Maybe willpower works more like this

Over the last few years I’ve kept reading about two theories about how willpower works. And I recently realised I think they’re both wrong.

Old theories of willpower

The first one is willpower works like a muscle
(You’ve definitely experienced this)

Say you start a new diet, or workout routine, and at first it’s hard to stick to the schedule (after the initial excitement wears off).

Over time it gets easier and easier. Routine sets in, and suddenly it’s easy for you to will yourself to the gym or to eat that celery.

The second is that willpower depletes as over time
(You’ve definitely experienced this)

Say you start each day with 20 or so decisions in you. In the morning you can start the hard thing. You can tackle the decision that was causing you to procrastinate yesterday.

But as evening rolls in, you’ve spent so much willpower already. It’s hard to say no to dessert. It’s hard to start that creative project instead of vegetating on the couch.

The problem here is that these two ideas contradict each other. And yet most of us have had both these experiences. How is that possible?

Whenever there’s contradictory evidence it’s likely that the theories you’re using to interpret the evidence are wrong. Time to come up with a new ones.

A new theory of willpower

Taking a walk last week I had an idea that might resolve this discrepancy: What if there’s no such thing as willpower? What we’re actually observing is clarity of mind.

When you wake up, if you’ve had a good nights sleep, you are less distracted than usual because your mind has been sorting away stuff during the night. So taking decisions, even hard ones, is easy because you are pretty clear about what you want.

When you’ve been doing stuff all day you are inundated with new information, highly distracted by all the stuff going on. Taking decisions now become very hard. And you more easily slip into short term thinking. You want the marshmallow now. Not two tomorrow.

Willpower is not real. Your mind is more or less clear because of how much input it is dealing with.

If this theory is more accurate than the 2 theories of willpower I started with we should be able to influence our “willpower” quite easily.

Help me test this theory

Restore “willpower” by:

  • Writing out your thoughts, clarifying them

  • Taking a walk alone, letting your mind sort the information

  • Take a nap

  • Meditate

Deplete “willpower” by:

  • Scrolling any rapid feed, adding lots of new info

  • Doing several calls in quick succession, no chance to sort new info

  • Multitasking

  • Not taking a break between activities

The last week I’ve been trying to act on this new theory. And so far, for me, it explains my level of “willpower” quite well.

If you’ve ready this far, please try this out and let me know how it works for you! This might be a better explanation, and if it is, it should help you have more “willpower”.