spoons + willpower = ?

I mentioned a few months ago about how I was procrastinating by reading a book about procrastination. In a similar realm of the ironic, I’ve been avoiding some of my own academic research by reading a book on… wait for it… academic research on willpower.  Despite this so-called procrastination, I am coming to the conclusion that I have a great deal of willpower, and that my problem is not so much the will to begin (or complete) tasks, but rather the basic reserves of energy necessary to power that “will” into action. Will requires spoons. Which tells me that I need to work on being more realistic about how much I can actually accomplish in a given day or week or month, since the spoons come and go. That and I need to continue to hone my prioritizing skills. None of this sounds particularly thrilling, but I have to admit I feel a small sense of accomplishment at how smoothly my little world manages to run, despite my sense that life keeps throwing obstacles in my way. (I sometimes imagine an autoimmune troll gleefully throwing nails onto the road in front of my car.)

The book I’ve been reading is Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. My interest was originally piqued when I read this interview between The Happiness Project‘s Gretchen Rubin and Willpower co-author John Tierney. I’m only about halfway through the book, but I’m fascinated by the contemporary anecdotes, historical figures, and psychological research that fill the chapters. One of the phenomena that Tierney and his co-author Roy F. Baumeister (a leading researcher on self-control) focus on in the early chapters is the concept that willpower is a finite resource that becomes depleted as we use it. Though they divide willpower into four broad categories (control of thoughts, control of emotions, impulse control, and performance control), they note that we “use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.” For people with chronic pain, research suggests that our stock of willpower is consistently depleted by all the energy we expend trying to ignore our pain. No wonder we’re consistently short on both energy and “will.”

My pain levels have increased again in the past week and I’m not sure why. Likely it’s a combination of med changes, the weather, the absurdly high pollen count, and some added work and school stress. As my pain goes up, my productivity (and mental sharpness) goes way down. I’ve had a few insights about willpower and chronic illness while reading Baumeister and Tierney’s book, but I think I’ll hold off on talking about them until I finish it. In the meantime, let’s hope I can get a handle on this latest round of pain.

I hope everyone else is having a good week, despite this unseasonably warm weather all over the US. For my readers from elsewhere (Australia, NZ, England, Europe…): has your weather been strange? Or are we just in the midst of a North American heat wave?


  • adrienne

    The weather here on the west coast is Crazy! The plants are so confused. I just know it is going to be a tough allergy year IF we have enough water to get us through!! I am so sorry to hear you are not feeling well. I read for pleasure and for my bookclub. I have a mantra: there are too many good books to read a boring book. I know you want to read that book but while you aren’t feeling well maybe reading something that will make you laugh or a good detective novel or whatever you like will make you feel better. Just my two cents..

    • Megan

      I wish I could make a “no boring books” rule, but unfortunately academia doesn’t let me. (Though I do sometimes read less, umm, carefully…?) The Willpower book was actually really interesting to read. Some of the historical texts for my research are not. I tend to read magazines for pleasure since they don’t require the same kind of commitment (and it doesn’t matter if I drop them in the bathtub!)

  • bottledtime

    I recently read an article that talked about the benefits of stress. It said that stress became a problem when it became chronic. The article’s advice? If something is causing you stress, change it. Change your job, your relationship, etc. Perhaps for the “normies” this contains some practical advice, but I don’t think anyone has the option to change all the things that cause them stress. As “spoonies,” we certainly don’t have the choice to eliminate our chronic illnesses and pain. Of course, we can change some things including what we think about our situation, how we react to it, etc. Of course, all of these changes take, dun, dun dun, dun – WILL POWER. Now knowing that we have limited reserves of this resource, and most of it goes to ignoring our pain, I’d have to say, if it wasn’t obvious before it should be now – we spoonies are amazing!

    I hope that this current round of pain subsides quickly for you. I’m glad your amazing-ness is still shining through and that I have found your blog. Thanks for sharing!

    • Megan

      I understand that sort of “change stress” recommendation, but it also infuriates me. I suppose someone could look at my life and say “You’re sick, you shouldn’t be trying to complete a PhD.” But if I leave my PhD program, I still need to get a job to support myself. And a job will have less flexibility, and possibly more stress. So that will just be different stress, not necessarily less. (Some clueless people suggest I get married to someone who will support me, and I just have to laugh. Because *that* would be less stress?) On the other hand, I think everyone is sometimes guilty of refusing to change certain patterns of behavior because it’s difficult to do, even though we know the outcome will make us feel better. It can be so difficult to find the right balance.

  • Reading the Signs

    So interesting – thank you. I reckon my reserves of willpower are constantly being depleted by the energy expended on ignoring pain. I gave up part-time teaching work a few years ago because it no longer felt possible. I am supported by my husband, so could count myself fortunate (and do). But I am a writer and not writing imposes its own kind of stress.

    Though I don’t have hay fever, I have sometimes wondered about the effect of pollen on a compromised immune system ….

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