Why "Willpower" Might Be Actively Harmful

I just had a realisation. I was watching Points of Rupture, Phoebe Davies' beautiful documentary about female wrestlers in Oslo. And one of the younger girls in training was talking about how she's strong, and fast, but she feels like she lacks the willpower to win. She said "I looked for it and I just can't find it."

And it hit me like a rock to the head: I think we've been thinking about willpower all wrong. Actually, I'm pretty sure the very idea of willpower is not just wrong, but actively harmful.

What is "Willpower"?

When we talk about "willpower", we think of some kind of personal emotional/mental strength which we use to push through a resistant barrier of fear, laziness, temptation or distraction. Many people (including researchers and experts on motivation who I very much respect) even talk about it being like a muscle that you have to build by repeated use, by working it against the resistance so that it gets stronger.

But what are we actually pushing against? Nothing real. Fear, "laziness" (don't get me started on that viciously harmful idea), temptation, distraction - all of these are just thoughts, patterns of electrical activity in the brain, and given the right change of circumstance or mental approach they disappear like smoke.

So when we accept and invest in the idea of "willpower", we are mentally bracing ourselves, teeth gritted, against phantoms of our own minds - our own thoughts, which we are mentally building up to be some kind of actual barrier with mass and volume which we have to push through with all our might. We're giving them substance.

Anyone who's played with cornflour and water knows that sensation of squeezing the goop in your fist as hard as you can and feeling it as solid as stone - then loosening the pressure and feeling it run like cream through your fingers.

So what is it really?

PJ Eby, whose blog Dirt Simple has some of the most brilliant and practical insights into human behaviour and motivation, has an article called "Without Hesitation". In it he proposes that we have two modes, "Thinking" and "Doing". When we are in "Thinking" mode, with our amazing human brains working to "contemplate, analyze, dream, plan, question", we don't actually "Do".

I've always imagined this a little like the way our body is disconnected from our mental processes during dreaming sleep so we don't act out our dreams.

Then we have "Doing" mode, when we act - and crucially, act without thought. The moment when we take an action - Pick up a weight, tell someone we love them, run into a burning building - is done without thought. It doesn't even *result* from thinking, because as Eby says, "Thinking is never done" - there's always one more scenario to consider or "For/Against" to ponder. We can only act by Stopping Thinking and instead Doing.

That article has resonated with me in new ways every time I've come back to it, and this time the memory of it came together with that line from the little girl trying to learn to wrestle and searching for her willpower, and a post by a friend trying to quit smoking who said "The next few days/weeks are going to be rough...", and I realised: The idea of willpower is utterly misleading and harmful because it tells us that we can Think our way to Doing, and that the thoughts we're struggling with are real and powerful and have to be fought (and if willpower is strength, then of course if we don't have it, we are WEAK).

When we try to "exert willpower", most of the time what we're trying to do is to fight thinking with thinking - fighting the thought of having cake with thoughts of wanting to fit in our favourite clothes, the thought of a smoke with thoughts of lung cancer and smelling bad, the thought of rejection with the thought of a beautiful life together. We're just finding more ways to stay in Thinking mode.

As an ex-smoker who quit more than a dozen times before finally breaking the habit, I know full well how fast I could go from desperate, all-consuming craving for a cigarette to forgetting all about it for hours when I was distracted by a favourite game or a good movie.

So what is "willpower", really? It's just the point when we Stop Thinking. It's Eby's "without hesitation" and the key to that is not hesitating *to think*. We Stop Thinking and we step onto the treadmill. We Stop Thinking and turn away from the corner shop without the 10-pack of Marlboros we were Thinking about. We Stop Thinking and we step off the bridge, and we fall, and we open our wings.

So why do so many people think "Willpower" is real, and can be "trained"?

I think there's a half-truth in the idea of "training willpower". We do train it, but we don't train ourselves to be stronger by forcing against resistance, we train to get to that slip point and Stop Thinking faster and easier in a wider variety of situations.

We tell ourselves that we're building a muscle, but all of us have things we do easily that all our friends can't believe, while we envy them for their "willpower" in the face of something else - we've just built up the habit of Stopping Thinking in that particular scenario where they haven't, and vice versa.

It does carry over, though - if you're good at Stopping Thinking and making yourself a healthy meal with lots of greens every time, you'll remember an echo of that and it will help you remember to Stop Thinking and go swimming at lunch.

I suspect that "willpower" is like dating, or motivation, or wealth - all too often the people who are trying to teach us how to get it don't understand how they got it, because they already have it. The people who tell us to build up our willpower don't understand what it is they do when they "exert willpower", they just see all of us wandering around struggling with something they know how to get through automatically, so they build it up in their minds and ours as some kind of challenge.

I'd bet that all of them struggle equally hard in some other area, and beat themselves up for not having "willpower" enough for that, and if they accidentally Start Thinking and lose their "willpower" to keep working out, or eating well, or jumping burning buses on a motorbike, they have no idea how to get it back, because it was always imaginary.

What do you think?

Does this resonate with you? Does it help? I'm very aware that this is a big beautiful clear thing in my head right now but so often you have to come to these kind of ideas for yourself for them to be meaningful and work for you, and I have no idea if I'm doing what I need to do to get it into your head in the same way it's in mine. I hope so. It seems important, if it's true.

If this means something to you, or helps you, (or if you wildly disagree!) please let me know. I've been thinking about and struggling with motivation and "willpower" my whole life, and now I strongly suspect that when I've gotten better at it, THIS is what I've gotten better at, mostly by accident. And I feel like, if that's the case, a lot of people could benefit from trying on this way of looking at it.

Other reading

I don't write this type of thing often these days, and it's my first article of this kind on this current site. But if you'd like to read more of my writing in general, I've got a bunch of posts about making things, a really overlong travel blog about Barcelona with some pretty photos and a very silly series of posts about drinking and making fun of James Bond movies.