J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Willpower as a Commodity, Part I

Willpower in action

I’m considering two metaphors for the concept of willpower; willpower as a commodity and willpower as a muscle.  I think the second metaphor is closer to the way that most people think about willpower.  Willpower is something that can be exercised and strengthened.  A person can toughen themselves up.  Try hard, and you get better at trying hard.

I think this view is mostly false.  Hard things get easier because you get better at them when you do them.  Skills that have a steep learning curve, that feel difficult when you’re acquiring them, aren’t going to feel hard for that long.  Why not?  You can’t have a steep learning curve without having a short duration.  If you keep at it, the hard feeling part will pass relatively quickly.

So is willpower a commodity?  Is it a raw resource, valuable, scarce, and non-renewable, with multiple potential applications?  I think this metaphor is much closer.  You can renew your willpower by sleeping, and to a lesser extent with breaks, pep-talks, and sugary snacks, but in a given day willpower is basically non-renewable.  Willpower can be drained by any number of innocuous-seeming tasks, anything that requires mental concentration, enduring the unpleasant, complex decision-making, or resisting temptation.  Answering complicated email, having to interact with people you don’t like, searching for the best airline ticket deal, trying to NOT eat that doughnut, making lunch for your kid when there’s no food in the house — all these things can drain your willpower quicker a bullet hole in a gas tank.

Some people seem blessed with an abundance of willpower.  They have incredible powers of concentration, they can stoically endure the most unpleasant conditions, easily stick to the most spartan of diets, effortlessly delay gratification, and regularly complete grueling exercise programs.

Other less fortunate souls struggle with attention-deficit-disorder and are defenseless against all forms of indulgence.  They have to gear themselves up to get the littlest thing done.  If there is cake, they will eat it.  If there is Scotch they will drink it.  If there is the internet, they will waste time on it.

People less naturally endowed with willpower might in fact be the luckier group.  If they want to achieve anything, they will quickly learn that they have to guard their willpower against theft and to conserve against waste.

Those born into the first group might stoically labor their entire lives, getting much done but achieving nothing, because they are never forced to develop good willpower management skills.

Personally I think I started somewhere in the middle (by nature and/or nurture) and I’m trying to better use my available willpower with smart willpower management.  So what do I mean by that?

IMO willpower management has two sides:

  • Stopping the Leaks
  • Doing What’s Important

I’ll cover both in my next post.

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The Reward Is The Job – Do You Want The Reward?

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Willpower as a Commodity, Part II (counterintuitive sleep tips)

5 Comments

  1. you know about the marshmallow tests? Young kids who were able to find the resources within themselves to resist eating one showed much higher “achievements” throughout their lives… seems to help prove that it’s not as much a muscle as inherent…altho the research sez you *can* improve.

  2. Those tests are fascinating. The “low-willpower” kids who were able to improve did so via techniques of distraction and framing. Mental jiu-jitsu …

    Here’s the link to the New Yorker article:
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/05/18/090518fa_fact_lehrer

  3. Joan

    Good article – thanks for the New Yorker link. I am looking forward to more. Your subsequent post on sleep was also interesting.

  4. Just came across this Cal Newport blog on the same subject … he cites an interesting study that looks at the “why are you doing it” question and how it relates to willpower. http://calnewport.com/blog/2008/04/23/the-science-of-procrastination-revisted-researchers-rethink-willpower/

  5. wow, great article!

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