Willpower Boot Camp: Day 1
I am fascinated with willpower. Willpower, as I have come to understand it, is your individual capacity to overcome a natural reaction and do something that you don't want to do. This cascades into all aspects of life, from the time that we can begin to reflect on our own thoughts (understood to develop between age 3 and 5) and onto the rest of our life. When we begin to respond to our natural "preferences" and decide to act against them is when we exercise willpower for the first time. It could look something like seeing a jar of cookies as a youngling and deciding not to take one even though you really want to. Your brain may be calling upon previous experience of you being scolded by a parent or caretaker for taking sweets without first asking for permission. Regardless of what path your brain follows, the result is that you had to exercise a certain amount of willpower to keep your primitive brain from consuming calories when they are tasty and right before your very eyes, ripe for the picking.
As we proceed through life, we may cultivate a mind that seeks to use willpower regularly. We set challenges and goals for ourselves that require the regular use of willpower until something becomes a habit, in that executing the activity no longer triggers dissonance in your mind. An example of this for me is brushing my teeth. When I was a little kid, I didn't enjoy brushing my teeth. But I did it, again, and again, and again, either by my own accord or by the threat of not being able to watch Malcolm in the Middle if I didn't. Ultimately, that led to a tried and true habit, where the only circumstances in which I do not brush my teeth are because I am so hammered I barely make it to my bed (only a few instances in college) or I am away from home and do not have a toothbrush/ toothpaste/ clean water. It no longer requires willpower for me to get up and brush my teeth, and is ultimately non-negotiable in my mind as something that has to happen. As such, I never have to try anymore to push myself to do it.
This applies to wealth management and goal setting quite nicely. In building the habits we have discussed on this blog, it is going to require willpower, no question about it. There are going to be things we suggest you change in your day to day life that are going to be difficult. Your gut reaction will be to do the opposite, which is where willpower comes to the crossroads. The interesting things here is that willpower is like a muscle. The more your use it, the stronger it gets. If you overwork it beyond your threshold, it will snap like a rubberband and you will fall back to your old ways.
So how can we prevent this from happening? There are circumstances that you can surround yourself with to insure your success with building a new habit. If you can do something at the same time every day, for 90 days, you have a good chance of that behavior becoming automatic. The problem arises when you are faced with situations on an infrequent basis. How can you build a habit of responding with calm reason and logic if your boss or a customer is screaming at you? How can you build a habit of cooking meals at home if you got home late, forgot to go shopping, and are now starving and it's 9PM? You have to always find ways in which your habit building can fail and do your best to eliminate the circumstances that allow that. It's making a list of your meals each day beforehand so you never find yourself with an empty fridge and pantry.
Another way to cultivate willpower is to set a large goal for yourself, and keep track of your willpower muscle by assigning points to things that require you to exercise willpower. When you reach a certain threshold, you reward yourself with whatever goal you may have created. Perhaps you'd like to lose 10 pounds. Maybe every time you cook yourself a healthy meal instead of defaulting to Burger King, you give yourself a point. Once you reach 10 willpower points, you can go on an ice cream date. Or they can be more comprehensive. I've decided to make a goal of 1000 willpower points based on meeting about a dozen different goals each day. Each goal met allows one point for the day. Once I reach 1000 points, I will allow myself to buy a Z06 Corvette.
Obviously this is a huge financial milestone, and it requires some other things to be in line (like selling my current Corvette, getting the remaining cash to buy it outright, etc). Since the milestone is substantial, the habits that I build on the path to obtaining my goal should be just as substantial. The exercise in willpower should amount to some quantifiable means of improving your life. One of the aforementioned daily goals is to cook myself 3 meals a day. If I miss a single one, or skip a meal completely, then the point for the day is gone.
The logic here is that it takes actions that require small amounts of willpower and pushes them into the territory of allowing you to obtain a goal sooner rather than later. It makes it so even minuscule tasks and habits you would like to build are hedged on the possibility of obtaining your dream car a day sooner. Or a week sooner. Or a month. Think of something you really want and treat your pursuit of difficult habits like a currency - a bank account that you add to, that you can one day cash in for something you really want.
This is an instance in which I might advocate to splurge - the basis being that you are building financially minded and physical goals that will benefit you for a lifetime. Some of these habits that you are ultimately building may lead to you to saving hundreds of thousands in expenses over your sustaining your current way of life. Working out at home, cooking healthy food (which could add years to life as well as wealth). You get the idea.