The myth of will power, and the myth of the unencumbered woman. Here’s some different things I’ve been thinking a lot about this past month. Maybe there’s something here to interest you too?
WILL POWER IS NOT A THING
I’ve been aware for some time that, unlike what most of us have been led to believe, will power is a complete and utter crock. If this is news to you, do yourself a favour and look it up. The idea that, if we really want to make something happen, all you need is a little will power and you can achieve anything, is an outdated myth that’s sold to us in a million different ways everyday for every conceivable reason.
‘You can do it!’ ‘You’re worth it!’ Insert aspirational catchphrase here!
Which is obviously a little disappointing. Everyone beats themselves up about their bad habits, and it’s a little sad to think that will power alone can’t actually help you get rid of them. I, for one, have a slew of bad habits that I’ve cultivated over time, but no real idea of how to replace them with good ones. Or at least, less bad ones! And no, will power has never really helped the cause.
Through the magic of my local library’s digital service, I listened to the fantastic Good Habits, Bad Habits this month, by research psychologist Wendy Wood. I jumped at it as I thought learning a bit more about how we form habits may help me try and kick some of my more challenging behaviours. Here’s what I learnt.
The very idea of will power can be hopelessly self-defeating – ask anyone who’s ever been on a diet how much they desperately wanted to lose weight versus how much weight they actually lost – and how that process has shaped their self-esteem. Will power alone won’t, and can’t, change anything.
Despite what we’ve been led to believe (namely that with a little will power, we can change who we are however we’d like), our actions are largely driven by our environment, not by conscious choice. Our bodies and our minds have been shown to work largely on habit – we repeat over and over those actions that we have already repeated and are most easily repeated, and so forms the (often vicious) cycle of routine. We unconsciously follow paths of least resistance most of the time in our day to day lives. It’s how our brains are wired to work.
I was somewhat surprised to learn the part of our brain responsible for good habits is exactly the same part responsible for bad ones – to our brain, a habit is a just that, a habit, regardless of it’s usefulness to us. In fact, our brains are designed to habitualise a whole lot of our behaviours in order to reserve cognitive energy for higher functioning – all that problem solving we need to do where conscious thought genuinely is required.
How we go about daily or routine activities then – sleeping, eating, driving, using our phones, greeting people, etc. – all become things our brain pushes over into non-conscious thought, which means we aren’t really thinking when we do these things. Almost half of every single thing we do (43% to be exact), we do without even realising, which is why will power is of no good use to us, particularly for long held, stubborn habits. Our brains are making unconscious decisions for us based on previous patterns, which is why it’s so damn hard to break out of habits we don’t actually want to have.
Will power, it turns out, pales in comparison to the inevitable power of external ‘friction’. Any additional obstacle to whatever it is you want to achieve is a friction. And the more friction, the more work your brain has to do to go against your well-trodden habits. And that’s literally exhausting.
So, every extra mile you have to go to get to the gym for example really does lower your chances of maintaining an exercise routine. Walking past your favourite cafe every day will absolutely make it more difficult for you to cut their delicious food out of your daily diet. Why? Because we are wired to repeat ourselves.
And making grand, public resolutions to change won’t actually make you accountable, it’ll just make you feel ashamed and guilty when your brain and body do exactly what they’re designed to do, and that is, maintain your habits.
So how the hell are we supposed to form habits we want and ditch habits we don’t need anymore?
Remove the friction, set the right driving forces, and let the good habits roll into your life.Wendy Wood, Good Habits, Bad Habits
Wood talks a lot about context, repetition, rewards, and lessening friction. She hopes that her readers, if nothing else, take away the concept of friction in order to help them more easily establish their desired habits. If you really want to fit more exercise in your life, for example, try and minimise as much as possible anything that may distract you from it. Make the habit of exercise as easy as possible for you to stick to. It reminded me of another researcher I once heard explain how he would go to be bed in his running shorts, with his sneakers alongside his bed each night, so that he had no excuse not to go for a run the minute he woke up – he was already set to go. It’s extreme, but I imagine Wood would be impressed.
Context was interesting – essentially, Wood explains that the environment one forms their bad (or good) habits in, will help perpetuate those habits. Change the context, and you may have a real chance of ditching old habits and forming new ones as your brain has a new opportunity to reform patterns. So, for example, moving to a new area or starting a new job is actually a great time to try and piggyback new habits into your routine. You’re forming new patterns of behaviour anyway, so your brain is more open and ready to be imprinted with new ways of doing things.
I have no idea how I’m going to go dealing with my crappy habits, but I do feel a little more empowered with this new information. It’s making me reconsider much more thoughtfully how and when I go about the process of trying to establish new habits. And I’m reassured to know that just trying harder isn’t always the answer. Thank you Wendy Wood!
UNENCUMBERED WOMEN ARE NOT A THING
Here’s a game to play – see if you can spot all the Unencumbered Women.
A couple of weeks ago I was chatting to a writer friend about the TV series Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. It’s a series I loved, but she hated. Obviously, we disagreed on a lot of aspects of the show, but one thing I admitted I found disappointing was that the main character was what I like to call an ‘Unencumbered Woman’.
It’s a recurring disappointment that seems to bubble up in even the most successful and seemingly feminist screen stories – main female characters who don’t have any female friends or family obligations that play an important part in the richness of their lives, and who seemingly exist only in the eyes of, or for, the men around them. The 2018 remake of A Star Is Born is a good example.
You’ve probably heard of the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl‘. I’d argue that MPDGs fall under the greater umbrella of Unencumbered Women, because Unencumbered Women seem to exist at all ages, even in narratives where women are primary protagonists. They may be mothers and girlfriends, wives and sisters, sometimes aunts and cousins, co-workers or bosses – yet their relationships outside of a very demarcated, plot-centric sphere are deemed irrelevant and therefore completely non-existent. To be clear, I’m talking about main characters here, not minor or secondary ones.
These are women who seem for all intents and purposes to have none of the regular relationships, time pressures, entanglements and nuances we assume (hopefully) of women in the real world. Their decisions never need to take into consideration how their partners feel, what their friends think, whether or not they have sick children or elders to care for, or whether they have passions, career goals and social lives to juggle.
This is no new trend; it’s what we’re talking about when we talk about the disappointment of watching yet another story with one dimensional female characters; women who exist only in relation to the men around them, women who only care about and for the men around them, or, inexplicably, exist for no one, care for no one and have no one else to whom they show any regard at all.
It’s no hard and fast rule, but these female characters inevitably lead hollow, robotic lives. The frenetic, intoxicating energy of the MPDG exists with no stable basis or grounding – there’s nothing underneath the whimsy and allure. Which is very convenient for the boys (and girls) who desire them, and the writers who write them. Same goes for all Unencumbered Women, who exist without any adherence to the most basic expectations of reality. Easy to like, easy to write, because they don’t have any of those pesky distractions, namely, Other People.
So how does this relate to Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist? While Zoey does indeed have her family, and a great one at that, and a firm friend in Mo, her non-binary neighbour, she has no female friends to speak of. Even Mo is incredibly reluctant to be her friend at the start of the series (I could spend hours talking about Mo too with regard to this same phenomenon, along with how their character intersects with that of the equally frustrating ‘Magical Negro‘ trope). Zoey doesn’t even have female frenemies at the start of the series. What is that about?
We’re supposed to believe that a woman who’s clearly grown up in a loving and supportive family has no friendships other than, initially at least, her reluctant neighbour, and one male work colleagues (who also happens to be her main love interest). And the only female friendships she does develop through the series are either with her boss (complicated yet convenient, drama-wise) and her crush’s fiancé (super complicated yet even more convenient, drama-wise). If you think about it, it’s kinda weird. Who the hell is this woman? Does she do nothing else other than hang out at work or her parents’ house? Surely there’s at least a book club somewhere in there, right?
Now, don’t get me wrong. As I’ve said before, I love the show. There’s so much to enjoy about it. And yes, of course, it could be argued that there’s enough going on and that the character (and narrative) didn’t really need any more people in her life. But, honestly? Considering everything that that show is about, it’s a struggle to buy.
When someone is truly unencumbered – by family, by friendships, by messy, demanding human connections – how can you not assume something is seriously amiss? When leading men with zero human connections exist in a story, we assume something is greatly amiss, and they’re probably serial killers or assassins. And we know that the story will ultimately be about how something is greatly amiss, about how they are serial killers or assassins, because how could the story not be about that?
Why then do we so easily accept leading women with massive blanks in their bundle of human connections and not expect the story to ultimately be about that fact? When real women genuinely don’t have family or friends, hobbies or passions in their lives, you can bet there’s a huge, painful, scar-filled backstory there. How could there not be?
For me, it’s another way of dehumanising your characters and, frankly, cheating in your storytelling. It’s easy to create primary female characters that have no true-to-life connections. They can do exactly as the plot requires with ease – with no complicated family obligations, no pressing emotional need to share their experiences with trusted friends, no burning desire to do something other than what is plot necessary. We’re so used to these characters, that a lot of the time they fly totally under the radar. But these characters are ultimately lacking a breadth and sincerity that may well serve the plot, but rarely the story.
Look, I get it. It’s a big topic, and a complicated one, and we can all argue different perspectives on this. But this is just my monthly update, so cut me some slack. I’ll keep thinking on this (probably forever, because it’s sorta my job).
In the meantime, please keep an eye out for those Unencumbered Women. Hell, make it a drinking game if you have to…
Stay safe, be well.
Feature Image: detail of the work,Untitled (2020), paper and thread collage, by the author.