The Riddle of Will

A couple of weeks ago, I ran down my driveway, then up a hill to enter my favorite road loop. It was a bitter cold December day, still dark, and sleeting, and I tightened the hood of my rain jacket so that only my eyes were exposed to the conditions. It was still nice, though. Rainy runs are only uncomfortable while you are still getting wet. Once you are wet, they remain the same level of bad, at least for a while. Afterward, a friend who drove past me that morning told me, “You are the reason why people say runners are crazy.” For good or for ill, I had not considered staying home.

Willpower

It seems like any time I talk to a non-athlete about training, there is a disconnect between how I envision my daily schedule and how they envision it. They say something about how I must have great willpower to get myself out the door every morning, to eat well, and to stretch, but this does not describe my situation. I am not, for the most part, exercising my willpower at all. There are some exceptions to this: On particularly egregious weather mornings and on days when I have a lot of work to do, I sometimes linger on the possibility of staying indoors. But, in general, I do not struggle to motivate myself to run. I act from habits and affections, not from choice or from will.

The Concept

Willpower is choice or volition, and it is often used to describe situations in which one selects an arduous good—something that is difficult but better in some way than the easier option. An example is forcing yourself to complete homework instead of watching Netflix, or to eat carrots rather than bonbons. People will laud your willpower in resisting these temptations. The notion of willpower captures the ability to freely choose or self-govern, to exercise rational control over your appetites.

Willpower is a perennial topic in the history of philosophy, although it looks different on different accounts, and it is more important for some philosophers than for others. For example, Aristotle does not speak of willpower. Rather, he emphasizes acting from well-formed emotions. But he does write about “akrasia,” which is a lack of self-restraint or a failure to self-govern well in the process of developing virtue, which amounts to something like a failure of will. Willpower, or something like it, becomes more important for Stoics like Epictetus, for whom “prohairesis”—free, deliberate choice—and self-management are central in the flourishing life. About 300 years after Epictetus, Augustine wrote an entire dialogue on freedom of the will, describing defects in our choosing. Then Immanuel Kant took up the mantle of willpower, defining good actions as those which are done from and in accordance with duty. More recently, a social psychologist named Roy Baumeister has argued that our will is like a muscle (1). We can strengthen it with practice, and it fatigues when it is overexercised.

The differences among these thinkers amount to:

  • whether virtuous actions consist of good choices,
  • how much freedom we have to make good choices, and
  • the role of reason, versus the emotions, in the flourishing life.

Admittedly, I am rhetorically drawn to Baumeister’s project (because there is something appealing to an athlete about the idea of strengthening willpower like a muscle…), but I am wary of his project on three counts: First, Baumeister’s psychological studies have failed to replicate, so we should not be too confident in the conclusions he draws. Second, as I described earlier, I think that my athletic progress is sustained by affection and habit, rather than by reason and choice. And, third, it seems that a sturdier foundation for a flourishing life is to invest time in building the right affections and habits, rather than practicing the exertion of one’s will. It is tiring to have to continually choose the right things. It is easier to love the right things and let your loves dictate your actions. This inclines me toward Aristotle’s view.

So, which is the best model? Are good actions sustained by willpower, emotions, or a mixture of both? Do reasons and emotions play the same role throughout your life, or does one become more important as you mature? I often tell my students that when we discuss questions with big disagreements, that they should take a stake in them and add their own voices to the tradition of inquiry. I hope you will do this with me. What role does willpower play in your running life, or in your life more generally?

The Beginnings

After eighth grade, my best friend, Kari, and I started summer training. She was preparing for the high school cross country team, and I was preparing for soccer. We both decided that 6 a.m. was the best time of the day to complete our runs together. In what I now understand to be a highly unsophisticated training plan, we met up every morning on the stretch of road between our two houses, warmed up, ran two miles as fast as we possibly could, then did a cool down mile before heading home.

In those days, running was novel. It was not a habit. I barely enjoyed it, and I had to continually choose to make it a priority. Some days, the only thing that got me out the door was the thought of Kari standing alone on that stretch of road, waiting for me to run. I raise this story because, while my running is not sustained by willpower now, maybe it once was. Maybe willpower, or something like it, is needed in the formation of good habits but becomes less important later.

Final Thoughts

Sunshine, darkness, clouds, or sleet, you will usually find me in my sneakers. But I think it is habit and my affection for the activity, rather than the sheer force of will, that sustains my running on a regular basis. Maybe willpower, or something like it, is required from time to time to secure non-habituated arduous goods, such as to complete a tough, mountainous 100-miler. In that situation, you may have to will yourself to the finish line, rather than proceed on rightly-ordered pleasures. Moreover, I think willpower is required to establish good habits in the first place. But, in general, it seems that willpower is a smaller part of the athletic life than many people assume.

Call for Comments

  • Where do you land among this riddle of willpower?

References

  1. F. Baumeister, J. Tierney (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (Penguin Publishing).

Michael Wardian finishes the 2018 Hardrock 100 in the pouring rain. Photo: iRunFar

Sabrina Little

is a trail runner and ultrarunner for HOKA and Nathan Sports, and a Philosophy PhD student at Baylor University. She is trying to figure out whether it is more unreasonable to pursue mountain running in Waco, Texas (elevation 470 feet) or philosophy in the year 2018. Learn more about Sabrina on her website.

There are 16 comments

  1. George

    I think you are right, in that habit CAN carry you along. However, when I don’t feel like stepping out the door and give myself the choice and then decide to go… those are the runs I enjoy the most. Running as an existential act, creating an essence from existence.

    1. Sabrina

      George, I love this comment. I know what you mean about enjoying the runs a bit extra after having forced yourself outside. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Tony+Mollica

    Out of the hundreds of times I haven’t felt like going for a run and went for a run I’ve only regretted one. That was because I fell on a slick spot and had some minor injuries that had me miss a week. Other than that one time, I’ve always been glad I ran when I got done.

    So I tell myself get out the door and if I feel like turning around after a mile I can do that. Mostly I don’t take the out after I get running. And even if I do, a short run is better than no run at all.

    1. Sabrina

      That is a great thing to know–that you will (in nearly all cases) regret NOT having gone! That would motivate you to get out on the hard days for sure.

  3. Suresh

    A wonderful article. It’s so good, it (almost) inhibits how I write what I want to convey. For me, will power is what gets me out the door for a run, positive emotions rule the enjoyable middle segment, and will power energizes my struggle to finish.

  4. Andy M

    Thank you for this piece, Sabrina — really insightful and thought-provoking. As a psychologist, I am familiar with Baumeister’s decades of interesting research, and have more to say on this topic than is appropriate for a comment :) But: (1) I agree with you that it’s greater parts passion and habit than “willpower” (which I tend to associate with turning away from bad habits rather than engaging in the good); (2) the interplay of emotion, reason, and habit is always present, but the precise ratio of these is likely to vary considerably based on situation; and (3) yes, our early running days may take some willpower, but those of us who have been getting after it week after week for years (or decades) cannot possibly have that much willpower! And, of course, the best habits are those that are intrinsically rewarding such that pleasure trumps pain and indolence is vanquished by … dopamine?

    I just finished reading (after all these years) Running with the Buffaloes. Adam Goucher summed it up well: “For something to hurt that bad, and feel so good, it’s inexplicable.” Yup.
    With habits continually reinforced by such reward, who needs willpower?

    1. Sabrina

      Andy, thanks for this comment! I wish we could have a longer chat about Baumeister. I’m interested in your perspective. Thanks for these thoughts, particularly the note about using willpower particularly for turning away from bad habits, rather than acquiring good ones. That is helpful.

      And Running with the Buffaloes is such a great book!

  5. Shawn B

    I wonder about how the concept of intrinsic motivation fits in here. For me, acting from will happens within a process of committing to goal that’s important to me, doing specific goal setting, and being able talk myself into taking difficult steps. And based on my work as a practicing psychologist, I think reinforcement and habit are important but I think that the process only gets going (and persists in the face of challenges) when a number of things come together like desire, hope, and compelling answers to the question of “why is this worth it?”

    1. Sabrina

      Hi, Shawn! That’s a great question. I think you are right about needing a ‘why’ when met with challenges, at least in running, but I also think the ‘why’ is often implicitly held (rather than explicitly entertained) in most cases.

      It is awesome that you think about these things as a psychologist!

  6. Conor

    I think there is an awful lot of will power to get from the initial state (e.g. non-runner, sedentary lifestyle ) to state that doing what makes you happy (e.g. everyday runner whatever the weather). When you get there it is worth it.
    To quote Eliud Kipchoge: ‘Only the disciplined ones are free. If you are undisciplined you are a slave to your moods and to your passions.’. That is to say if one should live ones live in the pursuit of the things that makes you happy in the long term and not allow yourself to get sidetracked by temptations that gives you pleasure in short-term but harm your long term goals. In truth few of us have the courage to live like this and thus are not completely free.
    I also think this applies not just to running but to life in general.
    Thank you for your insightful column.

  7. Steve Troxel

    Hey Sabrina!

    I really love your writing!

    As I read through this article, I kept thinking that you are describing two parts of the process that really can’t separated.

    I once posted the following as a dirty little secret about my running: “I run every day. Often twice a day. There are very few days that I look forward to putting on my shoes and getting out the door. But there are also very few days that I don’t feel absolutely great when I am finished.” It could be because I am a much older runner, but it takes a lot of willpower for me to get out the door. But I exert that willpower because of the affection I have for the result, both in how I feel and in how it shapes me as a person.

    I hope this makes sense and can add to the conversation.

  8. Paul Terranova

    Good one Sabrina! For people like us, it takes willpower to intentionally NOT get out the door and run/bike/swim/crosstrain/etc. No such thing as bad weather, just soft people. That’s all I have to say about that :)

    1. John Andersen

      Ha, Paul my thoughts exactly! Great article Sabrina. When reading it I was totally agreeing that running is now by habit and affection, but maybe because affection is a few letters away from addiction, I thought about how many people I know where that balance is not healthy, and indeed it is difficult for these people not to go for a run, even when it is clearly healthier at times to give it a rest… Anyway, I enjoy your writing:)

  9. Chris

    Thanks for a great post! I teach high school philosophy, and I will be having my students read this as they discuss the “flourishing life”, “truth, goodness, and beauty”, and virtue. My cross country runners will read it just because I want them to. I always appreciate a thoughtful and well-stated connection between these two passions. Also, your appeal brings to mind Jonathan Edwards in Religious Affections: “That which men love, they desire to have and to be united to, and possessed of. That beauty which men delight in, they desire to be adorned with. Those acts which men delight in, they necessarily incline to do.”

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