The idea of willpower is certainly appealing: I imagine how I want to be; compare that to how I am; plot a course between the two; and somehow have the strength to follow it.
Since virtually everyone (I’m tempted to say “everyone,” but since I haven’t been introduced to everyone I’m thinking that would be presumptuous) has problems with willpower sometimes, I suspect that we can all agree that the idea of a reservoir of strength is neither very attractive or very useful. After all, if willpower is just something we have or don’t, then clearly all of us (or at least, everyone I know) doesn’t have enough. If, on the other hand, it has to do with actions we can easily take, then we’re in luck: we can have more of it. As you can guess, I don’t think much of the “reservoir” theory.
As to actions, most willpower seems to come from two kinds of those: focusing attention and making good choices easier.
There are any number of ways to use focus to make progress: we can envision goals (see “Motivation through visualization: the power of daydreams“), create feedback loops (see “How Feedback Loops Maintain Self-Motivation“), pay attention to the attractive aspects of things we want to do or unattractive aspects of things we want to avoid (see “Tools for Immediate Motivation: Attraction and Distraction“), moderate our moods through tools like meditation (see “Strengthen Willpower Through Meditation“) and idea repair (see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair“), schedule, note on task lists, or mentally picture ourselves doing behaviors that will help us.
The array of tools we have to build willpower, actually, is enormous. All these tools that deal with focus, however, come down to the same kinds of things: raising our own awareness about what we want to do and/or putting ourselves in a mindset to be more inclined to do them.
The other major category of tools for building willpower has to do with making constructive action easier. For example, scheduling time to go running three days a week after work so that there will be no conflicts, setting out running clothes in the morning, getting good running shoes, and having a treadmill to use in bad weather all contribute to making running easier. If I want to make running a habit, then any barrier I remove to running means less effort I have to put in to run, which in turn means that I’ll be able to successfully run more of the time.
Ease often has to do with preparation and planning. Often we’re a lot less likely to tackle things we want to do if we find we don’t have what we need or if we’re having trouble blocking out the time. Preparation and planning get these complications out of the way and lessen the amount of focus and effort needed to stay the course.
Commitment is another way to encourage ease in building habits. By commitment, I mean reconciling ourselves to the consequences of what we need to do, then thinking, talking, and acting accordingly. Some examples: telling people (firmly) when we won’t be available because our goal requires us to be doing something, reminding ourselves that it’s all right to use time or resources in pursuit of a goal, associating with other people who have the same or similar goals, and not letting ourselves foster broken ideas about what we need to do to make progress.
The short question
The short question, then, that helps us align with our own goals, is this: “What can I do to focus better or make things easier?” Even if a particular approach isn’t working out, this kind of question can often point to other approaches that will. Or, as a last resort, you could always come here and start digging into past posts. Reading things here can be used to procrastinate, but if you find anything that helps you as you go forward, you get to chalk it up to “useful research” instead.
Photo by Anirudh Koul