How to Gain Control When You’re Stuck in a Willpower Rut

“On one level, wisdom is nothing more than the ability to take your own advice.” – Sam Harris

Two months ago, I was happy, productive, and excited for summer. I was eating well and being creative and exercising every day. My next book was percolating, and I felt giddy as I plotted out the lives of my characters. My whole recipe for happiness was simmering in my life.

Then I stopped creating. I tried to blog, but my mind was utterly, hopelessly blank. Exercise became sporadic, and then rare. Pizza crept into my diet with increasing frequency. I wasn’t sure how or why at the time, but it felt like watching my house of happiness come crashing down in slow motion: I had plenty of time to contemplate the horror that I was powerless to stop.

“Really?” I thought. “All this again? I just wrote a book about willpower! This can’t happen to me.”

I thought if I could just figure out the Big Reason Why, I could correct course and get back on track. The problem was, there was no “Big Reason Why.” What had preceded my landing in a ditch boiled down to a series of tiny, imperceptible decisions that, on their own, were inconsequential—but if I picture all those choices I made as a row of tiny blinking lights, you could see the pattern shift ever so gradually. The end result was that my decisions eventually shifted the Runway to My Future into a swamp.

You know these decisions. It starts with:

Do I obey the alarm in the morning? Or do I snooze.

Do I stay here and watch TV, or do I get off the couch to exercise?

Do I have a glass of wine when I go out to dinner? Two glasses? Three?

Do I plan and make healthy meals, or do I grab junky “convenience” options?

Do I check email or Facebook for the 100th time today, or do I do what I’m supposed to do? All of these tiny questions dance around this big question:

Where do you draw the line between enjoying and destroying?

When pleasure beckons us off the runway and into the swamp, the basics of self-care escape us. And once you’re in the swamp, enveloped in that warm, comfy mud, there’s little incentive to fight your way out.

But my runway beckons. My future calls. I’ve got big dreams where the runway meets the sky.

So I’ll tell you how I crawled out of the swamp. Well, step one is to have a dream. Okay, got one. (What’s yours?) So first, to begin removing myself from the swamp, I remembered my dream and the reasons why I want to live it.

Then I began getting up early. I had nothing to say in those dark mornings. Nothing to write. And so I simply began with small attempts to lift my mood. I got up when it was still dark out to watch funny internet videos. I prayed. I meditated, badly, as meditation goes. I began dumping my thoughts out on paper. Pure, blathering garbage.

Next I did harder things. I began exercising consistently in small doses throughout the day, with great variety (and enjoyment): weights, walking, swimming, stairmill. I began brainstorming again on my next book and this here blog. Badly, of course. But you gotta start somewhere.

My diet got only a teeny bit better. And that was what held me back from fully cleaning that swamp mud off my shoes.

Then, on the 4th of July while everybody else in America went to BBQ parties, drank beer, and ate hot dogs, I got a migraine that was so painful it quite literally brought me to my knees as I deposited the contents of my stomach into the toilet. (I apologize for that visual, but no good story is complete without vomit…Okay, I kid.)

Anyway.

Something happens when I get sick: it brings my self-care into clear, no-bullshit focus. And I could no longer pretend that eating a white bread English muffin every day counted as “good enough” on the health-o-meter.

I needed to get real. And so I did. And by shining an honest light on my daily rituals and habits, and by projecting where they were aiming my runway, I was able to reclaim my life force and my motivation back from the swamp.

I began to make decisions with integrity, and I can see that runway slowly begin to shift back to where it belongs. My consistent exercise routine is locked and loaded. A vegan mystic would approve of my diet…well, not really. But holy crap, I’m eating worlds better than I was. The extra pounds on my body are starting to pack up and scram. (More to come following a few weeks of consistency and patience on that.) Most important to me, early mornings are on fire with creativity and plans fulfilled.

This is how good things start to happen in our lives for real: we wake up and we decide that every decision counts; that it’s time to stop playing with the lights of our runway; that it’s important that they (and we) aim in the right direction.

This morning when I woke up at 5AM, I thought, “Why bother? Why get up? Why exercise? Why blog? Have I been high?! What was I so motivated for?” And then my mind swung around to all the petty annoyances I will endure for the rest of my life sitting in that swamp.

The swamp doesn’t only mean an unhealthy body. The swamp means being stuck in whatever situation you hate. The swamp means not figuring out how to remove yourself from whatever circumstances are holding you back from the life that you deserve.

WHY get up?

Because every aspect of my life will get better and better. Because even if I never achieve my dreams, even if this plane never makes it to takeoff, I have chosen daily activities that might get me there that feel good to me and that feed my soul.

Here are more questions you must ask yourself: Why get up? What feeds your soul? How can you stop destroying and start enjoying?

Blogging and taking care of my body and writing books makes me happier, on a much deeper level, than sitting in the swamp ever could. I’ve stopped destroying, and started enjoying.

Katie Morton is the author of Secrets of People With Extraordinary Willpower.

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