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Is Willpower Just a Matter of Caring Enough?

States of mind

Some people give the following advice about willpower:

“You have to care about what you want to achieve, a lot. If you care a lot, it’s in the bag. If you don’t, you might as well give up.”

Since I think this is lousy advice, I’m not going to mention where it came from, but I do want to say why it’s lousy advice.

Why caring alone isn’t enough
First of all, a person can care desperately about something and still not be able to make it happen. For example, Melissa might feel completely oppressed by her messy and cluttered house every day and want nothing more than to clean it up. However, she won’t be able to do that if she doesn’t believe she’s capable of making the change, if she doesn’t know how to start, if she can’t organize her efforts, if she strongly wants something else that’s in conflict with the clean-up effort, or if every time she thinks about cleaning up she gets distracted, blocked, or hung up on emotional issues.

Why not caring doesn’t necessarily prevent self-motivation
Similarly, if she has systematically forced herself to ignore her house for years and doesn’t really care very much, but she still knows on some level how good for her it would be to have a clean, happy home–for instance, if she’s in love with someone who wouldn’t be able to overlook the mess–then she can still create the self-motivation to clean up, and even to come up with organizational ideas, deflect distractions, overcome obstacles, and get past emotional issues.

Caring as a source of motivation
Of course, caring deeply about something is nonetheless a powerful source of motivation, and if there aren’t other things in your way, it can sometimes be plenty by itself. For example, one summer when I was in college, I met a French exchange student who spoke hardly any English. She was very pretty, and I immediately decided I wanted to be able to speak to her in French. I probably learned more French in those two weeks than I have in all the rest of my life put together. I knew I could do it, having already become conversant in Spanish; I didn’t feel any emotional conflicts with learning French; I knew how to go about studying the language; I had the books … in other words, caring pushed me forward, and there didn’t happen to be anything major in the way. Under these kinds of circumstances, caring makes a real difference.

How to become motivated even when you have mixed feelings
Let’s say I’m in a situation where I recognize that something is very important–starting an exercise regime, for instance, or completing some difficult repairs on my house–but I don’t really care about it on a gut level. How can I motivate myself?

First of all, it helps for me to connect to the benefits. If possible, I’ll want to visualize and spend time thinking about the results I’m seeking–the increased value of my house when I sell it and what I could do with that money or the boost in energy I would get from exercising, for instance. These kinds of exercises help me care more, which as we’ve established isn’t strictly necessary, but which will help make things easier.

Second, I have to be willing to prioritize the thing I’m trying to achieve above every other kind of self-motivation. We are really only capable of working on one major life change at a time: this is one of the reasons people so often fail at changing their habits, because they try to fix everything at once, which means changing many kinds of habits. But changing habits requires a lot of focus and attention–too much to allow attention to be divided among a lot of different goals. So while changing in more than one major way at once is possible, it’s extremely difficult and usually fails. So if Melissa wants to declutter her house, she’s better off not trying to start a weight loss regime or a novel at the same time.

Motivation creating caring
The flip side of this is that our attention, our consciousness and awareness and focus, is so useful and valuable that if we direct it energetically at any one thing, we have a very good chance of achieving that thing if it can be achieved at all. If Melissa spends a lot of time thinking about how she’ll clean up her house, and reads books on decluttering, and talks with friends about the problem, and learns some of the strategies on this site to deal with the difficult emotions that can come up in that kind of process, then even if cleaning up her house starts out as something that doesn’t really mean much to her, it becomes something that she gets better and better at and cares more and more about.

Because it’s really the other way around: caring doesn’t cause us to make changes in our lives as reliably as making changes in our lives causes us to care. The more thought and effort I put into accomplishing a goal, the more I begin to identify with that goal, most of the time. As much as what we care about makes us who we are, in fact who we are changes throughout our lives, and caring about different things, shifting our own priorities, is a lot of what makes that change happen.

Photo by Storm Crypt

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