Here’s a common idea of what willpower is. Does it sound familiar?
You’re faced with a choice, like french fries versus carrot sticks or cleaning the house versus dropping onto the couch and watching TV. One of the choices is the one you’d like to actually do now, and the other one is the one you know you’ll wish you had chosen later. So a battle commences between the good choice and the bad choice, and according to this line of thinking willpower means using plain force of character to conquer the bad choice and make the good choice win.
The problem with the idea that willpower as a struggle against bad impulses is that it lines the situation up so that a lot of the time, we lose. People who successfully make the good choices, the choices that lead to long-term happiness instead of short-term pleasure, are not fighting those same fights and winning: they’re pulling the situation apart and preventing the fight from ever occurring.
Just how this works begins to come clear when we look at the kind of thinking that goes into each approach. Let’s take the example of cleaning the house versus watching TV. With the fighting approach, some typical thoughts might be “I really should clean the house, but I don’t want to. I just feel like flopping down on the couch and watching TV. But I need to clean the house! Then again, I’ve had a lousy day, and I deserve at a little rest …”
These kinds of situations lend themselves to generating broken ideas, which tend to derail good choices. Also, thinking about a good choice vs. a bad choice as a struggle tends to lead to focusing on the negatives of the good choice, which is exactly the reverse of what we want, because it makes it harder to care about the good choice.
What’s the alternative? Focusing on small steps toward and attractive things about the good choice. An example of a small step: “Maybe I could just start by putting the books away. That should only take a few minutes.” Something attractive about the good choice might be visualizing how it would feel to wake up the next morning to a clean house or thinking about what kind of music to play while cleaning the stove. Anything that makes the good choice more appealing, interesting, or absorbing, and anything that launches us down the path of starting to act out the good choice, makes the good choice noticeably easier.
It’s clear that as humans, we like to think about pleasant things and don’t like to think about unpleasant things. If we direct our energies toward thinking up pleasant things about the smarter choice rather than toward brainstorming the reasons we don’t want to take that smarter choice, not only are we much more likely to take the smarter choice, but it will be easier and less tiring to do so. This is part of what I talk about in my article “Does Willpower Really Get Used Up?” Willpower seems finite if it’s a force we have to bring to bear in fight after fight. If instead it’s a different way of looking at things, why should it ever get used up or diminished? In fact, the more we use willpower in the sense I mean it here, the better we get at it, and therefore the stronger the willpower gets.
In other words, instead of likening willpower to a muscle we tire out with use but build up over time, we might want to think of it more as a language we learn, as a skill that gets stronger the more we use it, without having to fight ourselves. After all, if we’re fighting ourselves, who is there to lose the battle but us?