Why keeping your New Year’s resolutions has nothing to do with willpower. Part 2

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Yesterday I told you about the paradigm shifting advice David Whyte received from Brother David Steindl-Rast, “The antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest, the antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.” I also shared with you my own belief that the way to wholeheartedness is found through having a vital spiritual practice.

How to Maintain a Spiritual Practice or How to Floss

Today I am going to share with you how I have been able to start and maintain my own spiritual practice.  You might ask what that has to do with flossing and I would argue that is has everything to do with it.  I like to use flossing as an example of a daily practice that we all know we should have because it is not the least bit controversial.  Meaning, that when I say that you should floss daily, I never hear people cite research stating that flossing might not be good for you.  So pretty much everyone agrees that we should floss daily and we have the backing of the entire American Dental Association, so why don’t we do it?

Information is not enough to change habits

Many times we are convinced that if we just had more information then we would be able to change our habits, but this is another myth that holds us back from making substantive change.  If information were enough to change habits then you would be flossing daily because you know that it’s good for you.  If information were enough to change habits then you would never drive by a hospital and see doctors and nurses outside smoking.  Because if anyone has seen the negative effects of smoking firsthand it is the doctors and nurses.

Willpower has nothing to do with it

Another myth that really makes us feel bad about ourselves is the belief that if we just had more willpower then we would be able to maintain these new practices.  When we fail, we chalk it up to a lack of willpower and then go right back to our old habits.  To get back to the subject of flossing — you don’t floss because you lack information or willpower, you don’t floss because you didn’t begin the process gradually or compassionately enough, and you didn’t have a system in place to support that process.

Behavior = Motivation + Ability + Trigger

The method that I use for flossing as well as for my spiritual practice is based on the Fogg Behavior Model, named after Stanford Behavioral Psychologist BJ Fogg.  Fogg demonstrates that for any behavior to persist 3 elements must be in place, and those elements are Motivation, Ability and a Trigger.  When it came to flossing I would start out very motivated and I would randomly go into the bathroom and spend twenty minutes flossing and then a week or two would go by without any flossing at all.  What was wrong?  I was motivated to do it but I would simply forget or put it off.  I was missing the Trigger element because I didn’t have a way to remember.  And honestly I was missing the Ability element as well.  I would get too little floss or too much, my gums would get sore and I wouldn’t want to floss the next day, maybe the floss would break.  Even though flossing seems like a simple process, it does require a minimal amount of practice before you feel comfortable doing it. This lack of Ability was holding me back.

Floss one tooth

Using Fogg’s method I would look first for a sufficient trigger that would remind me to floss.  The simplest way to do this is by putting your floss in front of your toothbrush or toothpaste.  You are already have the Motivation to floss, so that element is already in place.  Now, how do you gain the missing element of Ability?  You do this by flossing one tooth.  When I tell people this they always laugh because of how ridiculous it sounds.  Flossing one tooth isn’t going to save your gums but it also isn’t going to hurt and it’s better than what you were doing.  So you floss one tooth which is what I call a micro-goal and then you celebrate that accomplishment.  You commit to doing this for a week and then afterward you can start to floss more teeth or all of your teeth.  What you are doing in that first week is improving your ability while creating a positive association.  You are also honing your triggers so that you know what will consistently help you remember to floss.

Your spiritual micro-practice

The point I am trying to get across is that you may not have your ideal spiritual or oral hygiene practices in place but that does not mean that you lack motivation, discipline or willpower.  It simply means that you have not put in place systems that help the necessary elements converge at the same time.  In tomorrow’s letter I will share with you several spiritual practices that you can gradually and compassionately implement.  This is part 2 of a 3-part series I am doing on the subject of wholeheartedness. If you would like to learn more about this topic I hope you will join me this next Monday for the first session of Finding Heart in Your Work.