Willpower, part IV: when to use it
[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.]
Yesterday’s discussion of when not to use willpower — when you aren’t aware of where you are emotionally or where you want to or when you risk reinforcing the beliefs driving countervailing emotions — implies when to use willpower: the opposite of when not to use it.
So the first properties of when to use willpower are
- When you know where you are and where you want to go emotionally
- You are aware of the beliefs driving the behavior you’re overcoming with willpower
An example where I used willpower under those conditions was when I was getting too old to play ultimate frisbee competitively and I knew I had to change. A friend and former teammate had run a marathon and told me he loved it. I liked running distances of a few miles but knew ramping up to marathon distances would be hard. I also anticipated a good chance of finding the love for running my friend had.
This situation was perfect for using willpower. I knew where I was (acceptance of declining ability to compete in ultimate), where I wanted to be (enjoying distance running), and that I had few countervailing beliefs.
As expected, I found I loved running marathons. I no longer use willpower to run long distances. I do it because I enjoy it.
So the next conditions for using willpower are when the activity you’re using it for
- Will generate its own motivation, or
- Won’t last long.
Willpower works well when you use it like the starter motor in a car. You use a starter motor to get the regular motor going but not to drive. In principle you could use it to move the car, but generally you use it as a starter. If you try to move a car with its starter motor, you’d break the motor, drain the battery, and make the car unusable, just like what happens to you if you try to drive your life by willpower.
Examples of activities that will generate their own motivations are starting any flow activity, like reading, sports, engaging work tasks, writing, exercise, learning new crafts, etc; doing something you like but don’t feel like starting, like going out when you’re tired; and activities people exhort others to do — that is, times when people say “try it, you’ll like it” or “if you just start, you’ll enjoy it,” or things like when you’ve said such things to others.
Examples of short activities willpower can help with are introducing yourself to someone new, doing your taxes, washing the dishes, trying new things like a food or cuisine you never tasted, etc. Those things have ending points that aren’t longer than most people’s willpower can handle.
Using willpower for long term activities you don’t expect to bring reward, as we noted yesterday, tends to create and reinforce helplessness.
So use willpower for activities you expect to bring reward, even if they don’t at the start, or for small activities.
Tomorrow: how to use willpower.
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