Willpower ain’t the triumph of reason it pretends to be

Let’s say there’s something you want to do, even though you know you shouldn’t.

A classic example: reaching for chocolate.

If you’ve ever struggled with temptation and lost, then you know what it’s like:

You tell yourself you shouldn’t.

Then you tell yourself all sorts of reasons why it’s okay. You’ve worked hard, you deserve it, you’ll do better tomorrow, you’ve exercised, does it really make a difference…?

In the moment, there are so many right-seeming reasons to let go and indulge a little.

When you cave, it seems like a failure of reason – like your emotions or instincts got the better of you. And when you do the disciplined thing and stick to your convictions, it’s like your force of will won out.

This is such a common notion that I don’t think everyone questions it.

And it shows up in the language they use.

They talk about ‘fighting cravings’ and ‘resisting urges’ as if it’s them versus desire.

But if you indulge in more than your average introspection, you realise this isn’t the case.

Your reason, willpower or your sense of self never beats your emotions.


Whether you’re reigning in your temper or shrugging off an urge, your intellect gets all the credit and deserves none of it.

Consider the chocolate example some more:

You’ve had a long day and you want some. But you also want to stay healthy and slim down a little.

So you have a dilemma – do you resist or go for it?

Well, you decide to resist. But it’s not like your desire is taking your orders right now. You can keep on craving it, even after deciding – even after insisting – you don’t want to.

When you triumph over your baser instinct, it’s not because reason conquered it.

It’s because you know you’ll feel ashamed if you can’t resist some cheap, little temptation.

Or you imagine how great it’ll feel to look amazing on your next date.

Maybe you focus on how bad you sometimes feel after junk food.

You can beat this through hundreds of different mental strategies, all of which have something in common:

You pit one emotion against the other.

Reason doesn’t triumph because reason never enters the fight. It’s less a skilled warrior and more a bureaucrat, hiring mercenaries to fight on their behalf.

Instead of beating yourself up the next time your discipline slips, recognise what really happened.

It wasn’t your failure and it wasn’t even a moment of weakness. You simply picked the wrong emotion to fight for you.

There’s a lot of wisdom in here, if you’re willing to take the time to unpack it.

In the meantime, get started on all the other ways you can improve – and have fun doing it:


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