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Education reform is overflowing with suggestions for what to do. It’s easy to find new ways to differentiate, new ways to incorporate student response, and improved methods for increasing student engagement. Suggestions, recommendations, tips, and tricks abound each one adding to an educator’s tool box, knapsack, and quiver. The implication being that the more robust your repertoire, the more capable you are to meet student needs. Sensible.

A quick scan of Edutopia alone will return more options than a single educator could implement in five years of practice. Randomized student response and cold calling students both improve student participation substantially. Project Based Learning is a fantastic change in practice that requires a lot of work and preparation that can improve outcomes for students. Sometimes, however, it’s what you don’t do that has the most impact.

I’ve written about “Andy” before. He was a student in my AP World History class and I’ve continued to work with him during his time as a running start student. In particular I’ve been working with him on writing for the college application process.

He was asked to respond to the following prompt as part of an application: [Our] students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development. (100 to 250 words)

Andy was initially a bit perplexed about how to respond so I encouraged him to just write a bunch of ideas and then we’d come back to it and sort out the mess. This was part of our general pattern of working together. Write a bunch of rough stuff and we’ll work it out later. He came back with the following two paragraphs. I’m including them with his permission:

When I was just a bit younger, I was apathetic to education. Tell a kid to give up on his hopes of being an astronaut enough times and he just might. The ceaseless snorts and guffaws that erupted from my math teacher did little to improve my feelings about algebra. In the midst of this rather bleak time, I met Mr. McCormick. Mr. McCormick taught AP world history. As much as I disliked math, it was still leagues ahead of my disdain for history.

However, Mr. McCormick introduced something new. He brought a human element. He showed me to the idea that a teacher could care, and in doing so was the first person in years to tell me that if I wanted to build rockets, I should try. While seeing the stars reaffirmed my desire to work in the space industry, I would have never been using the telescope had Mr. McCormick not shifted my attitude to what it is now. I believe that I have intellectual vitality, I have the hunger to learn and the need to improve the world. I’m not sure I would, had it not been for Gabe Mccormick.

I don’t remember the interaction. Andy’s statement that he wanted to go to space didn’t impact me. To me it was one in a series of things kids say: “I want to be an astronaut.” “I want to be a senator.” “I really need to pass this class.” There’s a huge category of things kids say that begin to just wash over you as an educator. My response was likely automatic.

“Mr. McCormick, I want to be an astrophysicist.”

“Cool, go for it.” And then I’d move on.

To me I was acknowledging his participation without making a big deal out of it. To him I was validating his dream.

“Tell a kid to give up on his hopes of being an astronaut enough times and he just might.”

What if we reverse the pattern? Tell a kid to pursue his hopes of being an astronaut enough times and he just might.

As educators what we say carries weight. Often far more weight than we imagine. In the way that every one of an artist’s brush strokes are intentional, so should an educator be intentional with their language. In education we talk a lot about how to encourage kids and the danger of negative interaction, but it was never real to me until Andy described it this way. My sentence impacted his life. I gave an automatic response. How much more impact would I have made if my response had been deliberate? In conversation with him about it I asked him what made the difference. He said simply, “You didn’t laugh at me.”

How many other people did laugh at him? How many times does a student offer up a desire to be president, or a scientist, or a rock star and get laughed at? Some students are resilient enough to keep going, or they have support at home, or from peers, but not all of them.

When a student becomes vulnerable and shares their desires our responsibility as educators is to help them see the possibility. I don’t encourage lying to students or misleading them about realities, but far be it from me to shut the door for them. Some of our students only have their teachers for guidance.

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.

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’s been a heck of a week. Each day that I slipped past my self-imposed Monday deadline for these posts I found it a little bit easier to keep slipping the date. I told myself that I’d do it a little bit later, the next morning, then the next afternoon, and here we are at Thursday and I’m just sitting down to write. (Then revisions on Saturday and finally posting the following Monday.) However, in the spirit of self-compassion, I’m not going to beat myself up about slipping the date. I had an extraordinarily busy weekend that’s spilled into an extraordinarily busy week. As such I’ve had to prioritize other immediate needs over my desire to write. “I need” trumps “I want.” This variability in life was made as a rational decision, knowing that it would impact other aspects of my life. I am mindful of how these choices impacted my time for writing and I am moving forward without beating myself up about being late with the post.

Last Week:
The chapter on moral licensing impacted me significantly and as a result I’ve been extremely aware of my impulse to trade “good” behaviors for “bad” behaviors. This came up in the idea of working hard and earning a reward as a result. As an example, last Saturday I spread roughly for cubic yards of crushed rock and then felt like I had a license to make uncharacteristically poor food choices in the form of eating a lot of chocolate. I knew that I was making the choice in the moment, and justified it through my hard work spreading the gravel. I’ve had more success in viewing decisions or actions as neither good nor bad. They are just decisions and they are either aligned with my long term goals, or they are not aligned. This helps me to make consistent decisions and prevents me from slipping into the idea of a moral bank account. When I make decisions I gain no credit towards vice, nor do I create some kind of moral debt when I indulge.
I also watched a lot of other people engage in moral licensing. Particularly with food. Comments like “I had a salad yesterday” or “I’m going to the gym later today” were surprisingly common once I started to look for them. While drafting this post, in fact, I watched half a dozen people morally license a pastry purchase at a coffee shop leveraging both past and future “good” behavior to justify the indulgence.

The second experiment, reducing variability in life, has been more difficult to maintain since I’ve have extremely uncommon events that are all occurring in rapid succession including selling our house, travel, and a wedding. I was not particularly effective at reducing diet variability, maintaining exercise, or my writing through the last week and a half. I was, however, able to be mindful of my choices and the degree to which they aligned with long term goals. I ate ice cream and tortillas mindfully and with full awareness of the impact. I hope to be able to reduce variability in the upcoming week as things settle down a bit.

Chapter 5: Mistaking wanting for Happiness
This chapter is all about dopamine. Before reading, I was under the impression that dopamine was released when we achieve a reward and promoted a sense of happiness for achieving our goal. In this chapter, McGonigal resituates dopamine as the chemical that helps us work toward a goal. In this case, when we want something, dopamine is released in anticipation of reward, sending a signal that we’ll be really happy once we attain the goal we’re working on. Essentially, dopamine spikes in anticipation of a goal thus motivating the hard work it takes to achieve said goal, then it backs off once the reward is achieved.

McGonigal’s explanation made me think of dopamine as something of a gateway chemical, in that it can lead to other temptations. The spike of dopamine encourages us to follow impulse as opposed to reason in pursuit of new experiences. When we are presented with new experiences, new tastes, new ideas, our dopamine engages heavily in anticipation of a novel experience, promising our system that we will experience future pleasure. When those new experience don’t live up to our expectations we seek out additional new experiences in a attempt to fulfill dopamine’s promise that we’ll experience something great. This is easily manipulated by advertising that promises the new version of a product you already enjoy.

When focused, dopamine is extremely positive. It is an essential motivator that helps us pursue goals and attain rewards. The challenge is that sometimes false rewards masquerade as meaningful. We regularly experience an overabundance of dopamine-triggering stimuli such as the smell of baked goods, sexually stimulating imagery, and that incredible sounds that alerts you of a new text or email. Each one contains that promise of some wonderful experience and so our brains pump dopamine, encouraging us to act on those impulses. The promise of immediate reward easily circumvents our rational ability to plan our actions and we find ourselves making impulsive choices before we’ve even thought about the consequences. I identify with this most with the experience of eating large quantities of food before I’ve even realized that I’m eating. Salty snacks are particularly dangerous for me as I can easily polish off an entire bag of chips or popcorn without even realizing that I’m eating.

The willpower experiments for the week leverage both the beneficial and dangerous sides of dopamine. The first is to actively dopaminize an “I will” challenge by creating a strong image of the desired outcome. If you’re scared of flying, actively visualize the benefits of getting on the plane and your body will give you some dopamine, promising good feelings. The second experiment is to mindfully indulge and observe the extent to which the actual reward experience aligns with expectation. In particular the concept is to see if you need as much of a reward to get the desired feeling. Is it one piece of chocolate, or ten? One beer, or six? The hypothesis is that by being mindful, and fully experiencing the feeling of indulgence, we reach satiety much sooner than if we indulge without thinking. Additionally, mindful indulgence helps us understand if we’ve correctly aligned our rewards with our desires. Did you really want that doughnut, or would a small piece of chocolate have taken care of the feeling? We can only know this by being mindful.

For myself, the mindful indulgence will likely come in the idea of taking a break. Taking a moment to put work aside and watch TV, play some video games, or read a couple comics is a strong indulgent behavior for me and I’ve definitely found myself becoming mindful and realizing that my short break turned into two hours of video games unexpectedly. Hopefully by being mindful of the experience I can enjoy taking a few minutes of a break, thus spending less time in break mode.

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.

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 part 2 of my Willpower Project, tracking my thoughts and processing through Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct. Head to part 1 in order to start at the beginning.

Week 1 Reflection: Observation First

It’s been a week of meditation and monitoring my willpower-based decisions and I’ve definitely seen some change. I find myself more aware of the conflict between my long-term goals and my impulses. This includes my desire to blaze through the entire book instead of taking the one chapter at a time approach McGonigal suggests. (Willpower challenges come in all shapes and sizes.)

I suspect that a certain amount of the change I’m experiencing is due to an observer effect in which the act of observation influences the behavior of the observed subject. In this case I am both subject and observer, so it is, to a certain extent, impossible to avoid. Unlike a scientific study though, I am not concerned about this impact. My results are not invalidated by an observer effect. The goal of this project is to change my behavior improve my awareness of how I use my willpower. If observation alone acts to positively influence my use of willpower, that is a promising finding: an extremely low cost intervention can create positive change. The observer effect helps me achieve my intended outcome.

Throughout this week I’ve been much more aware of the conflict between my long-term want to write more consistently and my immediate impulses to play video games or watch TV. I also noticed an additional conflict: the conflict between activities I want to do and activities that I need to do. The primary conflict for my willpower challenge is how to use my unscheduled time, should it be used for writing, or some other activity? This is impacted by other “need to do” activities like making dinner, work, or running errands, and by more carefully observing the situations in which I choose some activity other than writing, I’ve been able to be mindful of how much of the conflict is about myself as a person, about my choices, versus a somewhat more external time limit. This observation is important because it allows me to remove judgement with regards to choosing to write. I can be more objective. If I didn’t write because I chose to idly browse Facebook, that is importantly different from not writing because I spent more time than usual making a nice dinner. They may have the same end result of less writing, but means are extremely different and important to consider.

The meditation was easier than I expected. The section in chapter one that encourages objective reflection, as opposed to a commitment to perfect meditation, was extremely helpful for this. Mindful objectivity allowed me to notice my meditation without being evaluative. I had the permission to be bad at meditation which helped me do it more often.

I’ve gradually increased the time from five minutes on the first day to eight minutes at the end of week one and I plan to keep increasing through the second week. I can’t say for certain if it’s due to meditation specifically, or a more general mindfulness, but I have definitely seen an increase in my self-awareness in this first week, but as I wrote above, I don’t need a scientifically verifiable and replicable study. If I’m doing something that helps, that’s good enough.

This week has already helped me with my willpower challenge (a few times I’ve made the choice to write instead of another acidity) and this mindfulness has extended into other areas and I’ve noticed myself being more mindful of food choices, my driving habits, and how I’m spending money. The progress I’ve made during the first week is definitely encouraging me to maintain these behaviors and try the experiments in chapter 2.

Chapter 2: The Willpower Instinct: Your Body Was Born to Resist Cheesecake

This chapter covers the physiology of our response to perceived threat and draws the distinction between the impulsive fight or flight response, and the willpower-leveraged pause and plan response. Most of the chapter aligned strongly with what I heard in McGonigal’s workshop, and it was helpful to see it reiterated with a bit more explanation and strong scientific citations. Through the chapter McGonigal continues her empowering message that as human beings, we are in control of how we respond to situations. The size and power of our prefrontal cortex makes us uniquely equipped to distinguish between external threats (like a raging bear) and internal threats (like the desire to buy a flashy new pair of shoes).

This distinction resonated powerfully with me. It’s very easy to externalize threats and respond with fight or flight, and this is very important when the threat is truly external, like a bear. The whole point of fight or flight is actually our body’s ability to repurpose our energy system before we think at all. This response, however, is completely ineffective on internal threats.

It turns out that the flashy pair of new shoes are not the threat. My desire to purchase the shoes are the threat. (In this case a threat to my long term goal of reducing impulsive purchases as opposed to a threat to my life.) By seeing the threat as internal as opposed to external, I can much more effectively activate my willpower to resist that threat. The energy is not directed properly at my desire as opposed to the shoes themselves. This need to distinguish internal and external threats requires the kind of self awareness that I activated during the first week, and I’ve already seen improved ability to determine the locus of a threat and respond accordingly. I’m definitely not perfect, but I’m noticing a lot more than I had previously.

The other extremely important component of chapter 2 is the link between willpower and our physical health, and this is evident in the willpower experiments. In week two McGonigal tasks her reader to activate intentional breathing, spend time outside, get more exercise, sleep more, and intentionally engage in relaxation. I’m pretty good about some of these already. Thanks to my wife’s insistence I usually get seven or more hours of sleep every night, which is on the good side of McGonigal’s scientifically-backed six hour minimum for proper willpower function. I also exercise regularly and I don’t plan in making changes to that regimen any time soon. The other willpower experiments are less present in my life currently.

The other components: intentional breathing, getting outside, and active relaxation are going to be my focus for week two. The intentional breathing is intended to be used in acute situations as a way to actively shift from fight or flight into the pause and plan response. I’m going to try be mindful of my physiological response to perceived threat in order to activate an intentional pause and plan response through controlled breathing. This week I’m going to be away at the South by Southwest Edu conference in Austin, so I will have to walk more than I usually do at home, this should help facilitate including five minutes of outdoor physical activity. I will need to be more intentional about this time when I return home. Lastly I am excited to spend time in active relaxation. McGonigal’s process for this is very straightforward, somewhere in the grey area between meditation and sleep.

Even only one week into the project I am feeling much more in control and aware. Additionally, by understanding willpower as a physiological and growable component of my life, I’ve been able to remove some of the guilt associated with losing a willpower challenge. Reconfiguring my understanding of willpower is making me more willing to attempt activities that challenge my willpower. I look forward to reflecting on a second week.

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.

We’re coming up on the semester in my district, and it’s a good time to take stock of the year so far and think about opportunities to make changes.  So far nearly all of my teachers have been working in triage mode, responding reactively to address needs as they arise, always working to prevent getting overwhelmed.  They tend to move from one problem to the next with a high degree of presentism.  Similarly, I’ve been working reactively with my teachers, targeting those teachers that I perceive to have the highest needs, and trying to get everyone to a baseline of “this job is doable” before deeply pushing practice.  I want to change this in the second semester both for myself and the teachers I work with so that we can push a more philosophical and transformational approach to developing a teaching persona.

To this end I’m scheduling midyear reflection meetings with each teacher. In each of these meetings I’m specifically blocking out time to move our discussions away from the day to day issues and to look at first semester holistically, then setting focus areas for our work in the second semester.  In light of my previous thoughts on structuring discussion, I’ve put together a template for the discussion, something of a hybrid between open discussion, and a formal protocol.

The process works as follows with room for individual variation:

Step 1: Begin with an informal post winter break check-in to reestablish the teacher/coach relationship.

This is a quick way to reconnect and remind teachers that I am focused on supporting them as an individual person within the teaching role.  They are a human being first, and a teacher second.  A trusting relationship is essential to all of our work together, and therefore I need to remember to deliberately inject micro moments of relationship building into the process.  I cannot simply jump straight into the work and assume that a relationship will follow.  I need to intentionally build collegiality and trust so that my teachers will feel comfortable being vulnerable with me.

Step 2: Explain purpose of mid-year reflection.

The purpose of the meeting is to explicitly step away from the day to day, reactive, work of teaching.  Put aside the discipline issues, step away from evaluations, and put down the grading.  By stepping back like this we are able to get a more holistic perspective to the work, and we can move in a more proactive direction.  This wider perspective is commonly lost on teachers, and they are unable to see bigger patterns in their work due to a myriad of immediate needs.

In addition to the shift in focus, the timing of the meeting is highly intentional.  I am a big proponent of making change immediately once a need is identified, however, some changes (such as a change to grading system) need to wait until the semester.  Additionally, my teachers with semester classes have a chance to completely reset the structure of their course.  With a structured conversation that reflects on first semester, and makes plans for second semester, I can help teachers put their desires into practice at a logical time while continuing to act against the sentiment of, “next year I’d like to…”

Step 3: Move into a reflection on successes to date.

I specifically address successes before areas of growth because of how infrequently my teachers discuss their own success.  Whether from a sense of humility, high standards, or a lack of perspective my teachers rarely lead with discussing their successes.  Self-critique is far more common.  While thoughtful critique of areas of growth is extremely important, it is also important for my teachers to be able to identify and name their areas of strength.  This serves to boost teacher morale at a difficult time in the school year, as well as to improve teachers’ reflective accuracy.  Appropriately identifying areas of strength and success, is equally important to identifying weaknesses when building a teacher’s ability to self- assess.

In practice, I find that teachers have many more success than they initially give themselves credit for.  By taking the time to think critically about success, and not just failure, we can investigate how to maintain successful practices, and how to extend those patterns of success into new areas of instruction.  This serves as an important foundation for creating longterm patterns of growth.

Step 4: Ask teacher what they would like to add to their list of successes.

I’ve found great success wording the transition from discussing success to growth as “now that you’ve identified your success so far, what would you like to add to the list?”

This question does two things that benefit the teacher.  Initially, this wording honors the list of success and places value on them.  There is an agreement between teacher and coach that the previously identified successes are valid.  This confirmation is an important piece of feedback that helps teachers improve their self-reflection.

Secondly, there is an assumption inherent in the question that it is possible to grow the list of success, thus reinforcing a growth mindset.  This is a subtle move, and extremely important.  Continued growth is an essential component of success, and I want the teacher to work from an assumption that these are workable goals.  When I, as a coach, assume that my teachers are capable of growth, it makes it easier for them to grow in those areas.  This is also an act of modeling.  I show that I operate with an assumption of continued growth, and teachers can take that into their working in the classroom to help students grow.

Step 5:  Explore how to begin making progress toward those new items.

This is the step where we move from the reflective stage into practical planning.  We prioritize from the collaboratively generated list of ideas, and start to lay out the steps by which these areas will be developed.  This step is highly differentiated based on the specific needs of the teachers, but the goal is to turn the plans for growth into a reality.  The process can vary from a few simple interventions where a teacher needs exposure to new ideas, or it can be a more involved process that requires a teacher to think deeply about their identity as a teacher, and what that means for how to structure their classroom.

So far this process is going well.  I am only part way through my caseload, and I am seeing meaningful gains.  For some teachers this includes managing difficult teaching assignments, for some it is establishing more collegial relationships with their co-workers, and for others it is finding the personal strength to forge their own path despite external pressure to conform.  I am hoping that these midyear meetings will establish the focus I found lacking in the first semester.  I also hope that from our first semester work my teachers are empowered with the skills needed to work through many of the smaller issues with teaching more independently, thus allowing me to focus on developing their persona as a teacher and honing the more philosophical aspects of the profession through the second semester.

I would normally say that I don’t believe in protocols for structuring discussion.  Oh they work.  But I don’t need them.  They work for other people.  I know how to participate in and lead discussion. I don’t need the strict structure.  In fact, the strict method of a protocol just gets in the way of quality conversation.  My mind got changed last week.

As part of a series of professional learning my district has the fortune of working with Mark Church from the Harvard Project Zero and Visible Thinking.  The first part of his work is rooted in the power of protocols for structuring conversation around difficult topics.  In our first session Church had participants practice a protocol for sharing aspects of our practice (in this case a success).  It works in groups of at least three participants as follows:

  1. The presenter tells the story of their success (3 minutes)
  2. The listening group members ask clarifying questions of the presenter (5 minutes)
  3. The listening group members discuss why the presenter was successful (5 minutes)
  4. The presenter reflects verbally on what they heard in step 3 (3 minutes)
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 for the remaining group members

I entered into the protocol with minimal faith in it’s effectiveness, however, being a good student, my group committed to following the protocol with fidelity.  I was very happy to have my initial cynicism proven wrong.  In both the listener and presenter role I learned a great deal about myself and my colleagues and found the protocol to be extremely effective.

When I was in the listener role I discovered how one of my colleagues defines success.  For her success is a partnership.  When she collaborates, or when she can find teamwork she is successful as a mentor.  She is successful when the whole group succeeds.  As she was describing her success in step one I immediately found myself relating her story back to my interactions with her and many puzzle pieces began to slide into place.  This process helped me understand how central collaboration is to her, and this should help me work more effectively with her in the future because I understand her values more completely.

The listener role also helped me definite my own success to share when I took the presenter role.  Initially I was unable to come up with a success that I though was worthy of discussion.  When my colleague shared her success, and defined her process for helping her teacher, I was able to apply that to my own practice and redefine what I thought of as “good enough.”

The presenter role was much more difficult than the listener role for me.  I found that in order to share a legitimate success I had to be extremely vulnerable and trust my teammates.  This is where the protocol proved its worth.  Since I knew that I had time to explain my story (3 minutes) and that there was built in time for clarifying questions (5 minutes), I was confident that my colleagues would not get the wrong impression, and if there was a miscommunication it could be rectified.  This knowledge helped me relax into the process and allowed me to share more authentically.  Additionally I found the time when the 2 listening members of the group to be incredibly empowering as my colleagues found more aspects of success in my story than I had initially identified.

The result of the entire process was that I was able to understand my own success more completely and I was better able to see the value in my colleagues’ work.  This is an enormous gain for very minimal output.  I am confident that if Church had said “share about your successes” we would have had a much less productive conversation.  The protocol forced me out of my comfort zone by forcing me to listen without responding, and by forcing me to share about my successes, and I am better for it.