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Willpower: It’s in Your Head (2011) (nytimes.com)
51 points by Evgeny on Oct 16, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 20 comments

The best practical advice on willpower that I've read is from an old classic, William James's Principles of Psychology. It's a long and dense chapter and resuming it here doesn't do it any justice. But I will try anyway:

1. Holding your attention fixed on an action eventually causes you to do that action. E.g. try relaxing and imagining all the little motions and then the final state of making a fist. Your hand will, after a few seconds, move of its own accord and make a fist.

2. The second part of willpower is to tolerate distractions and difficulties. James's phrase is "I will have it even so". E.g.:

"Do the dishes"

"But the water is cold"

"I will have it even so"

"But there are so many"

"I will have it even so"

"But there's an interesting article on HN"

"I will have it even so"

Your mileage may vary (I'd certainly be interested in hearing back), but personally I've been using this technique to do a number of unappealing but necessary tasks without too much of a feeling of effort.

Regarding the article, I would propose that there are two kinds of willpower. One is "tyrannical", where you simply force yourself to do something; this feels like it requires effort, and is depletable. The other is more "persuasive", using techniques similar to the one described above; it requires more preliminary thought, but reduces or eliminates the feeling of effort and is thus not depletable.

A little off-topic, but does anyone know why Modafinil is so powerful on willpower (i.e. capacity to power through things one doesn't care about)? Anecdotally it's as though it removes all "willpower barriers" - those little objections one uses to avoid doing things (e.g. "but the water is cold").

I initially put it down to it being used when people are sleep-deprived (as I find willpower is easier when sleep-deprived) but it's even more effective when rested.

Are you talking from personal experience or is Modafinil really known to be a powerful willpower booster?

(If it's the first case you might start from it's mechanism of action and figure out YOUR cause for "willpower barriers" and maybe find a better solution for them...)

I haven't found any medical studies, but it matches the experiences of myself, others I've talked with, and online anecdotal sources.

This "I will have it even so" mindset can work but not forever in my experience. If you want an expanded repertoire of techniques, David Burns' "Feeling Good" has a section on procrastination that pretty much forces you to become aware of the real reasons you procrastinate, and forces you to confront the dysfunctional thoughts at the root of it, making it very difficult to continue procrastinating.

James prepared a popular abridged version of Principles which may be just as useful. (Disclaimer: I've only read the abridged version, so I don't know what's missing from the full two-volume version.) It's a very practical and introspective approach to psychology, somewhere between pop science and intellectual self-help. I think HNers would enjoy it.

Here it is on Amazon for $0.99: http://www.amazon.com/William-James-Psychology/dp/B000W2GH4E

Here's an online version: http://archive.org/details/psychologybriefe00willuoft

The "persuasive" approach is reminiscent of the basic techique in Vipassana meditation: focus on a particular sensation (breath at the tip of the nose, tingling sensations in right toe, ...) and whenever that focus drifts off, just bring it back. Rinse, repeat.

I seem to believe more and more that there are 2 kinds of willpower:

1. "make yourself do something" type of willpower - and this type is depleteable, finite because every time you use it you accumulate some kind of latent stress, frustration

2. "make/think yourself you WANT TO DO something", and then obviously do it because you want to - this type is not depleateable and the more you believe in it the more you have it (I think religious or mystical people tend to have more of this - maybe this partly explains the amazing feats of some monks and things like these...)

I believe more and more that "willpower" is an umbrella term that covers very distinct concepts that we have not yet separated and that these (the ones concluding for either "finite" or "infinite" willpower) studies will be later looked upon as either wrong (some) or "unfalsifiable" (unable to prove they are false) because they are too ambiguous, same as it happened to freudian psychology and then it really went out of fashion never to came back in full strength again...

An interesting idea. Did you come up with it on your own or have you seen it discussed somewhere? Any clinical studies, perhaps? Thanks!

These are mostly "personal intuitions" and should be take only as inspiration and with a big grain of salt, as I gravitated towards this subject mainly from a selfish interest for self improvement, I must admit. If I were a sociologist I would've probably kept this ideas to myself, formulated a proper theory or set of theories and designed experiments to prove or select the best theory... but I'm not in the field so it's probably better to just pass the ball and let someone with more skill in the field put it in the basket :)

The base of the ideas are Muraven's idea of "willpower as a muscle" and "not as a skill" (google for his articles starting from '98 http://scholar.google.ro/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0,5&q=... ), but I think (more like "my intuition says") he only got half of the problem right: there's a "muscle" type of willpower (the "make yourself do smth" willpower) and a "skill" type of willpower (the "make yourself want to do something" type) and maybe his experiments just created the conditions that favored people exerting the first type (I'll really have to reread his articles to arrive at a "based" conclusion about this... like in... read more than the abstracts and conclusions for some, shame on me :| ).

And the other source of the intuition is my recent very unstructured approach to try and understand some aspects of buddhist philosophy and meditation...

(But again, I'm not in the field of sociology and the only contact with academic research I had is a past "involvement" with clinical medical research (surgery and oncology...) and some aspects of biomedical statistics, so this really is not my field...)

This is what I've been thinking since I've first read that willpower is depletable: "Isn't it just a self-fulfilling prophecy? Don't I feel out of willpower just because I'm convinced that it should be depleted by now because of all things I've already done today?"


Much recent research suggests that willpower—the capacity to exert self-control—is a limited resource that is depleted after exertion. We propose that whether depletion takes place or not depends on a person’s belief about whether willpower is a limited resource.

I think (and this could be self-limiting) that powering through a lack of motivation is a limited process, but if you can line up the motivation (in the fulfilling sense, not a pep-talk) then there's no real limit.

I think this lines up with Marissa Meyer's thoughts on why burnout isn't "real", i.e. that burnout, in the pervasive "abandon all hope ye who enter" form, is not over-exertion but under-motivation. This matches my own experience where I feel energised by working hard on things I care about, and worn out by working even trivially on things I don't.

I recommend the book "The power of habit", written by Charles Duhigg, a NYT bestseller. WIt contains many years of academic research on psychology, and explains not only habit, but willpower.

Also, watch this video.


And here's the book:


Nice series of videos (for those with not enough willpower to read the book ;)... )

I believe willpower is tied to blood sugar. I have a more difficult time focusing on difficult problems and getting started on projects when my blood sugar is low. I think many people incorrectly believe the concept of "blood sugar levels" is something only diabetics have to worry about.

Our brains are using about 1/5 of the calories we eat, ~400 calories per day for most of us. Most people are probably unaware of how their sugar-to-blood ratio naturally varies during the day, in response to eating, exercise, sleep patterns, etc -- but most of us have experienced feeling cranky and tired, having a meal, and feeling much more decisive and energized. This is a good example of how a meal raises one's blood sugar levels.

The article states that the link between will-power and blood sugar is weaker than commonly accepted.

"What about the glucose idea, which seems supported by so much science? Dr. Baumeister and Mr. Tierney describe studies showing that giving people glucose (in the form of a sugar drink) restores their willpower. But in our latest research we found that when people believe in willpower they don’t need sugar — they perform well whether they consume sugar or not. Sugar helps people only when they think that willpower is sharply limited. It’s not sugar we need; it’s a change in mind-set."

I think a lot of developers realise this, and resort to quick sugar hits to pump the brain up when working long hours (or maybe it's just me?). Of course this is a solution that quickly works against you.

So if I keep drinking glucose every now and then would it benefit in keeping my willpower up?

My willpower skill was built with NES games like Megaman 2 and Battletoads. The first 2 stages in Battletoads was so fun...I tried so many times to beat the bike stage so I could see the rest of the game. I was wrong, Battletoads gets even harder after that. lol

If you ever encountered modern, continental European philosophy and found it incomprehensible, one way to approach it would be reading this article a little differently, shifting its emphasis and thinking about how effective applications of language are rather than 'willpower' and its determination in particular. The authors are providing evidence that it is indeed a fiction, and its this power of fiction that a lot of European philosophy since the early 20th century has been meditating on.

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