Willpower, part VII: what to do with your old motivations
[This post is part of a series on willpower and how to understand and use it. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
Say you’re using willpower effectively — you know what you want to achieve and you know once you will yourself get started, emotions will kick in and help you finish.
What about the old emotions motivating you to sit on the couch instead of exercise, to eat the pie instead of the carrots, or to yell in anger instead of thoughtfully consider your next actions? If they linger, you may find yourself at the starting point again.
Again there are effective and ineffective ways to deal with old emotions.
An ineffective way to deal with them is to try not to think about them. It’s like trying to follow the command “don’t think about a pink elephant.” Your mind makes what you’re trying to avoid thinking about its most important thought. Trying not to think something works against you.
An effective way to deal with them is to crowd them out. If you don’t want to think about pink elephants, think about anything else. Better, start reading a book or start a conversation with a friend. If you don’t want to think about an itch, start cooking dinner or start lifting weights. If you want to stop craving the cookies you don’t want to eat, go for a run or start writing in your journal.
Your mind will occupy itself with what in its environment presents itself. Since “not pink elephant” includes “pink elephant,” thinking “not pink elephant” puts pink elephants in your mental environment. Talking with friends doesn’t include pink elephants, so talking with friends will crowd pink elephants from your mind.
In summary, pushing against emotions rarely helps overcome then. It tends to reinforce them. Crowding them out with other thoughts and emotions crowds them out.
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