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Willpower Is Exactly Like Owning a Dog

States of mind


Willpower needs a metaphor, and it needs a metaphor that has something to do with how people really acquire it, none of this stuff like “iron will” or “inexhaustable drive.” Those not only sound unattainable, but they also don’t even sound very fun. Real willpower is actually pleasant to have, doesn’t require bionic implants, and in many ways is exactly like owning a dog.

Practically anybody can be a successful dog owner if they really want to be: you don’t have to have any special qualifications. This is not to say it’s always easy: it’s just doable. After all, the things you have to do to successfully own a dog are:

1) Actually want to get a dog,
2) Understand how to take care of your dog, and
3) Do a few simple things on a daily basis–like feeding the dog and going for walks

Similarly, the only things you need to do to be motivated to do a particular thing, or to have willpower in a particular area, are

1) Actually want to pursue the goal,
2) Understand how to take care of your motivation, and
3) Do a few simple things on a daily basis–like visualizing where you’re going and and maintaining a feedback loop

Even though self-motivation requires getting several things right at once, and while it does take a continued time commitment, it really doesn’t take heroics. You keep at it every day, even though sometimes you succeed and sometimes you fail (like accidentally leaving the door open so the dog gets out). You keep things in perspective, deal with problems as they come up, and try to learn from your mistakes. Sure, you’ll need to take time out of your day to keep on track. And sure, you’ll probably need to learn some skills, like idea repair, mindfulness, and visualization … just like taking care of a dog means taking a little time out of your day and requires learning how much to feed it, how to keep it from chewing up your favorite shoes, and when to take it to the vet.

Speaking of which, dog ownership also gives us some guidance about what to do if motivation falters–if the dog gets sick. First of all, observe the symptoms: what’s wrong? When did it start? Are there any patterns to it?

Second of all, and dogs are pointing out something very important here, if your dog gets sick, you don’t abandon it (unless you are a heartless fiend): you pay more attention to it. You take it to the vet, give the deadly nightshade plant away to a single, petless neighbor, and offer your dog some extra attention. The same thing applies to your motivation, with the wonderful difference that instead of eventually getting old and slow, your motivation will just get stronger the longer you have it.


If we expand the idea for a minute to say that willpower is like having a pet, and that every different goal is like a different species of animal, we get a better picture of why we don’t try to simultaneously adjust our lives to, for example, a new boxer and a new snake. There’s enough to do when adopting just one species at a time: once the puppy is comfortably settled, there will be plenty of time to go shopping for heat lamps.

Dog in snow photo by digital_image_fan
Dog and snake photo by b.frahm

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Walter  •  Sep 18, 2009 @1:39 am

    Nice choice of metaphor Luc. I guess you have taught me a realistic way of building my willpower. I once owned a dog and I agree as to how to take care of them.

    Keep on going dude, I trust in your willpower. 🙂

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