Defining Awesome — Conscious effort and the myth of will power
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  • Conscious effort and the myth of will power

    Written by . Posted at 6:48 pm on November 28th, 2007

    R.A. Wilson once wrote an important question:



    OR BOTH?

    Now if you can’t answer this question in a snap of a second you’ve got a problem. If you can answer the question however you will know exactly how to DO things. My recent articles were written to give you a hint. I wrote them to make a grounding for this article.
    This article is a book worthy subject. It is about how to THINK and DO things properly.
    If you think about that, those are actually the only 2 things you do in your life. So this is about life.

    Let’s talk about something important and real now. Or what seems to be real but isn’t. Conscious effort. This is a long post but it is definitely worth reading, if you’re a freelancer, independent game maker or anyone creating work on your own, years of my own experience and wisdom right below here.

    “Will  power!”  retorted  Arkad.  “What  nonsense.  Do  you
    think  will  power gives  a man the strength to lift a burden
    the camel cannot carry, or to draw a load the oxen cannot
    budge? Will power is but the unflinching purpose to carry a
    task you set for yourself to fulfillment. ” – Richest man in babylon

    Hmmm how do I get to this. I wanted to write a long essay about how fucked up of a thing to do it is. Conscious effort. And conclude with proof of how bad it is. But I think I’ll just be straightforward.

    Conscious effort is an illusion.

    Any kind of forcing yourself to do something. Will powering. Trying hard.
    Sounds familiar?

    If you’re programming and you think you have to complete something now you use your will power to control yourself. Or you’re late with a project and you’re beating yourself to finish it. Or trying to concentrate when everything is totally distracting you. You want to do it, but you just can’t!

    The thing is what you’re trying to do when that happens doesn’t work. Never did, never will.

    But we believe it works. We have imprinted habits of doing it. I understand why it doesn’t work but still I fall trap to it sometimes. For example yesterday I was trying to fix a bug. It took me 2 hours but the actual fixing once I got it took 2 seconds. Did that ever happen to you? If I didn’t force myself to do it, I would sleep with it and the next day I would just automatically fix it just in 2 seconds. Efficient creation doesn’t come from trying.


    I claim that creating is natural for the human being. It is ingrained in the DNA, just as fear of tigers. It is a characteristic of our species (like curiosity is for cats).

    I remember when I was 4 I saw a piano and immediately thought how could I make music with it. So I started hammering on the keys and watched if anyone considered what I was doing as music. People when they heard me playing were immediately astonished, I saw tears in their eyes, they said they never heard anything such beautiful in their entire lives. OK… maybe not, it was just cacophony, the point is I had a desire for this.

    The same with computer games, it was probably at the same age. I believe I had it even earlier in me, this is just the age where I can recall memories. Immediately after playing my first games I thought how do they do this? Why is this so much fun? I want to do this myself…

    …and if you look at the history of our civilization, it’s all about creating. Creating something out of nothing. Transforming darkness into light. 10000 years ago there were just plains, deserts and jungles. But soon we started making stone monuments, pyramids, irrigation, giant canals, cities, buildings, skyscrapers. This is an architectural example, but we can apply this to everything like art, literature, mathematics, philosophy. We take nothing, or NO thing and we make some THING. It is the driving force of our species. It’s all part of the grand design (if something like that exists).

    There is this enormous POWER and POTENTIAL. The ability to create monumental architecture, timeless literature, everlasting theories and breathless music. And suddenly you come here and you think that by using your tiny little conscious effort you can do everything. Even worse! You think you MUST do this in order to DO anything! You fear that if you don’t use conscious effort nothing will ever get done! How fucked up is that?! Do you think Hannibal used will power to get across the alps? Do you think Leonardo da Vinci felt any kind of effort when he was painting Mona Lisa or drawing any of his countless inventions? Do you think Led Zeppelin each day got up at 8’o clock, sat at a desk and tried hard to create Stairway to Heaven? Jimmy Page spanking Robert Plant with his fiddlestick and forcing him to work? Or were they just stoned?

    As I mentioned in the comments in the post It’s a joke what is holding you to the idea that it is you that makes all decisions and does stuff is fear. Fear doesn’t let you go of this concept. Because you believe your life will go chaos and you’ll die if you stop the effort.

    Just stop. 

    There is no need in trying hard. If you could let go of that fear for one moment you would quickly gain eternal proof that you don’t have to control everything. Things just happen. Things just pop up in your head. Oftentimes you just feel the urge to work. Other times you just don’t feel like doing anything. That is when the fear crawls into you “will I ever get this done?”, “I’m not working, this is bad”.

    The fact is when I feel lazy I get the most brilliant ideas and I regain even more energy than I had before. So I work more then.

    Paradoxically I get more done by doing less!

    Is there any conscious effort in NOT putting your hand in the fire and frying it toast?
    Is there any conscious effort in NOT taking a bottle of poison and drinking it?

    That makes sense yes?

    Do you believe that if people dropped control over themselves they would become reckless savages? Killing everyone, with no morality whatsoever?

    When you’re passing somebody on the street, is there any conscious effort and control in you NOT killing that person? Or robbing him/her?

    I don’t have any instinct to kill anybody or to rob anyone. I get along with people nicely without effort! Is it just religion that fills us with these concepts? And tells us we’re bad from beginning and we need to go to church and pray – “Oh Lord! Please don’t let me kill everyone today!”. You see where I’m getting with this?

    Is there any effort in breathing until you think about it?

    When you drop the idea of conscious effort you just follow your feelings, slow down and trust yourself.

    I do everything like this. For example this blog. Not a single post on this site was made by me forcing myself to do it. I just write something when I have something to say. Sometimes I have something to say but I don’t have the feeling to write, and I don’t. Yet I make a new blog post every third day or so. It just happens. How many blogs do you see out there were the owner every 5 months writes something like “I’m writing this just to tell you I’m not dead…”. Well, there was no passion in it from the beginning, so every 5 months he makes a conscious effort to write something, and even then nothing comes out of it. Let your – self just do whatever it wants to do. I’m writing this post because I was walking up the stairs thinking about free will and why wouldn’t I drink a bottle of poison (not that I’m suicidal, just theoretically), and I just felt I need to write it down, so I did. So I write new blog posts all the time and in the meantime I also don’t use any conscious effort not to kill people and nobody dies!

    I don’t see this working in the corporate/industrial/school world where somebody is evaluating you (worlds which are not natural for humans). Actually I think it is because of those recent inventions people learned to consciously control, and “effort” their lives. They become their own boss in their own head.

    I don’t think a farmer has to motivate himself to do things. He just does them, because it is natural, it’s how things are, he gets up, he milks the cow, he slashes the pig. City people look at that and think how hard his life is. I don’t see anything simpler than a life like that. And that is exactly what a life of a freelancer should look like. If you’re making games or anything else by your own, remember that conscious effort is your enemy. It is a completely bad concept. You don’t have a boss for a reason. So don’t become your own boss!

    I don’t have more space to write about the genesis of this concept, although it is interesting how we got habituated to think like this. A lot of it has to do with parenting and education. People just transfer bad thinking habits from generation to generation without ever questioning whether what they are thinking is useful or not. Also there is a lot more to know about the practical part of this article, how do you not use effort in the first place and how do you let go of the fear that is telling you nothing will get done, in other words how do you make sure things will get done? I’ll get to that soon in my next post called The metaprogrammer. For now, start questioning your beliefs about conscious effort.

    “Its only fools they make these rules
    Don’t try so hard.”
    Queen; Don’t try so hard (1991)

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    1. I am exactly like u and thinking like u do…the only difference is that I usually dont WANT to do things that I am supposed to…

    2. getting more abstract here… michal

      i cannot help but think of what shape the person is when they follow this way. It seems natural and yeilding so i would have to guess soemhing spherical. it sounds very nice and safe, but that is not for everyone.

      mabey your way can be any shape it likes?

      when ive set myelf to doing something i prefer to be the tip of a sphere. This is not only represents the strong will, it also respresents insanity. Being strong and insane. Repetition after repetition. Everything changes, and those repitions will not be wasted, nature ensures that you will change when you work for it.

      insanity will certainly make the person less stable and less able to save themselves the same way that a shpere can. But the benefits…..are ultimate.

      The tip of a spear is easilly broken, but the the spirit of insanity is invincible. If you are a true artist(selfess), you will enjoy picking up the shattered pieces of your actions and applying that insanty to the thoroughness needed to organize it to your liking. thorough insanity produces the best creations

      The faustian spirit.

    3. haha guess what michal, I have in fact felt the intstinct to rob someone. I have done it too. But I was desperate for money/food at that time. Have you never needed something you can’t have? What will you do to get it?

      I can tell from your numerous posts you are rich and were born rich. If you are well-off then you have all the time in the world to dream about projects and insanity. If you were hungry all the time Soldat would have never been made. I would even boast that without your support systems you would in fact rob or kill someone. Soldat was made because your material possesions allowed you the time to concieve it. Just like society you cannot have luxuries(like art) without an excess of food and funds. If you don’t have an excess than there is no time for art and philisophy.

    4. Are you a phsycic mtwtf?

      Are we readingthe same articles?

      i got the impression that Michal was honest, intelligent, well meaning and articulate.

    5. bigbossSNK

      “Yesterday I was trying to fix a bug. It took me 2 hours but the actual fixing once I got it took 2 seconds.”
      Conscious effort to solve a problem means instructing the reasoning center of the brain to find the fault in a structure of data. Once you instruct the brain to do so, the reasoning center of the brain works autonomically, without your conscious knowledge. You CAN control the intensity level of problem solving, by instructing more blood flow to the reasoning center.
      This is a completely different function than thinking about solving the problem. Consciously thinking about solving the problem is a different function than actually trying to solve the problem.

      “Do you believe that if people dropped control over themselves they would become reckless savages?”
      Reasonable people don’t think that. In fact, self organization within a community prevents most crime even if there is no law or religion.

      “Let your – self just do whatever it wants to do”
      Again, and hopefully for the last time, letting your self do whatever it wants is the path of least resistance. In your own words, Hannibal didn’t cross the Alps simply because of his will power, but can you reasonably say that he would have crossed the Alps if it wasn’t for his will power?

      “Is there any effort in breathing until you think about it?”
      Breathing is an autonomic system function. Basically, the part of breathing that keeps you alive never has anything to do with conscious effort.

    6. I think the ideea itself is great, but I have to agree with mwtwf on a point. I dont know anything about your financial state, and that doesnt matter.

      But if you, for example, have no food, then “conscious effort” is the only thing that keeps you from attacking somebody for making yourself feel good again -by fulfilling basic needs- (thus breaking the law).
      So, concious effort shouldnt be completely forgotten, since you can’t really say that “attacking somebody is a natural act when fighting for survival and therefore a normal, acceptable thing to do”. Even if you lack basic needs, you cannot say that taking the right of another person to live is the right thing to do just for you to survive. Your theory would suppose that in such cases “the strongest survive”, thus killing and stealing would be an every-day normality. And it would be an acceptable point, if we would be still in an age where nothing else could be done instead (even the roman empire had a really -self organized society-, since the state could not possibly control everybody everywhere. Therefore crimes for food and money where not unusual).
      But we’re living in a complex, civilized society, so this would be really wrong and there is always another, more “correct” way to save yourself from such situations these days.
      For this you need to keep strong and DO use your “conscious effort” to keep yourself from animalistic rages and use your brain for finding another, suitable way for solving your problems.

    7. I agree with you bigbossSNK (at last :) ).

      I think Michal’s statement can be a good lesson for some people and me. But i also think that he forgot about one important fact: while making conscious effort you advice your brain to store some “selective” memories into your brain. That memories are used later when your will isn’t concious. You always need to have some specific set of “tools” (in this example memories) to achieve your goal. And i think concious effort is ONE of the tools. I think a combination of both technics is most efficient for somebody that want to create something new.
      The other important thing is the “side effect” of concious effort. While doing something special you also learn other things that you aren’t concious of.

      But Michal’s post helped me anyway. Now I’m trying to be more concious of not to be concious to often :)

      Keep up the good work.

      Please gimmie a knife in Link Dead!

    8. rgk: I know where you’re coming from. I used to do things that way too, but as I learned it is completely unnecesary. Your brain has a certain pace at which it learns. If you’re overstressing yourself, that doesn’t help anything, just makes you miserable.

      mtwtf: yes, you’re right, but I’m not rich haha. I know what it means to need something and not be able to have it. That’s one of the reasons I seek answers to questions like: how do you do things?

      bigbossSNK:“Is there any effort in breathing until you think about it?”
      Breathing is an autonomic system function.

      Yes, but you can control your breathing when you think about it right? When you’re doing that you are using conscious effort to breath when in fact it is an autonomous function which can work by itself. It’s an example how you can do things in a wrong way.

      Cosmin: attacking someone for food is natural (as in nature). It is not right to do within the structures of society which is unnatural. Let’s say you’re hungry and you realize you can’t go savage, now this realization alone should prevent you from doing anything bad, not conscious effort (soon you’ll figure a way to find food in an acceptable way – search in trash cans). Now I’ve never been in a situation like that so I don’t know for sure, but I know that this applies to creating things.

    9. BTW: After reading the post “Living by your heart” and some days of training i finally think I’m the best Soldat player with Barret and Knife (Don’t flame me, it’s my position)! It’s a “good” feeling. Now i don’t have to play that damn game so often to stay at the level i wanted to be.
      But, why i want to be the best? Maybe i listen too much to my heart. It is sometimes filled with anger and agression.

    10. @MM: YOu don’t quoted me so you agree with me? 😉

    11. yv3: we were writing our comments at the same time :).
      I’m going to address that issue in my next post from this category. It is true that conscious effort does something but not as you would like it to be.

    12. hmm sounds intresting. I just followed my intuition, i can’t prove it right now.
      Looking for your next post.

    13. I agree entirely.

      Usually every day I come home from college and just before work I have a quick mess around on my guitar. It’s sort of like routine. But I found I got raged a lot because I couldn’t come up with any nice tunes, i have a sort of mind battle where my rational thinking says “If you don’t play the guitar today, you will be rusty tomorrow! Bullshit. I didn’t play the guitar because I didn’t have the urge to. A couple of days later I picked it up, started playing and ripped it to shreds. It was awesome. Unfortunately, I’m not able to call this at whim.

      I do exactly what you described in your post now. I don’t formalize myself much (again, constraints ARE important) when it comes to creating something, if I have an urge to do something then I do it. Otherwise, fuck it. It can wait until I want it to be done. It sounds selfish, I know. But selfishness is an advantage in life; not a disadvantage at all.

      Can’t wait for the metaprogrammer

    14. When it comes to creativity, I can observe this on myself very clearly. When I HAVE TO make a graphical design or whatever for something or somebody (example school), it’s always much harder to come up with great things, but when I just feel like messing around with Photoshop, great stuff happens to come out, just because I’m doing it just for fun and for myself. I have no fear of possibly doing it wrong, because nobody else depends on it, it’s just mine and I can do whatever I want, so that’s why it turns out great.
      Maybe, as teh_ham says, is selfishness not so bad when it comes to creativity. Maybe that’s also why Joey de Maio from Manowar seems to be such a selfish asshole. The same with most really talented people, painters and musicians too. Maybe they found out the trick and we didn’t. But maybe we’re on the good track now.

    15. Michal, You understand people and what motivates people in todays world. But many people, including myself, are not motivated by happiness.

      My work is my world, everything crosstrains with everything else. From tying shoes, to eating, to drawing…. it is all a playground, a vacation, a block of unsculpted wood, a canvas, a game. Everything can be experimented with and learned from and even the most mundane simple process can be escaped into.

      i know this is not practical for most people, it cant be applied in every sitation, especially in todays world where there are deadlines and rules to follow. I have experimented with naturalness and it has many benefits, but i am not trying to save myself in the first place. I find all the functional benefits in insanity that i do in naturalness.

    16. bigbossSNK

      “Maybe they found out the trick and we didn’t. But maybe we’re on the good track now.”
      The truth is, creative thinking requires a sense of relaxation, so your brain can rewire itself (hence some interesting ideas occur during sleep, when the brain rewires itself naturally).
      Of course, using that as an excuse to be an asshole just makes you an asshole! Van Gogh did some of his most brilliant work when working at the coal mines, among the suffering of other people and his own.
      Creativity by definition means avoiding patterns, so if you use patterns of behavior to arrive to creativity, you are doing yourself a disservice. And yet creativity doesn’t mean you completely let yourself go on autopilot. You have to set yourself in a specific state of thinking for anything creative to surface.

    17. teh_ham: I can tell you the same thing about my guitar playing, it just works that way.

      Cosmin: Your intuition is right. Selfishness and being an asshole is a great power and it is an essential element of many talented individuals. It is percieved badly because people don’t see the bigger picture of things. There is nothing wrong with being an asshole if you believe what you’re doing is for a greater purpose.

      rgk: Michal, You understand people and what motivates people in todays world. But many people, including myself, are not motivated by happiness.
      Some people are just too intelligent to be happy. I was like that at one point of life or another. That kind of thinking ends if you notice that you’re just rationalizing your misery. Basically the more intelligent you are, the more reasons you will find not to be happy.

      bigbossSNK: yes exactly.
      To let yourself go on autopilot you need to know your destination.

    18. Its not hard to do something when you know the response it will have. Organizing your perspective to take account of variables and what effect you have on them increases understanding.

      Ask the right questions and the answer will come naturally.

    19. see it as “relax” don think too hard about it.. i dont know why i suddenly remember to check your blogs. im a in very deep shit in my life right now. and this topic is wut i been thinking about for the pass week now.
      i been putting too much concious effort on finding a job .. stressing me to the point of un happy thoughts… but you r right.. let it all play out and do ur move

    20. The good point of stress is that by now your brain probably knows what you want to do and will make it happen. It just needs to figure it all out and that takes some time. So at some point you really need to lose the effort, cause it does no good. Stress is like the brain saying “hey I know what you’re saying man, just give me a break and I’ll get to it!”.

    21. Anonymous

      Look up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:'s_hierarchy_of_needs

      I feel it relates to some of this.

    22. Anonymous: yeah it does. I tend to think it’s rather obvious that you have to take care of all your needs before you start spontaneous creativity. But it is not a rule, the human brain has geat flexibility (hungry artists).

    23. Michael, your right, and wrong. Concious effort and will power are essentially one and the same. Will power give you the mindset to do something and concious effort the strength to get it done. You have probably read a book called The Secret, right? well that book is my reply. Will power and effort, both are needed for anything. If you dont put any effort into anything, nothing will be done. If you dont put any will into anything, nothing can be done. Send me an email.

    24. Justin: will is not the same as will power and effort. It is the belief that your will somehow does stuff. It doesn’t, your body does stuff. Your will is needed to set a direction and keep the body on track so it achieves your goals, but you can’t force it. Basically overusing your will creates effort, which creates nothing except stress and frustration.
      The idea behind The Secret is that “thoughts are things”, hence if you think about something long enough it will become reality. It is true and not true at the same time. You must think about what you want, but still somebody must make it happen!

    25. Anonymous


      Physically, there is no matrix.
      Our minds is our matrix.

    26. @Anonymous: Doesn’t matter at all, because even if we would be in a virtual world doing things will still make sense as long as it has a certain effect in that virtual world. Hence, knowing whether or not our minds plays a trick on us or not is irrelevant.

      By the way if our minds somehow fool us, then how can you be sure that there is no physical matrix that restrains everything, free will included?

    27. bigbossSNK

      “By the way if our minds somehow fool us, then how can you be sure that there is no physical matrix that restrains everything, free will included?”
      You take the theoretical limits of thought speed (the amount of neurons that the information passes through, the electrical conductivity of dendrites etc.) Since this is all based on electromagnetism and physics, you have an established connection to physical reality, which cannot be fabricated due to our universe’s reliance on specific cosmological constants (speed of light, speed of gravity etc). If there is a difference between theoretical speed and actual speed, you are in a matrix.

    28. Anonymous

      I used to tell my ex-girlfriend that in your life you have to do what you want, or at least not to do what you don’t want to do. She was like hell no! You must work hard! You’ll get nowhere if you don’t work hard!… I guess she wouldn’t understand what I tried to tell her, which is somewhat what you are saying here. You explained it quite well here. I guess she understood that “doing what you want” is basically “doing nothing”, but that’s not true at all. Sometimes, for example, I have to program something so I’m sitting in front of the screen watching a long code, but I don’t feel like doing anything at that moment, so I just move the scrollbar up and down and get nothing done. When I realize that I won’t do anything I say fuck this and I lay in the bed. Lots of times happened that to me, and after 5minutes of resting it’s like a brillian idea comes suddenly to my mind to get the work continued. So I get motivated and start coding like a pig. That’s a clear example that using conscious effort isn’t the way. I’m all for waiting to be motivated. I even try to think of something that motivates myself when I don’t feel like working.
      So amen to all this.

    29. Anonymous: yes! People have fucked up beliefs. They somehow connect “no effort” with “laziness”. Those are two diferent things!

      That situation happens to me many times. If you don’t feel like doing something, it is just your brain/body telling you, we have to think about this more. Then when the answer is processed it just pops into you and you start working just like that.

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