If you don’t have motivation, then you need this to help you get shit done

There was blood everywhere.

It was late. I was tired. But the egg casserole needed to sit in the fridge overnight. I had to finish.

I was shredding a block of cheddar cheese. Going as fast as I could. My focus fell. My finger switched places with the block of cheese for a second. I lopped off 1/16 of my thumb.

Am I going to need stitches? This is painful. Am I going to be able to deadlift tomorrow? I think I see bone. How will this affect my beer pong skills? 

I imagine Aron Ralston (the climber that was trapped under a boulder) had a lot more going through his mind as he intentionally sawed through his elbow socket with a dull pocket knife.

I suppose “sawed” is a bad verb to use alongside “dull pocket knife,” but my creativity is lacking. Ever eaten a turkey? Tried to twist, turn, and pull the leg in order to contort the connective tissue enough to muscle the bone from its socket?

If relying on motivation is on one end of the behavior change spectrum, relying on willpower is on the other.

Spelled out, willpower looks like this: I want the results, therefore I will do the behaviors, no matter how unpleasant — regardless of motivation, interest, or outcome.

Willpower and motivation work like opposing pistons to create your horsepower for action.

  • High motivation, low willpower = OK
  • High willpower, low motivation = OK

Think of opening up presents on Christmas morning. (Or on your birthday.) You don’t need a lot of willpower. You’re beyond motivated. The behavior leaks out of you.

But, when motivation is low, you need a lot of willpower. Think of eating a dog turd on the side of the road. Assuming you don’t have ulterior social motives (proving you’re the kind of person that’ll eat a dog turd), you’ll have to use a lot of willpower.

A behavior is never 100% motivation or 100% willpower. Even Ralston wouldn’t have been totally unmotivated to twist his elbow socket in half. The likelihood of surviving (as opposed to dying) increases motivation. Not saying Ralston was chock full of motivation. He had to use willpower. A lot of willpower. It was a dull pocket knife, after all.

But he didn’t use as much willpower as you would have to use if you were to jam a dull pocket knife into your elbow socket without being trapped under a boulder.

Things flipflop if you’re looking at resisting behaviors. If you’re motivated to do something you shouldn’t be doing, then you need lots of willpower to withhold the behavior.

I’m motivated to eat ice cream, so I need lots of willpower to stop me from eating ice cream.

If motivation fails us, then willpower must then be the key to getting shit done because they are opposing pistons, right?

I guess. In theory. You could will your way through any and all situations, like a baller. But relying on willpower is just as shitty as relying on motivation.

A lot of research has been done on willpower recently. Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Willpower Instinct, is a good overview. Willpower (as of now) is like a muscle. It can be strong and useful at times. But it can also fatigue and fail.

Studies show if you’re forced to use a bunch of willpower, you’ll have less willpower available directly afterward.

Studies show drinking a sugary drink boosts willpower. Sugar (glycogen) is your brain’s preferential fuel source. When your brain is low on fuel, it crawls into conservation mode. You have less energy available for strong willpower plays.

Willpower is a trendy thing to do now, so you’re bound to find more information on teh Gewgooles.

Some object to these willpower studies, saying perception is important. If you think you’re tired and fatigued, you will be tired and fatigued, even if you aren’t.

I agree. No one has to use willpower to resist eating maggots. In a sense, willpower is nothing but perception. But changing perception isn’t an easy thing to do. Goes back to having an epiphany (see Part 1) and completely rewiring how you see the world.

The implications remain the same, whether willpower is real or imagined. It’s sensitive to a bunch of external variables, which makes it unreliable. I guess what I’m saying is this: don’t inject sugary fruit juices into your veins in an attempt keep willpower high.

I feel like a bad guy in a cartoon leaving trails of bread crumbs to the wrong places. First, motivation. Second, willpower.

Where do we go from here?

Good question.

One thing I can say: where we are going doesn’t involve eliminating choice, even though it’s an (apparently) valid strategy.

Eliminating the choice is the coup de grâce because choice precedes motivation and willpower. If you don’t have the choice, then neither motivation nor willpower matter. But eliminating choice in practice isn’t as solid as it sounds in theory.

If you want to stop eating chocolate, then you can move to an island where chocolate cake doesn’t exist. But you aren’t going to move. It’s not practical.

You can take the general idea and apply it in a more realistic way. Can’t stop eating cake? Then don’t buy cake. You can’t eat something you don’t have.

Sounds like a swell idea, but you’re probably still shopping for the rest of the food you eat. At a grocery store. Where cake lives.

And what do you need to resist buying the cake at the store?

I’ll let you do the grunt work.

Is it even worth getting into the perception of choice? You think you have to have a 9-5 job, but you don’t. You choose to work, but you don’t perceive it as a choice.

Sometimes the perception of having no choice is just as powerful as actually having no choice. But you already know about perception. And, if you don’t, you need to read better.

We’re back to where we started now. It might not seem like we’ve made any progress, but sometimes you have to tear out existing weeds from the root before you plant fresh grass.

→ I’m working on Part 3 of the Getting Shit Done Course. If you want to be the first to know when it drops, then get on my private email list.