The other day I asked my 18-year-old son this age-old question, “Why did I have to drag you out of bed every single day for school, yet I don’t even know your work schedule and you manage to get yourself there on time for each shift?”
And, he answered me in the way you would expect, “Because they pay me to be there mom.”
I didn’t buy that answer (pun intended).
He bolted out the door before I could ask him the follow up question that was running through my mind, “So if we forced you to go to school but paid you to do so, you would have gone willingly?” I think his answer would have been no.
So, if it is not about being paid or not being paid, what is the difference?
I have been reading “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg and learning about the role agency plays in willpower. In the book, Duhigg shares a study that was conducted at the University of Albany where people were put in a room with a plateful of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. One group was asked to not eat the cookies in a kind way that let them know that, ultimately, the decision to eat the cookies or not was theirs to make. Another group was ordered not to eat the cookies. One by one they entered the room and conjured up their willpower to avoid the delicious smelling cookies. No one ate a cookie, but that wasn’t actually the crux of the experiment. The important learning came next.
After the participants were in the room with the cookies, they were asked to complete a very boring computer task. The people who had agency with the cookies, the people who chose not to eat them because they were asked in a way that lead them to believe they had a choice, were able to sustain their attention on the boring task for much longer than the participants who were directly instructed not to eat the cookies. So what does this tell us?
When we believe that we have some control, that we have choice and freewill, we have substantially more willpower. This concept makes so much sense to my stubborn self. If someone asks me to read a book, even if it is a book I am interested in, my desire to read the book dwindles. I attended a community college right after high school because I thought I was supposed to go to college, not necessarily because I wanted to. I took the required basic courses and I found most of them to be relatively easy, yet I graduated with my associates with a 2.8 grade point average. I went on to a four-year university to pursue a degree that I very much wanted and took more difficult classes. I graduated from the university with a 3.8 grade point average. What was the difference? Agency, freewill, choice, and, therefore, willpower.
Back in early December, I attended a conference with many educator friends. One of them had lost some weight and looked very healthy and happy. As we chatted, he told me what he was doing the #75Hard Challenge from Andy Frisella. (He also warned me not to listen to Andy’s podcast around children because of the language–helpful advice!) I was intrigued because my friend talked about it being a mental toughness challenge that had a side benefit of getting in better physical shape. It sounded like exactly what I needed because I was letting my bad habits get the best of me.
With principaling and parenting and wifing (that is wife-ing, not wifi-ing) and writing and speaking and traveling—-oh so many -ings!!!—-I was not taking good care of myself physically. I felt like I was using up all my willpower to keep those things going and that I had none left to fight my bad habits of overeating and under exercising. I needed to prove to myself that I could prioritize taking better care of myself and I knew that I would have more energy for everything else if I did.
So, I started the #75Hard Challenge on December 7. Many people thought I was crazy to start right as the holidays were in full-swing. I know that they thought I was crazy because they were not shy about telling me. But, I knew myself and I knew that if I didn’t start before the holidays, I would be even worse off after the holidays and I didn’t need to feel any worse about myself than I did on December 6. I am proud to say that I rang in the New Year on day 25 of the challenge, already one-third of the way through. I also rang in the New Year feeling better about myself than I had in a very long time.
In “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg also writes about willpower being not a skill, but a muscle that we can strengthen. If we strengthen our willpower in one area of our lives, it can positively affect other areas. I am learning this to be true as I spend some of my Christmas break organizing closets and drawers that I have ignored for years. Willpower feeds on systems and routines that become new habits. It also feeds on belief–belief in yourself, in your goals, in a higher being.
Merriam-Webster defines willpower as “energetic determination”, and through research we know that willpower is strongest when we have a sense of agency and when we exercise our willpower muscle. Not only does this knowledge have implications in our personal lives and goals, it can also impact our work in schools as principals and teachers. In the United States, K-12 schooling is viewed as a requirement more than a privilege, but we have an opportunity to empower students with voice, choice and agency within our walls.
Adults choose their professions but after a while going to work can feel like something we have to do. We know that looking at our work as something we get to do helps with our mindset and now we know that it also increases our willpower, our energetic determination to do our work. School leaders must find ways to empower teachers to have agency and voice in order for their willpower to thrive and for school to be need-satisfying.
Just like 2019 and all the years that came before it, 2020 will be a year with great highs, great lows, and everything in between. Challenges will come, we will be tested, and we will need each other to get through. Any goal or resolution we have for the new year will require willpower to follow through. It also requires anticipating the challenges that lay in our path and planning for them. Willpower gives all New Year’s Resolution the backbone to create sustained change.
This year, my focus is on strengthening my own willpower and supporting those around me to do the same. I am starting with the #75Hard Challenge and have already begun to plan for day 76. In addition, because I continue to believe that a rising tide lifts all ships, I will rejoice and celebrate the accomplishments of others as much or more than my own. There is room enough in this world for everyone’s success and I can easily get bogged down with the comparison trap, so rejoicing with others is a continuous goal for me. Because music moves my soul, again this year I will create a playlist of songs that lift my spirit and continually reinforce my goals (for more info on a #NewYearPlaylist, check out this post). Cheers to a new year, a new decade, and a new opportunity to grow and learn together!
The achievements of willpower are almost beyond computation. Scarcely anything seems impossible to the man who can will strongly enough and long enough.
-Orison Swett Marden