The Willpower Fallacy

If I were to ask you what you need to be productive, I’d probably get a wide variety of answers. Maybe you need a to-do list, a timer, or an app to streamline the process. Or maybe, you just need a lot of willpower. It’s a popular idea, but the willpower fallacy is actually one of the most insidious productivity myths you’ll encounter.

Why Willpower Isn’t the Answer

Willpower is your ability to focus and avoid getting distracted or tired by sheer will. In the context of productivity, the willpower fallacy implies that your ability to do something is based on how much you want to do it, and if you get distracted or feel like you need a break, you just don’t want it enough.

This rhetoric expects you to be perfect, which can increase the pressure you put on yourself and can be incredibly damaging to your self-worth. It also cause you to deny yourself what you need to work better, such as a short break or a nap, increasing both the physical and mental toll it takes to do your work right.

Moreover, willpower and flexibility tend to be inversely related. People with lots of natural willpower also tend to have little flexibility or adaptability, which can cause them to become deeply negatively affected when they fail. They are unable to pick themselves up and get back to work after a failure, and need a lot of time to recover before they can get back to work.

Ideally, we should be able to improve our time management and consistently stay focused without having to sacrifice our resilience or our mental and physical wellbeing.

Don’t Think

Not only is the key to staying on task not conscious willpower — it’s is the exact opposite. In order to focus, you need to learn how to stop thinking about what you’re doing. By keeping your mind from wandering, you’re better able to focus on the task at hand.

There are two methods to help you stop thinking and stay focused: reducing friction and increasing regularity.

Habits are formed when there is no other option, nothing else available to distract yourself with or keep you from getting started. By reducing the difficulty mounted against making a particular choice, we are able to start making that choice more easily and more readily. This concept is known as reducing friction, the confounding variables that prevent you from doing something.

For example, if you are trying to get started on your homework but are easily distracted by your phone or other electronics, put all your electronics away in another room to keep yourself from being able to access them while working. If you get hungry while working or get distracted by a messy desk, take a few minutes to clean up your desk and stash some snacks in your room before getting started. Ultimately, all these actions minimize distractions to keep you focused on your work.

The other method to reduce distraction is by creating regularity in your surroundings. You want to repeat an action in a specific time and place to better link that action with that setting. This helps your brain get used to expecting to do that action in that setting over time, making it easier for you to get started.

For example, I regularly do my homework while listening to instrumental music at my desk, whereas I usually listen to lectures while sitting on my bed. This arrangement helps me better concentrate, as I have a designated area dedicated to each activity. When I sit at my desk, I’m immediately geared towards doing homework, whereas when I’m on my bed I’m expecting to be listening to lectures and writing notes.

This whole setup is designed to take willpower out of the picture. After building a habit by making it a natural part of your lifestyle and routine, you no longer need to remind yourself or motivate yourself to follow that habit. Take, for example, brushing your teeth. For most people, it’s a natural part of your routine to brush your teeth in the mornings, and not something you need to think about. It’s the same with productivity — after a long enough time reducing friction and creating a regular setting to build my work ethic, I no longer need to tell myself to get to work or to avoid getting distracted.

Gratitude for the Long Run

The last key that can help you stay on task is, surprisingly, gratitude. Gratitude can help us hold off on short-term pleasures in lieu of long-term goals. When we feel grateful for something, even if it’s unrelated to the task at hand, we subconsciously begin to put more weight on the future. Essentially, gratitude can improve our patience, which reduces distractions and increases focus.

Gratitude is usually used in a social setting — it inspires us to sacrifice time and effort in the moment to improve the lives of those around us in the future. This further perpetuates the cycle, so those who feel grateful for us pay it back or pay it forward to others. In this way, gratitude helps us build stronger relationships and increases our social capital.

In an individual sense, this increased weight on the future makes us more willing to reach our goals. This means that we are less easily influenced to pursue short-term pleasures, including distractions like spending time on social media or watching TV, and more motivated to stay on task when working on a long-term goal. By making the future more important than the present, gratitude naturally and healthily increases what we call willpower.

Ultimately, by limiting how much you need to think about doing an activity and practicing gratitude regularly, you can take the first steps to improve your work ethic without relying on the fallacy of willpower.

Hi, I'm Ash. I’m a college sophomore and aspiring scientist who loves discussing science, the brain, and our ever-changing society.