Willpower is Overrated

Willpower is a finite resource. I may have different amounts on different days and I may need different amounts on different days. One of the things that has become a philosophy of mine in interacting with the world is “Never accomplish by willpower something you can accomplish by making it easier.”

I am shit at getting myself to the gym. I could try to muster up the determination to go every week or some such, but that tends to not work. What does work is getting myself some cheap weights I can keep in my room.

It’s a lot easier to “get to the gym” when “get to the gym” means “walk five feet to where I put down the weights last time”.

I do this kind of thing as often as possible. I am a messy person, but I come across less messy than I used to, because instead of trying to get myself to be not messy by willpower, I analyzed how my messiness worked and figured out ways to make my messy habits just so happen to be less messy. The main trick was: always have somewhere to toss something that incidentally happens to be where it goes.

I put things down, and I give very little thought to where I put them down and when I’m done working I have no interest in doing any more thinking than absolutely necessary. I have drawers within arm’s reach of my chair for most of the things I might be carrying with me in a given day, because that means I actually put things in them instead of piles.

The last place I lived I noticed I tended to put the containers for the Omega-3 and vitamin D pills I take on the floor next to my chair without thinking about it. Instead of trying to stop myself from doing that, I bought a little container and put it right where I’d been putting them anyway. Suddenly my uncleanly habit was magically, effortlessly cleanly.

I think our culture idolizes the idea of accomplishing things by force of will, often at the expense of accomplishing things by doing what works. Getting things done by force of will is a very romantic idea and all, but it doesn’t work as well as making things easier. At least it never has for me.

Can’t get myself to practice an instrument? I decided to try the harmonica, an instrument I can literally have on my person 24/7, instead of having to find or get to a practice space. Random paper piling up? Now, there’s a tiny scanner that’s on top of my desk that I can scan things into and throw them out. Can’t get myself to go out and buy new food supplies when I run out in time to stave off the inevitable stopgap fast food run? Switch to using mostly supplies I can freeze or that otherwise aren’t very perishable, and buy them in advance of needing them.

For me, willpower is great for getting myself to make that phone call I’ve been dreading, because for that I only need it once. Right then. For ongoing stuff, though, force of will is a shit strategy compared with making the things I want myself to do easy and the things I don’t want myself to do hard.

That’s the one that works. Willpower looks good on paper, but I think there’s a reason people are legendarily bad at New Year’s Resolutions, and I think maybe if we spent less time on “I should really get myself to the gym more often” and more time on things like “Getting Wii Fit instead”, the success rate might be a bit a lot better.

Also, as a person with a lot of physical and pain issues, I think if physical therapists spent less time saying “You really need to be doing these more!” and more time on “How can we make this easier for you to do more?” or “What can you do that is easier to get yourself to do, but accomplishes roughly the same thing?”, their success rate would go up immensely.

written 1/16/2014, posted 1/20/2014

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By ResearchToBeDone Posted in other