Willpower as Force

We’re all familiar with the notion of willpower resembling a force that you can exercise. A force that you should exercise on your life so as to achieve your goals. It’s so pervasive, this idea of individuals with complete agency wielding the power of will in order to navigate the challenges of life, that we barely question it. However, as with other meritocratic ideals, it has downsides. Not meeting your expectations may make you think that you lack the willpower, that you’re not worthy. But is there something to lack in the first place?

Willpower as Setting

Willpower is just another name for the idea of choosing long-term outcomes rather than short-term ones. — António R. Damásio

I came across this concise quote in Damásio’s book Descartes’ Error, a seminal piece of work about the interaction between reason and emotion. Damásio takes a different perspective on willpower and describes it as a matter of choice, rather than a force. And I think it’s brilliant.

Think about it, every situation which we associate with willpower contains a choice to be made. If you’re trying to get fit, will you choose the benefit of a healthy body which you could obtain in several months, or the relief of not having to go to the gym tomorrow? If you’re trying to learn how to play an instrument, will you choose the benefit of having mastered the skill in several months, or the relief of not having to struggle with the next practice session? If you’re trying to quit smoking, will you choose future health or the satisfaction of having a cigarette? You get the idea.

This reframing of willpower as a choice, rather than a force, makes for a gentler and more accessible path to making healthy decisions. It might seem less intimidating to see willpower as a “setting” in your cognitive configuration, as it avoids the notion of having to exercise a force, having to make efforts, or having to use your power. The same way you would turn on the Do Not Disturb setting on your phone to block distractions, you’d turn it on for your life. Of course, these are just two ways of talking about the same thing, because you could very well argue that it takes a force to change these settings. Still, this may prove as a useful perspective, because it allows us to detach from the setting itself.

Even if you make prior commitments, it’s surprisingly easy to lose sight of the long-term outcomes because the short-term ones are obstructing your view. It’s easy to forget the why behind what you’re doing, the very objective of your actions. At the same time, there are effective ways in which you can remind yourself that there’s a forest beyond the trees of busywork.

One way to bring the long-term in sight is to set up actual reminders. You could extend your morning routine to include a brief refresher on your current objectives. You could place inspiration in clear sight. This could be a quote of someone you admire from your field of interest, a picture of one such person, or something else entirely. As a student of artificial intelligence, my dream is to create intelligent machines, so I found the following quote fitting for my home screen.

It will be no less important than the creation of the intelligence that created it. — Ray Kurzweil, futurist

Another way to keep in mind your long-term objectives is to remind yourself about the commitment you have been respecting so far. The whole streak idea. Remind yourself of the investments of time and energy you’ve already put into pursuing these objectives. Whether the objectives are the right ones is a different topic entirely, but thinking of your progress so far can still help you stick to them. Is it worth it to throw away all that you achieved up to this point? Take that into account when making the choice.

Last but not least, besides reminding yourself of your objectives and of your progress towards them so far, you could keep track of the very process of getting closer and closer to them. Congratulate yourself regularly on the shrinking distance between your current state and your goal state. Sprinkle achievements at various checkpoints on your way to the objectives in order to incentivize yourself to further shorten that distance. Those are a reflection of both the fact that you’ve come a long way and that you’re getting closer everyday.

To recap, using willpower can be seen as making choices between short-term and long-term outcomes, rather than exercising a force. Even better, we can use various strategies in order to bring the long-term in sight and make more educated decisions, including: remembering your objectives, becoming aware of your progress so far, and realizing that you’re getting closer by day.

It’s your turn now. How would you bring your own objectives in sight so that you don’t get blinded by day-to-day tasks?