I’ve been reading a lot about willpower to find out how to get more. It turns out that we only have a very little bit, and we cannot be demanding it of ourselves all day long because that would exhaust our supply and make us nuts. Which is, of course, what I do.
But I have watched the farmer for a few years now, and I see that he substitutes three things for willpower which allows him to seem to have willpower beyond his actual willpower reserve.
Here they are:
1. Rigid schedule
It came to me when I started to understand the ebb and flow of the pigs.
There are about 500 pigs on the farm at any given time. Someone who does not do routine well—someone like me—would say, I’ll feed the pigs later. But the Farmer gets up every morning, at 6am, eats breakfast with us, and then feeds the pigs. And he’s blown away by the fact that every single morning I think we need to make a fresh decision about what we are going to do that morning.
He is like, what? Are you kidding? We’re eating breakfast and doing chores.
So then I pretend to have a schedule but really just sort of hope for willpower and watch it flutter away while I do things like let the kids play videos instead of music practice. Or I schedule a conference call when I’m supposed to be writing. And really, I never write at the same time every day anyway. If I did, then surely I’d have more regular posts on this blog. Which I have never been able to do. Despite wanting and promising myself and my editor that I will.
2. If… then thinking
The Farmer exhibits another skill that all how-to-have-willpower gurus say you must have: If.. then.. thinking. You know that expression, when the sun shines, make hay? He does that. Literally.
He cuts hay when he thinks the sun will shine, and he bales the hay — that’s what he’s doing in this picture — the minute the hay is dry, and there is no complicated decision-making process about whether he should read the new issue of New York magazine instead.
On the other hand, I am tortured by the problem of what I am supposed to be reading vs what I am actually reading. He is rarely tortured because there is no room for tortured thoughts in his schedule.
He has so many if-then statements that are an internalized guide to his life. The New York Times explains this as using behavior modification rather than willpower. And after being with him for a few years, I find that I internalize those behaviors as well. I know, for example, when he takes cattle to market (farm euphemism for killing them) we all wake up earlier and eat breakfast earlier. I don’t lay in bed considering my options.
So I am trying to implement more if-then statements in my life. Like, if I’m having an emotional breakdown then I stay away from bagels. That would be a good one for me.
3. Accurate personal assessments
The problem with coming up with how I want to structure my life is that I have to see where things really are falling apart. The farmer thinks I have a fantasy life of how much structure I have in my life, but really, I know I’m all over the place.
We always like to read about what we know a lot about. Like, I like to read about career management. Of course, I’ve read enough to last a lifetime, but I’m still fascinated. Like Chris Anderson points out that Malcolm Gladwell says you need 10,000 hours of doing something to become an expert. And after three years at a job, you’ve put in your 10,000 hours. So you’ve mastered it. It’s time to move on. What a great argument for job hopping.
The Farmer likes to read about willpower. Because he has so much. Or he looks like he has so much. So he also read that people have obfuscated views of what their life is really like. (To be clear, the Farmer is not the type of guy who would use the word obfuscate in a sentence, but he is the type who would ask what it means, so we are a good pair.) Anyway, people who do not have good self-discipline, which I think is the cause of not having willpower, are people who have an obfuscated sense of their days.
The Farmer told me, for example, that maybe I should write down every day that I run the hill outside our house. I wanted to tell him to shut the [ ] up, but I have internalized the rule if the Farmer is in the conversation, then that word is off limits. So I ignore him.
But I confess that when Tempur-Pedic sent me the Fitbit I was enthralled. It tracks sleep patterns and exercise patterns, both of which are always cited as key elements to a self-disciplined life. So I started checking things out. I can see why people say that when you keep track of what you are doing toward your goal, you reach your goal faster.
I can see that, because to get the full benefit of the Fitbit, I would need to enter a lot of data, which I would only do if I were really really committed to improving all those metrics in my life. Sadly, I think I am more oriented to buying a quick fix. So, for example, I can tell you that when I had a bunch of disposable income, I bought a Tempur-Pedic mattress and absolutely loved it and it’s a lot more fun to spend money to get a good night’s sleep than to collect data about getting a good night’s sleep.
So, maybe you think I sound hopeless. But I don’t think I am. Because reviewing all the data points at the Fitbit web site made me think I’m going to keep track, really keep track, of how often I run the hill. Because it feels really safe to have an if-then rule in life rather than searching for willpower.
And also, I want to tell you something: When the Farmer is gone, (which is almost never, but still, sometimes he has to see a friend or something,) I am in charge of the farm. And sometimes I find myself looking forward to that moment, just so I can feel what self-discipline without willpower feels like: If the sun goes down then the chickens go back to the coop.