I succumbed to drinking during my time at one of the best business schools in the world. The reason was partly peer pressure and partly the intense competition from some of the best brains of the planet. Lucky for me, our Institute had roped in a Psychotherapist to help students cope up with the environment and I decided to seek her help. During my appointment, she suggested some techniques to control my temptations and asked me to meet again after a few weeks but nothing much changed during this time. The next time I went for the session, I said, in despair: “I just don’t have the willpower”

You would feel comfortable with this narrative that my assessment was correct and things would be different, if only I could develop more willpower. Most fall for this fallacy that we can improve our lives by having more of this mysterious thing called willpower. With more self-control we would all eat right, exercise regularly, avoid drugs and alcohol, stop procrastinating, and achieve all sorts of noble goals.

Deception of Willpower

Modern definition of willpower describes it as, “the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.” On the surface, the idea of wanting more willpower sounds pretty logical. Nobel, even. The problem, however is that in Pop Psychology, willpower, is usually portrayed as a discrete, limited resource, one that can be used up like a literal store of energy. This idea is called “Willpower Depletion” and it picked up stream really fast and resulted in countless blog posts, best-selling books (Willpower by Roy Baumeister)and research programs that we see on the internet. But a 2015 study found that there was little empirical evidence supporting that “willpower depletion” is real phenomenon.

Now, if this depletion does turn out to be wrong, then what is the whole deal about willpower?

The Deal about Willpower

For a long time, the thinking was that if I offered you a cookie, you — a person with a lot of self control — would bear the temptation until it passes and decline. Those who take the bite supposedly have insufficient willpower.

But as we discovered, this idea is a myth and turns out that self-control may not be related to inhibiting impulses at all. And once we process this, we can chuck the idea of willpower and can better understand why we have been avoiding to go for the run since forever

Intrapersonal Bargaining is the new willpower

The problem with modern notion of willpower is the academic simplification it is surrounded with. We should not see self-control as simply controlling short-term urges but instead through the lens of “intrapersonal bargaining” — regulating the conflicting emotions by negotiating with one’s conflicting sub-agents as a method to defeat the urges. This decision making system allows for shifting priorities and motivations over time.

Gateway to Intrapersonal Bargaining

  1. Enjoy the activities instead of resisting — ‘Want to’ goals are more likely to be accomplished instead of ‘have to goals’. An activity you like is more likely to be repeated than an activity you hate. So instead of forcing yourself to like that activity, may be you need to do some “Intrapersonal Bargaining” to come to an agreement.
  2. Develop better habits — Structuring your life is a kill and people who do the same activity everyday have an easier time accomplishing their goals. Will Durant summed it up nicely —

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

— Will Durant

In the end, believing in willpower is simply not necessary. Did I really have a willpower problem? While I did struggle with these cravings, I had no problem motivating me to study hard and get good grades. Once I delved deeper into the issue, it was evident that it wasn’t lack of willpower but my unrealistic expectations and stress. As anyone who has struggled with a diet knows, willpower won’t work in the long run. We blame willpower failings for weight gain, even though it’s genetics. We blame addicts for not restraining their urges, even though their brains are biologically addicted.

Sure, you can use willpower to save yourself from falling back into a bad habit but relying solely on willpower is like relying on emergency brake while driving you car. It’s simply impractical.