On Willpower

Ever since I was a kid, I've always found it to be a fun test of will to hold my breath for as long as possible. I would dive to the bottom of a pool and time how long I could stay under. Or I'd simply sit down, take a few deep breaths, and hold it until I couldn't take the pain anymore. It's one of those weird ways that kids like to compete with eachother and themselves by coming as close to dying as possible.

I've found myself taking up this challenge again recently. It's still just as enticing. As an adult, the appeal is less in the flirtation with death, and more in the exploration of the mind exerting control over the body. Not breathing hurts. After a couple minutes your body starts fighting very hard open your lungs again and it takes a considerable and focused effort to resist. Eventually, my body wins. It always does. My mind can fight, but not forever.

This kind of mind versus body struggle epitomizes the exercise of willpower. In this way, willpower is the strength of your mind to exert or resist the impulses of your body. The idea of willpower is often also appied to the struggle of mind versus mind, the fight between your higher and lower brains, consciousness and subconsciousness. The same word is used for both, but the function is very different.


It's a new year and that means it's time to change everything about myself! Setting resolutions for a new year is a fraught activity. But I do it anyway. In intent, it's such a good and hopeful practice: to define the kind of person I want to be and identify ways to become closer to that ideal in the next twelve months.

And one of these ways is to stop snoozing my alarm so goddamn much.

I want to be the kind of person that wakes up with a few hours of relaxed morning time before work. I could make breakfast, move slowly, have the space to journal, hang with my cat, maybe read a book. But I go through phases where I am terrible at waking up in the morning. During these phases, I snooze and snooze. I hate this behavior.

I know I'm sacrificing something really wonderful. And the whole entire time, I'm so aware that I'm making the wrong decision. I'm doing the bad thing. I'm losing. My weakness and badness is stronger than my goodness. But still, I snooze. Somehow it wins. I don't have the willpower.

It's easy for me to perceive trying to adopt new habits, drop bad ones, and change your behaviors as a problem of willpower. My mind needs to be strong enough to make the right choices by resisting or overcoming the urges and resistance that the other half of my mind throws out. This is willpower as mind versus mind. This is willpower as a fight between your good self, the self you want and hope to be, and your bad self, your weakness, your indulgences and vices.

I don't think this is a particularly helpful way of understanding this problem. This isn't a simple matter of strength of will the way it is with holding your breath. Forgetting this fact allows me to punish myself. I snooze away my morning and spend the rest of the day feeling like garbage because I wasn't good enough. This self punishment does me no good whatsoever.

It definitely doesnt' make me more likely to do better the next morning. It actually makes it harder because I'm slowly convincing myself that this is who I am. I'm the weak person who can't get out of bed. I must be incapable of it. I'm telling myself, and convincing myself of, a story that I am bad.

This harmful story is a result of conflating the two different willpowers into the same thing. It does my psyche no harm to say that my weakness is the reason why I could only hold my breath for one minute instead of two. But applying this same black/white and strength/weakness template to the inner battles of my mind doesn't work and hurts.

This harmful template is only believable when I'm failing anyway. I've actually been very good at waking up well this past weak. But not for a second has this felt like a result of the strength of my willpower. There's been no struggle between a good half and a bad half of my brain. No higher goodness in myself being strong enough to overcome my weakness and failings.

I'm not all that sure how this works. I'm not sure of exactly what's going on in my brain that has made it easy this week. Part of it is the excitement of the new year and a fresh start. A personal challenge to change behavior is always fun and easier at first. But I'll have bad days, bad weeks soon I'm sure. And the familiar and damaging template of strength/weakness willpower will seep back in.

I think the most important part of continuing to succeed at building desired habits and patterns of behavior is to consciously reject the act of self punishment.