Willpower by itself usually won’t get you very far. Generally speaking, it’s more important to control your environment and to get your daily habits in check, so that you’re doing the right things without “using up” your willpower (i.e. ego depletion).
So in that sense, at least, I’m really not a fan of willpower.
And yet despite that, I’ve observed a a strange paradox at work when it comes to motivation and success.
I’m going to call this paradox the motivation tipping point. (It doesn’t really have a lot to do with Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point.)
The motivation tipping point is when you have so much motivation, and so much willpower, that you reach a kind of tipping point where you no longer actually “use up” your motivation and willpower resources in your day to day life. Your motivation and willpower becomes seemingly endless.
When you reach the tipping point, you experience the following:
- Temptations that were previously “stressful” or “draining” instead get you more fired up and motivated.
- Your motivational momentum builds and builds and builds.
- Paradoxically, “obstacles” becomes stepping stones that make things easier, not harder.
In other words, you become so fired up that every so-called “use” of your willpower or motivation to resist temptation becomes itself a positive reinforcer. The use of your willpower actually makes you feel so good about successfully resisting the temptation, that, in turn, your willpower and motivation reserves don’t actually get used up. It’s not emotionally or mentally draining.
Resisting the Cookie: An Example
In the typical example of ego depletion, subjects stare at delicious-smelling cookies or some other tasty treat for 15 minutes and have to resist the temptation to eat the cookies. When, after the 15 minutes, the subjects are asked to do another mentally-demanding task, researchers find the subjects have been emotionally and mentally drained through their efforts resisting the cookies. The subjects have become grumpy and tired. Relative to people who have not just spent 15 minutes resisting temptation (because instead of staring at cookies they’ve been staring at boring radishes or something), the ego-depleted subjects give up much quicker on mental puzzles and tasks.
However, with the motivation tipping point, things are different.
Once you get past the “tipping point,” someone can offer you a cookie, and refusing the cookie just feels so goddamn good and awesome that it’s actually not very hard to refuse it. In fact, it’s easy. It’s no longer a temptation to eat the cookie. It’s not a struggle. It feels, oddly, very good.
Refusing has unconsciously become the more desirable of the two options.
While resisting the cookie, you are not “delaying gratification” or “using willpower.”
Instead, resisting the cookie is itself gratifying.
So you might think you’re using willpower and rah-rah aren’t you just sooo motivated — but actually you’re not “really” using any willpower at all, because “resisting the temptation” has become the easier option.
Here’s where this tipping point can seem paradoxical:
The thought that you are using willpower is often a large part of what makes you feel so good, because you give yourself a mental pat on the back. But this good feeling about your use of your willpower is precisely what makes it so you don’t actually use your willpower.
You feel so good about supposedly using your willpower and succeeding in your goals and rah rah aren’t you sooo great… that you’re not actually using willpower to do it. Resisting the cookie is itself a positive experience, rather than a frustrating and mentally draining one.
This is why a lot of narratives of success are somewhat misguided. The successful person thinks they overcame this and that obstacle, and resisted so much temptation. But they didn’t. They got to a point where resisting temptation was no longer a struggle, mentally draining, or unpleasant.
Does this mean we should scoff at anyone who’s reached this tipping point?
Absolutely not. Rather, I think we should just be aware of it. We should also seek to reach that tipping point ourselves. Needlessly struggling is silly.
If you can get really fired up you can experience this tipping point for yourself, and make things much easier.
Every successful “test” of your willpower feels awesome, and you get to a point where your momentum is so great that the idea of giving in to any individual temptation is just laughable. Every test of your willpower actually makes you feel good, because as you’re resisting temptation your inner thoughts are reminding you that A) you’re doing great, and B) you’re getting one step closer to your goals.
How do you get past this “tipping point”?
It probably sounds corny, but you just need lots, and lots, and lots of positive self-talk. You need to keep reminding yourself again… and again… and again of how great it is to be resisting temptation and how great it is to be a step closer to your goals.
You need pictures up that represent your goals. You need reminders to keep you thinking about it. You need to fire yourself up. Tell yourself that you’ve reached the tipping point. (I’m a big fan of “fake it ’til you make it.”)
As per that last tip, simply knowing it exists can help. Motivation is hard if you think it will only get harder. But when you know that eventually things will get easier? It’s like a light at the end of the tunnel. There’s something to strive towards.