Developing Willpower Muscles

Developing Willpower Muscles

My last post wrote about the idea that our willpower is limited, and that as we become tired and move through different points of the day, we find ourselves with varying levels of willpower. This post continues on that idea with more thoughts from Cal Newport in his book Deep Work.

 

“Your will, in other words,” Writes Newport, “is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; Its instead like a muscle that tires.”

 

We can try our best to improve our willpower, but like any muscle, our willpower can only do so much for us. Perhaps through continual practice and focus we can improve our willpower in certain ways, but it is likely that we are going to fail often in our demand of our own willpower. What is important, is how we structure our world to be successful in the times that demand strong willpower. Newport continues,

 

“The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.”

 

If we think about willpower like a muscle, we can see that the proper techniques, approaches, and tools are necessary for us to build the right strength. If we are lifting, we might need the right dumbbells for an exercises. If we are stretching, we need to make sure we put our body in the right position to stretch the right muscles. If we are working on focused concentration and willpower to support it, we must build the right environment for the mind.

 

A specific routine makes it easier for us to set into a long stretch of unbroken attention on a single item. If we ritualistically end our day in reflection, writing down what we accomplished and where we will pick up the following day, it makes it easier for us to start our day with productive focus, demanding less of our willpower to avoid or pull away from social media. If we have a habit of reading for a long stretch, then not reading during that time and feeling distracted will be abnormal and uncomfortable, where the state of concentration will feel normal, increasing our willpower to avoid the distractions in the first place.

 

Thinking about improving our willpower isn’t just a matter of intention and deciding to be better. It is a matter of setting ourselves up for success, and developing the right environments, habits, and rituals to make the process easy.
Willpower maximization

Limited Willpower

When we imagine who we are going to be in the future, what we want to accomplish, and how we are going to reach our goals, we see ourselves as a super version of who we are now. We imagine that we can focus and achieve anything we set our mind to, at least if we can work hard enough. All it takes, in our vision of the bright future, is willpower to push ourselves to work harder, be smarter, and do the challenging but important work to get to the top.

 

The reality for us, however, is that this ideal version of ourselves will not simply appear with the flip of a switch. The hard work we view ourselves completing is not just hard, it is impossible to complete without focus and an ability to engage in deep work. We have to cultivate this ability if we want to see it in our lives, it is not simply a matter of willpower.

 

In the past I wrote about Dan Pink’s book When and how we move through several predictable stages throughout the day. For most people (those of us who are generally morning people – night owls are the same process in reverse), we wake up and our brains are fresh and ready to tackle the day. We can do our best focus work and complete important analytical work during the first roughly 6 hours of the day. Afterward, we fall into a trough, where our brain is tired and we are not good at being focused or doing analytical work. Later in the day we see a rebound, where we become a bit better on complex thinking work, but still find ourselves easily distracted.

 

What Pink’s research shows is that our day and our work isn’t driven so much by willpower but by the biological reality of the brain. Cal Newport’s research in his book Deep Work supports this idea. Newport presents several studies which show that our willpower only lasts so long before we give in. As he writes, “You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.”

 

We are not superheros and don’t have superpowers. We operate with a brain that can only handle so much before it becomes tired and stops working as well as we would like. We can resist those donuts in the morning when our brain is still fresh, but as the day goes on, we are going to become weary from the tough decisions we have to make, and our ability to fight off the donut craving will likely fail. We need to remember that our willpower won’t last forever and we need to set up systems and structures to help us do our best work when our brains are at their peak. Through these structures we can avoid negative temptations when our brains are in a rut. Plan ahead reasonably, and work to take steps that align with the reality of the brain. Don’t force yourself to rely on a superhuman effort that just isn’t realistic to be successful and accomplish the important things in your life.

Credit for Being Who You Are

It is easy to look at other people and compare ourselves to them and feel either vastly superior or completely inadequate. But whether we feel better than someone else or worse than another person, we should recognize that these comparisons are generally meaningless. There are some people who do incredible things in the world, and others who we think could do more, but it is often the case that the individuals themselves have less control over how amazing and impressive they are than we (and they) believe.

 

For someone who is successful, it is easy and tempting for them to take all the credit. Surely they had to make smart choices and work hard to get to the place they are, and surely their success feels as if it has been earned. Simultaneously, we can apply this filter to someone who has not become our picture of success. They were lazy and didn’t make smart choices, and also deserve the place where they have landed.

 

For both successful and unsuccessful people, this perspective can be turned around. The successful person was the beneficiary of good luck, of a supportive and loving family, and maybe even inherited some wealth to help them along the way. The person who didn’t succeed maybe just didn’t get the lucky break, didn’t have someone in their life to help encourage and inspire them, and maybe had other challenges we don’t know about. For the successful person, maybe they would still be successful even if they were lazy and made poor choices. Perhaps the person we think of as a failure would have still failed even if they had worked hard and made smart choices.

 

I like to think through these exercises to remind myself that what I think of as success and failure, and what I see in my own life outcomes and the outcomes of other people are not always the results of individual actions, choices, and will power. Comparing ourselves to those who are successful and those who have failed doesn’t really give us a good picture of who is a valuable person. We all have different advantages and all face different forms of adversity. There are a lot of factors we can’t control, and we can’t take full credit for being either successful or for failing to reach the highest rung on the ladder.

 

Dale Carnegie writes about this in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, bringing a bit of a Stoic perspective to his readers:

 

“The only reason, for example, that you are not a rattlesnake is that your mother and father weren’t rattlesnakes. You deserve very little credit for being what you are—and remember, the people who come to you irritated, bigoted, unreasoning, deserve very little discredit for being what they are.”

 

We didn’t pick our genes, we didn’t pick our families, and we can’t always control our thoughts and personalities. We can certainly do the best we can with what we have, but we shouldn’t judge ourselves too harshly (or praise ourselves unduly) because we are not like someone else. To be where we are today was in many ways a lucky result, and we will never know exactly what extra pushes we received that others did not, or what extra advantages others had that we missed out on. All we can do is try to engage with the world in a meaningful way, and try to help those who didn’t get the advantages that we had.

Ultimate Strength

Author Ryan Holiday writes that his ultimate inner strength is his will, and he dives into what that means in his book, The Obstacle is the Way. He explains that our will stretches beyond simply our desire to do something or the degree to which we want something, and looks at will in the context of stoicism and our every day lives. Holiday writes, “Will is fortitude and wisdom — not just about specific obstacles, but about life itself and where the obstacles we are facing fit within it.” In this context our will is driven beyond the world of sports or promotions where it is analogous to hard work or grit, and it becomes transformed to an internal power plant that generates strength to persevere in all aspects of our lives during challenging times.

 

For Holiday, our will is a decision that comes from our mental ability to focus and reflect on our lives, which means that it is under the control of our conscious mind. Our actions, efforts, and energy can be shaped by other people and contribute the obstacles we face, but our will can be external to those events, influenced only by our own thoughts, perceptions, and self-awareness. By taking control of will, we can build it into our own lives to power our own engines.

 

Stoicism is helpful in building will since it focuses on self-reflection and self-awareness to shape our perceptions of the world. Recognizing the power of opinion and perception helps us take control of our mind, and allows us to focus our actions on our goals with intentionality. The will that Holiday explains results from the mental fortitude that develops when we realize that the only thing affecting our mind is our own thoughts and opinions.

What is Will

Author Ryan Holiday provides an in depth exploration of human will in his book, The Obstacle is the Way. Giving us an in depth view, Holiday writes, “Will is our internal power, which can never be affected by the outside world. It is our final trump card. If action is what we do when we still have some agency over our situation, the will is what we depend on when agency has all but disappeared.” Holiday sees our will as something deeper than what we typically understand as will power, and by building a more profound meaning of will, he gives us a new dimension of fortitude and strength. This vision that can be cultivated and built into who we are, the goals we have, and how we press forward to overcome the obstacles we face.

 

Will is our ability to relentlessly approach the world in a way where we can benefit and grow. Holidays continues in his writing to explain that will is not just the idea of perseverance to win, but a deeper strength of mind that stays with us even when we have lost everything else. Our mind is the only thing we can ever have the possibility of controlling, and our will is derived from our habits of thinking, our actions, and our perceptions. It is our ability to take a situation in which action appears impossible and in which all seems lost, and find a way to move forward in a positive direction. Will builds from our ability to recognize our situation, choose our reaction, and continue to pursue our goals.

 

Holiday explains that typical forms and ideas of will fall short of the view he puts forth. Rather than thinking of will as the degree to which we want something, it is better to see will as our inner strength that does not waver when we face an obstacle. Holiday explains that this type of will is stronger than the will that pushes us to act and charge forward, because a will built on calmness and inner power will guide us ahead evenly, regardless of whether the world is surging around us or falling down.