Think about all the times you’ve set your mind on doing something, only to let the distractions of the day whittle away your resolve. Or remember how, around New Year’s, you make dramatic plans to turn your life around in the coming year, only to have those plans fizzle out?
By consciously and deliberately reversing a habit, you build willpower.
Yogis warn that this is a destructive habit–one that weakens your sankalpa shakti (willpower). And without willpower, it is impossible to achieve anything of significance in worldly life, much less in spiritual practice.
So how do you cultivate willpower? Swami Rama, the founder of Yoga International, taught that the first step is to learn to observe yourself and notice how your thoughts lead to actions. Then conduct experiments—small ones at first—nothing dramatic.
Decide to do something just a little differently from the way you usually do it—get up 10 minutes earlier, or include in your daily routine a hatha posture you usually avoid, or do nadi shodhanam (the alternate nostril breathing exercise) before each meal. It doesn’t really matter what you do—the point is to resolve to do something and then do it. By consciously and deliberately reversing a habit, you build willpower.
Don’t give up if you have setbacks at first (or even later). You are swimming against the current of unconscious habit patterns. Swami Rama said that it takes three months to firmly establish a new habit. Just witness the thoughts and the actions that flow from them and keep persisting until the new habit kicks in.
After some time, set a higher goal for yourself. Break it into small steps and do it in stages. When you think you haven’t accomplished anything, look back at where you started and you’ll see how far you’ve come.
Try this “One-A-Day” exercise from The Art of Joyful Living by Swami Rama:
Choose 30 tasks and work on one a day for 30 days. Write each on a calendar, but do not tell anyone what you are doing. Choose small challenges, ones you can work on steadily. For example, the first day decide that you are not going to lie. (You will find that many opportunities to lie suddenly present themselves.) The next day resolve not to be unkind to anyone. (And on that day you will find yourself in situations that beg you to be mean.) Observe how often you are able to maintain your resolve. Every time you do, your willpower gets stronger.
The more you create (and complete) such experiments, the more you build your willpower; and the greater willpower, the more self-confidence you have. And when you have greater self-confidence, you can do anything–change your career, overcome an addiction, or even attain liberation in this very lifetime!