I used to think most problems could be solved through a hefty dose of willpower. When people failed at their respective goals, it was a matter of not having quite enough of it. And when I failed at my own goals, it was a willpower problem, too. I remember when I first read Roy Baumeister's research that willpower is a finite resource, and if you use it up on worthless things, there may not be enough left for the things that really count. That was six years ago, and I haven’t made my bed since.
In high school, willpower was supposed to help me pass AP tests. If I didn’t earn a 5, the problem was willpower. It was also a willpower problem if I didn’t beat my personal records in cross country, or keep up with the varsity runners during practice. Too little willpower was the reason behind my social anxiety: If I wasn’t able to effortlessly mill about a crowded room, chatting for just long enough - well then, I just wasn’t trying hard enough. Maybe I’d used up the last of my willpower brushing my teeth.
A few years later, willpower and I were singing a different tune. Close friends and family have often accused me of being a “phase” person. This means I get really, incredibly, perhaps frighteningly enthusiastic about a thing - nearly anything is fair game - and then, a couple weeks or months later, my infatuation is decisively, violently over. It’s history. Sometimes, I even hate it.
This was kind of my relationship to willpower. At some point, I decided it wasn’t quite the all-purpose tool I had once thought. So did I adopt a nuanced impression of willpower, replete with detail about when it may be more or less useful? Well, no. I decided instead that it was good for nothing.
To be fair, when applied to something like drinking among alcoholics, starving among anorexics, or binging among people with binge eating disorder, I really do think willpower is the wrong tool. For compulsive behaviors and certainly for diseases, I wouldn’t trust willpower to help me stop once I’ve started. I wouldn't even trust it to stop me from starting.
Nowadays, I've arrived at an impressively grayish area when it comes to willpower. (They say wisdom comes with age, but they never told me it debuts at 25!) Here’s what I think willpower is good for:
1. Prayer. Even if I’m not willing to take a new action, I’m sometimes willing to pray for willingness to take a new action.
2. Meetings. Attending recovery meetings for me requires willpower. If meetings aren’t your thing, perhaps you have a parallel recovery practice that takes a bit of willpower to set in motion.
3. Doing something different. Willpower helps me take a new action - so long as I’m not too picky about what that action is. My own linear mind would have me approach the problem straight-on (i.e., if I’m drinking too much, drink less; if I’m eating too much, eat less; if I’m not working hard enough, work harder.) It takes willpower to remain open to alternative solutions in a mind that is bent on early foreclosure.
For example: I spent this last weekend with other women in recovery in Door County, Wisconsin. Prior to that, I had been going through a depressed spell, and weekend getaways are just the kind of thing that depression likes to veto. Somehow, I found the willingness to say yes: yes to sharing a bed, yes to other people planning my meals, yes to chatting with women I didn’t really know, yes to someone else handling the schedule. I wasn’t able to say yes to “just snapping out of it” or even making a gratitude list, but I did say yes to this weekend. And what do you know? It helped.
If you’re struggling to make a change in your life, consider changing your relationship to willpower. The question isn't, “Why don’t I have enough willpower for ___?!” But rather, “What am I willing to try today?