[This post is part of a series on willpower and how to understand and use it. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
If all you could do was act on whatever emotion was most dominant at any time, you would be purely reactive. You would not be able to choose your actions. Bugs and lizards are purely reactive as far as I can tell. Your reflexes are reactive.
So willpower keeps you from being purely reactive. Without it you couldn’t choose. Without willpower, thoughtfulness and reflection wouldn’t help you because you wouldn’t be able to act on them.
Some people take pride in the strength of their willpower — their ability to do what they want no matter how difficult or contrary to their emotions. That ability can help a lot if used effectively, but can lead you astray otherwise.
So before talking about when to use willpower, let’s cover when not to use it. I have two main cases.
First, when you aren’t aware of your goals, your current situation, or the path from one to the other, willpower can lead you astray. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere you don’t like. This point may seem obvious when written, but deadlines and stress make you forget when remembering would help most. You also forget your goals when countervailing beliefs distract you
An example of a countervailing belief is “no pain, no gain.” Few people would say they believe “no pain, no gain” without exception, but many nonetheless act on it as if they did at times. They choose to do something painful, thinking it might help. Your self-talk motivates you the same way beliefs do.
Another example of a countervailing belief is the belief that action is better than no action. This belief is often effective, but not always. Particularly when stressed, many people figure they should at least do something. Maybe, maybe not. In any case, this belief motivates people to act without awareness.
The second case is more subtle: when willpower will reinforce the beliefs motivating emotions you’re working against. Then willpower achieves the opposite of your goals.
How can willpower reinforce beliefs you don’t want?
When you try to use willpower and it doesn’t work you learn to feel helpless. Let’s see how.
Say you’re out of shape from lack of exercise and want to use willpower to go to the gym more. That means giving up the behavior you would do otherwise. Even if that behavior was just sitting on the couch watching tv, it brought you some reward and happiness and it resonated with your environment.
If you go to the gym, you’ll lose that reward and happiness. You have no guarantee to find new reward or happiness there to replace it. If you’re lucky you’ll find you love exercising or make friends in the new unknown environment.
You may not get lucky. Say you start going, full of enthusiasm and confidence in your willpower. After a couple weeks your enthusiasm wains, meaning you go not because you like it but based on willpower. You will increasingly feel emotions motivating you to regain the reward and happiness of watching tv because they are unconscious and take no mental effort to maintain.
You will go to the gym less and sit on the couch more. If you eventually give up, the emotions the originally kept you from the gym in the first place will have won out.
You will then find yourself saying things like “I’m just not a gym person,” “I tried getting in shape. I just can’t do it,” or “I can never get in shape” — tragically the opposite of your goal.
The same thing happens when you force yourself on a diet or any of the usual New Years resolutions. Many of your most fixed and confining beliefs may have come from conflicts between willpower and emotion where willpower lost. You have made yourself reactive again.
In a conflict between emotions and willpower, emotions will win in the long run.
In summary, using willpower can be counterproductive when
- You don’t know your goals and you aren’t aware of your current emotions, or
- If countervailing emotions have a good chance of winning in the long run
The seeds of when to use willpower were hidden in the risks of when not to use it.
Tomorrow: when to use willpower.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees