Facts So Romantic

The Pernicious Myth of Willpower

It turns out “willpower” is not a valid psychological construct.Photograph by Kevin O’Mara / Flickr

I often find myself on the cusp of doing something productive, and then decide not to. Even though I say to myself, in such circumstances, “Hey, you’re procrastinating,” I still witness myself rationalizing putting that productive thing off. It’s a bewildering feeling you may find familiar.

If only I had more willpower, I’d think. Then I wouldn’t experience this embarrassing inability to do what I want to do—whether it’s working out, writing, or planning. But it turns out “willpower” is not a valid psychological construct—there’s no mental resource or mechanism that answers to this term. What is more, thinking that there is such a thing is counter-productive! At least, that’s the conclusion that Carl Erik Fisher, a meditation practitioner and psychotherapist, has come to.

He sketched why he thinks this in an essay he wrote for Nautilus earlier this year, titled “Against Willpower.” He later sat down with us to talk about it. The reactions to the piece, we noted at the time, “ranged from the appreciative to the sorely defensive.” Some welcomed the thought that the argument granted laziness a free pass; others repudiated it. We asked Fisher to make sense of this: How should we think about the virtues of sustained “willpower” and reaching long-term goals, if we’re not going to use that word?

Watch is response below, and then check out our whole conversation with Fisher here.

Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blog. Follow him on Twitter @brianga11agher.

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