Add “I will” and “I want” Willpower to Your “I won’t” Willpower Challenges

Lily Dayton of the L.A. Times has written a nice article summarizing key points from the book The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can  Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal.

Many people try to use willpower to achieve weight loss.  About this Dayton writes:

“To achieve our goals, McGonigal explains, we rely on three strengths: “I will”  power, “I won’t” power and “I want” power. Though everyone associates “I won’t”  power with weight loss (I won’t eat the cake, I won’t stop for fast food on my  way home), most people undervalue the other two.”

Learn more about “I will” power and “I want” power by reading Dayton’s article, by reading McGonigal’s book, or by reading this blog.  Because after all, you are the prime mover behind all three kinds of willpower.

Posted in Goals, Motivation, Willpower | Leave a comment

Resolved: I will change my New Year’s resolutions into goals

Postcard of a New Year's Resolution from 1909

Tomorrow marks the end of the first quarter of the year.  Businesses will determine if they have met their quarterly goals and will check their progress toward their annual goals.  It is a good time for individuals to do the same.

If you made any New Year’s resolutions, how have you done with them?  If you are like most people, your resolution has already failed, likely some time ago.  New Year’s resolutions have a terrible track record.  Their success rate is only 8% according to one often-cited study.  There are several reasons for this.

For one, people often resolve to make behavioral changes, such as changing their diets, starting an exercise program, or quitting smoking.  Behavioral changes are notoriously difficult, in part because they involve changing habits.  Some studies of habits suggest it takes 21 or 30 days of consistent activity to form a new habit (or break an old one), and some studies even suggest it takes two months or longer for a new habit to take hold.  So in this regard, it is not surprising that New Year’s resolutions often fail.

But there is another reason why resolutions have such a poor success rate of enacting change.  It is because they are resolutions.  Resolutions are a form of a promise.  A promise is kept, or a promise is broken.  It is a binary function.  One cannot have partial success in keeping a promise.

In contrast, goals are a direction, something to move toward.  One can reach a goal, as one can keep a promise (or resolution).  But one can also make progress toward a goal.  Can one make progress toward a resolution?  Also there can be setbacks on the way to a goal, and that’s OK.  But once a promise has been broken, it is broken.  For example: one resolves to quit smoking.  The smoker stops smoking for 3 weeks.  Then he lights up.  If he had made a New Year’s resolution to quit smoking, his resolution has failed.  It’s all over.  If it were his goal to quit smoking, he would have suffered a setback, but he could continue in his efforts to quit.  He has already made progress toward the goal, in that he had not smoked for 3 weeks, then he can try again to make further progress, perhaps quitting for 6 weeks or longer next time.

This difference is not merely semantic, it is psychological.  The resolution-maker who suffers the setback is likely to give up, having “failed” to keep the resolution.  In contrast, the goal-setter is less likely to give up, as the goal is still the intended destination no matter if the path toward it turns out to be more circuitous than initially expected.  And the resolution-maker has little opportunity for positive feedback until the end of the year.  But the goal-setter is rewarded psychologically with partial successes all along the way.  “I lost my first pound, hooray!” is a reasonable feeling from one who has a goal of losing 30 pounds.  One who has a resolution to lose weight is unlikely to celebrate incremental progress this way.

If you declared resolutions for behavior change this year, it would be advisable to revise them into goals.  This will increase your chance to succeed in the making the desired change.

Posted in Goals | Leave a comment

New Published Work: “John Cisna’s All-McDonald’s Diet Illustrates Importance of Choice”

My piece “John Cisna’s All-McDonald’s Diet Illustrates Importance of Choice” has been published in the blog of The Objective Standard, today, January 13, 2014.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Lessons from swimming phenom Diana Nyad

Diana Nyad had tried to swim from Cuba to Florida four times before.  On her fifth attempt, at the age of 64, Diana Nyad made it.  It took her 54 hours to cover the 110 miles swim.  As reported by Matt Pierce of the L.A. Times, when she reached shore she had three things to share, the first two of which were:

“‘One is, we should never ever give up,’ said a slightly dazed Nyad, whose slurred remarks were received with a roar by the crowd. ‘Two is, you’re never too old to chase your dreams.'”

Read Pierce’s full reporting of Nyad’s accomplishment at:,0,1729111.story

After reading her story, consider this – if a 64 year old can swim 110 miles and 54 hours straight, what could you do if you committed yourself 100%?

Posted in Goals, Motivation | Leave a comment

Babbitt’s Razors

Cover of Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

I’m haunted by a scene from Sinclair Lewis’ novel Babbitt.  It is a mundane scene, not one that would seem to be the stuff for a haunting.  This is the scene:  after the character Babbitt shaves, he removes the used blade from his razor and puts in on top of his mirror, presumably to dispose of later.  There is already a large pile of old blades there.  The pile  bothers him, though I don’t think Babbit recognized why.  The scene has stayed with me since I read the book decades ago, and I think I’ve gradually learned why.

As a teen I had a sign over my desk that read simply, “Initiative”.  I think in my discomfort at Babbitt’s razors, and in my desire to remind myself to take “initiative”, I was beginning to recognize something profound about human life.

Babbitt’s razors were a visible reminder of his failure to overcome inertia in his life.  As readers of the novel will recall, Babbitt was a conformist, or what Ayn Rand called a second-hander, who lived his life according to his perception of what was expected of him, not according to his own beliefs, plans or decisions.

My sign “Initiative” was a reminder to make the effort to overcome inertia in my life, to avoid becoming a Babbitt.    Because that’s what initiative is, it is the force that counteracts inertia.  We have all heard Newton’s famous maxim:  “That which is at rest tends to stay at rest”.  This is a law of psychology as well as of physics.   Jack Canfield has some good examples in the first chapter of Success Principles, for example “You didn’t take the time to take the dogs to obedience training, and now they are out of control”, “You didn’t attend any sales and motivational seminars becasue you were too busy, and now the new kid just onw the top sales award” and “You didn’t take time to maintain your car, and now you’re sitting by the side of the road with your car broken down”.  Dogs don’t train themselves, cars don’t repair themselves, and you won’t be enrolled in any classes unless you take the initiative to make it happen.

This is why initiative is so vital.   One must overcome the inertia which had been making that first step seem more difficult than it really was.  But in doing so, it also provides mental momentum.  As Newton also said “That which is in motion tends to stay in motion”.  The completion of even a small step toward an important goal shows that the goal can really be achieved, for after all the first step already has been. This raises one’s self-confidence, and gives a boost of optimism and energy that make it that much easier to take the next steps.  If Babbitt had cleaned out his pile of discarded razor blades, it may well have made him more willing and able to take on other dissatisfactions in his life.

Babbitt did not take any initiative in his life.  But you can.  The thing is, only you can, you are responsible to take inititaive in your life.  Or as I like to put it: you are the prime mover of your life.

Posted in Motivation, Procrastination | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Share: Chris Erskine reports “Bomb blast couldn’t keep him down”

We’ve all seen the video of the older man who fell as one of the bombs at the Boston Marathon exploded.  His name is Bill Iffrig and he is 78 years old.  L.A. Times columnist Chris Erskine writes “What you maybe didn’t see as the camera moved closer to the flash point amid the smoky mayhem, is Iffrig rising from the ground and taking the final 15 steps to the finish line…”.  Read more about Bill Iffrig at:,0,3595217.column.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New published work “An Ingenious Invention to Treat Chronic Heartburn”

My piece “An Ingenious Invention to Treat Chronic Heartburn” has been published today by The Objective Standard blog.

Posted in Medicine and Research | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Share: Building Hoover Bypass Bridge video

This video is now a couple of years old, but I still think of it so it must have made an impression.  Stunning photography of the construction of the Hoover Dam bypass bridge, with music from Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev.

A monument to human ability.

Posted in Motivation, Optimism | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Never Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

Voltaire portrait“Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good”.  This is my preferred translation of Voltaire’s statement, sometimes also translated as “the best is the enemy of the good”.  I interpret it as a warning against perfectionism.

Our writing isn’t good enough, so we put off submitting it for publication; we aren’t attractive enough, so we avoid approaching someone; our qualifications fall short, so we don’t apply for a job; or the timing isn’t right, so we put off having a child.

But writing is often published that wasn’t Perfectly written, plenty of guys get the girl without movie-star Perfect looks, and people get jobs without Perfect qualifications.  Really, what is “Perfect”?  Can there be a “perfectly written” piece of writing?  Or a candidate “perfectly” qualified for a job?  For the ancient Greek philosopher Plato “Perfect” versions of everything actually existed in a world of “Forms”, and some Christians may believe this type of Perfection is possible in Heaven, but whether or not one believes in Forms or Heaven, this type of Perfection does not necessarily exist here on Earth.

Rather than accepting an unobtainable definition of perfection based on Forms or Heaven, those of us that want to improve our lives in this world need a definition of “perfect” more suited to reality.  It is often helpful to think of perfect as the best possible under the actual circumstances.  A perfect piece of writing – the best one can do with the talents one has in the time made available for it.  Perfect preparation for a job interview – one has researched about the company and prepared for the questions most likely to be asked.  Perfectly prepared to have a baby – well, OK, that kind of perfection does not actually exist.

Another example:   my father once planned for years to write an important personal letter to a family member.  He wanted its sentiments to be just right.  He never sent it, until finally a health condition prompted him to do so.  Which letter means more to the recipient, a nearly-perfect draft that wasn’t sent because it wasn’t “perfect” yet, or a very good one that was sent and read?  Fortunately, my father’s health condition resolved favorably, but if it hadn’t, the perfect letter would have destroyed the good letter by preventing any letter from being sent.  As Voltaire warned: never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Posted in Procrastination, quotes | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Even Superman Has To Be Clark Kent Sometimes”

Many years ago I heard this quote and it has stuck with me.  It was shared by NBA star Charles Barkley after he had a poor performance.  He said one of his golf buddies had attempted to cheer him up by telling him: “Even Superman has to be Clark Kent sometimes”.

I remember one particular occasion when this quote helped me out.  At the time I was teaching in Louisiana, in a job I enjoyed but which did not pay well.  I had taken a part-time job on the side to supplement my income.  In the part-time job I taught test preparation courses for Kaplan.  The Kaplan classes were once/week for 3 hours.  Often I took weekend classes, but on this occasion I was teaching a 3 hour night class for Kaplan after I had already taught all day at my day job.  And for whatever reason I don’t recall, I was very tired that day.  I really didn’t feel like teaching my night class, to the point that I was dreading going to the class.

I remember telling myself “Even Superman has to be Clark Kent sometimes” and giving myself permission to have an off night, knowing I didn’t have the energy to do as well as I normally might.  As this thought passed through my head, I felt weight lift off of me as the pressure I had been putting on myself to do well despite my fatigue dissipated.

During the class I let myself sit on the front table, instead of standing the whole time, and I think I even shared with my students that I was feeling very tired that day.

But something interesting happened.  Even though I had already resigned myself to doing a less-than-stellar job, the class actually went pretty well.  Perhaps not my best class ever, but above average, and definitely not the poor job I had mentally prepared myself for.  In hindsight, I judge that what I had given up in energy and visible enthusiasm, I probably gained by being more relaxed and more authentic.

It turned out, being Clark Kent wasn’t so bad after all.  Just like the scenes in the movies when Clark accidentally reveals his superior physical strength, taking the pressure off of oneself to perform at “Super” level does not actually diminish one’s true talents, and may lead to surprisingly positive results.

And even if your “Clark Kent” day doesn’t turn out as well as mine, remember Clark will always have another chance to be Superman on another day.

Posted in Confidence, quotes | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment