After struggling to finish creative projects, I’ve felt caught under the spell of a perpetually unfocused brain. I would begin one project after another, experimenting but building nothing substantial. Right before despairing my circular results, two stories on willpower and resolve set my focus.
A Focused Intention vs. The Sirens of Distraction
Many months into his voyage and far from home, the hero Ulysses asks to be tied up to the mast of his ship.
He had passed through episodic tests of his strength and courage, and now his willpower was to be tested. Legend warned about the Sirens, the feminine creatures who sang to lure sailors into their devouring trap. To hear them and try to resist their siren call was to toy with death.
Ulysses had too much at stake to depend on his own willpower. In surrender to his ultimate goal, his companions blindfold and tie him to the mast of the ship.
The sirens call. He struggles. Their song pulls at the depths of his desire, for pleasure and embrace and forgetting his struggle. Images of his family drain from his conscious focus. The warning words of unappeased gods release their cold grip on his resolve. His willpower fails.
But the knots tied fast by his companions bind him to the mast of his ship.
The Willpower Battery: The Pre-frontal Cortex
We like to imagine willpower can be summoned at will against our various sirens and vices. For me, to depend my dream of delivering meaningful artwork to people on my own willpower is a gamble I’m tired of betting.
Willpower is a muse of its own, puffing our chests in the morning and depressive as it drains throughout the day. “It’s incredibly powerful, but it has no endurance…it’s a mental muscle, but it doesn’t bounce back easily.” (Gary Keller, The One Thing)
As the brain burns one fifth of the calories we use each day, the conscious part of the brain controlling willpower requires the most calories to create action. The brain is programmed to conserve calories as one of our basic animal instincts — so, to the body it is against our animal code to spend precious calories on continual willpower.
Brain on Vacation | Jon Holcroft
“Survival depends on our capacity to detect errors in our environment and react quickly and instinctively to avoid threat. When our brains perceive a difference between what we expect and what occurs, a rapid-fire signal is produced. This error detection mechanism is located in the orbital cortex just above the eyes, and is closely connected to the amygdala, one of the oldest areas of the brain. The amygdala draws energy away from the prefrontal cortex, activating the surge of fear or anger we need to mobilize instinctively into action”
(Sue Langley, The Neuroscience of Change)
Our pre-frontal cortex is responsible for focus, which translates to willpower. As the amygdala (stress) draws energy from the pre-frontal cortex (focus) we lose our willpower. No energy in the pre-frontal cortex means no willpower.
The Fruit of Resolve
Months later, Siddhartha reveals the secret to his successful conquest of affluence and Kamala’s affections.
“Dear Kamala,” said Siddhartha and straightened up to his full height, “when I came to you into your grove, I did the first step. It was my resolution to learn love from this most beautiful woman. From that moment on when I had made this resolution, I also knew that I would carry it out. I knew that you would help me, at your first glance at the entrance of the grove I already knew it.”
Alvin Lustig cover, 1951
“But what if I hadn’t been willing?”
“You were willing. Look, Kamala: when you throw a rock into the water, it will speed on the fastest course to the bottom of the water. This is how it is when Siddhartha has a goal, a resolution.
Siddhartha does nothing, he waits, he thinks, he fasts, but he passes through the things of the world like a rock through water, without doing anything, without stirring; he is drawn, he lets himself fall. His goal attracts him, because he doesn’t let anything enter his soul which might oppose the goal. This is what Siddhartha has learned among the Samanas. This is what fools call magic and of which they think it would be effected by means of the demons. Nothing is effected by demons, there are no demons.
Everyone can perform magic, everyone can reach his goals, if he is able to think, if he is able to wait, if he is able to fast.”
Tie Yourself to the Mast
Willpower creates miracles when applied to a singular goal consistently, in increments over time. For each teaspoon of willpower dripped into the body by the pre-frontal cortex, there is one teaspoon of reality-organizing progress. One hour, one choice, one flex of the brain muscle. Just one.
For me this looks like doing the one most important thing to my goal, every day. Not researching influencers, art magazines, or social impact illustrators with cool stickers. It looks like creating art every day.
Comment below: “What’s the one thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
I.e, what one thing is worth your willpower right now?
Ulysses and the Sirens — Ink and Pastel by Katy Ward