More effective than willpower

November 26, 2014 by Joshua
in Choosing/Decision-Making, Habits, Tips

As much as I advise people not to do it, I catch myself relying on willpower when it won’t work all the time.

Willpower is when you do something counter to what your emotional system motivates you to do. If you put a chocolate bar in front of someone who loves chocolate, their motivational system makes them want to eat it. If they are trying to avoid sugar, it takes willpower not to eat it. Or when you’re running a marathon, your emotional system makes you want to stop and rest. It takes willpower to keep going.

Willpower runs out, so it works for limited time. Put that chocolate bar in front of the chocolate lover long enough and they will eat it. People who resolve around New Years to go to the gym, diet, or do something relying on willpower all year will find themselves running out of willpower long before the year runs out. Probably before January ends.

I’m writing today because I do what everyone does—to use willpower when it couldn’t possibly work. I’m talking, of course, of time I waste on time-wasting sites like Reddit. I kept telling myself I would just not visit them, then during lulls writing I’d visit and lose an hour or two. It never worked. Willpower doesn’t work all day long.

More effective than willpower is not needing it

What works more effectively than willpower?

Getting rid of the temptation. Move away from the chocolate bar. Do that once and you don’t have to fight your emotional system all day. I have to work online to post. I downloaded a Firefox add-on called Leechblock—“leech” for sites that leech your time—and set it to block those sites nearly all day. They’re available up to ten minutes an hour during the evening.

In my seminars on willpower, I show the videos of children struggling not to eat the marshmallows in the marshmallow experiment. The audience oohs and aahs over the cute kids. Then I say the video showed the best technique for avoiding eating the marshmallow. Nobody gets it. I point out the adult who left the room.

Changing your environment doesn’t work for all situations. I don’t see how it helps you run a marathon. But when you can get rid of the temptation, it works better than resisting it.

In other words, more effective than using willpower is not needing it.

I wrote about this before in “An image of how to use willpower“, but I keep re-learning the lesson.

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