If willpower is a muscle, how to you train it?
January 12, 2014 11:32 AM   Subscribe

I suffer from a deficit of willpower. I set goals, make promises, assure myself that I will follow them... and then end up feeling terrible when I impulsively break them. I'd appreciate advice and tactics from people who have suffered from and overcome a similar lack of control on how to train this 'willpower muscle.'

If were to personify my willpower, I would split it into two beings. First, I have have an 'inner child' that demands immediate gratification and is constantly looking for the easy way out of things. ("Order pizza, it would be yummy and cooking would take too long! Put off your work that you promised you would do, it seems difficult and you should relax today instead! There's always tomorrow!", he might say)

On the other side is 'old man reason', who tries to speak sense to me and make me think of the long-term consequences of actions. ("You just had Chinese, why would you have pizza today? It's bad for you! Also, don't forget that tomorrow is not a given. You've been putting off this work for days already and it's making you anxious. Even though it might be tough, why not get it done now so you feel better later?", the old man might reply to the child)

The 'inner child' is, on a troubling number of occasions, the victor of this battle. When he wins, I usually am quite relieved and happy until I have finished doing whatever the 'inner child' was asking for. Afterwards, I know I made the wrong choice and feel a great sense of guilt, disappointment and sometimes anxiety. I go for the short-term fix and take the easy way out far too often in many aspects of my life. Even though I know it will do no good and may even create problems later on, it feels so good in the moment that I have a hard time acting with my best interests in mind.

I'd like to hear strategies and advice from people who have subdued their own inner child (or whatever you want to call it) and increased their willpower as a result. I want to train my 'old man reason' to be buff enough to overpower the child who only thinks of the present. I am looking for techniques and ways to improve your willpower and make life choices that you know will benefit you in the long run, as opposed to consistently giving in to my baser instincts and opting for short-term gratification.
posted by Kamelot123 to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 114 users marked this as a favorite
I defeat my inner child by focusing on just one battle at a time. I hear lots of people talking about big life changes with about 5 different goals - I'm going to workout, eat well, lose weight, spend more time family and be a better person - then they fail at all of them.

I did this for about 40 years. Then I decided to just focus on one thing at a time until it becomes automatic and no longer requires willpower. Take the long view and just change yourself one step at a time. Set achievable, measurable goals and gradually work towards them. Systems were good for me (calorie counting, couch 2 5 K) as that even offloads the works of setting your goals.

So I don't really increase my willpower. I decrease the demands on it as much as I can so I have some leftover.
posted by srboisvert at 11:48 AM on January 12, 2014 [17 favorites]

I had this for many years specifically regarding my writing practice (or lack thereof, as the case was). What helped me tremendously -- in fact, it was the only thing after years and years of trying -- was Rosanne Bane's Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer's Resistance. She rejects the (pervasive) notions that not writing equals not having enough willpower, or being lazy, or whatever; rather, she argues that resistance comes from an anxiety-provoking fight-or-flight response that gets ingrained over the years, leading to the creation of an internal Saboteur (what you term your inner child) that keeps us from engaging in our creative pursuits.

Obviously, her book is specifically about writing, but I think her insights and practices are likely to be more broadly applicable to developing habits for meeting other types of goals.
posted by scody at 11:59 AM on January 12, 2014 [9 favorites]

I don't have a lot of wisdom for you, because I have the same problems you do and I'll be watching this post for myself. I did just recently see this comic on Wait But Why that I think helps sum up what all of my problems are. The second part deals with how to beat procrastination. Like I said, I'm totally still working on this myself, but this was the first thing I found that kind of helped, and maybe it'll help you too.
posted by Weeping_angel at 12:01 PM on January 12, 2014 [7 favorites]

I'm working on this right now. One thing that has helped somewhat is to stop thinking of these impulses as "the dumb/lazy half of my brain" and start thinking of them as learned compulsions, like biting your nails or something. Like, there's not a Me Who Bites My Nails and a Me Who Hates Biting Nails who exist in an eternal battle inside my head- there's just me, who has an occasional compulsion to bite my nails, no big deal. (I don't actually bite my nails, this is just an example.)

The key is just to realize when you're performing these self-defeating behaviors and just think "I'm only doing this because I have this silly compulsion to do so." Sometimes that thought alone is enough to make me stop doing it.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:05 PM on January 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Well, you can't be perfect. That's the thing. So there are compromises - do your work now and you can have your pizza. It's the all or nothing mentality that wears you down so that you immediately give into the child because then you get something fun.
posted by heyjude at 12:20 PM on January 12, 2014

Let's compartmentalize this. You appear to have three distinct anxieties:

1. Anxiety about your anxiety. Worth worrying about, a bit, until it's fixed.
2. Anxiety about things that don't matter, like pizza. Not worth worrying about at all.
3. Anxiety about things that do matter, like work. Worth worrying about.

Don't ditch your inner child. Trick him. "If I do this work thing, I get pizza!"
posted by Sys Rq at 12:27 PM on January 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't think Willpower is a stat you can increase like Dungeons and Dragons. What has helped me is mindfulness study: Learning to be aware of my body and feelings and emotions, and then reading up on the way the mind works in general (psychology was what I studied in school and continue to find interesting).

What I have found, broadly speaking, is think of willpower as a set number of chits you have throughout the day. So you have 20 Willpower tokens, but that can be modified by the kind of day you're having and how you generally feel. When I'm sick, for example, I have basically no self-control and will lurch through the Walgreen's buying whatever sounds tasty because I'm basically a pregnant woman overcome by cravings. This can be many things: stress, illness, having a shitty day at work, and so forth. Like when you get home after a nice day, you're all "I'm going to go to the gym and be productive" but you had an awful day and your boss sucks and the drive home was terrible, you're all "fuck everything I am going to eat all the cake and watch TV", you know?

So there's several things I do in my framing.

The first thing is I put myself in a position to succeed.

For example, my mom always complains that she can't lose weight but when I look in her pantry, it looks like a convenience store exploded spraying snacky cakes everywhere. Maybe the first ten times you look in there, you pass on the snacky cakes, but then it's the end of the day and you're tired and out of Willpower chits: you're gonna eat em. If you have a chocolate cake on the counter and walk by it a hundred times, you're probably going to eat it eventually. So I either don't stock snacks in my house or, if we must have it for whatever reasons, I keep it out of sight, conserving my chits for other stuff.

Likewise, when I join a gym, I join one in a good location that's a nice place to go, because if I join one that's a 45 minute drive or I join one with gross equipment or weird people hanging around, I'm not going to go

This requires a significant level of self-honesty. It IS kind of ridiculous that we can't have a bag of chips in the house without me devouring them. It IS kind of ridiculous that a bunch of surly old people hanging out in the lap pool will keep me from swimming. But at this point I know me and I'm honest about what I can and will do. And I know if I join the cheap gym where the old people hang out in the lap pool and get bitchy when you ask them to move and the equipment looks like it'll give you tetanus, I just won't go.

It also requires a level of self-forgiveness. If I want a bag of chips bag enough I will get dressed and drive down to the store and buy them...maybe I really need them. (Obviously this goes out the window if I'm doing it daily but then I have a bigger issue).

The second thing is keeping an eye on my current physical and emotional state. Am I really HUNGRY or am I just bored? Do we really need ALL THE FOOD at the grocery store or did I just not eat breakfast this morning? Sometimes it's cheaper to go grab a quick lunch at the place next door than it is to go grocery shopping when I'm hungry (and see above for the forgiveness thing). Am I wanting to tear the head off this person because they really did something that bad or did I not have enough to eat today and am a grumpy diva because I just need a snack?

Another thing is do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I see this with a lot of friends. Like they get on the internet because they want to lose weight and they deep dive into Internet Fitness Wisdom and they decide they have found the one perfect thing to do...only their gym doesn't have the equipment for it or they don't like it or they don't have the time for it, so they wind up doing NOTHING WHATSOEVER, because it's clearly better to not work out in any fashion than deviate from the one true path. Or I have friends that want to publish a novel and decide they are going to write 1000 words a day and then one day they only manage 500 and DESPAIR, IT'S BETTER TO NOT WRITE ANYTHING EVER so they never write anything.

I mean, the wider thing I'm saying is don't let simple tasks become referenda on You As A Person. That's really the biggest problem, everything becomes a huge overwhelming Moral Issue of Our Time and an occasion to beat yourself up.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:41 PM on January 12, 2014 [23 favorites]

I have a very loud one of those. I kind of practice self-parenting. Tell that voice no. Think of your inner child as your actual child. You would make good choices for them, wouldn't give them everything they want, etc. so why make lesser choices for yourself? I think willpower is bogus. Willpower means wanting to do something. Commitment means doing it whether you want to or not.
posted by cecic at 12:59 PM on January 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't believe that willpower is a muscle, but I do believe that there are different approaches that work better based on your personality. Your "willpower style," let's say. Understanding your "willpower style" is the first step, which will allow you to set yourself up for success.

For example: for some people, publicizing goals is a great motivator and helps them follow through because of social pressures. For other people, simply saying that they intend to do something scratches the itch to the point that they no longer feel as committed to doing it. I have learned over time that if I really want to will myself to achieve a goal, it has to be a secret. I can't tell anyone. It can only be mine. Even writing it down (in a private journal, for example) makes me less likely to follow through.

Another axis I've found: incremental changes vs. big changes. Some people try to change everything all at once: quit drinking, stop eating carbs, go to sleep early, exercise, and they get overwhelmed and quit immediately. For myself, changes that are too small feel much easier to compromise on, and because I don't notice significant results from little changes, I give up easily. It sounds counterintuitive, but I am in the population of people who is far more likely to stick to extreme lifestyle changes than little tweaks.
posted by telegraph at 1:11 PM on January 12, 2014 [6 favorites]

Within the last year or so, I read a NY Times article about a study that showed that willpower is a limited resource within short timeframes (hours to days). A person who eats salad for lunch and then flosses instead of having dessert and then successfully avoids joining in the afternoon office gossip even though they know something really juicy will be running low on willpower by the time it's 5pm and they're deciding whether to go to the gym. So -- I try to save my willpower for things that will give me the most bang for my buck.

The article also talked about the fact that low blood sugar levels decrease your willpower, too. It's not like having a spoonful of sugar will magically make it easy to be polite to your jerk coworkers, but having a low blood sugar will make it a lot more difficult to do so. So I try to eat things that will keep my blood sugar fairly even (fats, proteins, complex carbs) rather than stuff that will spike and then tank my blood sugar (candy, etc.).
posted by vytae at 1:12 PM on January 12, 2014 [11 favorites]

I've seen some psychology literature where they've found practice effects for executive control and impulse control (or whatever else psychologists decide to call willpower). To extend the analogy of Ghostride The Whip , maybe you can slowly increase your willpower chits available each day by practicing self-control. You could try some mindfulness meditation or something? But structuring your environment so that you're not distracted is probably the most important thing!

Also, here's a reference I half-heartedly googled and did not read.
posted by zscore at 1:15 PM on January 12, 2014

I haven't succeeded in regularly putting this into practice, so I don't know if it works... but I have read that it can be helpful to give loving, respectful attention to that rebellious child within. If you are critical and punitive and stake out the opposite position, she's only going to dig in her heels and keep thwarting Old Man Reason. The idea is to see what she really needs. Perhaps it's to be creative, or playful, or just to be heard. This idea comes from Internal Family Systems.
posted by summer sock at 1:39 PM on January 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I read a fun article recently about procrastination, which I feel is thinking about similar issues, except the author imagines your 'inner child' as the 'Instant Gratification Monkey', which I love. The first article is here

I know you're not asking quite about procrastination but I wonder if some of the ideas are helpful.
posted by kadia_a at 2:22 PM on January 12, 2014

Ghostride the Whip said better than I could how I imagine willpower, and to that I'd add that habit is the magic vehicle that increases perceived willpower. As soon as you can make something habitual - going for a walk at lunch, getting home and opening the fridge to cook instead of ordering in - it doesn't take a willpower chit to do it, and you're free to use them elsewhere.

I also find that it's really effective to think a bit about exactly where and when your willpower fails and then set yourself up for success. For instance, I'm far more likely to order in on evenings when I've come home late from work and I'm tired and already hungry. So on nights when I cook, I try to make leftovers to keep for the late nights, and I've given myself permission: if the fridge is bare and I'm home late, just order in.
posted by psycheslamp at 2:36 PM on January 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Previous answerers have linked to the Wait But Why comic about The Dark Playground and the metaphors in there definitely resonated with me (and seem like they would for you -- did your know that your inner child is really a monkey?).

I found both parts of the comic really helpful, but what was also really insightful for me was the comments on the corresponding post on the Blue.

For my part, I try to keep the Monkey off of my back by using things like the Pomodoro Technique to get myself to at least do work in 25 minute bursts. With a little practice I have gotten to the point where I can pretty much focus on even my most dreaded tasks for 25 minutes once the timer starts running (though the Monkey can be sneaky about trying to convince me not to start the timer).

A group of MeFites is combining Pomodoro with the Kanban technique for a little gamification at kanbanflow.com. Here's the MeTa about it, which also has links to definitions for Pomodoro and Kanban.
posted by sparklemotion at 2:59 PM on January 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

A lot of people in this thread are referring to the concept of pre-commitment; using strategy to avoid temptation. Such as stuffing your pantry full of healthy food, setting out your gym bag the night before, avoiding bars, etc... As a person who regularly has a willpower of a 3 year old sugar addict in a candy store, this approach has been enormously effective.

Also, I believe that developing good habits is a strong component to utilizing your willpower effectively. Especially the idea of "keystone" habit. A habit that once mastered, would allow you to "unlock" other habits and build upon the first one. For me it was exercise and diet change. Less sugar + more exercise = better sleep = better mood & focus = easier to resist temptations and get through difficult tasks (such as building new habits).

I recommend using techniques from these two books in conjunction:

Willpower by Baumeister


The Power of Habit by Duhigg

Last, start small and be patient with yourself.
posted by pakoothefakoo at 3:23 PM on January 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Don't try to fix all your bad habits at once. Work on one or a few (3 or fewer) habits at once. When you establish those new, better habits, then you can work on other habits. Either your remaining bad habits will still be there when you've worked on other habits, or they won't. If they are, you can work on them then. If they aren't, well, problem solved, now, isn't it? I think of this as the New Year's Resolution effect. Lots of people resolve to change a lot of things about themselves at the new year. They try to tackle all the changes at once, and end up accomplishing none of them.

Be aware that it can take weeks or months to establish a new habit. This isn't a quick process. Brian Wansink, who studies this kind of thing, says that it takes at least 21 days to establish a new habit.

Have specific and realistic habit goals.

It's easier to say "not now" to yourself than it is to say "no".

If you can divide and conquer your bad habits, do so. If you can get your laziness to work for you against your desire to overeat, maybe by not having snacks anywhere in the house but the kitchen, do that.

I have learned these things from being on a diet called the No S Diet. The No S Diet is "no sweets, no snacks, no seconds, except on Saturdays, Sundays, and special days". No S has three specific habit goals- not eating sweets, not eating snacks, and not taking seconds at meals. That's the kind of specific goals you should be looking for.

For the eating takeout thing, you might set a goal of eating N or fewer takeout meals per week, where N should be at least a little lower than what you're doing now. N = 0 is probably not reasonable. Or you might only allow takeout meals on specific days of the week, but not on other days. You want a rule you can't rules-lawyer yourself out of.
posted by Anne Neville at 5:45 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Check out The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal. She's a Stanford psychologist who gives a lot of thought to these very struggles.
posted by delight at 5:48 PM on January 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

There's lots of good advice here already. I'll just add that for me, the limited, incremental steps have been the most effective intervention. When I don't even focus on the big goals, but just the daily goals, I do way better. So instead of "exercising more", I am riding my bike to work today. Instead of finding a new job, I am applying for three jobs today. Then I have to just let go and assume the big picture will fall into place. And more and more often it does.
posted by latkes at 6:04 PM on January 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

Keeping track of your progress is key, I think. And when I say "keeping track", I mean doing it in some kind of written, tangible form -- not just a mental tally. Here's an excellent article that describes what I mean:


And, actually, that whole site is good. Lots of useful advice there.
posted by alex1965 at 7:07 AM on January 13, 2014

Great advice on this thread. I know alllll about willpower (and the lack there of). I used to weigh close to 100lbs more than I do now and I managed to lose that weight on my own, non surgically and without any fancy medication or anything. Just willpower and hard work.

Willpower for me is in very limited supply, and even after years of hard work I still suck at willpower. I'm not sure it is something that can be strengthened frankly... What worked for me is to play to my strengths and account for weaknesses. There are certain things I know about myself such as:
1. I won't go out of my way to go to the gym. It needs to be convenient.
2. I'm a package eater, I like to eat ALL of something. I get a lot of satisfaction from finishing an entire bag of something, if you know what I mean.
3. I hate wasting money.
4. I am incredibly reward driven, and intagible rewards like "my jeans are looser" or "climbing 3 flights of stairs wasn't murder". THINGS are the most rewarding for me.

To account for those things I:
1. Joined the geographically closest gym I could find. Later when I moved to a new house I found myself going to the gym a lot less because it was no longer as convenient. I have changed to a closer gym, things are better.
2. I pre-portion things in to smaller bags/packages so that I still get to eat all of something, only now it is a reasonable amount. For things that aren't packageable like that, I usually get my husband to portion them. If I want ice cream he is the one to scoop me out a serving.
3. I pay for my gym membership a year at a time. If I don't go I am wasting mega money. Same with my weight watchers membership. I'm paying for it. If I'm not following the program that is money flushed down the toilet.
4. I found other things to reward myself with that aren't food. It took a while to find what really worked for me, but makeup and bubble bath type stuff seems to work well. If I reach a weightloss goal I reward myself with something like that.

So what you need to do is sit down and very honestly identify your common fail points and then accomodate/prepare for them as best you can.

A final BIG thing that works for me is to allow for times of no willpower. Sometimes I really want a candybar. I can tell myself that next time I can have it if I want it will help me have the willpower to not get it this time. Delay rather then deny. The next time around if I still want that candybar I get it and eat it without guilt. Usually I don't, though because by then the craving has passed. But I do give myself the option. It won't work if I try to tell myself I can have it next time knowing that I actually WON'T let myself have it next time.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 7:43 AM on January 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

The child is strong, but the old man is sneaky.

There are times when the old man is in control. These tend to be times, of course, when you're absolutely convinced you have to make some sort of change in your life, and that you can do this. (Not coincidentally, they are also times when you're not craving whatever you're trying not to do). Use this time. Don't just think about what you're going to do--do something about it. This is the time to arrange your environment to make it as easy as possible to do what you're trying to do, and to not do what you're not trying to do. You want to be predicting all the arguments that your future child self will be using and aggressively preempting all of them.

Your future child self is *lazy*. If it wasn't, it wouldn't be arguing for self-gratification at the expense of your goals. You really need to spend some serious time thinking about how to make it easy to do the right thing.

I know this sounds cliched, right? I mean everyone knows, "cut up the credit card", or "throw away the cigarettes/candy", etc. But don't just stop there. To use the examples you brought up: why order pizza if your fridge is stocked with stuff that's faster and healthier? It's easier to wander to the fridge than to wait for delivery. There are lots of sources of healthy convenience food these days--they tend to be not cheap, but they're generally going to be competitive with delivered takeout.

Regarding work: What is stopping you? Is there a particularly annoying, brainless task you can automate? Do you do better working alone, or in a group? What are your usual distractions; can they be eliminated or made to be annoyingly difficult to do? Maybe you can skip part of the task that's causing you to put it off, either temporarily or permanently.

Not only does this help stop undesirable behaviors, it helps *detect* them. Even if it takes two more seconds to, say, launch a browser and surf the web instead of working--that's two more seconds for your old man to jump in and have a word with you. Those two seconds have saved my ass more than once.

You may find (as I have) that you become more mindful of just How. Many. Times. your brain wants to sliiiide over and just have its own petulant way. When you delay that gratification even a few seconds, you can become more mindful of these urges. You realize you're saying "No" hundreds of times a day. It's kind of exhausting in a sense, and kind of disheartening. But this is actually a *good* thing. This is the training you're talking about. And since you now *notice* all those "No"s, you can take pride in each one. You can have a little secret thrill each time you beat one down:

"Let's just open Metafilt--"
"But it's not due yet, and..."
"No. Is that all you got?"
"We're waiting for this to open, so let's just go read--"
"Shut up. I own you. You lost another one. Go on, take another shot. I'll be ready."
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 8:54 AM on January 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

focus on things you can do every day. and do them every single day. the day-length cycle is the strongest cycle of habits.
posted by ead at 9:21 PM on January 14, 2014

I have a little phrase I say to myself: "Follow the good impulse."

There is a "good" impulse, an impulse to do the right thing, that appears when I first think of a job that needs to be done. As soon as a small, manageable task enters my awareness, I've been training myself to follow up on it immediately. For example, "I need to renew my library books" or "Hey, my clothes are ready to be taken out of the dryer."

Just becoming aware that this is a quality I want to train in myself, and having my little catchphrase to remind me, has helped a lot.

It's harder to apply it to bigger projects, but if you can break the big project down into smaller items, that helps. (As far as this process of breaking things down goes, I found the Personal Kanban concept to be marvelously helpful.)

The more one does this, the easier it gets.
posted by spacewaitress at 9:02 PM on January 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Two things.

Meditation - minus mystical stuff - is practicing *focus*, which is tied pretty darn strongly to willpower. The Android app Headspace is a good start to it, as is the book Search Inside Yourself; both are non-spiritual, hands-on-approaches to doing it. I like Headspace much more, as it's immediate to get started. From my point of view, this helped within the first week.

The second is pretty straightforward. There's a story attributed to the Cherokee, goes something like:

One evening an old grandfather told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, "The battle is between the two wolves who live inside us all.

One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith."

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: "Which wolf wins?"

The old man replied, "The one you feed."
posted by talldean at 4:29 PM on January 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've been sitting on this question formulating a response, changing my mind over and over and rewriting the answer ...

Back when I was quitting smoking I was chewing gum and doing a lot of the other commonly suggested distractions to stay quit. My jaw hurt from all the gum/mints/toothpicks I was chewing and I was getting sick of all that flavour in my mouth. Not exactly sure how I pieced it together just that I had one of those ...oooooooh! moments. I think I was angry, or maybe I was bored. I know I was on autopilot as I caught myself getting up to have a cigarette, "You could go have that cigarette, but the feelings will still be there, unresolved, and you'll have to start from scratch. Do you really want to go through those first few days again?" I reinforced it with "You don't smoke." as I popped more gum into my mouth.

The one thing I keep mulling over is when I realized my feelings drive how I act in every way imaginable. That everything I do is predicated on a feeling, which more often than not is fear, and I'm trying to distract myself from those feelings. I'm not a fan of berating myself for making mistakes and try really hard to see failures as a way to learn how to do it better the next time around because, over time, I'm realizing things I thought I had the definitive answer to get re-examined when I have other small epiphanies. And the furniture in my head gets rearranged again.

I came across an article around the time you posted the question initially that goes into some of the ideas/theory behind procrastination and emotions that might find encouraging. And, a book someone suggested in another thread called, "Procrastination - Why You Do It"

I also wanted to suggest meditation, but I disagree that its aim is to help you focus. Perhaps this is splitting hairs over word meanings, but I much prefer "aware" since focus suggests (task oriented) single mindedness which is the exact opposite of what I now experience (I meditate every day).

The battle is between the two wolves who live inside us all.

I always found that parable troubling because it puts a person at odds with themselves wherein one aspect must be vanquished lest they be a sore loser who couldn't figure it out. There is only one "wolf" we're at odds with and that's our (wants, expectations, desires, needs) ego.
posted by redindiaink at 6:47 PM on February 3, 2014

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