Willpower Or Environment? Two Approaches, Two Books

Below are two different approaches to willpower. Whereas one set of authors are proponents, another author negates its worth.

I. In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (2011), psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and science writer John Tierney review studies on this topic.

Even if you’re one of those people who believes you have willpower, it’s never infinite, say Baumeister and Tierney. Using dieting as an example, deprive yourself for too long and you’ll pay for it later—you’re likely to rebel. Also, because willpower is like energy, the effort you put into dieting will limit the effort you can apply to other things.

One of these things? Decision-making. “…(A)fter making a lot of decisions, your self control is lower and conversely, after exerting self control, your capacity for making decisions is lower. As you make a bunch of decisions, you gradually deplete the energy you have available and subsequent decisions are more passive and tend to go with the default option,” Baumeister told Maia Szalavitz, Time.

About depleted decision-makers, Baumeister states in an interview with Eric Barker (www.bakadesuvo.com): “They pick things that are more indulgent. They don’t compromise. A compromise is a mentally complex decision…Also, there are some kinds of irrational bias that creep into the decision process more if people are depleted.”

On the positive side, the more you exercise willpower, as you would a muscle, the stronger your ability to control yourself becomes.

How can this research play into the development of your New Year’s resolutions or other important goals? Baumeister suggests, “Instead of making them all at once, make them in sequence and start with the easiest one.”

II. On the other side of willpower theory is organizational psychologist Benjamin Hardy‘s Willpower Doesn’t Work (2018). “If you’re serious about the changes you want to make, willpower won’t be enough. Quite the opposite. Willpower is what’s holding you back.”

Additional quotes from his website:

If your life requires willpower, you haven’t fully determined what you want. Because once you make a decision, the internal debate is over.

If you’re truly committed to something, in your mind, it’s as though you’ve already succeeded. All doubt and disbelief are gone.

Commitment means you build external defense systems around your goals. Your internal resolve, naked to an undefended and opposing environment is not commitment.

The willpower approach doesn’t focus on changing the environment, but instead, on increasing personal efforts to overcome the current environment. What ends up happening?Eventually you succumb to your environment despite your greatest efforts to resist.

Everything in life is a natural and organic process. We adapt and evolve based on the environments we select. You are who you are because of your environment. Want to change? Then change your environment. Stop the willpower madness already.

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