The illusion of willpower

Why is willpower so hard? After a heavy night of drinking, why do several people resolve they would never drink again, only to end up shitfaced in the next party? Why is it difficult to eat healthy and exercise regularly, despite knowing their benefits so well?

Part of the reason here is a devious trick that our minds play. Our minds trick us into believing that we feel right now about certain things is the way we would always feel about them. Thereby, our minds extrapolate how we feel in the present moment well into the future.

Our mind’s tendency to play the repentant saint causes us to declare each time we overeat that we would never repeat that folly. But sure enough, when the next wedding feast arrives, we find ourselves carrying a pot of lead in our belly as we waddle out of the venue. In the instant where we resolve to give up on eating sugar, or to meditate for a few minutes every day, our brains feel optimistic. But 12 hours later, after a stressful evening at work, the same brains scream out for a cup of coffee and chocolate cake rather than to observe the subtle sensations of every breath we take in.

How we feel about something right now is often not how we would feel about it forever. But the whole premise of willpower is based on this faulty assumption.

Therefore, the best way to effect behaviour change is to make the intended behaviour easier and the unintended behaviour harder – through adjusting our environment and instituting systems. It is to leave chocolate cakes in supermarkets or bakeries, so that we would have to walk for 15 minutes to earn them when the craving strikes, while leaving nuts and fruits around for snacking between meals. It is also having a system of having one “cheat day” for desserts per week.

Willpower is overrated because our mind’s inherent naivete. Every time we feel like changing our behaviour, we could harness that burst of inspiration to change our environment or create a suitable system.

Inspiration: Stumbling on Happiness – Dan Gilbert

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