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Strengthening Persistence, part 1: How to Build Willpower

I’ve been reading the book The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal lately (book review to come at some point), and she talks a lot about things we can do to build willpower. Who doesn’t want more willpower? Being able to make the choice that we know we will be happy with later is a good thing, right? So, I thought I’d chat for a bit about my experience with some of the exercises she suggests.

One of the ways that she suggests to build willpower is by making a conscious decision to consistently do some activity with your non-dominant hand. As I read this, I was reminded of an experience I had when I was a kid.

I’m very right-handed. As it turns out, I’m also very right-footed. When I was younger, I played a lot of hacky-sack. When I started, my left foot was basically useless, and that made the game really hard for me. So, knowing that the only way to get better was to practice, I made the decision to always start with my left foot.

When I first made that decision, it was awful. The hacky-sack would come to me, I’d swipe my left foot at it, and it would pass right by my foot and hit the ground. Even on those occasions when I did manage to hit it, it would go nowhere good. So, I started standing in front of a wall, by myself, and just practicing with my left foot. Slowly (very slowly), I got better. After a few months, I could start with my left foot almost as well as with my right.

After a few more months, I could no longer tell the difference; starting with my left foot felt natural, and I felt just as good with either foot. Then, for the rest of the time I played regularly (another few years), I always started with my left foot. And, even though I haven’t played regularly in a long time, still today if I visualize someone tossing a hacky-sack to me, I see myself starting with my left foot.

So, back to the book. When I read her suggestion, I decided to give it a try again, in the name of research. (I think I’m doing reasonably well in the willpower department, but I could be wrong, and having more isn’t going to hurt me anyway.) I have a routine in the morning where I make coffee one cup at a time. There’s a lot of scooping and stirring involved: scoop the coffee out of the container into the coffeemaker, scoop some sugar out of a container into the mug, stir the coffee with the sugar in it, pour in the milk and stir again, etc. I decided that all of that stuff (everything that involved a spoon, basically) I’d do with the opposite hand that I usually used.

Friends, this was some difficult shit. It’s not just that scooping the sugar with my left hand was hard (although it was); it’s that even with verbalizing my intention as I started to make the coffee, I still found my hands going on autopilot and doing the thing that I had just said I didn’t want to do. (Interestingly, though, after I wrote the first draft of this entry, I didn’t forget again for weeks. Anecdotal evidence for the power of journaling, I would say.)

But, in some sense, that’s exactly part of the point. One way to think about willpower is that it’s the ability to ignore the first thought that goes through your head about what your body ought to be doing. When I started this exercise, I’d been making coffee using the same routine for several years, and using spoons with my right hand for decades. Of course my first thought was to pick up the spoon with my right hand.

The exercise, however, gives me practice in ignoring that thought, and picking up the spoon with my other hand. And, it’s practice, which means that the point is not doing it perfectly. The point is to repeatedly make myself do something that’s not the first thing I would think of.

Even after I got to the point where I was using my left hand on autopilot (a few weeks), it still felt awkward and took concentration. With my right hand, I don’t have to think about exactly how I’m holding the spoon. Getting the correct angle and position of the spoon as I’m scooping the sugar is automatic. Shaking the spoon so that it has exactly the right amount of sugar in it just happens. Pouring it into the mug without spilling any is a no-brainer. With my left hand, none of that is true; all of those things take concentration and focus, and I mess them up much of the time anyway. (My coffee counter has never had more sugar spilled on it than the time I’ve been doing this.)

And, again, all of this is kinda the point. It’s easy to think that personal growth of any sort is supposed to be easy. Our inner critic can easily take over with something along the lines of “If you were actually talented, this wouldn’t be so hard for you.” But, of course, that’s not true at all. Doing new things is hard. Personal growth is hard.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the non-dominant hand example, but that’s not the only way to build willpower—just the one that’s the easiest to explain and talk about, and maybe the one that’s the most memorable. Some of the other suggestions are meditation and exercise; while I believe in those, they seem to be suggested everywhere these days, and I’ve been doing both of them for decades, so they don’t feel particularly interesting to me right now.

All of these suggestions, though, are only valuable to the extent that they’re done consistently. I’ve written elsewhere about how going to the gym once isn’t going to hurt, but it’s not likely to help either. My experience with the non-dominant hand exercise was the same; doing it once was annoying, but not particularly helpful. By doing it over and over, I got to practice something that was good for me.

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