Topic Summary: Willpower and self-discipline are problematic, but I don’t know of alternatives. I explain why I think they are problematic, and then indicate why I’ve struggled to find alternative ways to accomplish hard goals.
Goal: Figure out how to accomplish hard goals without employing the traditional method of self-discipline.
Why are you posting this in Unbounded? Because I want unbounded criticism.
Do you want unbounded criticism? (A criticism is a reason that an idea decisively fails at a goal. Criticism can be about anything relevant to goal success, including methods, meta, context or tangents. If you think a line of discussion isn’t worth focusing attention on, that is a disagreement with the person who posted it, which can be discussed.) Yes.
To start with, I’ll lay out in my own words the argument that self-discipline / willpower is problematic, so that you guys can point out any gaps in my understanding that you might see.
How can you ever be in a situation where you need discipline?
If you knew perfectly well what to do next, i.e. if it definitively met all your goals, then you would just do it. No act of willpower would be required. This applies to a lot of simple actions in every day life, like it doesn’t require any willpower to eat when you’re hungry and there’s a plate of food right in front of you, and it doesn’t require any self-discipline to refrain from driving your car off the side of the road.
The contrapositive of this is that if an act of willpower would be required in order to take an action, then you necessarily have some uncertainty about what to do next (the action doesn’t meet all your goals). E.g. it generally does take willpower to not eat when you’re hungry and you’re on a diet (because one of your goals is not being hungry anymore).
When you have two conflicting ideas about what to do next, usually one is more explicit and long-term and one is more implicit and short-term. To exert willpower is to overrule short-term goal and act on the long-term goal. To do the opposite is whim-worshiping. To get by, most people (myself included) implicitly adopt a policy like “exert willpower in situations ABC and whim-worship in situations XYZ.”
A policy like that is problematic epistemologically, because each of your conflicting goals is a criticism of the other, and having a policy that automatically enacts one of them in a given situation ignores some criticism, and thus limits your growth of knowledge. It’s also a problematic policy because it’s always at least a bit painful to exert willpower. (edit: and because it’s impossible to adhere to perfectly.)
The problem is that besides “having willpower,” I don’t know of an alternative way to accomplish difficult goals. YesNo philosophy gave me the idea that maybe the issue is that my goals aren’t refined enough, but I don’t know to formulate better goals.
I will illustrate the problem I’m having with a simple example. One of my “difficult” goals is something like
G1: Have healthy gums.
I achieve G1 by (implicitly) adopting the more concrete goal
G2: Don’t go more than two days in a row without flossing my teeth.
Flossing my teeth kind of sucks and I don’t like it. However, if G2 was the only way to meet G1, no willpower would be required of me, since having gum disease would suck much more than flossing my teeth. The problem is that G2 is not the only way to achieve G1: there are an infinite number of other sub-goals that I could have chosen. In particular, G1 would be met just as well if I instead adopted as a goal
G2’: Don’t go more than two days in a row without flossing my teeth, but don’t count today.
Knowing this, on days when I don’t feel like flossing my teeth (which sometimes occur more than two days in a row), I implicitly change my goal to G2’. This sort of pragmatism is bad because I can keep putting off the teeth-flossing ad infinitum—“1 day” at a time—and every time I do it I’ll always be correct that this one small change by itself won’t make much of a difference. Of course, such an approach would eventually lead to me failing at G1 if continued forever.
In practice, the way that I don’t completely fail at things like G1 is I just have discipline and force myself to e.g. floss my teeth whether I feel like it or not. There are lots of similar examples I could have chosen, where I don’t know how to meet hard goals without willpower. Do any of you have ideas for what to do differently?