It seems if you look for an image representing Willpower, you more likely will find one for Temptation. Willpower is as hard to define as it is to summon. Instead, we think of will power as something we must call on to deliver us from temptation. The common image that comes to mind is the devil on one shoulder, an angel on the other, each whispering in an ear. Or, just as common, is the image of a young woman looking with lust at a tasty treat, trying to summon the power not to succumb to “just one bite.” But willpower is much more.
Read Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by authors Roy F. Baueister, a researcher with expertise in neuroscience, and John Tierney, the NY Times Science writer. You will learn a host of new facts about this things called willpower: that it is a concept that went out of style with the Victorians, that it is a limited resource which can be drained (or strengthened, thank goodness), that one spends approximately four hours each day resisting temptation (which exhausts willpower)–I’m sure I spend much more time than that!–and that resisting temptation takes mental energy, which depletes our reserves, but which can be replenished by an injection of glucose. Sugar to the rescue! So, maybe Oscar Wilde had it right, the best way to avoid temptation is simply to give in to it. The book is a fascinating read on the physiology/neuroscience involved in this thing we call willpower. The writing is fun and personal, the “case study” examples are fresh and amusing, and it is chock full of fun facts for entertaining friends at your next cocktail party. I am not sure it helped me much with my flagging willpower, but it did lend some insights into its causes. Turning now from the use of willpower to avoid unwanted behaviors, I am more interested in the willpower (or discipline) of individuals who can will themselves to perform a desired task. The book does speak about developing strong, ingrained behaviors which held to strengthen willpower (for example, Stanley, while lost and starving in the jungles of Africa, never failed to rise every morning and shave.) I want to find that willpower that will make me sit down an accomplish a task. And, the task that most often is “put off” by more pressing ones is writing. When I had to write my Master’s thesis, the house was the cleanest it had ever been. Whenever I sit in front of that blank screen, or with pen in hand and notebook at the ready, I will do almost anything to avoid making a start. And that’s the thing, isn’t it? One you start, once you get in a flow, it really isn’t as bad as all that. A great book to read on the craft of writing (and there are many!) cleverly entitled “On Writing” by Stephen King is by far one of the best I have read. He addresses the universal writers block issue (although he is a prolific writer) with helpful advice that put me in mind of the wisdom in “Willpower”. You have to show up. You have to come to the paper every day — some writers make it the same time every day — and you have to do something, even if you end up tearing it up later. This is similar to the advice in Judith Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way,” wherein she advises one write morning pages, three full pages each morning, even if you are just writing “This is dumb and I dont know what to write.” The exercise off-loads a lot of mental baggage we all carry around, puts it somewhere, and frees you up to get on with other tasks. Much like the conventional advice in many self-help programs: write down a to do list and put one or two first steps you can take. Well, I’m not sure any of this has helped me with my writing aversion when it is on me full force. It is a lot like exercise, I love the feeling when its over. In fact, I empathize with the great James Joyce…there is a tale about his famous lack of productivity. He was in despair over it, and a friend exclaimed helpfully, “But look, you wrote seven words today!” to which Joyce responded, “Yes, put I still don’t know what order they go in…”