The Action Formula (Will over Gravity)

The other day, I saw someone tweet about setting goals for the New Year and they said, “You can’t count on willpower.” This idea, which you hear a lot, just drives me crazy. Of COURSE you can count on willpower. It’s the ONLY think you can count on. If willpower isn’t working for you, that just means you don’t have ENOUGH of it. But you can’t do anything without will.

Anyway, that what this post is about: “The Willpower Formula.” Trying to clear up some confusion around that. I hope you enjoy it.


(subtitles available. transcript below.)

[ transcript ]

Hey, David Levin. Author of Raise Your Inner Game.

So, this time of year, people are talking about new year’s resolutions, goal-setting, etc., and, of course, about how HARD it is to follow through on things like that. And one of the things I hear a lot is “You can’t rely on willpower.” Right? Willpower, self-discipline. Not enough.

This makes me a little crazy, because it’s so clearly not true, for one. But worse, the IDEA keeps people from working on what is actually the best way to improve you life. Let me explain.

Willpower is like LIFT for an airplane. You know, lift is the force that enables airplanes to fly. Right? You move the wing through the air, it generates lift, which overcomes gravity and you fly.

So, saying you can’t rely on willpower to change your behavior is like saying you can’t rely on lift to fly. It’s just a ridiculous thing to say. It makes no sense. Lift is the ONLY force you can rely on to fly. And will is the force than enables us to make changes in our life.

Every thing we do is an act of will. Getting up in the morning. Making a cup of coffee. Writing an email. They all start with an impulse to act, then there’s a moment of resistance, and then we either will ourselves to do it, or the resistance is too strong, and we don’t. That’s the mechanism of action, and it’s all about WILL.

Here’s a formula for how this works: A = W/G. Where A is ACTION, W is WILL, and G is for Gravity, which is all the kinds of resistance we feel to doing things. I just call it Gravity.

With any given task, if the amount of willpower you have is greater than the resistance against it, you can take action. A is Greater than 1. But if the gravity is greater than the will, you can’t. That’s how it works. So this is the Action Formula.

Now, most of the things people suggest to help with making changes in your life are focused on reducing Gravity, on making things easier. With a diet, they tell you to get the tempting foods out of the house to minimize the desire, or to stick within bright lines of what you eat, or to create some accountability with someone about your goal. Similar kind of thing with kids and television, you can drape a cloth over the TV and they’ll be less drawn to it, it’s easier to resist.

That’s the general approach you hear — reduce the gravity, make things easier. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It does help. But here’s the thing. Here’s where it breaks down.

First, it misses the reality that the claim itself is mistaken, that you can’t rely on will. The reason this approach works at all is because you’re reducing gravity enough that the will you have can overcome it. So you’re still relying on WILL to make the change, because, again, that’s the only way it can be.

But the bigger point is that it’s just a very limited approach because it doesn’t make you stronger. You may have some success with this one issue, but you’re still just as vulnerable to everything else that comes up.

But when you take the approach of strengthening your willpower, not only does it help with the one issue, but it also helps in every other area of your life. So it’s just a much better way to go, but this advice to ignore willpower keeps us from doing that. We shouldn’t be dismissing willpower. We should be embracing it and celebrating it and working on it. It truly is the magic bullet of self-improvement.

I think the real problem is that people don’t think you can do that, they don’t think you can strengthen your will, but that’s just not true. You can, and it’s surprisingly easy to do. In fact, in many ways, that’s what my book, Raise Your Inner Game is about. [] I don’t frame it that way, but that’s what it means to develop the skills I talk about — cognitive control, impulse control, emotional self-regulation. Every one of those comes down to strengthening your will, and that’s what you ultimately learn to do in the book and in the workshop, Raise Your Inner Game: LIVE. You start by observing these little moments where the impulses arise and the gravity comes in, and then you practice intentionally exercising your will. That’s all it takes. And the more you do it, the stronger you get.

But that’s why it’s such a mistake to dismiss willpower in achieving your goals. Developing will is actually the MOST powerful way to improve your life. But when we only focus on reducing Gravity, we never do that work, and we miss out on an incredible opportunity for self-improvement.

So the next time you hear someone say “You can’t rely on willpower,” I want you to remember, the problem isn’t that willpower is unreliable. It’s just that you need MORE of it. Willpower is your very best friend. You want as much of it as you can possibly get.

That’s it for today. Keep up the good work. I’ll see you next time.

[ end ]

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