Saturday, October 3, 2009

Finding the Willpower

The cure for your lack of willpower depends on what causes it:

Many previous failures. If you too often fail, eventually you understandably figure it's not worth trying. In other words, you lose willpower.

The usually most successful solution: Choose more attainable goals: an job better suited to your strengths, a more attainable romantic partner, etc.

Hedonism. Here, you fail to realize that to the extent you prioritize pleasure over productivity, you are a drain on your family and on society. The wise person realizes that productivity is key to the life well-led, and that requires frequent impulse control and sacrificing of pleasure for the greater good of accomplishing something.

Genetically low energy. Some people emerge from the womb driven while others are laid back. That is very difficult to compensate for. It may help to pair up for work and avocationally with someone with moderately higher energy. It may rub off.

If you have long been depressed (not just because of a specific situation you're facing,) drugs such as Prozac or Wellbutrin may help, especially if combined with regular exercise and short-term cognitive therapy.

Drug or alcohol problems. The stereotype of the lazy pot smoker is true. To find willpower you must find the--well--willpower to stop doing drugs and alcohol. You are fooling yourself if you think it isn't hurting your work and personal life, not to mention your health.

People of faith are often best helped with a 12-step program such as Alcoholics Anonymous. More purely rational people are often helped with cognitive therapy. Some people are helped by a physician-prescribed drug that reduces cravings or makes you feel nauseous if you drink or do drugs. For some people, a combination works best. Here is a review of alcoholism treatments.

You're pampered or have been. For example, you were too often indulged by your parents, you're a trust fund baby, welfare recipient, or have a spouse or parent who pays your bills. Unless you're an intrinsically motivated person, if you're taken care of, you lose much willpower. The following may be unrealistic but it may be wise: Cut the purse strings and try to make it on your own. Much easier said than done, I'm sure.

Unearned high self-esteem. Many people have been led to believe they deserve high self-esteem merely because all people are worthy or because they're "The Chosen People," "Black is beautiful," etc. That mindset is likely to reduce your willpower. True self-esteem comes only from accomplishment. If you think otherwise, you're deluding yourself.

Misinterpreted theology. Some religious and otherwise spiritually oriented people believe canards like, "The world is abundant. It will provide" or "If it's meant to happen, it will," Many people misinterpret the Christian precept "Do not be willful" as "God will provide," rather than "Make all reasonable effort but at some point realize it's out of your control."

Along with intelligence and ethics, nothing is more key to the life well-led than willpower. I hope you might find at least one of the above suggestions helpful in improving yours.

Reactions to this article, including other suggestions on how to build willpower are, of course, welcome.


John Dias said...

Marty wrote: "Religious people are often best helped with a 12-step program such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Intellectually oriented people are often helped with cognitive therapy."

Interesting, the juxtaposition that you used, pitting "religious" vs. "intellectual." I suppose you're claiming that people who believe in and worship God are not using their intellect, while non-believers are. Last I checked, even the most renown astrophysicists have no idea what preceded the big bang, except to concede that the energetic "quantum foam" vacuum has always existed and provided the energy that was later to be converted into physical matter that makes up our being today. Is it not just as much an act of faith to claim that there is no prime mover (the atheist view) as it is to claim that there is? What (or who) caused the big bang, if not that which has always existed (or He who has always existed)?

I would suggest that in the future you use terms such as "atheist," "agnostic," or "non-religious" to describe the subjective and belief-based assumptions of the non-religious, rather than bestowing upon their assumptions about God and nature the motivation of "intellect."

Marty Nemko said...

I stand by my statement. Just because scientists have incomplete knowledge doesn't mean they surrender their rationality to blind faith, which religious people do.

John Dias said...

"Blind faith..." Ever met a scientist? They frequently make positively affirmative statements that there is no God. I guess they must have the evidence somewhere...

Marty Nemko said...

Statements based on high-probability of truth---that there is no God worth praying to (in light of the billions of people, including babies) who die of long, painful diseases) are worthy of a scientist.

Statements made by religious people such as "God loves us," "God protects us," "God is all knowing," have, if one is attempting to be rational, a very low probability of being true.

Maureen Nelson said...

On Recovery: There are secular 12-step programs. (BTW, Episcopalians never check their brains at the door.)

On High Self-Esteem: I like reframing as a solution. Are you "special," "God's chosen," or whatever? Great! There's a thing called noblesse oblige. Get cracking! Bend your Messiah complex to the good of Man (which includes Woman).

John Dias said...

It takes more blind, uninformed faith to assume that the only manifestation of love and justice is in the prevention of innocent babies from dying in this life. Christians believe that God created life, hence he has the ability to resurrect the dead. Therefore to a Christian, death is not the end for a soul.

But to an atheist, his uninformed and subjective assumptions make him assume that there is no after life, without any evidence backing up this contention. If I walk into a dark room, should I assume that there are obstacles in my way (or a lack thereof) simply because the light doesn't reveal their existence or non-existence? To say "there's no evidence disproving my assumptions" and to consign those who disagree with you to an uninformed faith while exalting your own uninformed faith-based assumptions, is the height of hubris.

Marty Nemko said...

Some 12-step programs may describe themselves as secular but all of them require surrendering to a higher power. Of course, there are exceptions, but the addict who is religious/spiritual will be more likely to find a 12-step program, "secular" or not to be more helpful than will other people.

Anonymous said...

anonymous said:
Marty, I am a Christian who also gets turned on by science. Mathematicians just laugh at Darwin, the statistical probability of his theories is so small as to make them impossible. Intelligent design, even if you don't share in Judeo-Christian beliefs, has more probability than random accidents. Many scientists believe in creationism or if not that an intelligent design. If you are really open minded read "the case for a Creator" by investigative journalist, Lee Strobel. I gave a talk to 2 groups one time on this subject and had two different people, one an engineer and the other a scientist for a defense contractor check my facts and sources and tell me I had summerized what they had believed. Best wishes,

Jojo said...

Marty I have a question: When you were a twenty-something did you have the same views on willpower? Are you born into this way of thinking,regarding willpower, or is it aquired from life experience?

Marty Nemko said...

Dear Most Recent Anonymous,

I have always had a lot of discipline, but I hope that this article may help to improve yours.

Anonymous said...

What about a person who just does not know what they want to do, be, accomplish?

Discussions about willpower are moot if one lacks goals, direction, desires... do you address this situation elsewhere Marty?
thanx kit.

Marty Nemko said...

Most recent Anonymous, I address this extensively on this blog (Click on "career advice" in the tag cloud and visit and my site of career-finding articles there. Also my article there, "What the hell is the meaning of life?" Also my lists of best careers on


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