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A Writer's Love/Hate with Willpower

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with willpower.  As a writer I count on it to get me to the desk but as a non-conformist I rail over the Puritanical, judgmental tone that always seems to come with the advice to exert willpower over temptations.  And as someone who constantly struggles with an addiction to shame I lash myself too often over my failures to ‘control myself’ about this that or the other.  Willpower, yuck.

Now there’s a new book out, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength that in its grandiose title makes me weary and resentful already.  But reading the review in the New York Times, I’m actually heartened, lifted from guilt, pleased by a ‘oh wow is that what’s going on’ moment.  I’ll definitely incorporate some of these ideas into my courses at The Writing Salon and elsewhere.  For example:

“Willpower consists of circuitry in the brain that runs on glucose, has a limited capacity and operates by rules that scientists can reverse-engineer – and crucially, that can find work-arounds for its own shortcomings.”  What the authors (Baumeister and Tierney) posit is that the will, like a muscle, can be fatigued, victim to what they call “ego depletion, using Freud’s sense of ‘ego’ as the mental entity that controls the passions.”  As a Buddhist I really want another term here – how about just ‘willpower fatigue.’ In other words, the will to resist one thing makes you too tired to resist the next.  My students complain that they can’t write after being at work all day and it makes sense: they’re exhausted not just by the physical exertion of work, but by resisting the urge to scream at their boss and quit.

So what should a writer do about ‘willpower-depletion’? The authors’ studies have shown that depleted willpower can be “invigorated by a sugary pick-me-up (though not an indistinguishable beverage containing diet sweetener.”  Fascinating.  A little bit of being bad gives you the energy to be good. I love it.

And their recommendations sound a lot like advice to writers: don’t succumb to writer’s block all year and then squirrel yourself away expecting to write a novel in a week at a cabin. “Don’t try to tame every bad habit at once. Build up willpower with small but regular exercises,” they say.

On the other hand, some of this theory is difficult for me at its core: the authors contend that “together with intelligence, self-control turns out to be the best predictor of a successful and satisfying life.”  But the authors base ‘successful and satisfying’ on a study that shows that subjects who had exhibited self-control “were better adjusted, were less likely to abuse drugs, had higher self-esteem, had better relationships, were better at handling stress, obtained higher degrees and earned more money.”  Yes, but did they create better art,  I shout (defensively?)  Did they write ground-breaking literature?  Were they able to transcribe emotion into music?  The authors admit that “people with the highest levels of self-control are only slightly better than average at controlling their weight.” Aha! I can tell you I read that line with some level of glee.  Time for my sugary-snack.

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I just ate another

I just ate another mallowcreme pumpkin. Thank you.