When you drive a gas-powered car you use its engine. It has a lot of power and can get the car to go hundreds of miles.
But when you get into a car, you can’t just start using that engine. Internal combustion engines aren’t good at starting on their own. So gas-powered cars have electric starter motors. Electric starter motors are designed just to start the gas engine, which you can then use to drive.
In old stick shifts, if you left the car in gear and tried to use the starter motor, it would move the car a few feet. In principle you could use the starter motor to drive the car around, but since it wasn’t designed for that purpose, doing so would destroy the starter motor before you got out of the driveway. Meanwhile you’d be neglecting to use the more effective engine for the job. Actually, you’d have to work against it, as it would create friction. If you want to get your car somewhere, the starter motor is good for starting the engine, which is good at moving your car.
I think of willpower like an electric starter motor. It works when you want. You can try to use it to work on long-term projects but, since evolution didn’t design it for long-term motivation, it will likely fail at that purpose. If you want to do something with your body, willpower is good for getting your emotional system started, which is good at long-term motivation.
Several of my tips in my post “Top 16 tips for starting habits you want and stopping habits you don’t” use this principle. They advise using willpower to change or create environments, beliefs, and behaviors that create emotions that motivate behaviors you want. If you are unhappy, I don’t think you can just decide to be happy, at least I haven’t found I can do so, just like I can’t just start driving a car without using the starter motor. I can, however, use my willpower to create environments, beliefs, and behaviors that will make me feel happy. For example, I can invite friends to meet me for a great meal, which generally puts me in a happy mood. Even if I felt miserable while planning the event, when it happened, my emotional system, which reacts to its real-time environment, beliefs, and behaviors, would respond with the emotion of happiness. I could use willpower to create any other emotion as well.
Willpower excels at motivating short-term behavior and changing beliefs in the short-term too. It fails at sustaining behavior and beliefs. But if you create environments, beliefs, and behaviors long enough for your reactive emotional system to follow, it will, and then it will work on its own and you can stop using willpower. If you ever tried to get a friend feeling lazy to go dancing or to the gym, knowing once they got there they’d enjoy themselves and want to keep staying out, you know this effect. If you ever didn’t feel like exercising, but on starting kept going, you’ve felt it.
I don’t believe if using some willpower works then using more willpower will work more, and this analogy helps me implement it. When I hear people say they have great willpower and can do anything, I think they miss this point. Maybe they have different willpower than I do, but I suspect they’ll find themselves running out of motivation if they pit their willpower against their emotional system, trying to drive their body long-term with something evolved to motivate short-term. Just like driving a car with a starter motor will destroy the starter motor, I think trying to use willpower long-term will teach you to feel helpless and give up on using it.
I don’t push the metaphor beyond this point, like asking about electric cars.
Learn to make Meaningful Connections
with a simple, effective exercise from my book, Leadership Step by Step.
- Step by step instructions
- Video examples of me and Marshall Goldsmith
- An excerpt from my book