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This is part four of my series on Kelly McGonigal’s book The Willpower Instinct. If you’re interested in starting from the beginning, head back to part one.

Last Week:
The previous chapter was all about fatigue and for a reason that I can’t quite determine, it feels like a complete blur. The experiments for the week were to eat in ways that moderate blood sugar levels (low glycemic), to monitor the ups and downs of willpower, and to set a specific willpower challenge. I was consistent on the first two experiments, but the willpower challenge was a pretty big flop.

My regular diet is something of a paleo approximation. I generally don’t eat grains, beans, or dairy, but I’m not 100% rigid. I’ll eat rice about once per week, and I’ll eat some dessert and have a drink or two every so often. In general, however, my diet is full of meat and vegetables and it’s a diet that is effective as moderating blood sugar levels. Because of this I did not make any significant changes to my diet. Despite the lack of significant change, I was able to observe that when I got particularly hungry my willpower was noticeably lower. In particular, I found myself driving to lunch after a long morning, and it was extremely difficult to contain my frustration with other drivers or red lights, when I am typically pretty calm. My day hadn’t been particularly difficult up to that point so it stands to reason that the lower willpower was linked to a lack of food and dropping blood sugar. I also noticed that when I make a choice to indulge in food it easily snowballs into many indulgences, but I think this is more of an example of the “What the Hell Effect” Coming in Chapter 6.

When it came to monitoring my willpower levels throughout the week I chose an ad hoc approach as opposed to writing down every willpower swing up or down. The first thing I noticed is that on mornings when I meditated to start my day I had a substantial increase in willpower throughout the morning. This made the whole day easier as I didn’t have to fight all morning, and it left me with a greater reserve of willpower right before lunch and into the afternoon, when my willpower was typically at its lowest. Additionally I found an enormous boost to my willpower in the hours directly after exercise, as long as the workout did not completely exhaust me. Throughout the week I had strong training workouts, and came home feeling refreshed, whereas on Saturday I competed in Crossfit Open workout 14.3 and I was well and truly fatigued for the remainder of the day.

In addition to specific times of day, or after certain activities, I noticed that physical location, and the presence of others impacted my willpower and my ability to make choices aligned with my long-term goals. Calm public places, coffee shops for instance, gave me a boost to my willpower, while being at home made me more inclined to act impulsively. I hypothesize that this is due to an increased presence of temptation at home. The presence of a television is particularly distracting to me, and it’s even hard for me to carry a one on one conversation when a TV is playing at a restaurant. The presence of others that are actively engaged in similar activities definitely helped my willpower as I am able to feed off their positive energy. During the open workout the presence of many other people helped me complete substantially more lifts than if I had completed the workout on my own. Additionally the presence of other people in the act of writing encourages me to stay focused on my own writing. When others are engaged in impulsive behavior I feel their actions pull at my willpower and each second of focused work in their presence becomes a willpower challenge.

My willpower challenge to maintain improved spine position while sitting was a complete flop. There were so many other things that were on my mind that I just didn’t keep track of my posture. Every now and then I caught myself, but I was much more mindful of monitoring my willpower levels throughout the day and this fell to the side.

Chapter 4: License to Sin: Why Being Good Gives Us Permission to Be Bad

In this chapter McGonigal introduces the reader to the concept of moral licensing. In short this is when people use their good behavior in order to grant themselves permission for bad behavior. The entire chapter made me think about papal indulgences, when one could buy forgiveness for sins from the church, even before sinning. It’s probably the history nerd in me, but I was shocked that McGonigal did not make the connection explicit.

The entire issue of moral licensing hinges on the idea that our willpower decisions are moral decisions. This immediately connected with me and I saw myself in many of the examples. The concept is also predicated on the idea that we see ourselves as somehow flawed in our impulsive state and that we want to be “good enough” as opposed to morally impeccable. Essentially, by using self-control (good) I get the reward of returning to my natural, impulsive state (bad). The concept plays out as follows: My long term goal is to be more healthy, therefore I engage my willpower and hit the gym. (I don’t want to do this, but it’s good for me, so this self-control makes me a good person. I earn some good points.) Because I earned enough good points, I can now spend them on something indulgent. This could be linked to my challenge (I get to eat some junk food), but does not need to be (I buy myself a present). The most classic example that by forcing myself to eat my vegetables I earn the right to indulge in dessert. I trade a good action for a bad action.

There are many problems with this, as McGonigal illustrates extensively throughout the chapter, but the one that really hit home for me was the distinction that these choices are made using emotion as a way of knowing, as opposed to reason. The distinction does not reduce the validity of the decision (she does not dismiss emotion,) but it properly situates the decision as an emotional, or impulsive decision that occurs in the midbrain, as opposed to a willpower based decision that takes place in the prefrontal cortex. Choices made through moral licensing act against our long-term goals and actively hinder us from becoming the self we want to be. These choices act most directly against our “I want” power. Knowledge of this distinction allows use to take control and the easiest way to take control is to revoke our moral license.

The most effective way to revoke one’s moral license is not to engage in guilt or shaming for impulsive decisions, but to simply remove the morality of willpower choices. My choice to eat or not eat a sugary treat does not make me a good or bad person. It is simply a conflict of willpower and impulse, of short-term and long-term priorities. When we remove the morality we do not gain virtue by making choices that align with our long-term goals, and therefore we’ve earned no indulgences. (I am also predicting that McGonigal will use moral licensing later on in the book as leverage for self-compassion.) Our emotions are activated as a way of knowing because we assign a value to our actions. Revoking the moral license and making my choices devoid of any sense of moral worth is the first experiment for the week.

The second experiment is to view actions as habitual, or leading to habit. In other words, to reduce the variability of each day. The rationale behind this is that if we see our actions as something that we engage in every day we are more likely to make choices that align with our long-term goals. If the choice is between saving money every day, or buying a pair of shoes every day, I am much more likely to save my money than if I can self-justify that I’ll buy the shoes “just this one time.” By viewing our choices as commitment to choosing that action habitually we remove the “cognitive crutch that tomorrow will be different.” This second experiment has made an immediate impact on me. Even on the first day, when choosing to pack or buy a lunch, I thought that I would rather be a person who brings a lunch each day, than a person who buys a lunch each day, and as such I made the choice to bring some unappealing (yet perfectly edible) leftovers because the choice aligns more closely with my long-term health goals.

With these experiments in mind, I am choosing to write because I want to be the kind of person who writes habitually. This is aligned to my long-term goals. At the same time, however, I gain no moral currency by do the writing, therefore I have no license to choose actions that work against my long-term goals.

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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.

I’ve been going nonstop from meeting to meeting all day. Watch a class, debrief with the teacher, head to the next school. Repeat. Meet with administrators. Next school. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It’s been a long day, and I need to take my mind off work.

[Cut to the gym.]

I look down and set my feet straight under my shoulders keeping my weight balanced between my heel and the ball of my foot. I bend at the hip and knee, extending my arms to grip the bar just outside my legs, keeping my arms straight, and wrapping my thumb and fingers into a tight hook grip. Squeezing my quads, glutes, abs, lats, and grip I smoothly raise the bar, removing all other thoughts, and initiating the first pull.

As the bar comes past the top of my knee I initiate the second pull by explosively extending my hips, forcing the bar into a faster upward trajectory. This movement immediately merges into the third pull where with all deliberate speed I pull myself under the bar and extend my arms upward, whipping the bar into an overhead position. I then stand up through an overhead squat to finish the movement. With the snatch completed I let the bar fall to the floor, and along with the bar falls the stress and anxiety from the long day of work. Repeat, repeat, repeat to exhaustion. Decompression begins.

I love my work. I believe passionately in the power of education to transform lives, end cycles of poverty, and improve the world we live in. This work, however, is also extremely stressful. There is much at stake in education. Whether as a classroom teacher or now as an instructional coach, the work of education applies a very personal sort of stress on the educator. We are in the business of growing people, and as such we have to take people where they are with all of their own stresses, difficulties, and barriers and help them do the immensely challenging work of self-improvement. By uncovering, naming, and overcoming these barriers we, as educators, are constantly exposed to the stresses of others. Additionally, many educators, myself included, have high standards for our students and ourselves. We are continually looking at how to improve our work and achieve better results. It is natural that some of this stress rubs off on us and follows us home. We need ways to decompress.

For me, proper decompression comes through intense physical activity. I am continually thinking about education. I wake up thinking. I go to sleep thinking. I think through dinner and housework. I process, analyze, reflect, and evaluate my work constantly. For me to fully decompress I need to engage in activity that is so demanding of my focus that it becomes impossible for me to think of anything else. Crossfit fills this need.

The combination of volume, weight and intensity from Crossfit creates an ideal decompression environment in which I have no choice but to focus completely on the workout and put aside all other concerns. As with the snatch example above, I need to fully concentrate on moving my body in order to execute the proper lift. If I am not completely focused it could lead to poor results and possibly injury. This leaves no room for the business of the day, forcing me to shut those concerns out of my conscious brain. Once the workout is in progress all my energy is spent on breathing, movement, and persevering. The work is all encompassing and I enter a meditative state in which the rest of the world ceases to exist. When finished I can go back to my thoughts with new perspective and while I will be physically exhausted, I will be mentally revitalized.

Anyone living or working in a stressful environment needs a method of decompression. For myself intense physical activity is the right choice and has become an integral part of my life. For others it may be gardening, painting, a nap, or a leisurely walk through the neighborhood. It is important to keep in mind that the method of decompression should act as a net benefit to your system. A drink and a cigarette after a long day can be momentarily calming, however, the negative side effects incurred far outstrip the temporary relaxation. Likewise over training (in the case of exercise) can be very detrimental, leaving one more exhausted and unproductive. The activity should leave you with a feeling that you are capable of coming back to your challenges and attacking them with newfound vigor.

Being effective in your work requires balance in your life outside of work. In education we see the impacts of an unbalanced life every day in students. These students come to class hungry, tired, and under great amounts of stress, all of which prevents them from learning at the height of their abilities, and stunts their growth. Teachers have the same responsibilities to balance their lives in order to deliver the education that is at the height of their abilities as teachers and allows them to grow their practice. The grading will wait. Trust that the lesson is adequately planned. Go decompress and be mentally and physically prepared for a full day of teaching ahead.

In need of a medicine ball for your workouts?  Don’t feel like dropping 70 bucks on a Dynamax ball?  I’ve got your solution.

When I work out I more or less lift heavy and do solo Crossfit.  My (seriously awesome) gym has all kinds of medicine balls, but the big, heavy, non-reactive, Dynamax balls are reserved for during classes and quite expensive, so being fed up with substituting exercises I took the advice of the Crossfit main site and made my own.

Materials:
Old basketball (other balls would work too I’m sure)
Bucket of sand
Funnel (optional)
Some old rags
A bunch of duct tape
Cutting Tool (Knife was better than scissors)

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Step 1:  Cut a hole in the ball.  The smaller the better.
(Try to go smaller than the image below.  This will be the weakest spot on your medicine ball.)

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Step 2:  Tuck a few rags into the ball.  This helps fill space so the sand doesn’t slosh around.  Particularly useful if you’re making a lighter ball.

Step 3:  Fill with stand to a bit under the desired weight.  I was going for 20# so I pretty much filled it up all the way.

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Step 4:  Pack in some more rags to fill any remaining space.  The more you fill the ball with rags, the more stable it will be.  If you want an intentionally unstable ball, leave out the rags.

Step 5:  Wrap it with tons of duct tape.  Create patterns with colored duct tape.  Differentiate different weights with different styles/colors.  The key here is that the hole will be a weak point in the medicine ball so you really need to pile on the duct tape.  Two slams split my initial tape job so I went back with a vengeance and used a serious amount of tape on the ball.

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I misjudged a bit and my medicine ball is 20.8# after taping, but that just means I’ll get a better workout.  I’d recommend filling your ball about half a pound under your target weight.

A few bucks in duct tape and you’ve got a completely viable medicine ball.  Enjoy!

About halfway through the box jumps I thought reducing the height from twenty-four to eighteen inches had been a mistake and I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough.  “This WOD won’t be too bad, good thing I already go some grappling in,” I told myself.  By the time I was halfway through the pull-up round I thought I was going to die from exhaustion and I was calling myself an idiot for even attempting this workout.

The “Filthy Fifty” is a serious mental challenge.  Ten exercises.  Fifty reps of each exercise.   For time.

When I was about 30 pull-ups in I felt like my brain was going to explode.  I’d just done about 90 minutes of grappling, and MMA sparing, and I could feel my blood racing to the spots where I’d been hit.  My heart felt like it was trying to sprint past the tempo of the punk rock blasting through my headphones.

The kettlebell swings and walking lunges flew by.  I hardly thought about fatigue or pain and just completed the movements one rep at a time.  Shoot the window.  Lots of hip toss.  Full extension on the lunges.  Just step and lunge.  I almost felt refreshed going into the knees to elbows. When I passed through the first four rounds my fatigue changed.  I accepted it.  I knew I was exhausted.  It wasn’t going to get better and it wasn’t going away.  Only one option: choose to move.

Then I crashed.  After about twenty knees to elbows my core was on fire.  It felt like I rested for a full minute after those first twenty, but it likely wasn’t more than about twenty seconds.  By this point in the workout I was breaking up the sets of fifty into multiple sets of ten or fifteen with a few breaths in between.  I gutted out the remaining knees to elbows with my abs, biceps and hands all ready to catch fire.  The forty-five pound push-presses and back extensions almost felt like resting by comparison.

Some exercises aren’t terribly taxing until I do tons of them (air squats) while some others are brutal right out of the gate (burpees).  Wall ball shots are possibly the single most deceptive exercise I’ve ever done.  For those who are unfamiliar a wall ball shot is an exercise where you hold a nonreactive medicine ball that’s anywhere from ten to twenty pounds, (I used twenty today) you do a full goblet squat, and then shoot the ball to a target that’s ten feet in the air, usually against a wall.  The first five to ten feel like a joke.  Hardly worth the effort.  Then, if you’re doing them right, your quads, glutes, chest, and abs all start to catch fire.  I had to take my rounds of ten and fifteen and break them down to rounds of five.  Squat, shoot, catch. Squat, shoot catch. Squat, shoot, catch. Squat, shoot, catch. Squat, shoot, catch. Try not to let my body shut down.  Choose to move.  Get through the round.  After all, I had burpees and doubleunders to look forward to.

By this point I accepted the mental game.  I’d been exhausted since the knees to elbows.  There were no light exercises left.  Just a burn to the end.  The only way to stop the burning was to finish the workout.  Slowing down would only prolong the suffering.

Burpees suck.  There is simply no way around that.  You can be doing ten or a hundred and every single one makes you feel slow and exhausted.  Doing a significant number in a row (like fifty) is a serious exercise in self control and self motivation.  All I could think about was the clock and how badly I wanted some food and water.  My goal of doing the burpees as five sets of ten broke down after twenty.  I just had to do as many as I could in a row.  Catch my breath and let my body re-phosphorylate some creatine so my muscles could work again.   Burpees down.  Just doubleunders and I’d be done.

I’ve been working on my doubleunders.  I’d done twenty unbroken doubleunders.  Fifty would be challenging more from a cardiovascular point of view than a skill point of view at this stage of the workout.  Could I remain focused and energetic enough to string doubleunders together, or would my fatigue get the best of me and hurt my form?

I dominated my fatigue.  After a broken start of only three doubleunders I hit a PR and strung together twenty-seven unbroken doubleunders.  After all that work, and fatigue, and exhaustion I hit a PR.  With the finish line in my sights I brought all my remaining mental strength to bear and finished the last fifteen unbroken as well to end the workout.

Time: 28:32.  Not too bad for my first time and post-grappling.  Now I’ve got to do it again as prescribed and to beat my time.

 

Workout:  Filthy Fifty

For time:
50 Box jump (18″)
50 Jumping pull-ups
50 Kettlebell swings (16kg)
50 Walking Lunge steps
50 Knees to elbows
50 Push press (45#)
50 Back extensions
50 Wall ball shots (20#)
50 Burpees
50 Jump Rope doubleunders

28:32

I’m Gonna Be