Essays and legal writing of Heron Greenesmith

Monday, November 26, 2012

willpower as a finite resource

1:05 PM Posted by Heron Greenesmith , , , , , No comments
reposted from

We moved two weeks ago. I usually like moving, but this move was particularly hard. We loved our place, but our landlord was selling it and couldn't guarantee that the new owners would let us continue to rent. So we moved, and I found myself feeling taxed.
Moving, I found, is a willpower-depleting series of decisions and self-control. I'm not even going to talk about FINDING a place to live in the first place. That process has its own place in the valley of the damned. For me, it was just the move. As we packed, we purged a lot of our belongings. In the first few days we donated six bags of clothes and nine bags of books. We recycled paper, metal, and glass. We sold and gave away furniture and bikes.
Some people think we have a finite amount of willpower each day. Some days we make big decisions, some days we make little decisions, some days we make a lot of decisions, some days we make only a few. If we use up our finite amount of willpower early in the day, we might not have enough later to make the "better" decision or exercise our will-power.
This theory has been used to show how hard it can be for people to break the cycle of poverty. Using extreme self-control to cut costs and making heart-breaking decisions for your family every day can deplete your willpower very easily, making it more difficult to make those (already) impossible choices, applying for yet another job, or thinking about going back to school.
so manys boxes
And as the move got closer, my willpower frayed.

"Do we want to save this (old book/slightly cracked picture frame/ripped blanket/unopened box of pencils) or should we donate it?"


I was completely surprised and rather disappointed by my vehement nonchalance. I am not a wasteful person. We are environmentalists and live a relatively thrifty life. But we threw out a LOT of stuff. And each time we did, I felt guilty. And the guilt sapped my willpower. And then we'd have to make another decision. And we'd throw something ELSE out. More guilt. Less willpower. Another decision.

Like the sneaky hate spiral, the guilty-willpower vortex spun out of control until I had a breakdown. Not fun. But when I emerged from the other side, refreshed by a night of NOT packing, I realized what was going on. We were making a TON of decisions and I needed to save my willpower for the big ones. For example, what are we getting on our moving-day pizza?

I needed to realize that it was OK to throw out that picture frame (totally crappy anyway), if it meant I could make better, self-affirming decisions later on. My life as an environmentalist is not disaffirmed by each thing I don't reuse/recycle; rather, it is affirmed by my long-term commitment to greener living. Throwing out a frame doesn't erase a lifetime of recycling. One bad decision doesn't erase all the good decisions. In fact, it makes the good decisions easier.

So, next time you've had a hard day and want to chuck the newspaper in the trash instead of walking to the recycling bin 5 feet away, do it! It just may allow you to make a fabulous decision the next day.


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