Exercise Your Will

I am a huge advocate for making fewer but better decisions and eliminating as much thinking from my daily routine as possible. It’s a way for me to make final choices about things without needing to think about them each time.

Sleeping and waking at the same times every day is an example of a habit I aspired to. I had been trying to get myself into such a routine for a while, but for some reason I wasn’t able to make it happen.

When it was time to sleep, I ignored my inner voice and somehow justified staying awake. I told myself I would still wake up on time in the morning, albeit with reduced sleep. Of course, when morning rolled around, I found myself sleeping past the alarm, waking an hour later than I had planned (!) and feeling less than great. As a result, some of the things in my morning routine went for a toss, and I felt somewhat rushed to have breakfast before diving into my work.

A sub-optimal experience overall. I suspected I wasn’t alone either.

How often do we fool ourselves into thinking we will sleep late and wake up early in the A.M., only to keep failing at it? We think we can do something despite strong evidence for the contrary, but we never learn. Why do we delude ourselves into thinking we’ll do something when we won’t? It would have been better to set an alarm for a later time and get up then, rather than setting an alarm for a time we weren’t planning on getting up.

This isn’t even necessarily about waking to an alarm, but about doing what we said we would do. How often do we promise ourselves to do (or not do) something, only to casually break it later without a second thought?

Here’s another example. Every now and then, I will skip one of my workouts because “I don’t feel like it”. I end up missing the workout, only to feel remorseful later on. Because I had a proper pre-workout meal, I feel even more guilty for consuming those extra calories unnecessarily. There is nothing but regret. I made a promise to myself and didn’t keep it. It feels out of alignment with who I am.

When I have watched an hour of video in the evening, that’s when I want to shut it off, but what usually ends up happening at that point is, I mostly ignore that inner voice in my head and continue watching videos, only to find myself awake till late at night, which affects my sleep and the morning after.

Let me share another example. Most nights, I don’t eat anything between dinner and breakfast the following morning. While I follow this most of the time, there will be times when I’ll find myself having popcorn while watching a movie or something. Somehow I feel justified that it’s okay to have it. I am eating to satisfy my emotional hunger as I am not actually hungry. This isn’t much of a problem if it’s a one-time thing and done in moderation; however, it becomes a problem when I start doing it multiple times a week.

These are times when I feel weak. Again, I always feel a sense of regret later on, but more importantly, it means I did something I said I wouldn’t do.

Every time we break a promise with ourselves, we act out of alignment with our true selves—not to mention, we lower our self trust to a point where we stop making promises to ourselves at all, let alone live by them. We falsely tell ourselves we need more “willpower” to do the things we said we would do (whatever that means).

It’s not about willpower so much as it is exercising one’s will. This isn’t a question of semantics; they are two entirely different things.

To me, exercising our will means doing what we said we would do, regardless of how we feel, because we are fully in control of ourselves. It’s about taking responsibility for our lives. It means thinking less about our likes, disklikes, and preferences, and more about doing the right thing in any situation. Everything we do is by choice, implicit or otherwise.

It’s been written in the Upanishads:

You’re what your deep driving desire is, as is your desire, so is your will, as is your will, so is your deed, as is your deed, so is your destiny.

It turns out we are experts at talking ourselves out of doing things. Physicist Richard Feynman reminds us that the first principle is we must not fool ourselves and we are the easiest person to fool.

Left solely to our feelings, they can lead us astray.

Come to think of it, I don’t always feel inspired to do creative work in the morning, but I show up and do the work every day nonetheless, even if I may not always do it sincerely for a couple of hours. That morning time for me has been booked into eternity (barring any travel and/or sick days). That’s how I make it happen.

Now it’s simply a matter of applying the same thing in other areas of my life—easier said than done, of course.

There is no denying that change is hard. We are creatures of habit, after all. We are never going to feel like doing the things we want to do. We are designed to stay comfortable and safe by conforming to the status quo. Besides, it’s convenient for us to talk ourselves out of doing things.

Contrary to what most believe, the hard part about changing isn’t making the change itself, but about sincerely deciding to change. When that happens, half the battle is won. Now it’s simply a question of doing it.

This is why when we casually set New Year’s Resolutions, we mostly fail after a few days—there is no commitment involved. Sure, we would like to change, but that sincere desire to change is missing. When we know where we need to go, we will find a way to get there. Otherwise, we will always find an excuse.

Another way to think about change is when the desire to change is greater than the pain involved with conforming to the status quo. That’s how I lost a considerable amount of weight in a short period of time and have been able to sustain it.

The thing is, if we are left to the discretion of our feelings, they are likely to lead us astray. We want to make value-based decisions in our lives. We need to learn to defer our choices to values rather than our feelings and impulses. We can’t choose how we feel, but we can always choose our thoughts and behavior.

We remind ourselves that the promise we make is greater than the feeling we have. Let’s not get carried away by our emotions after we’ve made a promise. Besides, it’s better to do what we said we would, rather than feel regret from not doing it. We often learn this the hard way, as I have.

Within each of us is an indomitable will to do the things we want to do and become the person we want to be. Contrary to willpower (which is finite), our will never exhausts; there is always more where it came from. We need to remind ourselves that we have the ability to make any change(s) we want in our lives, but it always starts with taking responsibility, which goes back to proaction.

We don’t need more answers. We already know in our heart what we need to do in any situation. It’s a matter of having the courage to do those things. We have at best 5 seconds before we talk ourselves out of doing the things we want to do but never get around to doing. In that gap lies our freedom and choice.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I’m now routinely waking up at the same time every day. I no longer let myself be talked into sleeping in those extra 5 seconds after the alarm goes off. For me, it wasn’t a matter of waking up a few minutes earlier than usual to reach this goal (though I’m not denying this works for some), but rather a conscious decision I made. It reinforced in me that any of us can make any change we want in our lives, whenever we want. It’s about exercising our will to make it happen.

The less obvious part about getting up at the same time is that we don’t have to think about when we’re going to bed and waking up, so it’s one less decision we have to make, which leaves plenty of room for thinking about what matters.

It’s time to stop complaining about what’s not working in our lives and start taking responsibility for our lives. It’s time to stop talking ourselves out of doing things and have the courage to become the person we have always wanted to be. We need to exercise our will to make value-based choices in our everyday lives. Nothing lowers our self-trust faster than breaking promises to ourselves. Before we can change on the outside, we need to change on the inside.

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