Finding a new approach

Jan. 26, 2014 @ 01:10 PM

“How can a year that ends in ’13 possibly go well?” said a colleague after I’d crabbed about various and sundry muck-ups and a painful shoulder that was threatening to freeze up. In addition, I suffered from the negative effect of having eaten and drunk with abandon over the holidays and was rapidly reaching that itchy feeling inside that makes me want to crawl out of my skin. Thankfully, as if one of the Fates heard my misery, I fell into a string of happy coincidences. 
When I complained to a friend about how tired I was of my recent glass-half-full attitude, she recommended I listen to Shawn Achor ‘s Ted talk (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXy__kBVq1M). I was caught by his dynamic style and promise that practicing five simple techniques for 21 days could change my attitude. Tracking gratitude and meditating? I could do that and maybe I’d find more audio antidote by listening to his “Before Happiness: The 5 Hidden Ways to Achieving Success, Spreading Happiness, and Sustaining Positive Changes” (Random House, 8 hours, 15 minutes).  
Mike Chamberlain reads with an upbeat, happy-sounding inflection. This kept me going through a rather difficult entry as Achor begins by detailing all the great things he’s done for big businesses. The audio’s positives -- for example viewing life from differing vantage points to increase possibilities -- were valuable but I was struck more by his ego than illumination. My guess is that someone more familiar with the corporate situations he describes might get more from his work, but his Ted talk’s definitely for everyone.
Several days before I was due to leave for a writing retreat, I caught a bit of “The People’s Pharmacy” on the radio. Kelly McGonigal, the enthusiastic guest, discussed willpower. McGonigal, a professor at Stanford has a new book based on the series of popular classes she teaches titled, “The Willpower Instinct: How Self-control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More Of It” (Your Coach in a Box, 8 hours and 20 minutes). 
I was surprised she didn’t narrate her own book, but Walter Dixon gives superb representation of her energetic style. He relates explanations carefully and seems to enjoy reading the funny bits with which McGonigal flavors her book. He is as easy to listen to as she.
McGonigal’s work explains willpower as a biological function that can be changed, a concept I’d found fascinating in Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney’s “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” (Simon and Schuster, unabridged, 8CDs). McGonigal quotes dozens of studies and theories, including theirs, but her thrust is on practical application of these principles.
On retreat, I began every day by listening to the audio which, both entertaining and enlightening, gave a mix of strategies, studies and science. McGonigal’s anecdotes and ideas are largely based on the insights and experiences of her many students. She suggests you focus on one key point for 10 weeks, applying them to the willpower challenge of your choice. You can also listen to the whole audio, as I did, and return to ideas that speak to you. I sampled the ideas for six day, gained new perspectives and am now returning to the beginning to replicate the rhythms favored by McGonigal.  
McGonigal labels the three elements of willpower simply: I will (“something you’d like to do to improve yourself”), I won’t (taking on your stickiest habit, the one that undermines you) and I want (focusing on your long-term goal). She directs listeners to examine the three as if they are scientists conducting field research, determining what works for them and what doesn’t. 
Throughout the audio, McGonigal blends humor and information; historical and medical development of humans; scientific studies and theories and every day influences of economics and psychological dilemmas. She makes all understandable, even neuroscience, beginning with a description of the prefrontal cortex as that “nice chunk of neurological real estate right behind your forehead and eyes.” This part of the brain is the key to self-control, distinguishes humans from other animals for you won’t find your dog “saving kibble for retirement.” Uniting science, she explains how a Stanford neurologist sees the prefrontal cortex as “biasing the brain toward doing the harder thing.” The audio is full of similar meaningful mixes of associations.
McGonigal, like Achor, urges daily meditation, but her reasoning changed my perspective. “Being bad at meditation is good for your self-control,” she says as it makes you aware of how many times you go off task and can return to your focus. I also liked her advice of beginning with only five minutes. She seems aware of the overwhelm that can thwart new attempts at change and her playful step-by-step approach seems more like adventure than work.  Now in my second week, I’m learning, making changes and feeling a lot less grouchy. 
Read more at Susie Wilde’s website, ignitingwriting.com.