People talk a lot about willpower. Supposedly, it’s a kind of magical energy that gives you the ability to complete your goals, break free of bad habits, and basically solve all your problems. How many times have you heard someone say, “If I just had more willpower, I could lose these 50 pounds”?
Sometimes willpower is treated as innate: you either have it or you don’t, and if you don’t have it, there’s really no use trying to lose those 50 pounds. I’ve heard many people say things like “Oh, I’d try diet and exercise, but I just don’t have the willpower.”
Other times, willpower is treated as something you can acquire. This viewpoint is especially popular among people who are giving you advice. “You just need to get more willpower,” they tell you. “Then you can lose those 50 pounds!” Great, you think to yourself. So, what is this “willpower” thing, exactly, and where do I get it?
Willpower is something I’ve thought a lot about lately. I started grad school after a grueling four years of undergrad, and found myself incredibly burnt out. Suddenly, the willpower that had propelled me through undergrad had vanished, and I just couldn’t find the energy to work anymore. In vain, I sought my lost willpower. In vain, I tried to bully myself into working again. All failed.
Part of the problem was that my thinking about willpower was confused. And to a large extent, I think that my confusion stemmed from some general misconceptions that our culture has about willpower. So in this post, I’ll first describe our culture’s standard model of willpower. In particular, we tend to think of willpower as a matter of sucking it up and doing something unpleasant, in service of some greater goal. Then, I’ll describe an alternative model, where willpower does not fight against desire, but is simply another form of desire. Finally, I’ll argue that a full definition of willpower should encompass both viewpoints. I’ll refactor willpower into two components, determination and desire, which reflect the two models respectively, and which combine to give a more complete account of what willpower actually is.
The Usual Model: Willpower vs. Desire
In our culture, I think we often associate willpower with the word “should”. For instance, you wake up in the morning and think, “I should really start that CS homework/do the dishes/clean the house today… but I really don’t want to.” Then, a battle ensues between willpower and desire.
If willpower wins, you do the CS homework, and get it out of the way. If you’re lucky (and I’ll come back to this), you’ll enter a state of flow. Once you’ve pushed past the initial resistance, the homework assignment will fly by. When you finish it, you may be exhausted, but you’ll feel good because you’ve accomplished something. If you’re unlucky, though, the initial resistance will never disappear. You won’t enjoy the homework assignment at all, and you might spend the whole time resenting it, perhaps interleaving short bursts of working with long stretches of procrastination. When you finish the assignment, you’ll feel drained and defeated, and perhaps you’ll even feel like your day has been wasted. After all, if you hadn’t had this stupid homework assignment to do, you could have gone on a bike ride/finished reading that novel/hung out with some friends.
That’s if willpower wins. If willpower loses, then you procrastinate. Maybe you go for that bike ride, or maybe you just screw around on the internet all day. Either way, you’ll be plagued the whole time by guilt. No matter how much you’re enjoying the bike ride/internet/whatever, you’ll still feel the guilt of procrastination tugging at the back of your mind, reminding you that you should really be working right now. And later, when the assignment is almost due, you’ll write it up in a mad rush; when you hand it in, you’ll feel a flood of shame at the poor quality of your work.
In either case, the premise is the same. You are made up of two subagents, willpower and desire, and they fight with each other for control of your actions. Who wins will depend on a couple of things:
- The strength of your willpower. In this model, it is taken for granted that different people have different strengths of willpower, though as I mentioned above, sometimes this strength is treated as innate, while other times it’s claimed to be mutable.
- The strength of your desire. As William Blake wrote, “Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.”
The battle between willpower and desire is much like Freud’s classic struggle between the superego and the id. Willpower is the superego, the sensible subagent. It knows both what’s moral and what’s good for you. Cheating on your girlfriend is immoral; eating junk food is bad for you; your willpower disapproves of both of these things. I picture the Willpower subagent as a no-nonsense elementary school teacher, waggling its finger at disobedient Desire. “You shouldn’t do that,” Willpower says. “It’s wrong/unhealthy/lazy/etc.”
Desire, on the other hand, is greedy, in the computer science sense of the word. Desire cares about what will feel good now; it doesn’t care about getting a good grade on the test, or decreasing the risk of a heart attack fifty years in the future. It just wants to sit on the couch all day, playing video games and eating candy. Desire will cause all kinds of trouble if Willpower isn’t around to keep its sharp eyes on it.
They’re also associated with different parts of the mind. Desire is low-level, intuitive, and automatic. Willpower, on the other hand, is conscious, verbal, high-level, and cerebral. When willpower wins, it’s a triumph of the rational, moral part of the mind over the base and animalistic.
To reiterate the most important contrast in this model, Desire says “I want”, but Willpower says “I should”. When people envision someone with strong willpower, they imagine someone for whom the “should” always wins. People who believe they “don’t have the willpower” think this because they see their desire constantly triumphing over the “should”, the irrational parts of their brain winning over the rational ones.
But there is another, completely different way of looking at willpower, which I’ll describe in the next section.
A New Model: Willpower Is Desire
Once, in college, a professor of mine told me “there’s no such thing as willpower”. We were driving to an event, and we’d stopped at a store on the way. As we waited in the checkout line, I found myself tempted by the candy they put right next to the register. I said out loud, “Gah, I really want that candy, but I really shouldn’t eat it. I hope I have the willpower to resist this temptation.” And my professor responded with something that surprised me greatly at the time. He said, “There’s no such thing as willpower. There’s only wanting things enough.” He explained that if I didn’t buy the candy, it wouldn’t be because I had the willpower to resist it. It would be because my desire to not buy the candy outweighed my desire to buy it. He told me that if I really wanted to stop eating candy, I should go online and read about the negative impact that candy has on my health.
This idea that there was no such thing as willpower startled me, and seemed to contradict my experience. Here, faced with this candy bar, I was confronted with two feelings: (1) “I really want that candy bar because it’s tasty”, and (2) “I shouldn’t buy the candy bar because eating candy is unhealthy”. These are, of course, the “want” and “should” of the previous section. But my professor was suggesting that I should build up associations between candy and negative things, so that the next time I saw a candy bar, I’d have the following two feelings instead: (1) “I really want that candy bar because it’s tasty”, and (2) “I really don’t want that candy bar because it would give me cavities”. There would be no “want” vs. “should”, just two different “wants” competing with each other to see which was stronger.
What exactly is the difference between a “want” and a “should”? Writing the two different versions of (2) out in words conceals the fact that these two impulses are implemented very differently in the mind. As I mentioned in the previous model, the “should” is a very high-level, cerebral thing, while the “want” is a low-level, visceral desire. So in the second scenario, (2) couldn’t just be a piece of abstract knowledge that eating candy bars results in cavities. It would have to be a visceral revulsion to the candy bar based on its negative effects.
If you wanted to implement the “do not want” of the second scenario, you would need to use methods that specifically appealed to the subconscious, intuitive parts of your mind. For instance, you might picture the sugar from the candy bar eating holes into your teeth, or think of the CEO of an evil corporation laughing gleefully at how he’d tricked you with his insidious advertisements. Pick whatever image you find most viscerally powerful. With enough reinforcement, the stimulus of the candy will get linked up to that image and the negative feelings associated with it. You’ll be reprogramming your mind so that the “should” of the first scenario won’t be necessary. You won’t be faced with a choice between the visceral desire for the candy bar and a purely intellectual understanding that you shouldn’t eat it. Instead, you’ll be caught between two visceral desires, and the stronger desire will win. No agonizing, ego-depleting blast of “willpower” will be necessary.
So according to this second model, willpower is a matter of visceral desire. All of the rational considerations in the world will get you nowhere without intuitive desire. Real willpower isn’t the voice saying “should”, it’s the intuitive motivations behind the reasoning. The thought “I should do X” doesn’t do anything but remind you of your pre-existing desire to do X. Whether you follow the “should” or not depends on the strength of your desire to do X and the strength of your desire not to do X. So in the homework example from the previous section, whether willpower “wins” or not will depend on how badly you want to do the homework vs. how badly you want to do something else. This is why it’s a lot easier for willpower to “win” if you actually enjoy the assignment. Barring that, if you care deeply enough about your grades, or you’re consumed by worry about your inability to complete the assignment on time, these things may also help you to resist procrastinating. Those of you who are prone to procrastination will have noticed that it becomes easier to work on the assignment as the due date approaches. That’s because the intuitive urgency of completing the assignment increases with proximity to the deadline.
So if you follow this second model, “increasing your willpower” is really just a matter of reconfiguring your desires. Some of this can be done using the technique I discussed above: manually associating a stimulus with an emotion (see this link too for an excellent description). Some of it can be done by altering your mind to care more about the future and the long-term effects of your actions. Once your desires are sufficiently reconfigured, there will be no need for the word “should”. In fact, there will be no need for conscious decision-making at all. Once you’ve reached this state, following your instincts will be enough, since they’ll have been honed to align with what the “should” would have said if it still existed. I think this is what Crowley was getting at when he talked about the True Will. It’s something that your whole body decides to do. There’s only the one true action, and every fiber of your being is united in completing it.
Integrating the Two Models
We’ve seen two models now: one which says that willpower is the ability to do things you don’t want to, and another which says that willpower is just another form of desire. So, which of these models is correct? The answer, of course, is “neither”.
I tend to think that a good model of willpower will integrate aspects of both of these models. Thus, in my current model, I’ve refactored willpower into two components, determination and desire. Determination is the “should” kind of willpower from the first model; desire is the “want” kind of willpower from the second. To accomplish anything, you’ll need some of both.
Unless you manage to find your True Will, desire alone will not be enough. No matter how much you enjoy doing your homework (for instance), desire will eventually falter, and you’ll need determination to get you through that moment of weakness. When I was in undergrad, I absolutely loved studying computer science, but there were times when an assignment was due in twelve hours and I had barely slept in three days. I wanted nothing more than to rest, but I knew I had to keep working in order to get the assignment in on time. It was then that I called on determination.
Determination alone is never enough either. You always need some amount of desire. When I was burnt out, I spent all my determination trying to force myself to work, and I still wasn’t able to complete my assignments. It wasn’t that my determination had decreased since undergrad; it was my desire that had vanished.
The second model insisted that determination doesn’t actual exist as a separate thing from desire. But I don’t believe this; the two things feel subjectively different to me. Here’s the best explanation I can give of that difference: determination is like a temporary power boost that strengthens one of your desires (like the desire to hand in your homework on time) so that it can overpower your other impulses (like the desire to get some sleep).
Determination is like rocket fuel; you only have so much of it. Eventually you’ll run out, and then the desire that is naturally strongest will win. Determination interacts with desire the same way that rocket fuel interacts with the space shuttle’s weight. The heavier your space shuttle (i.e. the less desire you have), the more rocket fuel (i.e. determination) it will take to get it off the ground. You can use techniques like meditation to increase your supply of determination. But no amount of determination can make up for a complete lack of desire, just like no amount of rocket fuel can lift an infinitely heavy spaceship.
This is the problem I encountered when I transitioned from undergrad to grad school and found myself burnt out. Recall the contrast I made at the beginning of this essay: that if “willpower wins over desire”, you can either be lucky or unlucky. If you’re lucky, you’ll enter a state of flow, and if you’re unlucky, you won’t. I think that whether you get “lucky” depends on the strength of your desire. If your desire is strong already, then it will just take a little bit of determination to boost it over the threshold. If your spaceship is really light, then it won’t take much rocket fuel to get it into outer space, where you no longer need to burn fuel to keep it from falling back to earth. But if your desire is really weak, then you’ll need to keep expending determination to keep yourself working, and you’ll never make it to a state of flow. This is what happens when your rocket is too heavy to make it into outer space. By burning all your rocket fuel, you can keep the thing aloft for a little while, but soon enough it will crash back down to earth.
So this concludes the model I’m currently using. Both determination and desire are necessary for accomplishing your goals. If you’re having trouble finding the willpower to do something, make sure you check which of these two components is missing. Because the first model of willpower is so prevalent, we often assume that the problem is a lack of determination. But I think that lack of desire is far more common, and can often be easier to fix.