Exercising Will

Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in battle -- they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.

- Alfred North Whitehead

Operating the bio-psycho-social system you inhabit is a bit like driving a car. To operate the motor vehicle, you must appreciate that pressing the accelerator makes it go faster, turning the wheel steers it, etc. Once you learn how it works, it becomes a matter of practice with some guidance from dad or a driving instructor to achieve competence.

Those who live in cold climates are forced to develop additional skills to cope with icy roads. While it seems unfair that northerners have an extra burden to bear, fairness is irrelevant. Northerners and southerners must each cope with the reality they are presented. As partial compensation for the additional demands, northerners get to be better drivers in icy conditions.

Your history of using the incentive and experiencing its payoff makes the challenge of coping with things that happen more complicated than it would otherwise be. To act in accord with your interests and principals, you will have to learn to operate the vehicle you inhabit in slippery conditions. Successful coping with a single high-risk situation is not sufficient. Good long-term outcome demands that you develop the skill, strength and stamina to cope with whatever high-risk situation you encounter, whenever you encouter it.

Each a high-risk situation provides an opportunity to enhance your ability to perform mindfully in situations where doing so is difficult. The use of sparring partners by a martial artist provides a good metaphor for preparing yourself for the crises that await you. Like the martial artist, you may not like pain and hassle of the sparring process, but it is the price of acquiring a prized competence.

Of course, it does not matter whether you like the training process or not; you are bound to encounter high risk situations. If you have not developed sufficient stength and stamina to perform mindfully you will follow the path of least resistance and suffer the predictable consequences.

The Depletion of Willpower

Freud used the "horse and rider" metaphor to distinguish between the conscious, rational mind and the animal with its drives and impulses. In Epstein's Two-Mind Model, emotional states, such as fear and desire, have a profound influence on state-dependent phenomena such as motivation, perception, and response tendencies. From your current rational perspective it is obvious that a first lapse will produce more costs than benefits, but your appraisal may be different when the incentive is nearby and your cognitive resources are far away.

Freud was fond of the analogy of a horse and rider, because, as he said, the rider (analogous to the ego) is generally in charge of steering but is sometimes unable to prevent the horse from going where it wants to go. In fact, it requires some energy to control the “horse,” and recent research demonstrates that this energy can be depleted.

Depletion of willpower refers to a temporary exhaustion of the Psyche’s capacity to engage in volitional action—including controlling the environment, controlling the self, making choices, and initiating action. Like muscle power, it can be strengthened with regular exercise, though it may be exhausted by trying to do too much too soon.

Roy Baumeister, in an ingenious series of studies* showed that "willpower operates like a muscle or a well of energy. It becomes depleted through use and takes time (and rest) to replenish itself. Regular exercise can strengthen it, "consistent with traditional wisdom of building character." He notes that "willpower. . . depends on a kind of energy or strength, which is used when the self performs some regulating activity. A tempting impulse may have some degree of strength and so, to overcome it, the self must have an equal or greater amount of strength.


* - Ego Depletion and Self-Regulation Failure: A Resource Model of Self-Control Roy F. Baumeister, ALCOHOLISM: CLINICAL AND EXPERIMENTAL RESEARCH, 2003, 27, 1-4


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