The Modern Survival Guide #97
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And I’ve got to say — it’s been a real labor of love turning these articles out week after week, month after month, for almost two years now. It’s taken some willpower to do it, and I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things about that along the way. Namely, that it’s one of those things that will propel you through life, but you have to nurture it along the way.
So let’s start with a definition, as we often do. When I say “willpower,” what exactly does that mean? Let’s go to the Google dictionary, which tells us that “willpower” means “control exerted to do something or restrain impulses.”
There’s a shorter way of putting that: conscious self-control.
Self-control is the defining trait of several of humanity’s famous virtues, and it’s absolutely critical to your survival in the modern world. Without willpower, without self-control, without the ability to motivate and restrain yourself… life is pretty tough.
The Importance of Willpower
So let’s chat about what willpower lets you do: absolutely nothing. Not by itself. Willpower is usually a piece of an equation. The other bits are ability, training, opportunity, luck, friends, or some combination of those things. Willpower gets you off the couch and stops you from self-sabotaging, but it’s other qualities, abilities, and tools that get you to your goal.
Have you heard the expression “will to power?” It means that you must have a strong will in order to achieve power, or more precisely, that exerting your will is how you get power. Some people take that a little too far and think that willpower is power. It’s not. You have to have something else going for you in order to transmute a decision into an accomplishment. I can have all the will in the world, and if I don’t have the right tools, all that gets me is failure.
The importance of willpower is therefore that it’s a necessary component of any attempt to achieve a long-term goal. Also short-term goals. Also whims of the moment, but let’s focus on the long-term, because that’s where humanity shines (and, of course, falls down). You have to have willpower before you can achieve a long term goal. Without the will, all the advantages in the world won’t help you.
Ways to Strengthen Willpower
Strength of will is about self-control. Self-control is about overriding instincts, desires, and displacement activities in order to achieve a goal. This makes it both extremely easy to find ways to practice exerting one’s will, and very difficult to actually do it.
Instincts, desires, and displacement activities are all there for a reason: they’re either things our bodies think are necessary for our survival, or defense mechanisms our brains concoct to protect us from unpleasantness. Sadly, our natural instincts are no longer a good guide to what is necessary for survival in this crazy world, and our brains can’t shield us from unpleasant consequences.
We need a strong will to survive and thrive in the modern world, and that becomes more and more true the older you get. So how do we get there?
I would argue that strengthening willpower is all about deciding on principles of action, practicing the follow-through, taking small steps, and coming up with coping strategies when you get discouraged. Let’s take these one by one:
Decide on Principles of Action: A big part of exerting willpower is making a conscious choice to act. Making that choice is very much dependent on first deciding which things are important to us. This is a serious step — every action we take is a case of opportunity cost¹ so it makes sense to have principles on which things we feel deserve action.
For example, a principle of action might be, “I will keep my living space clean.” Once you make that kind of large choice, you then have to make the smaller-scale choice to clean the dishes, but it’s hard to make that small-scale choice if you haven’t committed to the larger idea. If you don’t care about keeping your living space clean, dirty dishes in the sink drop on the priority scale.
Practice the Follow-Through: It’s one thing to make a decision, and another thing entirely to follow through on it. Practice is helpful here; as I pointed out in a previous article, our habits define us. So — pick a thing you don’t want to do. Do it anyway. Pick something else tomorrow. Do that thing. Continue until you get in the habit of doing the things you decide you need to do, whether you want to do them or not.²
Take Small Steps: Every big problem is composed of lots of little problems, every big goal requires lots of little jobs, and every major achievement rests on bunches of little victories. Whenever you’re confronted with a big issue, break it down into the smallest possible units, then knock those out step by step. This is a way to manage the intimidation factor that comes with a lot of big jobs and prevents us from tackling them.
Develop Coping Strategies: Procrastination is a thing. Stress is a thing. Overthinking is a thing. You will need to manage these things, along with probably a host of other mental barriers, to stay on the path to developing a strong will. Coping strategies can help. For example, consider ways to use incentives, schedules, dedicated down time, and lists to motivate yourself, manage your time, and think through issues:
- Incentives: Reward yourself for taking action. If you do the dishes, have a piece of candy. If you go to the gym, give yourself half an hour of TV time. Train your brain to associate action with reward. Keep the rewards roughly equivalent to the effort, but phase them out over time. Celebrate victories until the victory itself is the celebration.
- Schedules: Strange but true, for a lot of people things become more “real” when they’re on paper. If you’re one of those people, scheduling actions can help you avoid procrastinating or ignoring them.
- Down Time: As I’ve mentioned in other articles, we all need down time. We all need escapism. We all need stress relief. If we don’t get stress relief, bad things happen; that’s just biology for you. So build some down time into your day, even if it feels like slacking off, because you have to have rest to be effective in action.
- Lists: Lists are powerful tools, for the same reason schedules are powerful tools — they make things more “real” for some people, and for the rest of us it’s nice to have a reminder on paper so that we don’t have to remember everything. That being said, it’s easy to get lost in lists. Don’t let list-making become a form of procrastination.
Speaking of lists, that one wasn’t exhaustive or exclusive. You’re going to run into obstacles, and you’re going to have to find ways around them. If nothing seems to be working, there is no shame in seeking assistance from a friend, therapist, personal trainer, business mentor, etc. We’re not in this life alone; there’s no reason to go it alone, and we don’t have to be alone as we try to exert our willpower.
Ways to Weaken Willpower
There are a few things you can absolutely do to weaken your willpower, and mostly these are things that end up creating bad habits or bad practices. Some of these may or may not be affected by other factors, such as other life events or mental illness, which leads me to a point: don’t take this section as a stigma.
Instead, think of willpower like a muscle. You can train it. Some people are born with more or less muscle. Some people have an easier time gaining or losing muscle. And some people have an illness that prevents them from developing strong muscle in the first place. But most of the time, most people can build muscle. And if you can’t there are strategies, medicines, and technologies you can use to get you through life.³ Such is the case with willpower as well.
For most of us, though, maintaining a strong will is as much about avoiding bad habits as it is about practicing good habits, in much the same way as avoiding the gym is a good way to lose muscle. Some of these bad habits are:
- Procrastination: Look, we all procrastinate. It’s part of the human condition. But it’s a bad habit because it’s very, very easy to take procrastination too far and just push off tasks until there’s no hope of getting them done (especially if there’s a time limit involved). Procrastination trains you to avoid exerting your willpower.
- Intimidation: This one happens a lot with big jobs — it’s very, very easy to look at a huge pile of work or seemingly enormous obstacle and just abandon the goal because it seems like too much work to achieve. If we make this a habit, more and more things start to look intimidating until we back ourselves into a corner. Intimidation trains us to not make goals.
- Surrender: This is the twin to intimidation — getting halfway through a project and then giving up because it seems like too much work to achieve. Surrendering trains us to abandon goals.
- Fear of Failure: None of us likes to fail. It’s easy to let that fear of failure keep us from trying anything new, risky, or innovative. It’s also a guaranteed way to ensure we never accomplish anything. Fear trains us to avoid action.
- Deflection: When things go wrong, it’s often very tempting to deflect blame onto someone or something else. If this becomes a habit it increases the odds we will abandon projects (due to lowered risk), not to mention just generally being an asshole move. Deflection trains us to avoid responsibility.
- Overthinking: It’s very, very easy to think ourselves in circles when confronted with new, difficult, or large projects and obstacles. Overthinking leads to analysis paralysis, AKA not making a decision because we’re too busy considering all the angles. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if it’s a good choice or a bad choice, so long you make a choice and take action. Overthinking trains us to avoid decisions.
Again, this is not an exhaustive or exclusive list. There are many, many ways to lose our ability to exert willpower. But I think these are pretty common, and almost all of us have experience with at least a few items on this list. It’s also worth noting that these willpower-sapping habits encompass the full scope involved in taking an action: setting goals, making decisions, exerting will, and following through. Upsetting any one of these will make it harder to train yourself to exert will, since willpower practice requires that we achieve goals.
We overcome these bad habits by practicing good habits; it’s both that simple and that complex. It usually takes an exertion of willpower to start the good habit to train yourself to exert willpower; it’s a nasty catch-22. So again, remember — you’re not in this alone. If you want to change, and can’t on your own, reach out to someone for help. But keep in mind that you can’t use a crutch forever; helping someone else develop good habits is a draining activity, and it’s up to you to make the most of any assistance you receive.
The Benefit of a Strong Will
Willpower is important because it represents the ability to make a decision and then follow through. Making the decision is necessary, but the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. The follow-through action is required before we can make any kind of changes in the world. The step between decision and action, and the impetus for continued action, is the will.
Therefore the benefit of a strong will is that you gain a piece of the puzzle needed to push through challenges in life, to take action, and to make an impact on the world around you. It’s not the only piece. You also need tools, knowledge, and community to accomplish or overcome most of the big things. But it’s a major piece, and you can’t have a good life without it.
So practice, practice, practice using your willpower. Eventually, you’ll notice that you don’t have to practice anymore. You’ll have a strong will of your own. Then it’s your turn to help someone else practice theirs.
¹Opportunity Cost: The idea that any effort in one direction precludes effort in another direction. If I give $5 to the barista for coffee, I can’t spend that same $5 to buy a beer. If I spend half an hour at the bar, I don’t get that time back to clean my room. Everything we do prevents us from doing all the other things we could have been doing with that time, money, or effort. Harsh but true.
²To make an immediate positive impact in your life, start with cleanliness tasks: do the dishes, take out the garbage, clean the carpet, etc. It’s just easier to live in a clean space, and that makes everything else that much simpler.
³A competent therapist can be a lifesaver in many cases. Sometimes our brains let us down, and we need someone to help pick us back up. That’s just life.