an exercise in willpower

Willpower. The mysterious process you use to make yourself do something – or not, as the case may be.

Chocolate? Not today thanks, I’ve got willpower. Oh go on then. I’ve got no will power when it comes to chocolate …

There are lots of ways to describe willpower – tenacity, doggedness, bloody mindedness, determination, strength of character, resolve, staying power, stickability, perseverance, backbone, self control… but what ever word you might decide to use, we often recognise willpower by its absence.

More chocolate? Well why not. I’ve had one piece, I’ll have another, might as well consolidate myself as someone with no willpower at all.

There’s lots of research on willpower. People who have it apparently “do better” than those who don’t, psychologists say. There’s certainly a market out there for the researcher who finds the magic solution to growing willpower and having lots of it – but is this wish for willpower simply catering for/pandering to a (dubious) desire for total self control?

Most of us lack willpower sometimes… when we “lapse” and allow ourselves to be seduced by food, a new bit of kit, clothing we don’t actually really need, another academic book, a conference that’s not entirely related to our research… or when we skip a meeting because the temptation to not go is just too strong.

Maybe we beat ourselves up about these lapses. Or perhaps we pass judgment on those who appear to lapse too often or 2960946798_649b8da888_btoo easily.

Either way, not having enough willpower is generally seen as a Bad Thing. There’s a moral value lurking behind the word willpower. It’s good to have it. It means you don’t give in to base impulses. Lack of willpower is seen as a sign of weak character, evidence of a lack of self-discipline  – thanks must go here to Socrates and Aristotle for their ‘ethical’ deliberations on akrasia,something to be avoided at all costs.

It’d be nice to avoid problems with willpower, right? If only we could.

Willpower, and its murky moral companions, are unavoidable in academic life – and particularly so in relation to academic writing. There are lots of times, when you’re ‘doing academic writing’, when you do just need willpower.

You started on this piece of writing very energetically, with total commitment and conviction. Now you can hardly bear to look at it any more and it takes an incredible effort to sit down to it again. How to finish the writing off? If only you could quickly get rid of it, send it away. Maybe you could leave it. Perhaps there is a way to shorten it. What if you could get someone else to come in and help complete it. Would it really matter if you just stuck it in the bottom drawer and never thought about it again? Couldn’t you just prevaricate for a while? But – you’ve said you’ll do it. Other people are expecting it. Your co-author is relying on you. You have a contract to meet, and you might never get another one if you renege on this one. It’s so close. And if you don’t finish it you’re a failure, a flop, utterly hopeless.

Aargh. Double plus aargh.

Mostly we do finish the dratted writing. It might be a book, a thesis, a paper we’ve worked on for ages. To the point of hating it. But we do it. We end the agony, but only by exercising willpower, dredging up the energy to keep going from somewhere. We delay the gratification of starting another piece of writing, writing the next bid, reading that big book. We are perhaps spurred on by a pigheaded refusal to be beaten by a measly text.  We keep in sight that long-term writing objective we are so close to achieving.

Well mostly. Mostly we exercise our willpower relatively regularly. We get it out and give it a spin. In truth, we’d never get anything done if we didn’t.

And to that end, I’ve just blogged myself into the willpower needed for tackling a third round of book proofs. After doing this lot of proofreading I never want to see this book again. Never. Never. Well not until I hold it in my hands…

Hello, willpower, my old academic writing friend.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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2 Responses to an exercise in willpower

  1. rachel says:

    Sometimes the pain of finishing something is worse than the pain of not finishing it. That’s what got me to the end of my doctorate!


  2. rachel says:

    *or even less- oh dear!


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