Policy-Based vs Willpower-Based Intentions

Been think­ing about what it means to set an in­ten­tion lately. I think I’ve found a dis­tinc­tion be­tween policy-based in­ten­tions and willpower-based in­ten­tions.

Policy-based intention

Policy-based in­ten­tion-set­ting is a lot like writ­ing a com­puter script and run­ning it.
For ex­am­ple, I have a policy around tip­ping Lyft drivers. It is made up of a bunch of if-then state­ments.

  • If I’m mak­ing in­come above X, then tip Lyft drivers $1.

  • If I’m mak­ing in­come be­low X, then tip Lyft drivers $0.

  • Add +$1 if they help me with my lug­gage.

  • If for any rea­son I want to tip a differ­ent amount (be­cause they were par­tic­u­larly bad or good), tip that amount in­stead.

It might not be the perfect policy for ev­ery situ­a­tion, but it’s bet­ter for me to spend the pro­cess­ing power once, rather than ev­ery time.

It ba­si­cally costs no willpower to im­ple­ment the policy. I’m not hav­ing to nudge my­self, “Now re­mem­ber I de­cided I’d do X in these situ­a­tions.” I’m not hav­ing to con­sciously hold the in­ten­tion in my mind. It’s more like I changed the un­der­ly­ing code—the old, de­fault be­hav­ior—and now it just runs the new script au­to­mat­i­cally.

I call it an in­ten­tion be­cause it is me man­i­fest­ing a change in my be­hav­ior us­ing a de­ci­sion point. I cre­ated a branch in my his­tory, and I chose left in­stead of right. And now my fu­ture self is go­ing to choose left in­stead of right in a bunch of fu­ture branches.

Willpower-based intention

This seems more like what is clas­si­cally meant by in­ten­tion.

Willpower-based in­ten­tion in­volves an ac­tive, con­scious, mind­ful hold­ing in the mind. To me, it viscer­ally feels like my brain is grip­ping an ob­ject in­side my head. If I grip too hard, I can get a headache. I can also hold it lightly /​ gen­tly (such as dur­ing mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion).

The hold­ing doesn’t always have to be con­tin­u­ous. It can work more like “re­minders” where I find my­self nat­u­rally in­clined to do X, and then I re­mind my­self I in­tended to do Y in­stead.

Here’s a few ex­am­ples:

  • You’re med­i­tat­ing on your breath; you hold the in­ten­tion in your mind to re­turn your at­ten­tion to the breath when you no­tice your at­ten­tion has drifted; while you med­i­tate, this in­ten­tion is ‘on­line’, and when you stop med­i­tat­ing, the in­ten­tion goes ‘offline’.

  • You have a con­test to see who can stare at each other with­out blink­ing the longest. Your first im­pulse is to blink, but you di­vert that ini­tial im­pulse, and in­stead do some­thing other than blink­ing.

  • I’m try­ing to avoid sugar. I no­tice my at­ten­tion be­ing drawn to a piece of candy on the table. I re­mind my­self I am avoid­ing sugar, and I di­rect my at­ten­tion away from the candy and/​or di­rect my at­ten­tion to­ward my de­sire for feel­ing healthy /​ well.

  • Your friend goes by they/​them pro­nouns. You no­tice the au­to­matic be­hav­ior is to call them he/​him. When you no­tice, you cor­rect the sen­tence in your mind be­fore say­ing it out loud.

This last ex­am­ple looks like it would be bet­ter if it were a policy-based in­ten­tion. Some­thing you could just rewrite in the un­der­ly­ing code us­ing if-then state­ments.

In my ex­pe­rience, it doesn’t seem to always work. Con­sid­er­ing pro­nouns is still of­ten a thing that re­quires a bit of con­scious in­ten­tion-hold­ing for me. In my in­ter­nal monologue, I mess up peo­ple’s pro­nouns all the time, but I’m pretty good at say­ing the cor­rect ones out loud.

I sus­pect these things differ by in­di­vi­d­ual.

My re­sis­tance to willpower-based intention

A weird thing about me: I have an un­usu­ally high re­sis­tance to us­ing willpower-based in­ten­tions in many situ­a­tions. It feels like death, like be­ing trapped un­der a boulder, like suffo­ca­tion. When I feel forced to use willpower, I be­come de­pressed and some­times suici­dal. Some­times I ex­pe­rience visceral ter­ror and panic and must-es­cape-nowNowNOW.

It doesn’t always feel this way, but it can. And I can ex­pe­rience it in micro-doses, for things as small as lift­ing a heavy ob­ject or sit­ting still for a while or mak­ing my­self smile when I don’t feel like it.

And I’m com­ing to grips with this be­ing a real prob­lem.

It’s in­ter­est­ing, though, to think that I’ve man­aged to do a lot of things any­way. I was miss­ing a ma­jor ca­pac­ity and able to cope and get by re­gard­less. I “pass”.

In a way, I trust my­self a whole lot—be­cause I know that even with­out willpower-based in­ten­tions, I still get up and DO things. I han­dle most things I need to han­dle. I’m not just a worm wrig­gling around in the mud. (And tech­nol­ogy has been es­sen­tial—in­te­grat­ing well with my tech­nol­ogy is cru­cial for me to main­tain my sys­tems and my flow.)

But there are other things I can’t do that oth­ers can: Main­tain a con­sis­tent habit ev­ery­day. Make com­mit­ments /​ promises. Stay fo­cused on some­thing that’s hard for me to fo­cus on. Finish big pro­jects where my in­ter­est wanes (like writ­ing a book). Make cer­tain per­sonal sac­ri­fices. Stay in a job that gets bor­ing or aver­sive. En­dure phys­i­cal dis­com­fort. Make this tech­nique for spam­ming micro-in­ten­tions work on things I feel re­sis­tance to­wards.

As a gen­eral strat­egy, I’ve had to live a life where I can’t re­ally let oth­ers rely on me, in a durable way. I can­not offer to be the ground oth­ers stand on. I would crum­ble. And I know I don’t want that, so I don’t try to play that role. I don’t put my­self in those po­si­tions. I’ve had to learn all this about my­self.

And I want to learn how to use willpower freely, one day.

Not to make my­self do things be­cause I should. But be­cause there are gen­uinely things I want that are out­side my reach right now, with­out willpower-based in­ten­tions. Be­cause I want to be a good per­son who can make difficult, but right choices. Be­cause my aliefs around willpower are com­ing from a dam­aged past—a past that con­tains truth but not the whole truth.

Equal and op­po­site advice

My sense of peo­ple is that they more of­ten have the op­po­site prob­lem. They overuse willpower-based in­ten­tions. They think that if they lapse even a lit­tle, they’d let im­por­tant things slip or their struc­tures would col­lapse.

Th­ese peo­ple can be un­re­li­able too.

They carry more and more with their willpower, but they’re at risk of one day sud­denly col­laps­ing—hav­ing reached their limit. Or maybe they do col­lapse—at night or on week­ends—and os­cillate be­tween be­ing an ox car­ry­ing a heavy load and a use­less lump who can’t do any­thing but watch TV.

For them, I’d offer to­tally differ­ent ad­vice. Which is to get more in touch with their in­ter­nal states, de­sires, emo­tions, felt senses. To use In­ter­nal Dou­ble Crux or In­ter­nal Fam­ily Sys­tems or Fo­cus­ing to open more chan­nels with their elephant (in the elephant /​ rider sense). To ex­per­i­ment with days or weeks where there are no obli­ga­tions at all. To test just how many of their in­ten­tions need to be held, and let­ting some of them go or loos­en­ing them a bit.


Policy-based in­ten­tions don’t re­quire much con­scious main­te­nance and can be used to cre­ate gen­eral if-then-based plans for your be­hav­ior in a va­ri­ety of situ­a­tions. They’re su­per con­ve­nient!

Willpower-based in­ten­tions do re­quire con­scious “hold­ing” of an in­ten­tion in your mind for some pe­riod of time. But they don’t have to be based in shame, guilt, or obli­ga­tions nec­es­sar­ily. They can be in al­ign­ment with your deeper goals, and be­ing able to use willpower-based in­ten­tions in this way is im­por­tant for ac­com­plish­ing cer­tain goals. It’s a su­per pow­er­ful abil­ity!

Con­cen­tra­tion med­i­ta­tion seems to train the skill di­rectly, since it’s about hold­ing the in­ten­tion of re­turn­ing your at­ten­tion to an ob­ject for a speci­fied amount of time.

For more on the phe­nomenol­ogy of in­ten­tions by mr-hire, see here.