Willpower: The Little Engine That Could


Our existence has no foundation

on which to rest

except the transient present.

Thus its form is essentially unceasing motion…

- Arthur Schopenhauer

hat little kids want most in life is to be a grownup. They can hardly wait to do the things that big people do, like drive cars and whip out credit cards. Unfortunately, their forward progress in terms of maturation is often stifled by the following lie sequence expressed both covertly and overtly by the adults in their world: "Growing up is easy. All it takes is willpower, and everyone with a strong character has plenty of that." When a youngster attempts grown-up behavior and fumbles, he will jump to the conclusion that he must have a weak character.

Although commonly held, this viewpoint that maturing is both easy and automatic is existentially, psychologically and neurologically not true.

Completely wrong though it may be, this three-part lie goes in so often and from such an early age, it becomes a basic part of our conventional wisdom. We may be able to rebut it in some areas of our lives. For example, we’re savvy enough to realize that we cannot expect to play a Bach concerto, speak a foreign language or train a puppy by force of character alone. To effectively achieve these goals, we must exert much effort in ongoing learning and practice. But, oddly, when we face psychological tasks such as wanting to not procrastinate or to curtail spending, we expect that simply exerting willpower will make it so.

Here’s a common example: person A and person B decide on the same day to get in shape. They both buy new workout clothes and join a gym. Six months later, person A is working out three times a week but person B has gone to the gym only twice. Should we conclude that person A has willpower and person B does not? Not at all. All we can conclude is that person A knew something that person B did not. This short article is designed to shine a light on willpower so we can all be more like person A when we so desire.

Poignantly, what adults want most in life is also to be grownup. But if they have been sold on the lie that all it takes to grow up is to tap into a large supply of willpower, they will head down the wrong road in search of success.

The perfect analogy

Willpower is a part of maturity, but it’s a small part.

Like the starter motor on a car, willpower is designed to provide the spurt of energy needed to activate the engine that drives our life – our will. You can imagine how futile it would be to run a huge automobile using the little starter motor. Similarly, because willpower is a little motor, it is also unable to provide continuous psychological torque without burning out. But that’s what this series of lies tells us – that we should try to run our lives on willpower, the little mental muscle that was designed solely to initiate behaviors.

I believe that the mechanistic perspective of this analogy can teach us how to get the most out of our willpower. We can up our willpower efficiency in two ways. First, when we learn to identify the parts of this little motor and see how they fit together, we stand a much better chance of keeping this tiny but vital part of maturity running smoothly. And second, when we understand how this little psychological starter motor fits into the bigger existential engines needed to power a sound life, we will be much less likely to overuse it.


Existential freedom demands that we forge our lives out of the situations in which we find ourselves.

We were born into this time, in this country, with these parents.

We each have certain gifts and differing amounts of opportunity.

Those situations create a unique life that flows with us like a river, one moment dissolving into another with no clear boundaries between this one and the next one.

What does all this have to do with willpower?

Briefly put, it’s this: Willpower requires stopping that river of time. Willpower is, by definition, the act of choosing to choose, and a deliberate decision can only be made in the present. Existentially, however, the present doesn’t exist. So we have to make a present by stopping time.

This point is not philosophical nitpicking. Naïveté around the role of time in accessing willpower cripples us psychologically. Willpower is not a matter of figuring out what we should do and then making ourselves do it. If we believe that it is, when we run out of willpower (and we will as discussed below) we will get bogged down in punishing ourselves because we cannot continuously put our lives in place. We can only reach our full potential as adults if we understand that willpower, rather than being a white-knuckled strategy reflecting our strength of character, is actually a skill set that requires basic existential understanding. (Again, that understanding includes knowing how to engage willpower and knowing when not to. The present article discusses the former and this article discusses the latter.)

The skill set has three steps: stop time, check your intention and then choose to choose.

Step One: Stopping time

We can define the past (time which is no longer) and the future (time which is not yet), but if we attempt to define the present we encounter an aspect of time with no duration. In the time it takes to say the word “now,” that particular present has vanished into the past. The poetic philosopher Henri Bergson described the present as an “unceasing creation, the uninterrupted up-surge of novelty.” With no duration, however, the remarkable present is unusable to us. And yet this is where we’re told to exist. Live in the now. Quite a dilemma.

Happily, humans are capable of an act called time binding which allows us to momentarily, metaphorically stop the river of time. To be able to utilize the present we bind up some of our immediate future to create enough duration to allow for the possibility of choice. This is not at all hard to do. What is hard is remembering to do it.

Watching television is a great analogy for this step. If we are watching a half hour program that we enjoy, we tend to float along within those thirty minutes paying little attention to the passage of time. We are certainly not making any decisions other than perhaps what snack to get during the commercials. When our program is over, then – and only then – do we think about what to do next. Do we continue to watch TV? If so, do we stay on this channel? Is there something specific we want to watch or do we just channel surf? If not, what’s next?

Now think about watching a breaking story on a 24-hour news channel. We can become so engrossed in the drama unfolding that we lose all track of time. There are no natural breaks that remind us to stop and think about what we are doing. We forget to wonder if there isn’t something better to be done with this next hour or two of our lives.

Existence, that uninterrupted up-surge, tends to be more like the 24-hour news channels than the entertainment channels with their discrete programming – one day, one week or even one year flows into the next. Therefore, we have to remember to bind time to create a moment to check our intentions.

Time binding, then, requires a specific type of mindfulness – the ability to remember to stop for a think about what you are doing with your current present. The easiest way to do this is to schedule the equivalent of commercial breaks into your day-to-day rhythm. As a simple example, if you are embarking on an afternoon of gardening, grading papers or running errands, you can do one of three things. You can decide ahead of time how much time you want to spend and set a timer to alert you when that time is up. You can set the timer to alert you to check your intentions after an hour or two to see if you want to continue on with the task. Or you can decide to indulge in doing the task until darkness or fatigue or completion sets the limit. Any of those choices can be mindfully reached, whether the break comes at the end of a proscribed period, every hour or at dusk. But if any of these options occurs as a default, it has been reached heedlessly.

We must, therefore, remember to occasionally push the “pause” button on the universal remote in our minds to bind time. That will allow us to step out of doing and into thinking. It sounds idiotically simple to take time to stop to think, but we are rarely taught do so, certainly not with any degree of regularity and never as the first step in engaging our willpower.

Step Two: Check your intentions

Once time has stopped, we must ask ourselves whether or not we are currently living on purpose. We check our intentions with the following thought process: I am here, now, doing this. I could be there, now, doing that. Am I paying attention to how I'm designing my life? Why am I doing what I’m doing? Am I choosing this thing I’m doing right now or just doing this thing I’m doing? If I’ve chosen it, should I keep it up? Is it taking me somewhere I want to go, existentially? If so, I can release my mindfulness for the time being, resetting it to remind me to stop and think again later. If not, I have to decide how to stop doing what I’m currently doing. Finally, I need to think about how much time I will need to thoroughly consider what I want to do next. Do I have in front of me just a small life choice or an actual existential crisis?

With practice, your brain will learn to value the gravitas of checking for intentional living and will be able to flash through the entire thought sequence using only the first phrase: I am here, now, doing this. Eventually you can reach existential flow, with its almost constant state of paying attention to your intentions. People who live almost entirely on purpose are very compelling to be around.

As you have wisely realized at this point in the article, this enviable lifestyle requires that we have somewhat easy access to our intentions. There is a very common source of interference to that access – petulance. If you find yourself struggling with this step in the willpower sequence, I would recommend studying this very common and very misunderstood human behavior.


How do you figure out what to choose?

Huge question! The most specific answer is this: You are asking how to determine your intentions because your primary intentions ought to be guiding the majority of your decisions. Intentions are as unique as fingerprints and are revealed to us as we get to...


Step Three: Choosing to choose

Now that I have stopped time and taken a moment to think about my current level of intent, I must engage my willingness to make an actual choice. In other words, I must commit to the process of authentically weighing the alternatives and deciding what to do next.

This is the psychological, existential equivalent of “going on the record.” When we are muttering to ourselves about possibilities without the commitment to choose, there is no cost to our ego if we don’t choose anything. But once we have gone on the record with ourselves and declared to ourselves that we want to make a choice, change will occur because knowledge equals change. When we have accessed our aspirational self by checking in with our intentions, we will have the knowledge that something needs to be improved and we will change our behavior system, we will change our opinion of ourselves or we will change our level of honesty with ourselves. In the example above, Person B will learn to go to the gym, feel disappointment in his or her lack of change, or pretend to him or her self that being out of shape isn’t that big a failing.

This is a perilous step because when you make a commitment, you put yourself in danger. Here's why: If we don’t make a choice after going on the record, our trust in ourselves is eroded. We all know how this feels. We sit down with a cup of coffee to consider our options and then allow ourselves to be distracted from the process of using our willpower as we ease back into our day without having actually made a choice. Time goes by with no deliberate decisions about the direction of our day. And this can happen day after day. Same as it ever was.

What distinguishes the act of just considering the options from the act of choosing to make a choice? It’s in the verbiage. The act of considering uses the wording of daydreaming in phrases such as “Wouldn’t it be nice if…” or “I wonder what it would be like to…” or “Someday I ought to…” or “Maybe I could…” and so on. The act of making a choice uses the wording of closing the deal. A closer holds this internal conversation: “Do I know enough to reach a decision? If not, how soon can I get the information I still need? If so, then now is the time. Choice time. I need to stay focused on the goal of making a choice right now.” When you are holding a closer conversation in your head, you will absolutely feel your heartbeat speed up.

A client of mine recently told me that she had had yet another fight with her husband in which she had bandied about the word “divorce.” She recognized that not only was it a bluff on her part, but that it had had a devastating and counterproductive effect on her husband. She sat there for a moment in my office and then actually used the phrase: I’ve been thinking about deciding not to do that anymore. In the silence that followed her statement she realized what she had said. Her face got pale, she teared up, and then she got resolute. It was all there for me to see. She stopped time to listen to what she had just said, she reviewed her intentions, realized that she had been avoiding choice and could do so no longer now that she was on the record with herself. It took about 30 seconds, but she made the transition from wishful thinking to using willpower right before my eyes. My face lit with pride and hers lit with amazement and just a little pride, too. She had decided to decide.

Daydreaming is great, but to be able to make good use of willpower, we must all learn to talk to ourselves like a closer. As with all psychological skills, taking responsibility for choosing exercises a mental muscle that can get stronger with practice. In addition, every single skill described in this website will help strengthen this crucial ability to choose to choose.

The “power” in willpower

Those three steps of willpower – stopping time, reviewing intent and deciding to choose – take actual neurological energy. Therefore, we can exert our willpower only so many times a day. (This is why unstructured time can feel so exhausting. We are either putting lots of energy into pretending that we are not frittering away our time or we are trying constantly to decide what to do next.) The energy we need to turn over that little starter motor gets replenished when we sleep, meaning we will have more willpower in the morning than at night. It also means that any behaviors that enhance physical health (rest, exercise, nutrition, friendships, goals, etc.) will maximize our available willpower physiology. There is also this odd tidbit – apparently, like a car battery, willpower needs water to create energy. Your ability to initiate tasks will be significantly hindered if you are dehydrated. Staying hydrated is both harder to do than most of us realize and has a much stronger effect on our mental health than we can imagine. So if you find it difficult to access your normal level of willpower, make sure you are drinking enough electrolyte-balanced water.

We will want to be alert to an energy budget relative to willpower. If there are important activities coming later in the day or the week that will require higher levels of willpower, we can optimize our chances of funding those activities if we protect our willpower bank balance. Odd as it may sound, it may sometimes be wise to jettison some "good behaviors" that drain our level of available willpower in order to prepare for other, more consequential "good behaviors" later in our day.

There are many ways, however, to conserve the limited fuel that runs our willpower. We can use sound mental hygiene such as habituation, linking and planning to minimize the need for willpower. Habituation simply means making things that you want to do so routine that they don’t require much willpower to implement. When you have gone to the gym every Monday, Wednesday and Friday evening for years, it takes very little energy to choose to do so. More habit means less choice. Linking is the practice of joining a positive new behavior to already established habits. So, for example, learning to relax tense muscles whenever you pour yourself a fresh cup of coffee, get in your car or turn on your computer will help relaxation become a routine part of your day.

Planning is a codifying of the process of willpower. When we are fresh at the start of the day or the week or the year, we use a document that divides up our time (a to-do list, a calendar, a computer) and we decide in advance when to initiate certain activities. Once something is on our schedule, it is much easier to do because we have already stopped time, clarified our intentions and chosen to choose it. In addition, any competing activities will likely be cleared away. We also unconsciously store up a little extra willpower to implement things we have already scheduled. If we need to go to the dentist, for instance, we can much more easily wave off the thought if we don’t have an appointment. Once we’ve used some willpower to schedule an appointment, we then keep conflicts off our schedules and start to prepare ourselves to go when the time comes. (And, of course, it takes much less willpower to schedule a dentist appoint weeks in the future than it would to just stop everything right now and go to the dentist!)

The buddy system is another great way to conserve willpower because you and your buddy can take turns being the starter motor. Person B ought to get to know Person A.

It is also more fuel efficient to divide tasks into smaller units that require lower willpower thresholds. Rather than trying to gather the energy to start cleaning out the garage, perhaps we can convince ourselves to commit to tackling one small section.

We can use rewards, too, to lower the task threshold. I believe I would have never gotten my dissertation written without the judicious use of double-dipped malt balls.

Finally, we can increase our willpower reserves by consciously practicing the three steps of the willpower skill because the neural pathways underlying each step will strengthen with use. Nonetheless, we need to be compassionate with ourselves during those times when we seem to have run out. When that happens we may be able to hand crank a few more desired behaviors that day, but mostly we ought to say to ourselves what my grandmother used to say: “Go to bed. You’ll feel better in the morning.”

Because willpower is designed to initiate behaviors that we choose, when you find you cannot get going and your willpower is not depleted, then the behavior you’re trying to initiate isn’t really what you want to do. There is tremendous interplay between will and willpower. Things we like to do and are good at doing take the least amount of willpower to initiate. Things we are afraid of take the most. In other words, it’s much, much easier to choose to choose something that we have confidence we can do or can learn. So the final way to conserve willpower is to tune up our engine of will so that it runs smoothly, needing less of a kick from the starter motor to set it in motion. In psychological terms, this means deepening our understanding of the concepts of will and will to power. What a coincidence! Those are the two topics covered in this article!

© Copyright 2024 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.