Overcome the willpower myth

This post is sponsored by Tempur-Pedic because we think you deserve to get your best night's sleep every night.

I’ve been reading a lot about willpower to find out how to get more. It turns out that we only have a very little bit, and we cannot be demanding it of ourselves all day long because that would exhaust our supply and make us nuts. Which is, of course, what I do.

But I have watched the farmer for a few years now, and I see that he substitutes three things for willpower which allows him to seem to have willpower beyond his actual willpower reserve.

Here they are:

1. Rigid schedule
It came to me when I started to understand the ebb and flow of the pigs.

There are about 500 pigs on the farm at any given time. Someone who does not do routine well—someone like me—would say, I’ll feed the pigs later. But the Farmer gets up every morning, at 6am, eats breakfast with us, and then feeds the pigs. And he’s blown away by the fact that every single morning I think we need to make a fresh decision about what we are going to do that morning.

He is like, what? Are you kidding? We’re eating breakfast and doing chores.

So then I pretend to have a schedule but really just sort of hope for willpower and watch it flutter away while I do things like let the kids play videos instead of music practice. Or I schedule a conference call when I’m supposed to be writing. And really, I never write at the same time every day anyway. If I did, then surely I’d have more regular posts on this blog. Which I have never been able to do. Despite wanting and promising myself and my editor that I will.

2. If… then thinking
The Farmer exhibits another skill that all how-to-have-willpower gurus say you must have: If.. then.. thinking. You know that expression, when the sun shines, make hay? He does that. Literally.

He cuts hay when he thinks the sun will shine, and he bales the hay — that’s what he’s doing in this picture — the minute the hay is dry, and there is no complicated decision-making process about whether he should read the new issue of New York magazine instead.

On the other hand, I am tortured by the problem of what I am supposed to be reading vs what I am actually reading. He is rarely tortured because there is no room for tortured thoughts in his schedule.

He has so many if-then statements that are an internalized guide to his life. The New York Times explains this as using behavior modification rather than willpower. And after being with him for a few years, I find that I internalize those behaviors as well. I know, for example, when he takes cattle to market (farm euphemism for killing them) we all wake up earlier and eat breakfast earlier. I don’t lay in bed considering my options.

So I am trying to implement more if-then statements in my life. Like, if I’m having an emotional breakdown then I stay away from bagels. That would be a good one for me.

3. Accurate personal assessments
The problem with coming up with how I want to structure my life is that I have to see where things really are falling apart. The farmer thinks I have a fantasy life of how much structure I have in my life, but really, I know I’m all over the place.

We always like to read about what we know a lot about. Like, I like to read about career management. Of course, I’ve read enough to last a lifetime, but I’m still fascinated. Like Chris Anderson points out that Malcolm Gladwell says you need 10,000 hours of doing something to become an expert. And after three years at a job, you’ve put in your 10,000 hours. So you’ve mastered it. It’s time to move on. What a great argument for job hopping.

The Farmer likes to read about willpower. Because he has so much. Or he looks like he has so much. So he also read that people have obfuscated views of what their life is really like. (To be clear, the Farmer is not the type of guy who would use the word obfuscate in a sentence, but he is the type who would ask what it means, so we are a good pair.) Anyway, people who do not have good self-discipline, which I think is the cause of not having willpower, are people who have an obfuscated sense of their days.

The Farmer told me, for example, that maybe I should write down every day that I run the hill outside our house. I wanted to tell him to shut the [ ] up, but I have internalized the rule if the Farmer is in the conversation, then that word is off limits. So I ignore him.

But I confess that when Tempur-Pedic sent me the Fitbit I was enthralled. It tracks sleep patterns and exercise patterns, both of which are always cited as key elements to a self-disciplined life. So I started checking things out. I can see why people say that when you keep track of what you are doing toward your goal, you reach your goal faster.

I can see that, because to get the full benefit of the Fitbit, I would need to enter a lot of data, which I would only do if I were really really committed to improving all those metrics in my life. Sadly, I think I am more oriented to buying a quick fix. So, for example, I can tell you that when I had a bunch of disposable income, I bought a Tempur-Pedic mattress and absolutely loved it and it’s a lot more fun to spend money to get a good night’s sleep than to collect data about getting a good night’s sleep.

So, maybe you think I sound hopeless. But I don’t think I am. Because reviewing all the data points at the Fitbit web site made me think I’m going to keep track, really keep track, of how often I run the hill. Because it feels really safe to have an if-then rule in life rather than searching for willpower.

And also, I want to tell you something: When the Farmer is gone, (which is almost never, but still, sometimes he has to see a friend or something,) I am in charge of the farm. And sometimes I find myself looking forward to that moment, just so I can feel what self-discipline without willpower feels like: If the sun goes down then the chickens go back to the coop.


99 replies
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  1. Helen
    Helen says:

    This is the first article I’ve seen in a long time that talks about willpower but doesn’t point to Baumeister’s extensive research. And you could’ve made a plug of Halvorson’s book which is very good. Also surprised by all the out-dated links. Willpower research is quite good and deserves much better coverage.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Baumeister’s research is old, too. I’ve been linking to his research from my blog for the last four years. Really, though, it’s my blog so I just link to research that is new to me- no matter when it was published.

      If you want something new to read try the links in the paragraph about what people read. I love those.


  2. Smiley
    Smiley says:

    I like the word “fuck”, so my darling and I use it all the time when fighting. I think we are trying to add some theatricality to the discussion. Plus it has a nice crisp feel and sound. Those are our rules, though! Can I just say, if you read this blog post more than twice, you will still continue to pick out new thoughts. But if I stay on this page once second later, I think it would be then ridiculous. Glad to read your more lighthearted entries. Please continue to post.

  3. Chuck Rylant
    Chuck Rylant says:

    It seems it would take a lot of will power to have a very rigid schedule. Chicken or the egg.

    I’ve been curious about this subject often while raising our kids. My conclusion is that it is part genetics and part environment. I don’t know the ratio.

    My wife and I are driven beyond belief–oftentimes to a fault. So is our 4year old. Our 13 year old has very little. Same environment. We struggle with it all the time. I think encouraging a rigid schedule may be a good thing to try with the older.

  4. Lisa Cach
    Lisa Cach says:

    I can never manage to schedule myself, so in search of creativity and productivity this past weekend I tried an experiment, and made myself be alone (a luxury for many, I realize) without phone or TV, and with only minimal Internet. I spent my meager willpower on keeping the TV off and walking away from the computer. I made no to-do list; I just wanted to see what would happen, and how I would fill my days.

    Forced towards boredom and loneliness, I finally found the energy to do the things I’d been meaning to, as well as the creative inspiration. I wrote about it here:


    And now it’s time to log off for today, and see what boredom drives me to produce.

  5. Laura Wershler
    Laura Wershler says:

    Great post. I am off to come up with a bunch of “if-then” statements to compensate for my lack of willpower. And I will pass this on to my 27 year-old son who can definitely use these tips. This was a lovely post on many levels. Thanks!

  6. Liza
    Liza says:


    (comfor-pedic is better!)

    I like how you worded this post. I’ve Always thought I lacked willpower to get up in the morning, but really it was because I didn’t have a reason to get up other than to take a shower and go to work. But now I have Yoga, and so, I’ve been getting up before my alarm even goes off because I internally know that I’m excited to get out of bed!

    And I agree with the farmer- you do live in a bit of a fantasy at times when it comes to yourself- but hey, I’m still convinced a Mitten company is worth my time despite the money/production/ soon to be lack of material issues we’ll be having next season! ;-)

  7. liz
    liz says:

    I have to say…this farm life meets career blog thing is getting quite brilliant. I don’t know how you do it, but it totally works.

  8. Guru MasterClass Bonus
    Guru MasterClass Bonus says:

    Accurate. For me this brings to brain parenting – and that is damn challenging – however it is actually remarkable that which you can do if you do not permit on your own (or when society would not enable you) to get a selection.

  9. Pamzella
    Pamzella says:

    I feel like this is the best post I’ve read here in awhile. Maybe it seems less of a rant or a list of “you shoulds” and it’s got a bit of reflection.

    I also have a fitbit, and LOVE IT. I only keep track of steps and sleep on it, the rest asks for more time than I have. But I’ve learned a lot about myself, finding out how I was, trying new things and getting some data back to help me see the change. Like my HRM, a trusty old workout friend I find the “gadgets” help when I’m working on something that a part of me seems to resist. If there was a gadget that would just help me write papers, initiate instead of just return phone calls, then I’d be set. :)

  10. Ana Jones
    Ana Jones says:

    Nice article. My father is farmer too, we grew up along with my father’s farm. We were being provided with everything from the income of our farm, so I can really relate.

  11. Crane
    Crane says:

    3 years to get good at your job, then how about doing it and sharing what you’ve learned to another before moving on. It seems sad to move right at the moment of mastery. What about succession planning and building on the shoulders of giants.

    That’s mentoring.

  12. Auntiegrav
    Auntiegrav says:

    Here’s a simple concept to apply both to you and the Farmer: Net Usefulness.
    First, though, a little background to your thoughts; People do stuff. They have reasons for doing stuff. In that order.
    The angst over willpower is wholly based on the assumption that we intentionally make our path through life, but consciousness and intentions are a tiny mutation of an otherwise chimpanzee/lizard brain. Humans have created marketing (this includes education, religion, morality, etc) to tell ourselves that this tiny bit of our existence (consciousness) is what ‘makes us important’.
    What really makes us important? It is whether or not we contribute more to the future of our species (and its integration with its environment) than we consume in resources which will be needed in the future. This is the only thing that nature uses to decide if a species goes extinct or not. No angst, no guilt, no morality: just whether or not we are Net Useful to our own ongoing existence.
    The Farmer realizes that thinking about every decision isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. You need to figure out that human thought isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes, it is useful, but rarely. I am just like you, but I’m trying to be a farmer at times. You can have both, but you have to put the consumptive ego in its place or the tally will go toward wasteful activities more than useful ones.
    Humans are no smarter than yeast. We just think we are.
    I think, therefore I waste resources.

  13. Forex Profit Accelerator System
    Forex Profit Accelerator System says:

    Genuine. For me this brings to thoughts parenting – which is damn really hard – nonetheless it is really amazing that which you can do after you don’t permit oneself (or when society isn’t going to permit you) to get a selection.

  14. Brooke Farmer
    Brooke Farmer says:

    Penelope, I needed to read this today. Really, really needed these exact words. I am going to keep this page open on my laptop and re-read it every day for the next week- before I start my day and let myself slowly get off track.

    Maybe I can come up with one new if-then rule each day I do that. I think that will be my goal.

  15. Keven
    Keven says:

    I don't know if I actually HAVE willpower as much as it IS the balance that I seek to maintain in my lived experience. For me, willpower is synonymous with maintaining a form of dynamic equilibrium between the various dimensions of me as I am busy being and doing.
    We each have our own specialized prism-of-awareness, which reflects the sum total of our current and potential lived reality – €“ it is our personal system of checks and balances within a dynamic system of conditions and contexts. If we think of our lives as systems within systems, within systems, within systems – – then we can begin to realize that our lived experience is subject to a litany of checks and balances that are both conscious and subconscious and as diverse as the people who live on Earth.
    All of this can be quite exhausting – really…perhaps that is why it feels so good when I finally crawl into bed at night and why one of my favorite times of the day are in the morning when my blankets, pillows and mattress are cradling me in a soft nest that, (for a moment-or-two), shields me from the details of the day that looms large before me.

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  17. Advent Wreaths
    Advent Wreaths says:

    My father is a farmer. I and my sisters graduated from very good schools or universities because of farming. This job serves as an inspiration to those who knows the farmers and their lives as well. As my fathers said, “I am the richest man in the world when my children graduated/finished their studies!” I salute my father.

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