Willpower, Discipline, and Obedience: How to Do What You Set Out to Do

Yeva and a Sausage 2 by GG Vogman

Does willpower keep the dog from eating the sausage, or obedience?

I’ve written a lot about willpower and discipline in the past because it’s a subject that fascinates me. Consider this, with the Internet it’s possible to find step-by-step instructions on how to do nearly anything. Practically anything you could ever want to do is right there, so why don’t people do it? If you’ve always wanted to speak Portuguese or play the guitar, why can’t you yet? Why aren’t you working toward that?

It’s because you don’t put in the time? And why don’t most people put in the time? Because they lack the discipline.

All the other pieces are in place for you to do whatever it is you’ve always wanted to do – the last thing is for you to have the control over yourself necessary to follow through with it.

By understanding willpower and obedience, you can do just that.

A Different Way to Look at Willpower

Willpower can be something of a tricky subject depending on how you approach it.

On one hand it’s generally accepted that it’s a finite resource, if you try to exert too much of it you eventually run out and the best way to get more is to exercise it with gradually stronger challenges like a muscle.

On another hand some research would suggest that effect is largely a result of how we perceive things. That would mean the best way to get more willpower is to firmly believe you’ve got more.

What both of these ideas have in common is that they view willpower as the ability to do something in the moment contrary to your innate desires. You want to eat that entire pint of ice cream, but you know it’ll put you over your calorie target for the day so you exert your willpower to not eat it. You want to screw around on Facebook or Reddit instead of getting to work, so you exert your willpower to force yourself to be productive, etc.

This is the common perception of what willpower means, if someone gives in to their momentary desires they’d say they lack the will to resist the temptation.

I think there’s a better way to look at it though. Rather than seeing that as a lack of will, it’s more a lack of obedience.

Willful or Obedient?

As an easy example of what I mean, I’ll use someone who smokes. Let’s call him John.

John, as noted, smokes cigarettes. John would also like to quit. He tells himself he has made the decision to quit, but then a few days later lights up a cigarette and starts smoking. If asked why he’s smoking even though he said he quit, John would attribute this akratic behavior to him not having the will to resist the urge to smoke.

Is that really the case though?

I would argue that it’s John’s will that causes him to smoke at that moment. In this sense your will is that which manifests your desires in the moment. John desired a cigarette and was willful enough to bring that desire to fruition.

So if will is the force that manifests your current desires, why does John’s will cause him to smoke? Isn’t it his desire to quit smoking?

No, actually. At least not in the moment, it’s the desire of his past self to quit smoking. Even then, technically past John didn’t even make a decision to quit smoking, but rather just had an idea that he’d like to quit. What’s the difference?

A decision is defined by action, whereas an idea doesn’t require any. Past John declared that he was going to quit smoking, but didn’t actually take any action at the time. That means he just had an idea about quitting smoking, he left the decision – the action to be taken – up to future John.

Eventually we arrive at John right now who must make a decision, does he bow to the will of past John and refuse to smoke, or does he follow his own will and have a cigarette?

Imagine for a second that rather than John deciding he shouldn’t smoke anymore someone else, his wife for instance, told him to quit. Later that day John finds that he wants to have a cigarette, clearly in this scenario if he has one he’s expressing his own will and if he doesn’t he’s being obedient to the will of his wife.

What then is the difference between that and the struggle between past John and current John?

The issue isn’t that he lacks the will to overcome his desires, it’s that he lacks the discipline to remain obedient to the will of his past self. It’s much harder to see this in decisions we make ourselves, because in general we consider our past selves and our current selves to be a single entity.

In the end, there is no appreciable difference between past John telling current John not so smoke and John’s wife telling John not to smoke. In either case John must either obey and not smoke, or exercise his own will and have a cigarette.

Becoming Disciplined

So if this is the case, shouldn’t we be able to find a model somewhere of people who are more able than most to complete a plan they made in the past irrespective of any desires they have in the present?

As it turns out, we do have an excellent model of this – the military.

People who have gone through military training are often held up as an example of people who have a great deal of self-control, discipline and, in the traditional sense, willpower. They’re considered more able than the common person to accomplish something the set out to do.

However, the military clearly doesn’t operate by encouraging its members to be willful. On the contrary it teaches you to obey the commands given to you nearly without thought. One of the apparent purposes of basic training is to crush recruits and beat them down physically and psychologically until their will is broken. Drill sergeants do not exist to encourage recruits to be willful.

Once your will has been broken down and your instinct is to obey the orders of others, it becomes easy to obey the orders of your past self.

That being the case, if we want to do what we set out to do in the past (get fit, learn a language, finish a project, etc.) than we need to develop military style discipline. The most obvious answer for how to accomplish that – aside from joining the military – is to mimic their methods for instilling discipline in recruits.

The easiest way to start is to choose one small thing to do everyday that you know, in the moment when it comes time to do it, you aren’t going to want to do.

At first this should be something small and insignificant, my personal favorite choice is the freezing cold shower.

Commit right now to taking a freezing cold shower tomorrow morning. Do you know what’s going to happen? Tomorrow you’re going to stand in front of the shower, turn it as cold as it can get, and then you’re probably going to panic.

You know it’s going to be cold. You know it’s going to be awful. You’re going to want to back out, to do it another day, you’re going to tell yourself it’s a stupid idea. At this point you’re either going to be willful and crank the heat back up, or you’re going to do what you said you would and get in that cold shower.

The key here is to obey without giving yourself the chance not to. To condition yourself to ignore that urge to disobey and just jump in the shower. The first day is going to be the worst. After that though, it’ll get easier. Before long there won’t be any struggle at all anymore.

By continually doing exercises like these, starting small and then working on to bigger things, you can eventually overcome your will and develop the discipline to obey your past decisions no matter how badly you want to violate them in the moment.

Once you can do that, you can pretty much accomplish anything you want.

What do you think? Is willpower more about having the strength to ignore your desires, or having the discipline to obey the desires of your past self? Is there a real difference between the two? Let us know in the comments.

Photo Credit: GGVogman

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com

  • Maria

    This is a very interesting angle on willpower. Most of the other articles I’ve read on this topic recently seem to try to make the task LESS painful by (a) focusing on how much you really want the end goal, (b) enjoying the positive aspects of the task in the present, or (c) tricking yourself into starting the task so that before you know it, you are in the thick of the work without having suffered through that initial battle. Your approach, on the other hand, seems to be to EMBRACE the fact that it will be painful and to jump in anyway. I find the honesty of that to be refreshing – i.e. let’s not pretend that doing this work is going to be that much fun.

    Besides the military, I think martial arts training takes a similar approach to discipline, but then I’ve never done any martial arts. Would you agree? Have you found that this approach works and transfers well from one skill set to another?

    • Thanks for commenting! We’ve talked about some of those other tactics you mention as well, but not everything works for everyone so I like having a lot of options for different people to try.

      I’d agree martial arts can be another good way to build up your discipline depending on your style of training. I’ve seen similar things in weightlifting circles as well in terms of building up that ability to do unpleasant/difficult/uncomfortable things even though you don’t want to in the name of long term benefit.

      I think this approach transfers well between skill sets assuming your biggest problem in those skills is dreading or putting off things you know you need to do (sticking to macros, training, making phone calls for work you’ve been avoiding, etc.). Any time you need to do something that’s painful now but reaps long term benefit I think this can apply.

  • John

    You ripped off Existential Comics

    • You mean this one: http://existentialcomics.com/comic/13 ? Took a bit of Googling to find it. I actually hadn’t seen that before, the impetus for the article came about as a result of a discussion with a client about exercise program adherence and discipline. Nice to know someone else managed to articulate it better than I did though.

      Also, now I have a new comic to read. Thanks for the tip!