Could the idea of willpower be a hoax?
Willpower is an American holy grail: control your impulse, control your actions, control your life. Willpower is the American Dream: “pick yourself up from your bootstraps,” “build your own destiny.”
As a lead coach of a 100+ student college, I’ve heard dozens of students lament over shortcomings of their willpower. “I can’t motivate myself” “I can’t change my habits.”
After a years of complaints, I asked, “Could we be thinking about the concept of Willpower all wrong?”
I decided to design some experiments. What I discovered surprised me.
The whole concept may be misguiding.
Origins of Willpower
"Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
In 1830, a young Ralph Waldo Emerson sat next to his sick wife. Faced with her mortality, he began to work on an essay. The resulting Self Reliance praises the power of individuals to take responsibility over their life. This idea spawned the Transcendentalism movement and the need for willpower.
In the 1990s, researcher Roy Baumeister began to research the concept. His experiments observed that people quit faster, perform worse, and become passive in tasks that require high willpower. He concluded that our willpower is a limited resource and can be used up from a common source. He coauthored a book with New York Times columnist John Tierney, whom I had on my podcast. I learned through our conversation that willpower is behind many modern movements such as Life Hacking, Essentialism, and more. The narrative on willpower is set. Or is it?
The Problem with Willpower: Internal Conflict
Take these 3 examples that require willpower:
- not eating the cookie in the office
- getting up early to go to the gym
- having a hard conversation with a friend
Each example is based on a model of internal conflict: part of you wants to do the healthy things, but part of you wants to eat sugar, lay on the couch, and retreat to be alone. This portrayal of internal conflict is the core problem with the willpower model: it framed our problems as a draining battle when in reality we can take a more frictionless approach.
Managing these two conflicting sides of yourself is exhausting!
Beyond Willpower: Pleasure
Here’s a better model.
My dad is an eccentrically health man. He steams broccoli and drinks the leftover green liquid afterwords. He’s 70 years old and works out so hard that he lightly moans on the exercise bike while jamming to Ariana Grande.
He does not live with internal conflict to be healthy. He’s beyond that.
Instead he learned to find pleasure in the things of which most people require “willpower”.
He changed his mind to appreciate the taste. He focuses on the biological high that results from exercise.
What we really need is not willpower to overcome our lesser selves. What we need is to discover and experience the pleasure behind what we previously wanted to “will” ourselves to do.
My dad doesn’t have to will himself to the gym because he wants to go.
Designing for Pleasure
Instead of willpower we should focus on finding pleasure in the things we want to do.
Here are three ideas:
1. Intellectual - What is the logical reason it will be valuable? What’s the logical reason you could enjoy this? What aspect of this activity do you appreciate? The goal is to be honest with yourself and appreciate new aspects of your activity.
2. Bite size experiences - do something so small you will feel like a win. To emphasize this may be VERY small. I had a friend who wanted to loose 150 points. After months of failed and shameful trips to the gym he decided to change his approach. He decided to start small: intentionally walk 5 minutes every day. He did this for a whole month. The task was so easy that he felt like a win every day. That created pleasure that carried him forward. Next month he walked 10 min intention, next month 20 min, then ran 1 min intentionally, then 5 min, 10 min, 15 min, 20 min. After two years he lost the weight because he learned to love the exercise. And, the habit stuck! This brings me to the next tip...
3. Play the long game - Like mentioned before, finding pleasure takes a while. Don’t rush!
Finding pleasure, I believe, is a better path towards empowerment, agency, and transforming your life.
I’ve began putting “willpower” in quotes. It’s something that can trigger shame, inability, and angst. Instead I focus on creating pleasure - because when you do that, the rest of the action takes care of itself.