Musings on the Craft of Writing

►The Magic of the Mind, Part 2: Willpower

(Part 1 of this topic is Here.)

It’s because we have to live with ourselves, day-in/day-out, month following month, year stacking on year, that we cannot see our potential.  We all feel that we “know ourselves”—our habits, our patterns, moods.  But we’re wrong about a great number of things.  Being so buried in our subjectivity, we cannot see that so many of the things we don’t like about ourselves/our lives are changeable.

A core, governing element of changing is Willpower.

[4 links for you:  McGonical (book) and lecture, Baumeister (book) and QnA.]

The quickie-version: Willpower is not a static limitation; it is a muscle that we can build.  We can become, with time, people with strong wills, people who are highly disciplined.  And this means that we can become vastly superior artists (either in word, canvas, etc.) than we have been in the past.

We are a species of habit—we have our routines, our thought patterns, eating patterns, on and on.  We are reticent to go against the grain.  If you come home each day, grab a beer and plop down in front of the TV, that habit has engrained itself in your brain to the point that doing something different is hard.  And we can see this at work in any scenario where we have to deviate from our normal patterns.  (This is one reason that holiday traveling is so exhausting.)

The willpower muscle builds just like all other muscles—by exercising it.  By forcing ourselves, little-by-little, to choose to do things that are new/hard, our willpower gets stronger.

Here are a few highlights for developing willpower (based on Baumeister and McGonigal)

  • Take inventory of your habits and practices.  (Observe how you spend your time “coasting by” in mindless bad habits.)
  • Start small.  Don’t think that you can suddenly live the idealized, disciplined life, overnight.
  • Make lists.  Write out both long-term and short-term goals for making the changes you want.
  • Willpower, like all muscles, gets tired when overused.  Your willpower is weakest at the end of the day or at the end of situations which are taxing.
    • Therefore, don’t overstress your willpower.  (Don’t depend on it at 11 pm to get you through a hard choice requiring discipline.)
    • Need some willpower right this minute?  Eat some sugar.  No joke.  Glucose is shown to boost your willpower.  (Yes, it’s ironic since most people think of willpower often in relation to avoiding sugar.)
    • Stress and guilt are horrible for willpower.  Don’t put unrealistic burdens on yourself, and never beat yourself up.  (And think about the vicious cycle this causes: You’re stressed because you need to get that chapter written.  The stress slows you down.  Then you feel guilty for failing at doing your writing, so you beat yourself up.  It builds like an avalanche of failure.)

This is a massive boon for the writer, for once we internalize the reality of our volition, we can shape new lives for ourselves that make us better and more productive.  Nothing in our lives is truly compartmentalized (“Everything is everything…”).  By becoming disciplined writers we can shape the elements in our lives that allow us to devote our energy to our craft.  Writing is taxing.  The emotional and mental energy that goes into it is heavy.  But we can develop strength to match it.  For example, we can structure our lives to minimize distractions.  By taking care of business elsewhere, we can free up long chunks of time where we’re free to do nothing but writing. (And see this for more on being a disciplined artist.)

We often feel like we’re merely passengers on the canoes of our lives, gliding with the current of this and that stream (our habits). But if we concentrate, if we focus our attention on our volitional power, we can see that we are not trapped.  We can choose to exert our wills.  Instead of being a canoe on a river, we can be starships in space, choosing our direction and speed.












One response

  1. Pingback: ►The Magic of the Mind, Part 1: SDN | Daniel Ionson

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