Saturday night, after getting home late, I had the opportunity to do some navel-gazing. Instead of the usual self-abusive internal dialogue, I spent some time trying to think about an issue I struggle with, rather than to just lie there and beat the shit out of myself. Anyway, I’ve been on my self-improvement kick lately, and one of the things I have been struggling with is willpower. The Adderall has certainly improved my focus when I’m in a task, but it doesn’t do much when I’m between tasks and trying what to decide what to do (or to avoid) next.
Willpower, in the Western world, always seems couched as this battle between good-and-evil, right-and-wrong, as you’re pulled between doing the right thing (difficult) and doing the wrong (the easy, sedentary path). Moreover, when we successfully engage in willpower, we frequently reward ourselves for our successes by indulging in the very things that put us in the situation in the first place — a sundae as reward for losing five pounds, for example — allowing evil as a reward for doing good.
It’s obvious (to me, at least) that short-term rewards for one’s willpower should be unrelated to the task — you don’t celebrate cleaning the kitchen every day for a week by taking a dump in the sink — so I’m not going to delve into that here, as there are plenty of other people who have. I know, diets typically have their “cheat days” and so on, but really, the path of moderation is the path of enlightenment. You’re never going to, for example, cut all processed sugars out of your diet, but as long as you choose the path of moderation, and exercise some sensibility, you’ll be fine. (Yes, this is what Buddha called the “Middle Way”, which was supposed to be part of the path to Enlightenment.)
However, that short-term shit isn’t what concerns me.
The long-term consideration is something that hadn’t occurred to me previously, and it is the primary issue I have had with myself recently. I’m sure that there are people out there who have expounded on it before. It is, however, a Big Idea™ that I need to continue to ruminate on. That idea: willpower is the ability to be compassionate to your future self.
From a personal perspective, Dan-of-the-now has serious issues with Dan-of-the-past. I’ve made dumb mistakes, sure, but what really eats at me is the shit I could have done had I gotten my act together more promptly. I look back on my 20’s for example, as largely wasted. My 30’s, too. I don’t want to build up any more ammunition for the Engine of Regret. I don’t want the future version of myself to be frustrated or angry with the current version of me. Thus, I am exercising the willpower now, to be even happier later. For example, if I have to clean the kitchen, I can do it now and it’ll take 10-15 minutes. Or I can play Civ 5 and wait two days on the kitchen, when it’ll look like a slaughterhouse, and require hours getting it clean, and me feeling stupid and kicking myself for not getting to it more promptly. I am being compassionate to future me by making his life easier.
And Sunday I woke up, shorthanded on sleep, but ready to get about the business of willpower. I woke up right away, rather than lingering in bed. And then I started tackling my to-do list, and it was pretty awesome. Did I accomplish everything I would have liked? No, I didn’t. But I did enough where the future version of me is happy that those things are accomplished, but at the same time won’t be berating himself for spending his whole life working his ass off.
It’s an interesting mindset. I’m going to see where this takes me. I’m setting this to post automagically on Monday afternoon. Ask me at the end of the day how it went.