I remember it just sitting there and staring at me. That pile of clutter on my kitchen counter that probably sat there for a few weeks. It wasn’t literally staring at me or else this would be the start to one of the stranger horror stories to date, where an unsorted collection of mail, notebooks, charger cords and random nonsense achieved a sentient state and was sizing me up. Not good times.
Anyhoo, I was definitely looking at it with a touch of frustration because I really do hate when things get all out of sorts if I have complete control over them. Given that we’ve established that the clutter was not some kind of fairy tale monster, I definitely should have been wrangling it.
Yet, I had not.
The clutter on the counter was actually symptomatic of something larger that had been nagging away in the back of my brain – that I had let a bunch of things go for any of a number of reasons. The reasons all seem good in the moment (I’m just too busy right now, I have a lot going on, I’m tired at the end of the day, etc.), but which total up to a neat little stack of excuses.
So why had this happened? And why had I gotten bad at taking time to meditate? Or to read more consistently? Or to do more writing? Or get to bed at a decent hour? Or, or, or…
The answer was actually pretty simple – When I would inevitably hit that point of shouting unto the heavens “Damn it! This will ALL get fixed!” while shaking my clenched fists of fury, that’s what I would try to do. Fix ALL of it. At once. Not one or two things. Oh gosh no. In that moment I was sick and tired of being sick and tired, so I was gonna get cracking on changes, my friends. Ohhhh, the changes I would undertake.
It was only when I was recently reading the excellent book “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney did the folly of my efforts become so apparent. The question was never being an undisciplined slob or somehow being weak in my principles. It was really that I wasn’t giving myself a chance to succeed because I wanted everything fixed at once, instead of taking a more methodical approach. One of the interesting pieces of that book is how clearly it lays out how to build and what easily erodes willpower.
Seeking to spread your finite willpower thinly across a multitude of worthwhile improvements results in not achieving any of them. And getting frustrated for the umpteenth time. And repeating a mind-numbing cycle… again.
How did I finally address all of this? (Notice I did not say fix, since that clearly implies it is all good from here on out and y’all know that ain’t the case).
Step One: Make The List
I made a short list of 4 things and called it my “Willpower Development List”. Very official, I know. It’s as follows:
- Straighten up my house in the moment. No waiting around.
- Pray/meditate daily.
- Read/write every day.
- Get to bed by 10PM.
Step Two: Assign Each Goal a Month
I picked a month for each step and to focus on getting good at that task. So, I started with straightening up for August. Each day I would see to be REALLY good at keeping my house super tidy. Nice and simple. Then in September, I added the prayer/meditation as a 2nd task of the day, after already developing the good habit of straightening up the house. Then in October, the reading and writing.
Step Three: Automate
Because everything that needs to be done in this world can now only be accomplished with a super snappy app, I found the Streaks – Daily Habit Tracker app for my phone which would remind me every day about the tasks (there are a variety of apps like this out there for whatever phone OS y’all are rocking). The goal would be to string together longer and longer streaks of completing everything. I’m not always perfect, but I am WAY better. And if I find myself not being consistent in the habits I’ve developed, I will not add something new until I have the first group down solid.
Step Four: The Bigger Lesson
All of this is a pretty simple approach, but one where I began to see momentum and ended the feeling that I was an undisciplined goober with little prospect of success in sight.
It also made me feel more keenly a larger point: that my inability to effect the changes I wanted was not a failing of personal character as much as it was the use of a flawed method. I urge everyone to keep that in mind in their own lives. Human beings are capable of soaring achievements that continue to take my breath away on a regular basis, but we also all bear an innate ability to personalize our shortcomings as hard-wired genetic limitations. We’re supremely gifted as beating ourselves up for seemingly everything we do not do well. Just remember that maybe… just maybe… that getting a perspective check may be all you need to shift the view.
And that’s better than any habit streak I know.