A: In our first post we talked about some of the foundational ideas required to begin an effective effort toward strengthening our will. In this post we will talk about a few secrets and tips to making solid progress.
The Secret of a Schedule
The best tactic to employ for sure, even if slow, progress in this area is by establishing and following a weekly and daily schedule that reflects your priorities and duties. If at any given hour of any given day you know what you are supposed to be doing, you give your willpower a huge advantage over your raucous appetites. When your appetites want to abandon your duty or commitment, you will recognize it immediately, because you can look at your schedule and see what your own, freely chosen life-priority is right here and now. If you are supposed to be working on your thesis and your appetites want to take a trip to a museum, you can look at your schedule and make an act of self-governance with your will, training your appetites: “Well, okay, the Borromini exhibit is indeed worth seeing, but right now I can’t just abandon the office – I have some deadlines to meet. But I have scheduled a time for some recreation on Saturday morning, so I can go to the exhibit then.” That’s self-governance; that’s forming your will so that you are liberated from being a slave to your appetites. Coming up with your weekly and daily schedule may not be easy for you, especially if you have a spontaneous temperament. But with the help of a friend (someone who likes to plan and organize things), or even with your spiritual director, you can do it. But then you will have to watch out for another pitfall: becoming a slave to your schedule! That will only cause you to be frustrated and tense all the time. The schedule is a tool, a means to an end, but it can’t foresee everything, so you have to maintain a certain flexibility. Balancing your freedom between the two types of slavery – to your whims or to your schedule – is the proper job of the virtue of prudence. And you will grow in this virtue only if you try, make mistakes, identify them, and keep on trying. For that, the daily examination of conscience can be invaluable.
Be sure to schedule your weekly day of rest, and honor that. Be sure to schedule free time to relax and enjoy the company of family and friends. We are not robots, after all. Be sure to schedule your times of prayer. Be sure to try and follow through on your commitments and decisions; exercising constancy is key for building willpower. If you want to make adjustments to your schedule or commitments, try to do so during your weekly review and planning session, not just on a whim.
Another spiritual discipline, penance and mortification, also aids in the formation of the will, although those disciplines have other primary goals.
Don’t forget that forming your will is a long process – in fact, it’s something we can never stop doing. Like a muscle, if we stop exercising, consciously, our willpower, it atrophies. Don’t worry if you don’t see much progress right away; don’t worry if you keep falling back into slob-blob mode; just keep begging for God’s help and plugging away, confident that you are glorifying God and building Christ’s Kingdom just by making a decent effort to serve him better: “But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved” (Matthew 24:13).
Finally, remember that discouragement never comes from the Holy Spirit. Rather, it’s a trick of the evil one. We know that, because, as Scripture assures us, “with God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26), and “His mercy is everlasting” (Psalm 11:5).