16 Apr Willpower Part 2: Getting clarity
The brain needs tasks to be finished. If you have uncompleted tasks or any unmet goals in your life, they have a strong tendency to keep popping up in your mind. We can clear our minds by writing down a plan, because that gets the items out of the mind. Then you won’t be beating yourself up, thinking that you don’t have enough willpower to do whatever it is you’re wanting to accomplish.
Planning for a clear mind
There’s a certain skill, however, to creating a plan to clear the mind. Goals are the big items, and tasks or actions are the things you need to do to meet the goals. I wouldn’t choose more than three goals per week, because most goals need a lot of actions. So instead of writing a daunting “to-do” list with big items, you’ll have a concrete list of simple actions that you and your brain can handle each day with a minimum of willpower.
For each goal, write down the first task or action you need to do to reach your goal. Be very, very specific, so that each task or action involves just one thing. For example, if your goal is to paint a room, you might write as your first action, “choose the colour”. Now your brain can let go of that flashing red light that keeps saying “Paint the room! Paint the room!”, because now you’ve got a simple plan you can readily accomplish.
Once you’ve chosen the colour, the next action might be “measure the room”, but if you don’t know how to do that, your next action step might be “go on-line to find out how to measure a room for painting”. If instead you decide to phone the paint store to get advice about measuring the room, your next action would be “look up the phone number of the paint store”.
When deciding on next steps, always ask yourself, “Is there anything I need to do before I can do that?” For instance, for something as simple as “choose the colour”, maybe another action has to come first, such as “discuss colour ideas with spouse”.
Why this need for such detail? Because the brain can let go of a small, manageable, do-able task you write down, but it can’t let go of a big thing like “paint the room” because so many other things need to happen first. And we’re human; “Look up the phone number” is a simple, concrete thing you can do without a lot of fuss, and it moves you closer to your goal.
The beauty of this approach is that you need just a smidgeon of willpower to do each small step, and all those tiny doses of willpower lead eventually to accomplishing the big goals that matter to you.
Next time, I’ll share ideas about how to strengthen willpower and increase self control.
Reference: Willpower by R.F. Baumeister and J. Tierney. 2011. The Penguin Press, New York. 291 pp.