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-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.
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.