Willpower can get us into a lot of trouble.
It’s an elusive thing. It has extreme influence when used correctly, but it can also quickly dissipate. It is our greatest asset but in many ways highly overrated.
Our freedom as humans comes from our free will; our ability to focus our mind.* But our willpower is the force that lets us exercise that will in reality. We can choose to do something in our mind – to get out of bed, to clean the house, to become self-employed – but it takes an act of will make that a physical reality.
Since this force is absolutely essential to our success, it’s easy to fall for this trap:
1) Willpower is critical to success.
2) To be successful, exert more willpower.
Get up in the morning and just keep pushing and pushing, and you’ll be a success. And if you aren’t? Well then you weren’t pushing hard enough…so go and feel bad about that.
This is a vicious cycle: you try hard, you get overwhelmed, you give up for a period, you feel bad about yourself (or even think you’re a bad person and a failure), then you try hard again. The reason is that willpower is a very limited thing. We get a certain amount of it every day and that’s it.
There must be some missing element then that separates success from failure. I think that missing element is structure. Structure refers to all of the elements of accountability that help to channel our willpower: long term goals, deadlines, “punishments” if we fail to complete a task, and rewards if we do.
Structure is the missing element because willpower alone is limited. We may, for a short period of time, will ourselves in one direction or another, but once this power diminishes we are left without direction and we flounder. Building a structure is like creating a waterway. Instead of pushing this way or that, our willpower is focused in a stream: all in one direction following the path of least resistance.
From my own experience, here are some examples of both successes and failures and the structures surrounding them:
- I am successful as a piano teacher because by not improving my teaching methods and my students’ playing, my income rapidly diminishes. Moreover I have to practice my teaching skills every day whether I like it or not, because my students are going to show up at my doorstep! Of course I could be lax and have unstructured lessons, be a mediocre teacher, etc. but then I would suffer emotionally (if nothing else I would become incredibly bored!) – and if I am a great teacher I am rewarded by seeing my students improve.
- I thought for many years about starting a piano festival in Austin, but nothing happened. This goal was a “failure” in the sense of never getting off the ground. But then a couple of years ago I teamed with a couple friends, opened a corporation, and hired artists to perform for a sizable amount of money. This produced incredible incentive for me to follow through: I had a deadline (the dates of the performances), I would lose money if I didn’t take action, the other members of the group were dependent on me, and increasingly so were members of the musical community.
- Twice in my life I have lost considerable amounts of weight because of a bet. It seems I function well when both money and pride are on the line. Currently this is in the “not going too hot” category, and in the near future I may create some stronger constraints surrounding this area. This goal has been “failing” lately because I’m not noticing any immediate health effects and I get consistent affection from my boyfriend. On occasion I’ll have a few days of great diet and exercise because “it would be nice to be in better shape”, but sooner or later this fades to a lower point in my hierarchy and I lose focus – there simply aren’t enough constraints in place to make this a realistic long term goal!
The more I reflect on my successes and failures the more I notice that the presence of a structure is almost always the defining factor in how much I achieve. Can you see a similar pattern in your own life? In Monday’s post I’ll discuss how willpower and structure interact, some very interesting psychological observations about structure, and the best ways I’ve found to create structure – techniques that you can try immediately in your own life.
*For an absolutely brilliant analysis of this you can read the Objectivist epistemology, which has a unique and fascinating view of free will as originating in the fundamental choice to think or not. For instance Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.