This is a guest blog submission by Eliud Lamboy, an entrepreneur and a friend.
It’s a chilly morning at 5am during the month of April. I’m standing in front of my apartment’s pool in nothing but trunks and a cheap pair of swimming goggles. Shivering from the cold, I stood there for what seemed an eternity while my mind pondered the action I was about to take. Swimming was not my strong suit. “Is this normal?” I said in a whisper to myself. It was all irrelevant as I stood there. What mattered was self-improvement; which at the moment, meant jumping into a cold pool. The experience tested my willpower, “the faculty which a person decides on and initiates action.”
Willpower is a quintessential mental faculty to develop in the think positive bank of success. If you are reading this, you are familiar with the prescription to develop willpower:
2-take action towards the goal
3-reward yourself after the goal is achieved
Those are the simple rules that build willpower. Yet, as I shared my poolside story with my colleagues, I was dumbfounded with the number of people that asserted they would never be able to do something like that. I didn’t even ask if they could! In a 2011 study by the American Psychological Association, 27% of the population reported not having the willpower required to improve their life. However, most people agree that willpower can be learned.
Practice: Instant Positive Thinking vs Delayed Positive Thinking
In 1972, Mischel conducted an experiment to measure some children’s ability to delay gratification. The kids were instructed to hold off on eating treats that were set in front of them for as long as they could. The Stanford study discovered that a kids ‘wait periods’ directly correlated with SAT scores. The longer they held out, the better they scored on the SATs in their later years.
As a learned behavior, small variant actions add up to big wins in willpower. In a YouTube video, world renowned motivational speaker Tony Robbins discusses a state of certainty to accomplishing minute wins towards achieving bigger goals. He recounts helping a prominent plastic surgeon to get unstuck. During the process, he reviewed the plastic surgeon’s notes and discovered a pattern familiar to the doctor. The difference between beautiful and butt-ugly is two millimeters. Tony demonstrates the application to practice with small changes in posture, voice tonality, and voice volume. The principle commands making small changes to achieve a winning state of mind that increases willpower. The hack, if you will, is simply moving your shoulders back and controlling your voice to gain the certainty state of mind.
Don’t Jump Into the Pool Yet, But Think Positive
As with any other skill, getting through the learning curve requires practice. Set goals at manageable levels. An accepted theory of behavior modification proclaims that habit forming requires one month of constant application of the desired behavior. However; take note that, as Nancy Etcoff explains in the science of happiness, negative behavior cannot simply be negated through willpower alone. If the goal is to diminish negative behaviors with negative outcomes, then look to replace the negative behavior with a behavior that recompenses your brain’s reward systems. Since we are complex systems with feedback loops, positive thinking should be planned in terms of systems, with manageable SMART plans that include simple, yet multi-system goals.
Let’s say, as an example, that you want to lose weight (a common goal). A poorly designed SMART goal with lack of focus and difficulty developing willpower would look like this:
For the next 30 days, I will not eat doughnuts in the morning.
It’s reasonable to believe that by decreasing your caloric intake by 3 doughnuts a week, you will have diminished your caloric intake by 2400 calories in one month. However, the delayed gratification system of your brain will scream at you during that month. Your willpower suffers leading to the likelihood of binging.
A multi-system – think positive – SMART plan can look like this:
For the next 30 days I will increase the power of my health and body by achieving the following results.:
I will not eat doughnuts in the morning for a total monthly reduction of 2400 calories.
I will take an evening 20 minute walk for a total monthly expenditure of 3000 calories.
The increase exercise compensates the brain’s endorphin system during the actual exercise phase. The dopamine and oxycontin level increases during the planning and accomplishment phases help to minimize the negative effects surmounting from the lack of reward to the brain that will result from doughnut withdrawal.
Standing there before the pool, I realized the continuous application of the process (setting goals, acting on goals, rewarding after goal completion) hardwired my brain’s willpower ability, which at the time translated to jumping into a cold pool at a ridiculous morning hour. I jumped into the pool with an end goal in mind. I failed the exercise miserably that day. The water leaking into the goggles and taking in gulps while trying to keep my head under was an experience I was not anticipating. Willpower, however, enabled my brain to think positive while I continued the punishment day after day, making incremental, yet continuous gains to be able to swim at the level that I visualized before the journey started. Getting a really good pair of swimming goggles helped as well.