Here’s our monthly offering from our pals at Going Down Swinging!
One of Australia’s oldest and strangest literary publishers, Going Down Swinging was conceived in 1979. It now produces print anthologies, audio recordings, multimedia publications, live events and a very busy website.
We’re happy to be able to team up with Going Down Swinging and introduce Australian writers to our PRISMers–and vice versa. We’ll be swapping articles and interviews once a month, so keep an eye out…
Willpower. We need it in so many aspects of our lives, and yet it can be so hard to come by. We need it to focus on something super hard, to stop ourselves doing something we shouldn’t, and sometimes we just need it to get out of bed in the morning.
To give willpower some context, it’s vital for carrying out the act of writing (amiright, writers?), while for some it’s also necessary for resisting that tenth glass of wine. If we fail that last test, we need self-control to stop messaging the ex-lover we wish were dead but secretly love, or that boss we think deserves a piece of our mind, or that racist jerk on Twitter who won’t shut up.
It’s all well and good if you’re one of the Bernard Blacks of the world, who is convinced that:
[A]fter years of smoking and drinking, you do sometimes look at yourself and think… You know, just sometimes, in between the first cigarette with coffee in the morning to that fourth hundredth glass of cornershop piss at 3 a.m. You do sometimes look at yourself and think… This is fantastic. I’m in heaven.
But if, like so many of us, you want to fight the urge to embrace your inner-misanthrope and indulge every whim that takes your fancy, it’s a daily, nay, hourly, struggle to engage that most crucial of personal attributes–willpower.
In an episode of ABC Radio National’s wonderfully neuroses-inducing All in the Mind, presenter Lynne Malcolm spoke to Roy Baumeister about how, “People with weak willpower don’t do well at school, they’re less popular, they make less money, have more traffic accidents, and they’re more likely to be arrested”.
Doctor Baumeister, an eminent scholar on willpower from Florida State University’s department of psychology, worked with his mate John Tierney on the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. They found that to be successful you need intelligence and self-discipline. The need for self-control was found in an experiment in the 1960s that showed how kids who could delay gratification – in this case, by waiting fifteen minutes before taking a marshmallow in the promise of one more – were all-round better at life as adults. Their marriages were more successful and, as demonstrated by other studies, they had better health. So self-control not only keeps us out of jail, but it also helps us to achieve positive things.
Writing takes willpower and self-discipline, particularly when you work for yourself. And as our typewriters are all connected to the internet and its many delightful distractions, even when you’re using it for good research and not evil social media stalking you can find yourself slipping down the Google rabbit hole until you can’t remember who you are or what you were doing in the first place. (I once accidentally spent an hour reading about electric rectal stimulators for cattle. I think I was writing a story about geothermal energy.)
We are evidently living in an age where our willpower is too easy to flout. Years ago my friends and I lamented there wasn’t an app that had a breathalyser lock-out system for your phone, similar to those installed in the cars of drink-drivers. We would have made a mint if we’d created it, because there are now similar apps available for people who need help controlling themselves when they’ve had one-too-many shandies.
Baumeister says willpower takes energy – actual physical energy. And because the act of writing takes self-discipline, and therefore physical energy, this likely explains the constant snacking that accompanies writing. Speaking of, excuse me one moment… All right, I’ve finished my cheese and vegemite sandwich, cleaned the kitchen and checked all the mouse traps are clear. Wait, what was I doing? Oh yeah, willpower.
How, then, do we develop or strengthen willpower? Does self-esteem have anything to do with it? Psychologists seem to believe self-esteem is not a necessary precursor to willpower; rather, it’s a result of exercising self-discipline. We feel good about ourselves when we fight the temptation to do, or not do, something (binge-watch Game of Thrones/not go to the gym), but having high self-esteem won’t necessarily stop us doing the things that could harm ourselves or others. According to Baumeister, contrary to popular opinion people with a higher regard for themselves are apparently more violent than those with low self-esteem.
Baumeister argues that willpower is a muscle: exercise it regularly and it gets stronger; fail to take it for a walk every once in a while and it wastes away. So, just like physical exercise (which I regularly neglect to undertake: evidently another sign of weak willpower), if you want to increase your self-discipline, the advice seems to be to take it in baby steps. Say no to that one last glass of wine. Tell yourself you’re going to wait one hour before texting your ex-lover. Then wait one more hour. Walk one extra tram stop before getting on. Write just one thing today. Then, if it feels good, write one more thing. From little things, and all that…