Willpower is Bullshit
by Dan Walsh
There. I said it. And I’ll say it again: Willpower is bullshit.
It was probably a good concept at some point, but it’s become so corrupt that it’s now complete and utter crap. It’s simultaneously an excuse and some ever-elusive mystical force. Yet somehow we’ve come to rely on it as a means for getting what we want in life.
“I don’t have the willpower to say NO when someone brings cookies into the office.”
“Wow. How do you have so much willpower?”
It’s gotten so bad we’ve even done clinical trials about willpower so we can figure out what causes it to lapse, thereby creating an excuse about an excuse. At some point it even became a muscle that gets tired… Essentially you could overwork your willpower to the point that you didn’t have any left, which made for the most elegant of all excuses.
“I used up all my willpower resisting those donuts this morning, so now I have no choice but to binge eat oreos.”
Essentially, I was a saint so now I’m predetermined to be a sinner. Science even said it was true!
And then you get articles like this that perpetuate the myth by stating “willpower is like a muscle capable of fatigue” like it’s fact. All of a sudden we’re in pop-psychology realm with Malcolm Gladwell for company. The soundbites completely obscure what’s really going on because they provide a convenient way to feel better about ourselves without doing anything to actually better ourselves.
Well I’m calling BULLSHIT.
What Is Willpower, Really?
Here’s the problem. Somehow we started equating willpower with mental strength in the moment. Of course you’re going to cave when you smell a warm chocolate chip cookie and ask yourself if you should eat it. Of course you won’t go to the gym when you’re tired at the end of the day and start debating the pros and cons of clocking 30 minutes on the treadmill.
Willpower is not a function of making the right choice in the moment. Willpower is a function of avoiding those decisions all together. Once deliberation begins, the battle between the id and the super ego has already been won. And the id always wins.
Once you start asking the question you’ve already lost the fight.
I’m sorry, but you cannot defeat the smell of a fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie.
Willpower IS NOT strength in the moment. Willpower is strength BEFORE the moment. Real willpower is the strength to make a prior commitment, know that it’s the right decision, and then NOT debate it again. That’s the key! Don’t pose the question every time a tempting situation arises. Especially when you’re at your weakest. There’s no temptation if you don’t have to make a choice.
Don’t even think about it.
You go to the gym everyday at 5:30. That’s just what you do.
That cookie isn’t even a blip on your radar because you only eat baked goods at birthdays and weddings.
That’s how it works. You don’t see devout Hindus constantly debating wether or not to go hog wild on a Super Duper Burger, do you? No. Because it’s not even a choice for them.
Let’s Play A Game
Still don’t believe me? Think it sounds too lofty?
Ok then, let’s play a game.
I have a needle full of the purest heroine on Earth. This is good stuff. It’ll get you super high. You’ll feel the best you’ve ever felt in your life. It even has your name on it. Literally, I wrote on the vial with a sharpie. It’s all yours.
You want it?
Of course not.
It wasn’t even a choice. You already know you don’t do heroine. You made that decision back in 5th grade D.A.R.E. class and never looked back. That’s real willpower.
Let’s talk about alarm clocks. When the alarm goes off, do you automatically get out of bed like a robot, or do you ask yourself “Am I rested enough to get out of bed now?” If you’re a robot, chances are people think you have amazing willpower. If you ask the question, then you’re probably someone who hits snooze a few times.
I used to be a robot about my alarm clock. I’d get up everyday at 6am so I could make coffee and have time to write in the morning. But then somewhere along the way I started asking myself if I was rested enough to wake up. My alarm would go off and I’d weigh my options. I could tiredly climb out of bed into the cold apartment or sleep a little longer in my warm and comfy bed. Which one do you think I usually chose?
I changed that all today, however. I made a choice last night to go back to my old ways and get out of bed as soon as my alarm clock went off this morning. I did, and here I am about to wrap up this post when I’d usually still be wrestling with my snooze button.
The hard choices become much easier when you make them ahead of time.
Willpower seems like some kind of magical gift that certain people have to control themselves in the moment – when temptation is high. It’s not. It only looks that way because the evidence of their control exists in the moment. We can see them turn down the chocolate chip cookie, but we can’t see the choice they made two weeks ago to cut out desserts at the office.
Real willpower occurs in the past, when we decide to act a certain way in the future, and then refrain from debating this decision in the present.