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The (Un-Marshmallow-Coated) Truth About Willpower [All I want for my birthday is the secret to not procrastinating]

Posted Jul 01 2013 3:00am

bday And, done! Who says I haven’t accomplished anything?

Things That Happened on My 35th Birthday

- My husband brought me flowers.

- I took mine and my sister’s kids swimming. (Jelly Bean looked at me in my swimsuit and asked why my legs are so “bumpy like a dinosaur!” To which I got to explain cellulite to a 3-year-old.)

- I smiled fondly at all the Facebook “Happy Birthday” messages (and then wondered what it says about me that I only know about 10% of the well-wishers in real life).

- I met all our new neighbors at a neighborhood barbecue.

- My sister baked me a pie.

- I cleaned my kitchen. Twice.

- I went to a church-organized crocheting class even though I already know how to crochet because I was desperate for adult company.

- I did Zumba at my new gym and totally loved the high-energy instructor (I was so sweaty I looked like I’d cartwheeled through a car wash) – only to discover that said teacher was just a sub and doesn’t actually work at my new gym.

- Jelly Bean pooped her pants. Twice.

I turned 35 on Friday. All in all not a bad birthday. The day was pretty much a non-event – we’ve been so busy with the move and the jobs and the four little people that insist on following me everywhere, including the bathroom, for 20 hours a day that we just kind of went on with life as usual. Which was fine by me. Until that night. Because:

You know what didn’t happen on my 35th birthday? 

- I didn’t escape death at least 5 times to become the foremost female politician in a country that’s internationally reknowned for its horrendous crimes against women, like Afghani contender for Prime Minister Fawzia Koofi had done by her 35th. (Side note: I’m reading her autobiography “ The Favored Daughter” and it is AMAZING. Highly recommend.)

- I didn’t start my own catering company that would later turn into a multi-billion dollar juggernaut like Martha Stewart did when she was 35.

- I wasn’t kissing wookies and flying starships as Hans Solo, like Harrison Ford was doing at 35.

- I did not name my baby North West like Kim Kardashian (32) and Kanye West (35) did. (Side note: After hearing they are calling their daughter “Nori”, I said to my sister “Wow, they must really like sushi!” to which she answered drolly “Or they’ve never had it.”)

In fact, when you look at famous people from Mark Zuckerberg to Sylvia Plath to Eva Longoria, there are a ton of people who are amazingly accomplished well before their 35th birthday. It kinda made me wonder what I’ve been doing with my life. At least I didn’t play a cosmic joke on my offspring and name them after the freeway sign on the way to the hospital?

It isn’t that I’m jealous of all the go-getters, lucky-starred and otherwise successful folks. Nor am I sad about my own life. I’ve done a lot of great things, had a ton of fun and learned more lessons than I have wrinkles. But it does make me wonder what they have that has made them so successful. Sure luck, opportunity, smarts and ingenuity probably play a big part but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about willpower.

Ah, willpower. It’s so immensely important to lifelong success – you remember the “Marshmallow Test” study that asked children to resist eating a marshmallow for 15 minutes to earn a second treat? The ones who resisted were 80% more successful 30 years later than their sugar-snarfing counterparts – yet so difficult to master. Which might partially be because it isn’t what we think it is.

Willpower is often thought of as some kind of superpower – some people seem to be born with scads of it while others of us muddle around playing 30 rounds of Candy Crush while procrastinating an important deadline. I once read an interview with a young woman who had five Harvard degrees by the time most of her peers were graduating from high school. When asked her secret, she answered, “It’s simple. I don’t procrastinate. Ever.” Well I procrastinate all the time. That’s why I’m so awesome at crisis management. (Silver lining!)

In my quest to bulk up my mental muscle and streamline by hamster wheel life, I’ve been reading “ The One Thing ” by Gary Keller. In it, he makes some interesting research-based observations about what we call willpower:

1. It’s a limited resource. You can actually use up all your willpower. So if you waste it on the little stuff, it won’t be there when you need it for the big stuff. And once it’s gone, you have to wait for it to recharge before you can expect to use it again.

2. It’s better earlier in the day. Probably because of point #1, our willpower is strongest in the morning so Keller recommends doing all your important stuff in the a.m.

3. It’s affected by food. Apparently doing any willpower-intensive activity depletes your blood sugar, lowering your glucose level. Your body’s natural reaction to this is to make you crave sugar to restore it. (Which might explain why I always get the munchies when writing a difficult article?) Keller points out though that it’s better to sustain your willpower with lots of fat, protein and complex carbs rather than risking a sugar crash.

4. It’s affected by sleep. Duh. Anyone who ever ordered something off an infomercial or answered a booty call at 3 a.m. can tell you that.

5. It’s easily drained. I don’t know about you but I was surprised by the list of things that tax our willpower. Keller includes sneaky drains like suppressing emotion, filtering distractions, trying to impress others and coping with fear. Take those together and you basically have my autobiography in 12 words. The end.

Keller suggests however that the trick isn’t to try and make “more” willpower but to recognize that you only need enough willpower to do something until it becomes a habit. (P.S. He adds that the popular maxim of “21 days makes a habit” is totally bogus. Apparently according to research, 66 days is the magic number. Unless it’s something really tricky and then it’s 251.) At first making an important change will require a lot of willpower but the more you reinforce the pattern, the less you need until it’s not driven by willpower at all. To do this, he points out that it’s important to only focus on ONE thing at a time. (Hence the book title.) Direct all your willpower to the one thing most important to you at the time until it becomes a habit. Then move on to the next thing. No multitasking allowed!

People who are highly successful don’t become that way because they have more willpower than the rest of us but rather because they’re better at focusing it.

Does it work? Don’t know yet. But I’m intrigued by the idea. I think I’ll focus my willpower on finishing the book. Hopefully it will tell me how to shave my priorities down to just One Thing as right now that seems laughably insane. But I want it to work. Because next year, for my 36th birthday I’d like to have accomplished Something. Won a Pulitzer. Unpacked all my moving boxes. Or at least kissed a wookie.

How are you with willpower? Do you have any tricks for me on how to stop procrastinating? Anyone else make wildly inappropriate comparisons to other people on their birthday?

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