Really, they would have). Fine.  Lots more? Uhhhh…

ONE short foray into non-work or “nonproductive” tasks? Fine. It’s actually helpful to reinforce all the hard work you’ve done, in the right time and place. Letting it stretch on and on? Generally, not a good idea if you want to accomplish your goals.

ONE workout before I get to watch Downton Abbey? No discernable difference.  Lots of workouts? Yep. Hey, what’s that muscle doing there?

ONE task crossed off my long to-do list to get my private practice launched?  Okay. All the tasks crossed off? Woo hoo! I’m in business!

Often, we behavior analyst types help people meet long cumulative goals by setting shorter, more attainable steps and rewarding when we meet them. Just marking my workouts on the calendar is a little boost for me, plus it means now I can relax because I did it! Remember that Premack Principle? Use it!

So, what will one tiny step do for you? Do it! And then do it again. And again. Then, you will see those proverbial coins piling up…

Stick with Love

love-inspirational-daily“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’m a day late, I know! But I ran across this quote yesterday, and was reminded that we have choices in how we see things. And how we choose to see things affects what we choose to do.

Sometimes things seem bleak or overwhelming or downright horrible, and it’s okay to let them seem that way for a while. Our automatic reactions may be very negative when something happens that didn’t fit in our plans.

But eventually, if we want to  move on in the direction of our dreams, we must choose love. We must choose optimism. We must choose to try again rather than admit defeat. We must choose to see that others are fighting their own inner battles, which we know nothing about, and we must choose to be kind.

Let’s try in small or big ways to choose the higher road today.

And also those of us in the chilly Midwest can imagine hanging out on that beach!

The Gratitude Post


“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” – Marcel Proust

A very, very quick post today, but I just had to share.  I happened across a tidbit from researcher Sonja Lyubomirski, who randomly assigned study participants to either:

(a) write down things they were grateful for once per week


(b) write down random things once per week.  Six weeks later, the “gratitude group” was 25% happier than the “random stuff” group.  Oh my.  That’s significant. Now I have to go find the study to read all the details…but it was intriguing.

We seem to think we don’t “have time” to do the things we know we could do to make ourselves happier and healthier. But come on! Five things, once a week. It takes longer than that to complain that you don’t have time to write down five things…

And what if you REALLY went crazy and actually told some of your “charming gardeners” that you appreciate them and why? Ta-da! Gratitude spread.

Try it and see – I bet you’ll get the same results as the Gratitude Group. 

Things to Think About: Happy Wanting

Wanting-Something “To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.” – Bertrand Russell

Two quotes! Well, it’s been a while. You deserve two quotes.

I was thinking about gratitude and all the 50 million things I’m grateful for, and I was going to write about that.  But then, I found a quote I liked, and then while looking for a picture for the post, I found another I liked, that seemed to kind of contradict the first.  It’s happened before (with this post) and here it was, again.  So, odd as it seems, right after THANKSgiving, I’ve found myself writing about wanting instead of gratitude.

First, the Bertrand Russell quote:  having no wants does sound appealing. But then, does it get boring after a while?   So maybe part of happiness is like the kite post in the sense that challenge and strain and work serve to push us to new heights and fulfill us. In this sense, happiness is as much about that feeling of working towards what you want as much as it is about achieving it.

But then JD Houston also has a point.  To achieve new things, we have to do new things. It’s like the Tony Robbins (kinda cliche but true) quote, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” Seems obvious, except when we fear change and keep doing the same old thing, and then whine about how nothing changes. Hmph.

Okay, so both points sound true. But if happiness is (at least partly) in the wanting of things, that means we don’t have them yet. So we’re in the crowded fish bowl, wanting the empty space to swim around and think our fishy thoughts, unbumped by our buddies’ fins and tails. And that wanting to be in the empty bowl is part of happiness. Hmm, but yet we do want to be in the other bowl, so aren’t we then unhappy with the crowded bowl?

I think it’s the “some of the things you want” part that is key. To be have nothing you want certainly would not lead to much happiness.  Still, to be without any desires or wanting, to be completely satisfied with every aspect of your life, might not be so good either. That sounds strange, but bear with me.

Maybe complete lack of wanting becomes nirvana, rather than happiness.  Nirvana is sort of outside the realm of human, it’s something spiritual and other-worldly. You’re completely blissful and whole, so there’s no need to do anything at all! At least that’s how I think of it. I think of nirvana as a state hardly ever attainable by us mere mortals, while we walk this earth, anyhow. At the very least, we’re going to be hungry soon…so there’s something to want! Mmm, bacon…

Happiness, though, that’s something we can have. Right here, right now. Not all the time, of course! We’ve gone over that a few times. But some of the time.  And to have it, we have to be satisfied with most of what we have. And be willing to try new things to get to new experiences and successes, like that empty fishbowl.

How to be Happy: Embrace the Challenges

panda kite“I can choose to perceive every circumstance as an opportunity to grow and stay on my mission. And if this opportunity is also challenging, that’s even better. I have a chance to rise up–like a kite rises against the wind. If there’s no wind the kite can’t fly. Have you ever tried to fly a kite when there’s no wind at all? Have you ever tried to have a great life when there’s no challenge? If there’s no challenge for me I cannot become stronger. I cannot grow.” ~ Steve Chandler

Yeah, that’s a kite. And also it’s a semi-creepy panda.  Thanks, Google Images!   

This will be a quickie, because I’m doing actual work at the moment, but I think this quote is a good one. I’ve never thought of being HAPPY that there are challenges, exactly.  I’ve thought a lot about accepting that challenges will occur, and that they help us grow, etc. But being happy about them?  Seeing them as maybe the only reason we can succeed? Hmmm. 

Who wants to be a kite sitting around on the ground?  Resistance is the reason it flies.  Double hmmm. 

Sometimes I sing that “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” song at Tween Spirit when she’s grumping about something. Yeah, she loves me for it.  But I think the kite idea is a little nicer than just thinking of challenges as tortures we must endure.

What challenges are pushing you up into panda-like heights?


Things to Think About: Making Things Happen



“It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.” – Leonardo daVinci

I loved this quote when I saw it, and then almost immediately started questioning it.  This is a tough one. I’m certainly not one to pooh-pooh the wisdom of daVinci, and I’ve been accused of making a fair number of things happen in my day!  Part of my favorite brand of therapy (ACT) advises us to identify our values, set our goals that lead us in the direction of our values, and get busy working toward them.

At the same time, other wise people advise us to relax, take a step back, and let things happen as they will.  We’ve discussed before how constantly striving to have things OUR way (eeek, CONTROL!) often leads to unhappiness. Because, let’s face it, things don’t always happen the way the little movie playing in our heads says they are supposed to. Sometimes, in fact, very little of what actually occurs is anything close to how we wanted it or how we thought it should be.

So, when things aren’t going our way, what should we do? Go out and “make things happen”? Or take the view that it’s happening the way it is supposed to, and our desires in the matter are not necessarily relevant? To further confuse the matter, how much of what we think we can control is actually in our control, anyhow? Deep thoughts for a Friday, I know!

You’ve probably heard the idea that each life is a thread in a grand tapestry, so as we go along our business, we are part of a larger plan in ways we could never comprehend from our own viewpoint.  I think of the way, at football games, bands march into a formation.  From the field, everyone is just looking out at their band buddies, hoping they are on their proper mark. From the stands, we say “Hey, cool! A duck!” Or whatever. You get the idea.

If that’s true, then the “grand design” might have something even better in store for us than whatever it was we wanted. Or the grand design might have something in store for us that isn’t so fabulous, but it’s still what’s supposed to happen. Personally, I’ve had plenty of situations in which I didn’t get what I wanted at the time, and I’m so grateful for it now!

Other times, I’ve set a goal and worked toward it, not letting obstacles or naysayers get in the way. And I accomplished that goal, and that seemed like the right thing to do. And I thought, Wow, if I hadn’t worked to make that change, how awful would that have turned out?  Hmmm.  Maybe I was right. Maybe not. Maybe no matter what I did in that moment, at that choice point, I still would have ended up where I did, just by a different path.

I don’t have an answer here. And I suspect that there is not ONE right answer. I’m guessing it depends on a lot of factors. Sometimes you have to make things happen, and sometimes you have to let things happen.   Like the “serenity prayer” – change what you can, accept what you can’t change, and be wise enough to know the difference.

Still pondering this one. If you have any insights, or cool quotes, feel free to share!

How to be Happy: It Takes as Long as It Takes

Molly“If you’re rushed, you’re wrong.” – My dad

Ever have those days where you feel like you don’t even have time to pee? Sorry to be gross, but hey, some days are like that. Or at least they feel that way.  Bouncing from one thing to the next, plowing through. Getting distracted by all kinds of urgent-but-not-important types of things. Falling in a stupor on the couch at the end of the day, trying to decompress with something mindless…

Sounds appealing, no? Well, no. But still, some days are just like that.

I know I’ve talked before about mindfulness and slowing down to take in the experiences of life as they come, and how I strive to do that, and how I think it contributes to greater happiness.  Hmm, somehow the idea of “striving to be mindful” sounds odd – aspire, maybe.

Anyhow, two things happened recently that helped me remember another tenet of happiness: letting things happen in their own time. We’ve talked about it a little bit before in terms of trying to control other people or events, but let’s think specifically today about trying to control the timing of things.

The first brain-spark was a book I read called What Alice ForgotIt was a surprisingly fun read, even though the subject seemed like it could be really scary. Alice hits her head and wakes up thinking it’s 10 years ago. So she thinks she’s 29 and pregnant with her first child, when in reality she’s 39, has 3 kids, and is in the middle of a divorce. I’ll say no more, except that one of the things Older Alice was, was Busy. (Kindly notice the capital B.) She was always rushing around, and Younger Alice, who had a tendency to take things more slowly, was mystified. Why would she feel she had to do all these things, and so quickly?

Sometimes I feel like Younger Alice, too. I look at all my stinkin’ lists and piles of stuff to do and think, Hey, wait! Didn’t I used to take naps in college? Didn’t I used to watch the rain run down the window when I was a kid? I’m pretty sure I used to sit in the back yard doing ABSOLUTELY nothing, for at least some amount of time. Possibly looking at bugs and grass? Yeah, that seems familiar. I used to be….unproductive! And it was okay…

I like having a full, busy life. I would not trade a thing! But I also know that sometimes I can say “yes” to too much, pressure myself and get overwhelmed and feel all put-upon, as I know I’ve written about before.  Sound familiar? We must resist the urge to overcommit, to rush, to scamper.  Stop and breathe!

The second thing some of you know about already, so feel free to skim if you like. It happened during our recent family jaunt to Mackinac Island. If you’ve never been, it’s great. Small enough that you can pretty much do anything in a few days, no cars, water all around, usually does not get too hot. I call it a little slice of old-time paradise. Oh, and the fudge. Yeah!

We’ve made the island trip a summer tradition for the last 4 years, and every year we try something new. Last year it was the “Maze of Mirrors” (silly) and glo-golf (fun though I really stunk, compared to my usual daytime putt-putt splendor). This year, we rented our own horse-drawn buggy. We had done the group tours a few times and already knew all the highlights from that. This way, we could do our own thing, and see parts of the island that we hadn’t before. Cool, right?

And then there was Molly. The stable owners of course ask you if you have any horse experience, which Better Half did. I had ridden a horse exactly once, so we scratched the idea of me driving (though I may make a bid for next year).  The owners said, “Oh, he can handle Molly.” We thought maybe she would be “high spirited” or something. They told us there was a certain corner where something  had spooked her, and she wouldn’t turn a certain way. Anyhow, it sounded like no big deal. We planned on a 1-hour trail, but the nice people at the stable said we could do a longer loop (to avoid the troublesome corner) and it would take maybe an hour 45, but they wouldn’t charge us over the hour. DEAL MAGNET! I thought.

We waited about 20 min for Molly to “finish her break” and then we were off. They tell you that trotting the horses is fine but no galloping, and please only walk the horses up hills.

Turns out that was not going to be a problem.

Molly started off clip-clipping along, maybe a little slower than expected, but hey, we were just getting started. Then we notice that she isn’t getting any faster, no matter the number or volume of “giddy up, Molly”s. Better Half does not want to be abusive with the reins, so he’s sort of lightly flicking them. People are whizzing past on bikes (expected). Then we see an elderly gent completely leave us in the dust…in his motorized wheelchair.

We were learning, less than a mile into it, that Molly does the Island at her own pace.

We finally got to the halfway point (45 min later than expected) where a seasoned cowpoke (aptly named Buck) awaited. His job was to hold Molly while we had some refreshments and a bathroom break. Buck said little but seemed to have a knowing hint of a smile. We decided to take our snacks in the buggy. It’s not that we had any particular timetable, but we did want to get to dinner before the sun set, some 3 hours hence.  The kids joked that “Molly” must be short for “molasses”.

The second half, Molly picked up the pace. We referred to it as “really truckin’ “, by which I mean the preschooler and his mom who were strolling alongside us on the road occasionally fell behind. Molly stopped and snorted at every hill. She stopped and looked at every stable, and even at a large pile of manure (they have to store it somewhere). Other horses from the same stable walked (or even trotted) past us. We urged Molly to follow her friends, to no avail. Molly does the island at her own pace.

We made it back to Jack’s Livery, some 2 1/2 hours later. Buck had beat us back (he probably walked) and was smoking on a bench by the door.  The owners thanked us for “taking care of Molly”, which I think meant letting her walk at her Molly pace and not getting all cranky with her.

I think next year we will request Shorty or Bud.

The thing was, even though we were all getting a little irritated at the incredibly slow pace, we also realized that nothing was going to really move Molly along, at least nothing that we were willing to do. So we all pretty much relaxed and enjoyed the ride, pun intended.  I didn’t even realize that Molly had been such a highlight of the trip until after the fact. The picture above is Molly with Buck, if you haven’t guessed already.

The quote above is from my very wise father.  When I was a teenager and learning to drive, he must have said that a million times. I used to sigh and say, “Yeah, Dad.” but you know, I was a teenager. I didn’t really get it. I now understand how much he must have been biting his tongue and using deep breathing while enduring driving practice with me. And how right he was! Resist the rush!

So now, I’m trying to remember Molly plodding along, just sauntering on her trek, when I feel rushed and stressed and all that.   She knew the value of letting it take as long as it takes, and enjoying the view and the company along the way. Molly must have had a dad like mine.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to sit around and do Nothing for a few minutes…

Mmmm, Bacon! What’s Your Love Language?

bacon-heart-2“The giving of love is an education in itself.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

It’s finally here! The Bacon Post! I do hope after all the hype and the waiting it’s not a disappointment.

I decided to scrap all the fussing and just get this thing finished. The last post was a bit too long, though I enjoyed writing it. I promise, this one is shorter.Plus there are TWO pictures, something smart someone else said, and a bunch of paraphrased material. Hardly any original content at all!

Have you heard of  the Five Love Languages?  In a nutshell, it’s about figuring out what says “love” to you, and to those you care about, and trying to “speak each other’s language.”  There are apparently five “love languages”, and of course you can take some kind of test (which Better Half roundly scorned) to figure out what your top “languages” are.  Want the Cliffs Notes version?

1) Words of Affirmationtelling the other person how you feel and why you appreciate them. that’s the “you’re pretty” part (see picture below)…but it can’t be fake or insincere. That’s no good. It can be anything you say that’s positive about the other person and is meant from the heart. (Awww).

2) Acts of Service – doing things for the other person. It could be washing the car,  cleaning the cat boxes, you know, laundry and all that thrilling stuff.

3) Receiving Giftsuh, giving the other person gifts. That one’s pretty obvious. Oooh, I like diamonds! But this would also refer to that flower you picked from the side of the road, or a pack of gum. It doesn’t have to be pricey. It’s the physical token of affection.

4) Quality Timeshowing you care by spending time together, doing things that person likes to do (and hopefully you also like to do). This could be anything – hanging out watching movies, or hiking, or sunning on the beach, watching paint dry, whatever…

5) Physical Touchsay no more. I think we all know about that one. But it also includes more innocent stuff like holding hands or those little pats or hugs or whatever.

The central notion here is that many relationships struggle or fail because the two people “aren’t speaking each other’s love language”, which means that they may think they are showing their feelings and behaving in a loving way because they are doing what THEY think would be wonderful. The problem is, it may or may not feel wonderful to the other person. If I’m primarily a “words of affirmation” and “quality time” type but you’re more about “receiving gifts” and “physical touch”, you can see the disconnect.

gimme chocolate

Okay, maybe that won’t fix everything, but…it’s worth a try. Words of Affirmation and Receiving Gifts! Bingo.

So according to the Five Love Languages book (yeah, I took the quiz) I’m primarily the affirming words and quality time type. So if that matches up with what I’m getting from the important people in my life (remember the “love” part could apply to more than just romantic love) then I’m all set. But if I’m not, I’m going to be feeling unfulfilled and cranky.

The key is not only to figure out your perspective, but those of the other people around you. Maybe they’re trying to show you they care, but it’s in a different “language”. Hmmm.

Here’s where the bacon comes in. Picture a Monday evening, late-ish. Tired from working all day and teaching a class at night and hungry to the point where it hurts. That was me. I get home and I’m not in, shall we say, the best of moods.  Better Half sees this, and rather than dump whatever on me about homework or the stuff to do for the next day or what the score was on whichever sporting event was currently on (there probably was one), he did a very loving thing.

He asked me if I wanted some bacon, and he made it for me.

Acts of Service, baby! Okay, that’s  not my top “love language”, but it’s one of his (he didn’t want to take the quiz but I kind of forced him and then improvised a little and that’s what I came up with.)  I was able to see that he was doing something loving, and you better believe I ate that bacon with a smile on my face.

I’m not saying you need to run right out and buy the book or anything, though it’s always interesting to me to see how other people try to unravel the mysteries of human relationships.

How does this apply to you? Are there people you feel you’re not connecting with though you both are trying? Maybe you need some language lessons, or at least some bacon.