Experiments with willpower: Life Hacks by Charles Assisi
Right now, I’m wrestling with my willpower.
By way of background, I know that post-lunch, my mental faculties slow down for a while and that I crave cigarettes and chocolate. Inevitably, I give in to the cravings, take time out to engage in mindless banter, and if possible, catch a nap on the sly — anything to let time pass until I’m on top of the game.
I’ve told the self to forgive these indulgences. And that these must be viewed as investments to replenish depleted willpower. There is much literature that suggests it is a resource that must be conserved.
This school of thought argues that as the day passes, to get things done, we use our physical and mental resources — willpower included. These are finite faculties and must be used wisely. That is why I like to take on tough things when the mind is fresh. Mindless tasks can be handled when I feel depleted. This theory has it the when depleted, people do mindless things or engage in activities that may harm the self.
All humbug, insists recent research. It points out that much like happiness and anger are emotions, willpower is one too. At times, you feel it. At others, you don’t.
Is there merit in the argument?
When meditating, I can look at and listen to the thoughts in my head. It emerges out of nowhere. And then drifts away.
If this experience from meditation be extrapolated to the lethargy and cravings in the afternoons, I can think of it as temptations — a kind of emotion. Now, meditation has taught me to examine emotions clinically: Where did those emotions come from? What does it do to me? How long may it last? Where will it go to?
The thought sounded intriguing enough to bounce off with Kuldeep Datay a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist who practices at the Institute of Public Health (IPH). How does he view willpower?
“Willpower is an emotion that can be generated,” he said. “Most people who visit me complain they have lost willpower. I tell them it is not something you can buy from the market. And when I ask where do they think willpower comes from, nobody knows.”
This is when he steps in to counsel them. “I’ve never heard anyone say they’ve run out of emotions such as happiness, anger and determination or argue that it must be conserved. These are primary emotions that can be channeled to generate will-power to fight temptation or get things done.”
I’d heard him speak before I went to bed last night and started to work on this after lunch. The cravings come out of no place. I haven’t given in to temptation yet. It visits once a while. I acknowledge them. It passes. And continue to write. I suspect this piece sounds complete.
This experiment suggests willpower is an emotion.
(The writer is co-founder at Founding Fuel & co-author of The Aadhaar Effect)