Attention Power Is Will Power

"People do not lack strength; they lack will."
Victor Hugo

“The essential achievement of the will is to attend to a difficult object and hold it fast before the mind .... Effort of attention is thus the essential phenomenon of the will."
William James

How do we choose the good in the face of temptation to do the bad? We are all tempted to do things that are not in our best interests or the best interests of others. We may want to eat or drink something that is not good for us. We may want to steal something or buy something that we can’t afford. We may have sexual urges to behavior that would risk ruin of relationships and reputation. We may just feel tempted to do nothing when action is called for. Sometimes the temptation is to say something cruel, when it would be kinder and wiser to remain silent.

We may think, “I’d do better if I just had more will power.” But sadly, our will power is lacking. So we feel weak, because we form intentions, but don’t carry them through. Feeling weak, we suffer low self esteem. That makes us sad, which we need to remedy by doing something that feels good, which may be something that is bad. So the cycle repeats.

We have will power. We use it all the time to chose. We pick this over that. Often we pick the thing that is less immediately satisfying. We chose to exercise, for instance, when we don’t really feel like it, in stead of sitting if front of the TV eating ice cream, which would be immediately gratifying. (If you find yourself getting up to go for ice cream at this moment, please stay here for a while).

The previous paragraph directed your attention toward ice cream. Sorry about that. Directing attention to something may activate an urge. The more you think about the stimulus for that urge the more likely it is that you will give in to it.

William James, the influential early American psychologist wrote, “Volitional effort is the effort of attention.” Volitional effort is another way of saying force of will. When we make an effort of will, it is about how we are directing our attention. That’s an important piece of information. It suggests that if we want to have more will power, we need to manage how we direct our attention.

Sometimes, behavior change is about avoiding the stimulus. If you have a gambling addiction, you’d best stay out of the casino. If you are an alcoholic, going to a bar may trigger a relapse. Avoiding the stimulus may just mean managing your gaze. If you are trying not to gain weight and your co-workers keep bringing sweet treats to work, instead of looking at the calorie packed food and wishing you could have some, look at something else when you pass by the treats and keep moving. If your sexual urges get you in trouble, don’t look at sexy images, and practice moving your mind away from the thoughts that titillate you.

Our fantasies and daydreams can take up an awfully large part of consciousness, and if we don’t manage them, they may carry us away to unwise behavior. While they may be persistent, we do have the power to choose different thoughts, and the less we feed the fantasy thoughts, the less powerful they become.

To increase will power, we can take control over the power of attention. If what we focus upon determines how we will behave, it is sensible to train our attention. That is the essence of mindfulness and meditation. It is training our attention. It is observing with intention.


Throughout the day, notice what you think about. Observe the amount of time you spend on various topics. How much mental time do you devote to thinking about satisfying your senses, remembering when you have been wronged, being angry, planning revenge? How much do you focus on escaping from stress, fearful thoughts, or thoughts of being victimized or powerless? How much do you think about health, wellness, your goals, spiritual issues, loving and helping others? How much are you in a state of bare attention, when you are witness to your own experience and to your connection with the world around you?

If you find that you are spending a good deal of time thinking of negative and unwholesome things, consciously choose to shift the focus. Direct your attention to wholesome, good, spiritual, beneficial objects and ideas.

Collect or create reminders of what you want more of in your life and in your experience. Put them where you will see them often.

Get rid of reminders of what you don’t want in your life. If you have a bad habit, get rid of the objects that help you engage in it.

When you notice your thoughts are generating negative emotion, consciously shift your attention to thoughts that are more pleasing, kind, generous or optimistic.

Repeat mantras and affirmations to substitute for negative thinking.

Train your capacity to focus attention by meditating regularly.

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© 2007 Tom Barrett