The Myth of Willpower

Soldiers Carrying Logs
Soldiers Carrying Logs in Teamwork-Building Exercises, by skeeze

There is a prevalent myth in our culture about Willpower.  We tend to think of Willpower, as some form of great inner strength that allows us to accomplish things, discipline ourselves, and overcome emotional blockages.  When we quit a bad habit, create a new one, work through the night, or handle a problem with composure, we tend to think of ourselves as having shown off the quality of our Willpower, thereby feeling strong and accomplished.  If, on the other hand, we fall off the wagon when trying to break a bad habit, violate our diet, quit a project before it is done, etc., we see it as a sign that we have insufficient Willpower, and perceive ourselves as weak.

This myth doesn’t serve us. If you see yourself as insufficient just because you have lapsed in a task, it will discourage you from trying new ones, and create a lot of toxic self-talk.

We tend to Willpower as an innate quality:  something that you either have or you don’t.  Just as we think of things like Charisma, Attractiveness, or Intellect.  You have a certain set amount, and you can make a little more or a little less of it through your actions, but ultimately, it is set.  And just like in the case of Attractiveness, Charisma, and Intellect – this is a myth.

Willpower is a skill set.

Willpower is not a mysterious inner force you possess it is an assortment of factors – a blend of beliefs, skills, and habits – that put together determine what kind of effort you will be able to muster when confronted with a task. We just learn them all separately and don;t see how they work together, or we learn them so young we don;t even think of them as skills that we can improve upon.

Some of those factors are:

Time Management – time and stress management are the same thing.  If you have a habit of using “To Do” lists, priority grids, planning diaries, etc.  You will have more time and lower stress to handle difficult tasks.

Free “Processing Power” – owning things, especially broken things takes mental energy.  So does having semi-articulated ideas held in memory.  Getting rid of clutter, writing things down in on paper or a computer, keeping a journal, repairing broken possessions, etc., all make it easier for you to spend mental energy on other tasks.

Focus – Being able to spend long periods of time doing just one thing to the exclusion of all others is a key component of Willpower.  But this also is not an innate skill.  A person can learn focus with practice, and with practical habits. Closing down instant messengers, email clients, and putting mobile devices on “silent” can remove the temptation to jump whenever a contact comes in (Which all healthy humans do instinctively because it gives us a rush of the neurotransmitter Serotonin. )  Learning meditation, hermetic breathing, art appreciation, yoga, or a martial art also can be very effective.

Self-Knowledge – Every person has certain things that make them feel loved, that make them feel relaxed, and that make them feel motivated and energized.  You learn them when you are very young through the way your parents cared for you and taught you to care for yourself.  The positive feelings that these activities create are like a battery.  As long as you have those feelings of love, motivation, and relaxation, you will be able to handle stress, negative emotions, and distractions more readily.  (Psychologists call these your “psychic resources.“)  And like the battery on a mobile phone, the more you are forced to use them, the quicker you run out of power.

By doing the things you know give you those resources, you ca keep your battery charged, and handle pain, stress, and distraction far more readily.  This means checking in with yourself regularly to see just how good and motivated you feel, and when you are not doing so well, making plans to fix that, by doing something you enjoy.

Self-Care – Willpower is also contingent on good health.  A person who is exhausted,sick, or hungry is not going to be able to manage the tasks before him very well.  A person who exercises, showers regularly, keeps hydrated, gets enough sleep, and takes time to meditate in some way is far more able to handle problems.

Reflection – Twelve-step programs and addiction counselors have observed that most people suffer from lapses in judgment or return to bad habits that they are trying to break when they are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired (they HALT as an acronym).  Obviously, a blend of good self-care and self-knowledge is going to have fewer problems with each of these categories, but no amount of good self-care in the world will immunize yourself against those feelings.

The trick, then, is to develop a habit of checking in on your mood.  Take time daily to check in on how you are feeling, and what kind of thoughts you are having.  That way, you can be wary of when you are vulnerable to lapses, and do things to avoid distractions or temptation.  Keeping a journal is ideal, but if it is not your thing, using a computer or mobile application like T2-Mood Tracker can be a simple and easy means of doing so.

Delayed Gratification – Some people see this as the primary characteristic or linchpin of Willpower: the ability to set aside little opportunities for pleasure in order to get bigger payoffs later.  This is something we learn as we grow up, although some learn it better than others.  Delaying gratification is a matter of developing the habit of imagining the rewards of waiting clearly in your mind, and distracting yourself by focusing on other tasks.

Accountability and Social Support – No human being is an Island.  We work best when we have the support and care of other, healthy people.  Our social network can boost our willpower in two ways – first they often make it easier for you to recharge your emotional battery by spending time enjoying the company of people you care about.  Second, if you tell them about your plans, goals, or projects and ask for their support, they can hold you accountable.  Knowing that someone else is going to ask you how you did at the end of the week is a powerful motivator – we don’t like to let people down.  Peer pressure is  a powerful thing, we can use it to our advantage.

Investment  – Another powerful thing is cognitive dissonance:  once you have put significant risk or energy into an activity, you tend to be more successful at it, because you don;t want to waste that effort.  This is something life coaches understand very well:  when you give people help in a free session or online, they are less likely to take it, but the moment they have invested money in your service, they tend to work harder and get much greater success.  By putting some money into achieving a goal, speaking about it enthusiastically, creating vision boards or other creative projects, booking tickets, etc., you can make your unconscious need to make your thoughts mirror your actions work for you.

Emotional Discipline – I’ve covered a lot about generating positive emotions, and being aware of negative ones above, but one other ways you can help build up mental discipline is by learning to choose your mental state.

  • Anger management tools can help just about anyone discard frustration, anger, or tension from a conflict quickly and easily.
  • Learning to meditate allows you to become relaxed and joyous in a relatively short period of time.
  • A daily practice of gratitude first thing in the morning can set a positive tone for the rest of the day.
  • Writing affirmations, or reviewing goal-tracking tools can give you fresh motivation.
  • Journaling about your desired outcomes for the day can help you feel more successful at its end.
  • Listening to inspiring or relaxing audio programs during your work day can be very effective in letting you set your mood.
  • Being aware that emotions are sustained only when we choose them can allow you to let go of bad feelings quickly.

Good Habit-Building – Many of the things above are regular habits – journaling, emotional check-ins, meditation, exercise… they are all things that work best if you do them regularly.  Knowing how to build good habits and choosing to do so is an important part of having good Willpower.  Building a habit is as simple as consistently repeating an action for 21-40 days, by the end of that time it will feel right and normal to take that action, and you will do it without prompting and thinking.

These days it is fairly easy to use technology to build up a good habit.  You can set your mobile phone or computer to give you a reminder to do the action at the appointed time.  After awhile, you won’t need the reminder.