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Kelly McGonigal is back with her second book of accessible psychology The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It. Much like her previous book, The Willpower Instinct, McGonigal processes a mountain of psychological research and presents it all in a readily accessible, practical format full of reflective prompts and mindset interventions. It worked last time with willpower and it works again with stress.

UpsideStessThe claim is bold: stress isn’t bad for you, it’s good for you. It’s a nice message, and fairly easy to comprehend; we learn from adversity and what doesn’t kill us makes is stronger, but it also deliberately flies in the face of our common perception of stress as dangerous and harmful. SO what’s the deal? Is stress good or bad?

Well, McGonigal’s claim is that it depends on your mindset and how you perceive stressful stimuli in your life. You can get McGonigal’s basic premise through her TED talk “How to Make Stress Your Friend.” It’s a great introduction to the concept, but the book is required for any kind of depth. The TED Talk alone landed me in the category “of that sounds great, but come on… really? What about all this research about the dangers of stress?” Throughout the book, however, McGonigal continually builds up her claim with a veritable mountain of research. The core text of the book is 230 pages and there are an additional forty pages of end notes. Each claim is thoroughly supported through research, and it remains accessible and straightforward throughout as a skillful combination of literature review and personal stories.

“Is this real, or just happening inside my head?”
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” 

― J.K. RowlingHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The primary claim in The Upside of Stress is essentially the same as Dumbledore’s above: what goes on in our head is just as real as that which goes on outside our head, or in the context of The Upside of Stress, by changing our relationship to something that is stressful we can reduce the negative impacts of that stressful event or task. Essentially, if you believe stress to be beneficial to you then a stressful component of our lives can change from being harmful to helpful. This is because, according to McGonigal, we experience stress when our values are in conflict. For example at work I may feel a conflict between responding to email thoughtfully and responding quickly to the volume of email that I receive. That clash of values creates stress. If I did not care about responding to my email, the volume of email I receive would not impact me at all. It would just exist. The stressful experience is due to my desire to communicate effectively.

If the theory works, by repositioning the work to be done as a representation of our values, I can bring out the positive components of stress to improve my daily reality. I won’t reduce the stress experience, nor will I reduce the necessary work, but I well feel differently about the stress involved, and therefore the stress will impact me more positively. It’s disarmingly simple. It also works.

At work I have a particularly mindless data entry task in which I have to record participation in an activity for each teacher in our district. There’s a paper form and the data entry is tedious. It’s classic, and unnecessary bureaucracy that would have been completely avoidable with a bit more planning. I’ve been frustrated that this data entry is taking away from what I view as my “real work” of planning and facilitating professional learning. From reading McGonigal’s book I tried to reframe the data entry work, not as a burden on my workload, but instead as an example of how I can help teachers receive additional pay for professional learning; something I believe in strongly. This shift in mindset, along with deliberately scheduling times to do the data entry, has completely changed my relationship to the work. No longer do I let the data entry tasks pile up and wear down my patience; continually distracting me from other tasks. Instead, I can be comfortable with a stack of forms to enter because I know I will get to them at the scheduled time, and in doing so I will help teachers receive additional compensation. The actual work and the volume of forms to enter have not changed, but my relationship to that work has changed dramatically. I don’t necessarily look forward to entering forms, but  I no longer dread it and it occupies substantially less of my attention while I am not actively performing that specific task.

In all honesty, this shift alone would make the book worth the cover price. I’m confident, though, that the book will continue to pay dividends in my life, much like The Willpower Instinct has. The Upside of Stress is a 240 page mindset intervention, and while it may be difficult to pinpoint precisely which parts of the book, or which reflection prompts have the most impact, I know that my relationship with stress is changing. I am intentionally looking for how a stressful reaction is related to my values. My relationship to my body’s physiological stress response is different as well. I am more likely now to consider an increased heart rate as a sign that my body is geared up to take on a challenging experience. This is incredibly empowering and it really does only take a change in my thought pattern. I don’t mean to imply that the shift is necessarily easy or quick though. Changing our mindset on anything is a challenge, and McGonigal herself admits that her mindset with regard to stress is still a work in progress despite the years spent working through the research.  The Upside of Stress is not a silver bullet to fixing your life. The book will not make you stress free, but it is a powerful boost on your journey toward a new, more positive, relationship to stresses in your life.

For all the exploration of the learning process from understanding the impact of students’ past experience, to conducting brain scans during learning, to exploring the concept of the zone of proximal development, there is remarkably little work on what it means to teach.

We can explain teachingbrainwhat it means to give a lecture, or facilitate an experience, but are those activities explicitly teaching? Is it teaching when a child helps their younger sibling understand the rules of a game? Is it teaching when an adolescent helps their grandparent use Skype for the first time? Is there a difference between the child helping their sibling and what occurs in the classroom of a trained professional teacher? In The Teaching Brain Vanessa Rodriguez answers yes to all four questions. Those are all teaching interactions, however, they are each teaching at varied levels of complexity and development.

Rodriguez’s core claim is that classroom teaching is substantially more complex than we imagine it to be. Teaching, unlike learning, is inherently an interaction between teacher and learner. One can learn independently, but you can never teach in isolation. Teaching, like other skills, also has varying degrees of complexity from the reflexive level that primarily uses the midbrain, to high levels of conceptual abstraction requiring a strong understanding of intersectional relationships. This could explain the difference between teaching someone rote memorization of capitol cities and teaching someone the complex power relationships between black citizens of Baltimore and the Baltimore Police Department.

This explanation of teaching as a complex interaction represents an important shift from only examining the cognitive demands of the learner to examining the relationship between the cognitive demands on both learner and teacher simultaneously.

In addition to the complexity scale, Rodriguez lays out five areas of awareness that a teacher can grow in order to become more effective as helping others learn new concepts. Each area of awareness can be developed from a very basic level to a highly nuanced and complex level.

  • Awareness of Learner: This is most commonly discussed as a teacher’s knowledge of their students. If I understand that my student loves skateboarding, I can potentially serve them better by making explicit connections between the content in class and their love of skateboarding.  If I do not have this knowledge, I may miss opportunities to engage them in the class.
  • Awareness of Teaching Practice: This awareness is also commonly discussed. This would be a teacher’s understanding of their own pedagogical abilities. This could be thought of as the teacher’s toolbox of techniques and their ability to self-assess their pedagogical skill or classroom management. An example could be that I am aware that I like to facilitate discussion in my social studies classes and I’ve developed particular methods for engaging students in discussion of relevant topics. This area is commonly seen in teacher evaluations.
  • Awareness of Context: The awareness of context is often where we begin to differentiate good teachers from more average teachers. This would be the idea that a teacher may adapt their plans in light of an event or respond to student experience. For example a teacher may abandon their lesson plan when a particularly important current event occurs so that they can help their students explore it. This would be a teacher that takes advantage of “teachable moments” to provide highly relevant instruction.
  • Awareness of Self as Teacher: In my experience this is an undervalued awareness and I only found it actively mentioned in mentoring scenarios. This awareness is understanding how your individual nature impacts your teaching. This means an understanding that my race, gender identity, and cultural background all have an impact on my teaching. This was explicitly brought to my attention in my first year of teaching when a Jewish student specifically asked for my advice on a sensitive topic because I’d identified my Jewish background to the class. It is possible she may have not felt as comfortable coming to me otherwise. Additionally that same piece of my identity may have negatively impacted other students, but regardless of my desires, it has an impact on my teaching that I need to be aware off. My ability to speak Spanish has other unique impacts that I can be aware of.
  • Awareness of Interaction: This last awareness is where Rodriguez introduces particularly new ideas. She claims that it is not sufficient to understand the learner and understand the self, but we must be aware of the unique interaction that occurs when the teacher interacts with a given learner or group of learners. The challenge here is that each interaction is unique and can be highly impacted by the other four categories. My interaction with a given student may change dramatically in a new context and in order to be effective I need to understand that awareness. My interaction with a group of students can also be impacted by my knowledge of their backgrounds and by my awareness of my self as a teacher. This is a highly nuanced awareness and depends significant exploration to fully understand.

Beyond simply naming these categories of awareness, Rodriguez posits that each one has varying degrees of complexity and a given teacher can develop their skill and level of awareness through practice. This is where her research becomes particularly useful to me and my interest in developing new teachers.

As a mentor, I struggled at times to help teachers find a clear way to develop their practice. Many districts use Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, however, the framework highly emphasizes Awareness of Learner and Awareness of Teaching Practice without significant mention of the Awareness of Context, Self, or Interaction. Additionally, Danielson makes the assumption that the highest degree of teaching skill is for students to be independent yet does not allow for varied contexts where it may be desirable for the teacher to take a more active role, for example during the introduction of new concepts or content. With some additional work to flesh out descriptors and examples for the five areas of awareness at varying levels of complexity, one could have a powerful structure for understanding various pathways to teacher development.

That being said, I would caution against handing such a structure to a teacher, particularly a beginning teacher, and ask them to go develop their awareness. Developing Awareness of Self as a Teacher may include significant introspective work that is best facilitated by a coach or mentor. Additionally the Awareness of Interaction would require extensive reflection and analysis of teaching moments, likely best captured on video and collaboratively analyzed. As such, the five areas of awareness, and their levels of complexity, would be a powerful structure for a new teacher mentor, principal, or an instructional coach. This would provide the person assisting the teacher’s growth with a vocabulary and guidance beyond their own personal experience and as the mentor/mentee role is in many ways a teaching interaction this framework could guide the mentor or coach as well in their own development.

Often in my work as a mentor I found myself searching for meaningful vocabulary to describe the importance of awareness of self. The structure outlined in The Teaching Brain would be helpful to better categorize and explain how to develop. Additionally, the concept of varying cognitive complexity allows for discussions of teacher development even when the classroom appears to be running smoothly. I’ve seen evaluators struggle to discuss improvement when teachers are doing well, and the awareness of self as teacher and awareness of interaction can be continually developed because we change, our students change, and there are always new interactions when we encounter new people in new contexts. This is also not limited to the teacher/student interaction and could be explored as interactions between peers or supervisors in the appropriate context.

I had the opportunity to speak with Rodriguez to explore her ideas further and she is in the process of examining how the brain reacts during the teaching interaction for both teacher and learner. Humans can teach and learn by instinct, and we are continually teaching each other, yet we have little understanding of teaching itself, or what differentiates the highly skilled master teacher in the classroom from the untrained lay person.

We each have an experience with “that one great teacher” who moved us in a particular way, and we can say with confidence that there was something that made the teacher stand above the other teachers, yet we can seldom put that experience into words. My high school English teacher Nancy Jones held me accountable for the quality of my work, but there were also innumerable other interactions we had and decisions she made that are intangible or invisible to me. Something she did put me in a place to be ready to hear her feedback and the integrate that feedback into my own practice. It would be incredible to be able to name and identify those intangible components to better learn from her example and other master teachers.

Teaching in the United States suffers from a powerful lack of credibility. Providing teachers with scripted lessons, fast tracking certification with minimal training, and evaluating teachers based on compliance undermine the concept that a teacher is a highly trained professional. Perhaps through further development of Rodriguez’s initial work we can better understand teaching as a complex interaction between teacher and learner that is highly tailored to the individual’s needs. Perhaps by better understanding that interaction, we can more effectively name the qualities of excellent teaching and, more clearly honor and praise teachers for the work they do.

Excellent teaching should not be magical or random. Excellent teaching must come from training, reflective practice, and dedication to the craft. In order for that to occur we need to better understand teaching itself. With The Teaching Brain, Rodriguez has made an excellent beginning and opened the door for many years of additional research.

“Hi daughter/son, what’d you learn about in school today? What are you reading?”

“We’re reading Bitch Planet! It’s a sci-fi comic book about off-planet women’s prisons and repressive institutional patriarchy!”

“I see…”

You have to admit. It’s got a nice ring to it, but the reality of teaching a high school class with Bitch Planet would be challenging at best. Even in the most liberal district in the country you’d be likely told to cease and desist or get fired. It’s a pretty good way to go out though.

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Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet hits all the flashing red buttons for schools. It’s a comic book. It’s got swears. It’s got nudity. It’s got violence. It’s feminist. One of those you could probably get away with, but all five? Goodnight teaching career! The title alone would get you stopped in most districts.

Here’s the thing though. It shouldn’t be that unbelievable as a high school text. If you take this book and the back-matter essays, match them with some additional academic writing, a film, and a novel you’ve got a really strong basis for a study on the impact of institutional patriarchy women in the United States. A study that a high school student can access. And that is something we desperately need.

We don’t teach about women in high school. Women aren’t in the books. Women don’t take center stage. By not teaching explicitly about women, we teach many lessons implicitly about non-participation and low levels of importance. A colleague recently drew my attention to an article that Martin Luther King Junior’s mother, Alberta King, was assassinated while playing the organ in church. I had no idea that was the case. I didn’t even know her name. I’m a history major. I’m a history teacher. I didn’t know her name, let alone the fact that she was assassinated. The only thing I know about Betty Shabazz is that she was Malcolm X’s wife. I couldn’t tell you about her life’s work. I lived in Washington for over twenty years and I can’t tell you anything about senator Patty Murray’s work (in office since 1993). I know more about Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker and I’ve lived here for six months. This ignorance from the west coast raised, Oberlin-educated, child of political activists. There’s something wrong here and Kelly Sue DeConnick is trying to fix it.

39EBADA0-8FAD-4D45-92EF-7D8E2E32611AWith Bitch Planet, DeConnick is doing dangerous work. She’s claiming the women’s prison exploitation film genre and using it to stick a shiv right in the patriarchy’s gut.

It’s important that Educators speak the language of their students. Paulo Freire states that “the only effective instrument is a humanizing pedagogy…. In a humanizing pedagogy the method ceases to be an instrument by which the teachers can manipulate the students, because it epresses the consciousness of the students themselves.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed 30th Anniversary Edition, 2000, p. 69) Students are going out to see 50 Shades of Grey. They’re watching Game of Thrones. I had a 6th grader come to school quoting Inglorious Basterds. A casual flip through television and they’ll see more than their fair share of oppressed, abused, and marginalized women. We need to work alongside our students within their context while exposing them to new ideas and broadening that context.

The Hunger Games does a respectable job of putting a young woman in the lead role, but Bitch Planet tells the current dystopian story that The Hunger Games won’t touch. We rarely see the impact of Katniss being a woman. Katniss could be a man and the story would not fundamentally change. Bitch Planet puts gender front and center. Teachers have an obligation to expose their students to new ideas, issues, and values. In the realm of women’s stories we’re underperforming and Bitch Planet can provide some balance.

In terms of media literacy this is the comic book at its underground best: dangerous and subversive. You open the book and think to yourself “only in comics.” While reading it the voice in your head is constantly warning you. It can’t stay this good. No way she’s gonna go THERE. But it stays that good and DeConnick definitely goes THERE. The best part of it all is Bitch Planet isn’t even all that underground. It’s published by Image. You can get it at any comic shop. You can download it from Comixology and Amazon. The only reason you’ll have to hunt for it is if it’s sold out.

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It’s also a really good book. The plot is strong, the characters are meaningful, and the art is fantastic. We’re 3 issues in at this point and the DeConnick’s shiv is honed just as sharp as in the first issue. The plot is ramping up quickly and the characters are deepening. There’s still time to pick up the back issues and get on board before this ship really takes off.

Once you read it you’ll probably decide that it’s not something schools should put in front of kids. (Particularly not the first issue.) But maybe reading Bitch Planet will help you see that we need more stories about women in schools, more stories that explore the woman’s experience. Perhaps you’ll start looking at how women are represented in your curriculum and the messages we send. Perhaps you’ll look for alternatives. That’s definitely worth a few bucks and a trip to the comic shop.

This piece is dedicated to my student Jia Wen (no hyphens). Thank you for pushing me for more women’s stories. You made our class better and you made me a better teacher. Keep the fire burning. 

This is part ten of my willpower project tracking my progress through Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct. Jump back to part one if you want to start at the beginning. This post will be focused on my reflections for Chapter Nine. Chapter Ten is a wrap-up, and I will include that material in my final post.

On Reframing “I won’t”:
I really like the material in Chapter Nine. It’s extremely accessible and immediately applicable. Understanding the limits of “I won’t” power has made a noticeable impact on how I process issues of self restraint, even in just a few days. Also, unlike some of the other chapters, the experiments were very straightforward in terms of implementation and did not require specialized conditions.

Unintentionally, this week became a great microcosm for practicing McGonigal’s alternatives to attempting to suppress impulsive thoughts. For the last couple of days I’ve had mild, but noticeable, cravings for chocolate, particularly in the evening while watching TV. Instead of forcefully blocking out all traces of chocolate from my mind (or at least attempting to) I opted to leverage experiment 2 and accept the craving without acting on it. I noticed my desire for chocolate, thought about the taste, texture, and smell associated with eating chocolate. I then thought about my health-related goals and attempted to balance my desire for health with my desire for chocolate. Lastly, I honored that while I wanted to eat chocolate, I would choose not to act on that impulse. So far the process has worked and thoughts of chocolate do not dominate my life. It’s not forbidden, I’m simply making an alternate choice. This has been supported by some recommitment as well. We have no chocolate in the house so I would have to run out to buy some. With the combined higher cost and improved self-awareness, the chocolate becomes less desirable.

Beyond food related challenges, material from chapter nine has helped me retain focus for my job hunting. Every time I thought had thoughts of “I shouldn’t” or “I won’t” do certain actions that hinder my job search, I worked to reimagine those thoughts from the context of “I will.” In particular when preparing for a phone interview I had the initial thought of “I won’t rush through my ideas,” and I turned it around into a challenge of “I will pause and explain myself clearly.” Through the interview it was much easier to focus on the behaviors I wanted, and I think this helped me put those desired behaviors into action.

I think that through practice I will become aware of more opportunities where I can switch the focus of a willpower challenge. I am convinced that there are multiple opportunities that I’m missing each day. As with all things, my awareness of these opportunities should increase as the practice becomes integrated into my life.

The concept of surfing the urge, or being present and aware through feelings of craving, reminded me very strongly of the Bene Gesserit litany against fear from Dune, in particular the second half: “I will face my fear / I will let it pass over me and through me. / And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing / Only I will remain.” It would be easy to replace each instance of the word “fear” with impulse or temptation or craving, and very closely approximate McGonigal’s entire thesis.

I can just see myself repeating:
I will not eat sugar.
Sugar is the mind killer. (waistline killer?)
Sugar is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face the sugar
I will let it pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the sugar has gone there will be nothing
Only I will remain.

We’ll see how it works.

This is part nine of my willpower project tracking my progress through Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct. Jump back to part one if you want to start at the beginning.

Noticing Social Influences:
Chapter 8 was all about the ways in which others impact our willpower. It’s somewhat ironic, therefore, that I spent more time alone last week than I usually do. My wife was out of town and we’d just moved, so I took the week as an opportunity to connect with myself, doing more reading and taking more time to be by myself than I typically have time for. I noticed that my willpower isn’t particularly higher when I’m alone, but it takes on a different flavor. My decision making is much less filtered by other concerns. In some ways this is positive because I was able to very independently flex my schedule to make time for additionally reading, but I also had less accountability to eat well because no one was looking over my shoulder and I felt a decreased sense of responsibility. This reduced sense of responsibility made it easier to let dishes pile up in the sink.

The additional time spent alone also served to highlight the time I had that was influenced by others and my experiences definitely aligned with the concepts that McGonigal outlines. I am definitely more easily influenced by people I am close to. When my coworkers get off topic it is easy for my concentration to drift along with them, but if I’m writing in a coffee shop the conversations of strangers have almost zero impact on my ability to focus.

I also noticed the social impacts while at the gym. The people surrounding me have an impact on how much time and focus I give to warming up. When people were warming up and stretching very intentionally I noticed that I was more diligent in my own warm-up, regardless of the posted workout that day. When people were less focused in their warm-up routine, my focus drifted as well and I warmed up less carefully as a result. Luckily this wasn’t associated with any injuries or difficulties this last week, but it is definitely something I will continue to be mindful of. Warming up intentionally is a nice bite-sized “I will” challenge.

In terms of using visualization to leverage positive social impact I only had one experience where I did this intentionally: job hunting. Searching for a new job (across the country no less) has been a consistent “I will” challenge for me even though it hasn’t seen much attention in these posts. This last week, now that we’ve moved, I’ve been able to dedicate more time to finding a job and I’ve encountered some blocks that make me want to stop looking. In these moments I’ve worked hard to maintain my willpower, and this week I intentionally visualized how my wife would react positively as I applied to each possible position. This wasn’t the only technique that I leveraged, but it definitely helped me keep my long term goals in mind when things got difficult.

Chapter 9: The Limits of I Won’t Power

Quick! Don’t think about purple elephants!
….
It’s all you can think about now, right? That’s the essence of Chapter 9. When we work really hard to suppress thoughts, ideas, or emotions we can’t actually do it and we spend more time thinking about those things we’re trying to suppress. This is all well and good when it’s purple elephants, but it’s more difficult if you’re trying to suppress an impulsive thought.

The paradox occurs because while one part of our brain (the operator) is working on thinking about everything that is non-purple-elephant, the monitor portion of our brain is running scans to make sure we’re not thinking thinking about those elephants. We get a series of signals along the links of “am I thinking about purple elephants? No? Ok, good. How about now?” It turns out that while we’re doing these checks we’re actually thinking about those elephants. The same goes true for that cake you’re trying to resist, or that pair of shoes you’re trying not to buy. If suppressing your impulsive thoughts doesn’t work, what do you do to avoid temptation?

McGonigal’s answer to this dilemma mindful acceptance. There are some specific variations of mindfulness and non-attachment that help us deal with ideas that we want to suppress, but it can be boiled down to the idea that we should notice our feelings without judging them, and disconnect our thoughts from our actions. Just because you have the thought, doesn’t mean you have to take the action. This is really the entire essence of the book, and could summarize McGonigal’s entire definition of willpower. We have impulsive thoughts all the time, and our willpower is our ability to differentiate thought from action. I want to eat a lot of chocolate when I’m bummed out because sugar and fat trigger dopamine, but I use my willpower to make a different choice that is more in line with my long term goals. My midbrain activates one thought, and then my prefrontal cortex overrides that impulse with a rational command. I think one thing, and then I do another thing.

Specifically for this week I’ll be focusing on one of the experiments from Chapter 9, and that is swapping our willpower challenge from an issue of “I won’t” to “I will.” An example of this would be turning the statement “I won’t eat refined sugar” to “I will eat foods X, Y, and Z.” The research on this shows that by framing our choices positively we build more confidence and more long term success. If we’re constantly thinking about what we can’t have we form very intense cravings that are difficult to ignore, and when we do give in to our cravings, we indulge to a greater extent. This has an educational component as well. Instructing a student to resist negative behaviors is less effective than encouraging them to replace the negative behavior with a positive one. Instead of “don’t blurt out in class” the correction should be “when you have something to say, raise your hand.” The student can focus their “I will” power in order to encourage positive behaviors, just like focusing on “I will eat more carrots” helps me avoid chocolate.

This chapter is particularly helpful to me as, despite reading everything, I still tend to think about using my “I won’t” power as a first response. I look forward to seeing how switching to an “I will” focus changes my behavior.

This is part 8 of my willpower project. If you’re just getting on board now, you may be interested in jumping back to part one to get the full picture. The story so far is that willpower is a conflict between your impulsive self and your planning self. You can grow your willpower so that more of your choices align with long term goals, thus making your life better.

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I won’t lie to y’all. This chapter is the first time I’ve been deeply skeptical of McGonigal’s work. Her premise is that willpower, and other behaviors, are contagious meaning that we can transfer behaviors from ourselves to others, and we can “catch” behaviors from other people. Willpower included.

My brain rejected this pretty quickly, and even her first study (which cites that the best predictor of an Air Force Academy cadet’s fitness was the least fit cadet in his squad) had me highly incredulous. I mean seriously, how does one out of shape dude in a squad of Air Force Cadets cause the whole lot of them to lose fitness? Thank you Kelly McGonigal for consistently cited academic research! Throughout the chapter McGonigal won me over through her diligence in citing research to support all of her claims. (Take note writers. Evidence helps you convince people. Claims alone are insufficient.) My rational brain took the time to  listen to evidence and win over my quick emotional rejection of the material. McGonigal also cites later in the chapter that this is a commonly rejected portion of her course because people hold strongly to the idea that through rugged individualism we can block out social pressures. The data does not bear that out. We’re incredibly susceptible to social influence, and it is often the only thing that works to change behavior.

So what’s this all about then? It’s about social impact. Many of our behaviors are heavily impacted by our social environment and willpower is among those behaviors. This is what I was experiencing back in Chapter 3. When asked to track willpower levels throughout the day, I noticed that location and those around me played an important role in my ability to make willpower-based decisions. Different locations and different people had positive and negative impacts, but I couldn’t really name it beyond that. McGonigal would say that their behaviors are contagious. I think it’s the term contagious that initially set me off so much. It’s a nice flashy buzzword, but being influenced to do something because of those around you it’s not really the same to me as catching a cold because someone sneezed. (The video is bizarrely beautiful and disgusting at the same time. I love science.)

The experiments for this topic are extremely relevant even if I’m not a fan of McGonigal’s word choice. All three of the experiments this time are highly similar as each one applying visualization. Depending on the context it’s either visualization of a goal and its potential hurdles, a powerful role model, and those who might be proud when we succeed. Each one of these tries to intentionally leverage social influence in a positive way. None of these visualizations are particularly complex, and their purpose is clearly explained. What’s more interesting is how McGonigal presents mindfulness with respect to social influences.

I’m very curious about who influences me, and how much. McGonigal claims (with evidence) that there are two important factors that influence how … influenced we are by someone else: the extent to which their behaviors align with our goals, and how connected we are with that person. This means that I should be highly influenced by people I care deeply about who also exhibit behaviors that align with my goals. When my wife exercises, this should positively impact me. When someone unknown to me smokes, this shouldn’t really impact me. I’m highly interested to see how much I can track the impact that others have on my willpower, and who has a high impact.

And another two weeks have passed without a post. It turns out moving keeps one pretty busy, but we’ve sold the house, moved into the apartment, and schedules can be reestablished. The willpower project is back on track.

I’ve tried to remain mindful of my willpower-based decisions throughout the moving process, however it became quite difficult as getting boxes packed and moved dominated my active willpower reserves, leaving little for healthy eating choices or exercise, let alone finding time to write. (Eating was particularly impacted as we were in kitchen limbo for a while with cooking supplies packed and no food in the house, causing me to eat out all meals except breakfast for about a week.) With those concerns in mind, I’m pretty happy with how I made out through the process. I was able to draw on willpower reserves to make sure that boxes got packed, and then subsequently unpacked.

In addition to being mindful of my willpower decisions, I made my choices easier by leveraging the idea of reducing variability. I did this by intentionally limiting my options for lunch. I allowed myself to get either a salad from Whole Foods or chicken and stir-fried veggies from Uwajimaya (a local Asian grocery). Other possibilities were simply out of the question. I combined this with the idea of the green willpower fill-up (see chapter 2) because I can walk from my office to Uwajimaya in a reasonable amount of time and I took advantage of this when the weather was cooperative. This definitely helped me stay on track with my long term health goals, despite the stress of moving.

In my professional life I was able to use McGonigal’s process for countering cycles of self-guilt. April and May are a stressful time in public education, particularly with teachers on non-continuing contracts as this is the time of year when they hear whether or not they will be retained. When things are looking unclear for my teachers many of them hyper-analyze their decisions and deeply internalize any failures, quickly progressing into a cycle of self-guilt and possible avoidance. McGonigal’s process outlined in chapter 6 allows me to help teachers see that they are not alone in their struggles and there are concrete actions they can take to increase the likelihood of being retained. This helps teachers take an active role in their retention and avoid feelings of helplessness.

Chapter 7: Putting the Future on Sale

In Chapter 7 McGonigal explores issues of instant gratification and how delaying gratification can be used as a technique to make more choices in line with long term goals. In simplest terms, our impulsive selves put a very high premium on immediacy and when rewards are delayed we perceive them as being less valuable. The terms is known as delay discounting and McGonigal explains it in economic terms, saying that in a particular study people “deprived themselves of what they really wanted for the fleeting satisfaction of a quick fix.” (p. 158) In order to combat this tendency McGOnigal outlines four experiments:

  1. Wait 10 Minutes
  2. Lower Your Discount Rate
  3. Precommit
  4. Meet Your Future Self

Wait 10 minutes is simply that. See a temptation? Wait 10 minutes and see if you still want it. If you do, knock yourself out. If not, don’t pick it.

Lowering the discount rate is somewhat more complex and it is predicated on the idea that we are better at internally justifying the first reward we thinking about. This means that if you think about the immediate reward first you tend to think about the choice as losing the immediate reward. “I’ll lose the hour watching TV if I look for jobs.” We can lower the discount rate by switching the order of thinking by replacing the previous statement by saying “is it worth trading an opportunity to apply for my dream job for one hour of video games?” By switching the focus of our self-talk we can remind ourselves of our long term goal and take advantage of our brain’s method of internal justification.

McGonigal uses the historical example of Hernàn Cortès burning his ships to illustrate the most extreme example of precommitment. It’s taking action that sabotages the impulsive self. In this case, by burning is ships, Cortès prevented the temptation of heading home before he’d achieved success. We don’t all have to burn our ships. There are more subtle ways to precommit to our long term goals. If you’re struggling with shopping, leave the credit card at home and take a specific amount of cash. If you’re trying to eat healthier, pack your lunch the night before so that it’s easier to grab it in the morning. If you’re trying to change your clothing choices, lay out the clothes the night before so that you don’t have to choose when you’re in a rush. All of these options are based in motivating oneself toward future goals by increasing the cost of choosing against the goals. In the first scenario, if you really want to use that credit card while you’re shopping you will have to head home and then back to the store, at which point you have significantly delayed the reward.

Meeting your future self is intended to help concretize the future, something that McGonigal keeps coming back to. This was extensively covered in her talk that I attended, and I’ve been using this technique regularly with my teachers by having them write letters from their future selves or by vividly imagining a future transformative movement. These techniques have been incredibly helpful and I’ve seen my teachers build significant motivation toward improving their practice.

I read this chapter about a week ago and I’ve been thinking about these ideas a lot. The small amount of willpower it takes to delay gratification by five to ten minutes is extremely powerful in helping me to making the choices that align with my long term goals. It doesn’t take much to reduce the discount rate and de-prioritize instant gratification. This chapter is a perfect example of how very small adjustments can make a big difference in a person’s life.

These last couple weeks have continued to hinder my ability to write, and it’s difficult to get back in the habit. Travel and selling a house have both put a significant damper on my willpower and it’s been extremely easy to choose activities that take less sustained energy. The “what the hell effect” (see below) has definitely made it easy to put off writing this post, and as each day passes it’s easier to put it off one more day, and more difficult to sit down and return to writing. I’m back home, with no immediate travel plans, my work schedule is more normal, and I’m reestablishing my intent to finish off the book with weekly posts with a combination of self-compassion and an attempt to reduce the variability in my life.

Chapter 6: What The Hell, How Feeling Bad Leads to Giving In
This chapter lined up with a significant portion of McGonigal’s workshop that I attended at the NTC Symposium back in February. As such most of this was familiar. The synopsis is this: making ourselves feel guilty doesn’t work to help change behavior. Instead it’s better to forgive ourselves and offer the kind of feedback that we would give to another. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot since the symposium and I’ve definitely seen improvement in my ability to make positive change in behavior or to stay on track with goals. Last week when I slipped my self-imposed Monday deadline I didn’t beat myself up about being lazy or slacking on a goal. Instead, I was mindful of the factors that caused me to slip my goal to better understand why it happened. I then forgave myself for the slip. (It helped that the slip was primarily due to factors beyond my control.) Then, as the third step, I offered myself the kind of recommendations I would give to my novice teachers, including the suggestion to find other opportunities to write. (I’m taking my suggestion by doing work in the airport and on the plane back home.)

There was a second piece to the “what the hell” cycle of guilt and indulgence, however, that was not included in McGonigal’s workshop: the concept of terror management. In short this is the idea that when we feel upset, threatened, or scared we seek to fix that emotional state through dopamine channels. This most easily manifests in indulgent behaviors. This explains the phenomenon of indulging in sugary snacks while watching the seriously disturbing evening news, but it also explains the negative impact of self-guilt. The intervention for this is to be more mindful throughout the process, the theory being that if we are aware of how we respond we are more likely to make rational choices that align with long-term goals, thus allowing us to break the impulsive cycle. I’ve already seen mindfulness helping me get back to writing, and I hope to see payoff in other areas of my life as well.a

It would be really easy to not write this post. I spent the week at SxSWEdu and when I returned home I competed in the Crossfit Open and spread five yards of wood chips. My wife is still out of town, so no one is looking, and the TV looks really good right about now. That’s the whole point though. Willpower is about doing the difficult task instead of the easy one. It’s about perseverance as much as it is about self-restraint. In writing this (instead of queuing up a pile of Star Trek on Netflix while eating potato chips) I am exercising my “I won’t”, “I will”, and “I want” powers all at the same time. I will write this post and I won’t watch TV because I want to write consistently.

Here goes part three of my willpower project. If you’re just getting on board now, you may be interested in jumping back to part one.

Reflecting on Week 2:

It is easy to let travel disrupt routines and intentions, and I experienced some of that disruption while at SxSWEdu in Austin. The first thing to go was the meditation followed by exercise. It was too easy to just get up and begin the day without taking the five to ten minutes to sit in meditation, and I didn’t have the convenience of my gym. I was aware that I was skipping the meditation and workouts, but did nothing to remedy the action. I feel no guilt at this. I want to acknowledge it for the sake of mindfulness. Plus one for self-awareness, minus one for volition.

In terms of the specific experiments for week two though, I was more consistent. As expected, not having a car, forced me to spend the appropriate time outside. (A lack of rain significantly helped this despite historically low temperatures on March 3rd.) Since I got back home, I’ve been able to continue to get outside because I had five yards of wood chips to spread. Now that the wood chips are spread it will take some additional intentionality to get myself outside in an active capacity on a regular basic. Hopefully the transition into spring and warmer, and possibly drier, weather will help facilitate this. (Oh right, I live in the Northwest and it’s raining while I write this. Getting outside is securely in the “I will” category.)

Perhaps because I was out of my regular routine, I did not find much need to use intentional breathing to keep my fight or flight response in check while in Austin. I did have one instance where my anxiety rose (during the session where I was being filmed) and I took guidance from Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk about recontextualizing stress to work for us instead of against us. This is similar to adjusting breathing to control fight or flight. When I returned home and competed in the Crossfit Open, however, I definitely had to monitor my fight or flight reaction. Any type of competition gets my stress levels very high, and I had to actively control my breathing in order to keep the nerves at bay and lift with proper form. I wasn’t able to completely control the response, and had a small hiccup at the beginning, but I did feel myself regain partial control before my heat and I performed well. The breathing technique will definitely take more practice and I need to keep it in mind for future situations.

Chapter 3: Too Tired to Resist: Why Self-Control is Like a Muscle

This was the right chapter for this week. As mentioned above, I’m pretty beat, albeit in a #firstworldproblems sort of way. This chapter is all about laying out McGonigal’s muscle model for willpower that she covered fairly deeply in her talk at NTC. The big point is that while willpower is limited in the short term, it is extremely growable in the long term. Just like our muscles. The more I squat, the stronger my legs get.

In a given period of time, I can only do so many pull-ups and overhead squats, as open workout 14.2 showed me in no uncertain terms. At a certain point my muscles stop responding and I fatigue. The pull-up that seemed fairly straightforward at the beginning of the workout becomes an impossible mountain to climb. Willpower is similar. We exert our willpower on something, and we run out of gas. Despite this short-term limit though, through training we can increase our work capacity. When I began exercising in earnest (about four years ago) one pull-up was extremely difficult, while now I can do many in a row. McGonigal’s argument is that willpower functions in the same way. We train the willpower “muscle” and its work capacity will improve over time. We can expand our willpower tank. What used to be extremely difficult becomes less so. I’ve experienced this firsthand with exercise. It used to be a difficult willpower task to get into the gym on a regular basis, and now it is second nature. Through practice and repetition the difficult task has become normal and I’m trying to get writing to that same place.

The other fascinating piece of this chapter is a link between diet and willpower, finding that our willpower is tied to blood sugar levels, and blood sugar trajectory in very direct ways. As one might hypothesize, consistent blood sugar and a low-glycemic diet, help us maintain consistent willpower. Huge fluctuations in blood sugar lead to fluctuations in willpower. This is something that I hadn’t thought of, but it makes a lot of sense. Good fuel means good performance physically and why should our mental capabilities behave differently?

This upcoming week continues the willpower-monitoring theme, however, this time McGonigal is asking for her readers to track times of high and low willpower. This is primarily tied to time of day, but I have a hypothesis that physical location matters as well. I know that I work better in some environments. I find that I write well on airplanes for instance. (Something about the limited stimuli I think.) I also know that it’s hard for me to focus when I’m in cluttered space.

The experiments this week cover eating well, finding a “want” power to act as a reminder of long-term goals, and creating a specific willpower workout in which I should attempt to control something that I usually don’t control. I am confident in my diet, and this extra monitoring will serve as a strong reset post-travel. (I wasn’t interested in resisting tacos while in Austin.) I will continue to use my desire to write more consistently as my “I want” power to refocus myself. Lastly, for a willpower workout I will focus on monitoring my sitting posture to maintain healthy spine position. Here’s to a week of clean eating and a well-aligned back.

This is the first in a series of posts that I will be writing as I work my way through Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct. I picked up the book after attending her five hour intensive session on the Science of Willpower and Compassion. The session had a significant impact on me as I wrote about earlier and it left me wanting more. A lot more.

Much to my chagrin, The Willpower Instinct is structured to be read one chapter at a time for ten weeks, like taking a class, with exercises and observations to make during the week. (My usual impulse is to fly through books very quickly, but I’m going to give McGonigal the benefit of the doubt here and read it her way.) I may end up reviewing the book at the end of the process, but that is not my current plan. I will also not be summarizing the content of the chapters except where absolutely necessary.

I will be using these posts to track my thinking throughout the process as well as to create some external accountability for my willpower challenge. Ten chapters and a summary of the whole thing: eleven posts over as many weeks. (I’m even starting on my birthday. Auspicious? Sure.)

Introduction: The Willpower Challenge
The willpower challenge is the heart of the project. In the introduction McGonigal has the reader select a specific willpower challenge that serves as a focus area for the ideas and techniques throughout the book. This focus is necessary because there are simply too many aspects of willpower that we could choose to work on, therefore in order to see progress with the techniques, and within the time frame, one should focus on a single aspect of willpower from any of the three categories: I will, I won’t, I want. I chose from the “I want” category, meaning an “important long-term goal you’d like to focus your energy on.”

I’ve been working for a long time on developing my identity as a thinker and writer through this blog, and I’m somewhat happy with the results, but definitely not satisfied. To this end I am selecting to improve my consistency and frequency in posting to this blog as my willpower challenge. There are a number of immediate wants and impulses that impede my ability to write consistently from the pull of television and video games to my love of exercise, but it is not as though I am incapable of making the time to write. Thus, the idea of posting my thinking as I work through the book was born. These posts may not be the only writing I will post, but they’ll be the lion’s share for a while.

Chapter 1, I Will, I Won’t, I Want: What Willpower Is, and Why It Matters
This chapter is all about defining and identifying willpower. As such the willpower experiments for the week focus on tracking willpower choices and brain training to improve self-awareness. In order to change something we have to know what it is first.

Tracking our willpower-impacted decisions is important because we need good data. People tend to dramatically underestimate the number of willpower-impacted decisions we make each day and as such estimation is unreliable. By deliberately tracking my decisions I should see how often, and under what circumstances, I choose activities that are impulse-driven versus intentional and thoughtful. I should then be able to observe the impact that my decisions have on my long-term goal of writing more frequently and consistently.

The brain training exercise is regular meditation. There are strong links between meditation and a variety of self-control skills. By practicing regular meditation I should be able to improve my self-awareness and goal-focused decision making. (I am dramatically oversimplifying here.) The key to both the tracking and the meditation is to do them without judgement. The task is to observe when and why I make the choices I do, not to evaluate them, or pile on any guilt on myself when I give in to impulse. Similarly the meditation is not about completely emptying my mind, but noticing how my mind wanders and continually refocusing on my breath. This is the observation stage of the scientific method.

See you next week for a report on week one and a look at the second chapter.