Saturday, April 20, 2019

Willpower Fatigue

We are, all of us humans, beings divided. Although I get the impression that we feel this to different degrees. Over the course of human history different scholars and visionaries have described this in different terms. I like the way Chip and Dan Heath describe it in their book Switch How to Change Things When Change is Hard. 
I picked this jewel up to read for work. I am a big fan of leadership and business literature in general. In Switch we are ultimately dealing with getting things done by dealing with people's logic and emotions. The book likens the emotional part of the brain to a full grown (and sometimes angry) elephant. The rational part of the mind then is the elephant's human rider. The very valid point made by this analogy is that our reason and logic gives us the illusion of being in control, but in all reality humans are primarily stupid emotional animals without any real guidance.
This very much is in connection with my view of life and living. I like to believe that I am a more logic based human, but at the end of the day I am as much a slave to my emotions as anyone else. Therapy taught me very well that trying to prevent myself from expressing my feelings was efficiently  and completely wrecking my life.
Switch presented an interesting idea. Basically people are not lazy. Instead they are so worn out with controlling themselves in too many aspects of their lives to have willpower in EVERY situation. This really appeals to my mind. I have amazing willpower. I haven't had a desert, sweet, or soda in 3 years. Yet, when I decided to drop potato chips, crackers, and bread from my diet this month I totally failed. While I will admit that bread, crackers, and chips are a personal favorite of mine there is no reason that they should be harder for me to quit than my former soda and Little Debbie habit.
My Willpower is extremely fatigued. I spend most of my interactions these days biting my tongue for one reason or another. The further I am forced from the truth of my emotions the harder it is to control my behavior and, as a result, my reactions and mouth. I find myself having extreme reactions and then having to back peddle all too often. Luckily, I am fairly self aware and I focus a lot of delaying reaction and processing things emotionally before showing a reaction when that is possible.
In less high brow terms my life works like this:
  •    Some potentially upsetting piece of information is given to me.
  •    I have a base emotional response which includes a display of frustration or outright anger depending on the severity of impact of the bad news. 
  •    Depending on the bearer of the bad news, the media by which it is relayed, and their reaction, I have a few moments to think.
  •    I am forced to apologize for my overreaction. This is frustrating in and of itself. 
  •    I consider a better course of action. 
  •    A conversation, hopefully, begins.
  •    Things are resolved. Sometimes this goes the way I want. Sometimes it doesn't, but I come to terms with my new reality. 
What I have learned about myself is that the less thinly stretched I am on my willpower the less of a reaction I have. My willpower is amazingly finite. If I see to as many of my needs as I possibly can on a routine basis then I can increase my willpower to its maximum capacity. This was probably a very stupid time to try and change my eating habits. Taking away comfort foods results in less comfort.
I need willpower and the control it provides a lot more than I need to lose a few pounds that the bread, chips, and crackers diet change will provide. Knowing that I am in need of this comfort I am probably going to add a box of Cheese-Its to my grocery list. If eating a few carbs provides me with the patience and coping mechanisms to be able to do more at my job and negotiate the labyrinthine depths of my personal legal situation then that is a cheap and easy fix. I can certainly afford to eat a few too many calories more than I can afford to lose my cool in a vital situation.
This realization has lead me to change my approach to a TON of things. I have put a lot more consideration into what changes really need to be made in my life and in what places it is best to stay the course temporarily. I can provide myself a bit of a Dave Ramsey style common sense approach of what to work on and what to leave be until a more appropriate time.
Speaking of Dave Ramsey, Willpower fatigue can really hit financially. It leads to a sort of cycle of feast and famine. It starts out by some unexpected expense hitting your budget. Having to replace a tire killed by a pothole has been the ever recurring theme of the last two years for my family. I just love the roads around Knoxville. I don't quite live paycheck to paycheck, but I am not yet to the point where my emergency fund and savings are substantial. I AM on the path to that life, but it is a couple of years away, yet.
So, *bam* you have a flat that has to be replaced. That means you have to come out of pocket with $100- $150 unexpectedly. That causes you to have to tighten your belt on your budget for a paycheck or two. When you get to the far side of that belt tightening you almost always feel the need to have a little splurge. As long as the splurge is small it isn't that big a deal. All too often having had 2 to 4 weeks of austerity causes you to have either a big splurge or a series of small splurges until you are a lot more in trouble than you were with the tire incident. Now the belt has to tighten even more. When you get to the far side of that you feel the need to spend even more. The cycle repeats and repeats again until you feel like you are always broke. I call this "Fuck It Economics." As in," Fuck it. Let's go out to eat. I feel like we haven't had a treat in far too long."
To combat this I try to build splurges into my budget. Sure I have figured out how to feed me and the kid on $56 for two weeks. The diet is good for me and her. It is a little repetitive though. So I budget $150 to eat on from paycheck to paycheck and I reward myself occasionally when I don't spend that much. I don't have to acknowledge these breaks in willpower with a "Fuck it!" I expect them. We need a trip to Burger King to play on the playground. We need to buy a new toy at the store because the kid acted amazing. By having the forethought to build in the unexpected I am not taxed past my financial means very often.
I am trying to find ways to think like that in my day to day. My oldest and her boyfriend seem to take pleasure in wrecking the kitchen. They leave food wrappers on the counters rather than trashing them. Every time she cooks there is a sink full of dishes that don't get washed for days. I don't know why it really stresses me out, but every time I run into them in the kitchen I have to apply my willpower to not get hateful about it.
I started thinking hard about it. Why do the dishes bother me? They kind of gross me out. When they sit for a while they stink and attract bugs. I don't like living in filth.
Do I dislike it enough to do something about it or am I just trying to enforce them cleaning up their mess? When I asked myself that question I had to admit it was a lot easier for me to have an attitude and expect them to fix the problem than it was for me to roll up my sleeves and wash the dishes. I even frequently made the excuse both to myself and aloud that it wasn't my mess! That is a moronic argument.  If I take exception and put the effort into feeling some sort of way about it why was I not willing to clean up the mess.
When I really examined it I resolved just to wash the dishes. It didn't take any great amount of time or extreme effort. Once they were clean I felt better. The dishes were my issue not the two young adults being lazy about cleaning up after themselves. That took the frustration out of my emotional load and strengthened my willpower. I think this proactive, preventative approach to my own mental health will set me on a much more relaxed outlook.
There is simply no sense looking at a mess, complaining about it, expecting other people to clean it up, but doing nothing about it yourself but carrying around anger, frustration, and resentment. I had put a lot more effort into avoiding dealing with the dishes and fussing at my daughter than it took me to just wash them.
I can already hear some of the people reading this saying," Yeah, but you are training your 20-year-old daughter that she can continue to be lazy about cleaning up after herself and her lazy boyfriend. This is actually making the laziness worse." I agree with you. I also know that I cannot win that fight by leaving a stack of dirty dishes. I cannot win that fight by bitching and complaining. As a parent and mentor, I can set a good example and hope it is followed. I will clean up after them just like my parents have cleaned up plenty of my messes over the years. I will do it without complaining or even drawing attention to it. I will believe that the kids will come to realize the importance of pitching in as a family and looking out for the rest of the family. I know already that they do. They are both helpful to me. Now if I can just beat my Dad to mowing the yard each week I will feel accomplished!

Removing the things that make me have to hold my temper makes a difference in my attitude. I can be myself and put right my life much more easily than fighting all of the silly little frustrations along the way. It really makes a huge difference keeping that Elephant fat and happy. My Rider feels much more in control. The illusion of control is good enough for me.

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