“Late at night have you experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be? Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t pain, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.”
This chilling quote is from Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art” which is an amazing book on winning the internal battle between our rational mind and our self-indulgent desires. In the book, anything we do that goes against our rational best interests is referred to as “Resistance” and the only way to succeed in life is by doing our best to defeat the Resistance every single day. When we watch TV instead of writing, we’re letting the Resistance win. When we have a slice of cake and break our diet, we’re letting Resistance win. Anything that we know is not in our best interest but that we want nonetheless is Resistance, and the “good life” (to channel Aristotle now) is one lived in constant opposition to Resistance.
How do we fight Resistance? If Resistance is everything that weighs on our mind, the little voice in our heads that tell us to hit the snooze button or not go to the gym because the status quo is easier, then its mortal enemy is willpower. Willpower is what allows us to immediately get up in the morning, to sit down and work instead of browsing Facebook, and to stick to our diet and exercise routines. Our ability to succeed at anything related to improving ourselves is entirely dependent upon our willpower.
I wrote a post a while ago on willpower but that was when this blog was just beginning and it’s not a particularly good overview. I think I’ll delete it. I wanted to do willpower more justice so I’m devoting this entire week to posts about it: what it is, how to get more of it, and how to manage it effectively. Hopefully with all three of these posts anyone will be able to beat the Resistance that they encounter in their lives.
But What Is Willpower Really?
In Plato’s chariot allegory, he describes the soul as having three parts. A charioteer that represents reason, and two horses: one that represents positive impulses (for knowledge, skill, etc.) and one that represents hedonic desires (money, power, sex, fame, etc.). It’s the job of the charioteer, our reason, to control these two horses and direct the entire chariot (our soul in the allegory) towards enlightenment. Chip and Dan Heath use a similar analogy in “Switch” where they talk about an elephant and his rider. The elephant is our emotional selves that just wants to derive pleasure from the world, and the rider is again our reason.
What’s important in both of these examples is that the rider only has so much power. A man on an elephant can only do so much to guide its course, just as a charioteer can only do so much to control two horses. If our emotional/passionate side gets out of control, no amount of reasoning can stop it.
Willpower is our ability to direct the chariot. If we have a strong and muscular charioteer, then we have no problem reigning in the horses. If our charioteer is weak and frail from years of letting the horses pull him around, then there’s nothing he can do. The horses will direct him, and the chariot will go wherever impulse takes it.
Thinking of the charioteer as a man or woman of a certain strength is important, because it turns out that’s actually how our willpower works. Our willpower isn’t a set level that we can always perform at, it’s a resource similar to a muscle that can be depleted by overly demanding activities. If the horses are pulling too hard for too long, even the strongest charioteer will have to submit to them.
Willpower as a Resource
The most iconic study showing that willpower is a limited resource is the radishes and cookies experiment. Subjects were brought in to a room, after being told to skip a meal, and were given a plate of radishes and a plate of cookies. One group was told to eat a few radishes but avoid the cookies, while the other group was told to eat some cookies and avoid the radishes. A third group was asked to skip the meal and was never brought into the room. All three groups were then asked to solve a geometry puzzle, which, unknown to them, was impossible to solve. The group that was asked to eat only radishes gave up significantly sooner than the other two groups, indicating that their willpower had been depleted from not eating the cookies.
What this shows is that if we have to use our willpower on something, we won’t have that same willpower for something else in the near future. It requires time to “recharge” just like our muscles do after an intense run or pushing ourselves in the gym. If we don’t use our willpower carefully, and notice when we feel like we’re truly “out of it” then we could cause ourselves to fail at the new habits we’re trying to develop and sabotage our long-term goals.
This is also what can make self-improvement kicks dangerous and prone to failure. We see this happen all the time, a friend decides that he or she is going to:
- Start waking up early
- Go to the gym every day
- Eat healthy
- Not go on Facebook/Twitter/whatever
And they do it for a day… and then they fall right off and demotivate themselves. We simply don’t have the willpower to sustain that many changes. It would mean using our willpower almost nonstop, and would involve multiple “heavy lifting” willpower tasks. It’s simply not sustainable.
Luckily, just like a muscle, willpower can be made stronger. We can get more of it, and help ourselves succeed at driving the chariot, and you can read about that in post 2 on how to get more willpower, or post 3 on how to manage our willpower better!
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