Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Musings on Limited Willpower

Is willpower finite?

I'm so used to thinking of willpower as limitless, like brainpower or human potential or air.  I had never considered it might be something we gets in daily allowances to be budgeted throughout the day.  Yet this is exactly the argument I stumbled upon while reading the November 2012 edition of Writer's Digest.  Mike Becktle's article "Overcoming Writer's Block Without Willpower" began by throwing out this idea:

"Here's the problem with willpower: It's limited. [...] Simply put, when we use it up by resisting a chocolate doughnut all morning, there's none left to stay disciplined in our writing an hour later."

I'd never heard of this before.  But I suspect it's on its way to becoming the hot new idea, because just one day later, I read about it again, this time in a recent Cracked article, "5 Ways Your Brain Tricks You into Sticking with Bad Habits" by Dennis Hong.  (

I'm not entirely certain I believe the scientific explanation, which contrasts making healthy decisions with brainteasers.  While resisting temptation may utilize willpower, I would label solving puzzles more a trait of concentration.  Either way, as a speculative writer, my reaction to these sort of ideas is to hold it as true in my mind (whether or not I actually believe it is) and see what sort of conclusions you can draw.

So, if we you a limited amount of willpower, what will your reaction be?  As with most limitations, you can either use it as an excuse or start getting creative.  Is the limit the same day to day, or does it vary with other factors, say how sleepy you are or how much time you've had to relax?  Are some people born with more than others?  Can you grow it?  Can you trick it?

For example, if you take something you hate, such as going to the gym, and make it a habit (which according to the Cracked article will take you ten weeks), does it no longer count as exerting willpower?  Or if you make something you dislike fun, will that also lessen the discipline?

And if you find the absolute limit, how will you spend it?  If you try to be absolutely efficient with your willpower, will that effort actually drain you of it?  If you dole out your efforts spontaneously, will you ever get anything done?  What's the fine balance?

These are some thoughts, I like to throw around.  To be honest, I've been trying to discipline myself into steady writing for some time now, and it's difficult.  The more deadlines and word limits I impose, the more time I spend worrying over them.  My willpower goes into maintaining my system and then I wonder why I'm not inspired.  How can inspiration come if you're constantly yelling, "You have to write 9 pages by bedtime, hurry up, you're wasting time, you're never going to finish if you don't write already, just get something on the page, I don't care what it is, just do something!"  On the other hand, if I didn't force myself to write at least 5 times a week, I'd make excuses and get out of practice.

What are your thoughts on willpower and discipline?  Do you find the idea of a limited amount depressing or refreshing?

Comments would be nice.

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