Remedy for Hyperfocus

Try a Refreshing Palette Cleanser

Ever get engrossed in a perfectly innocent activity—such as looking up whether or not all sloths are three-toed—and then two hours later realize that reading endless reviews of toenail clippers is keeping you from getting started on that presentation that’s due tomorrow?

The term hyperfocus refers to being riveted in an activity; so riveted that prying yourself away becomes a real challenge. When hyperfocusing on shopping for toenail clippers, for instance, you might think to yourself, I should stop this and work on my presentation for tomorrow. You know you’re hyperfocusing when you have that thought and yet continue clicking on all the color variations of this toenail clipper: light blue, hot pink, rainbow (different hues for different toes!). A few minutes later (5, perhaps, or 45…) you have the same thought again. And again. And again.… One of my clients described the state of hyperfocus as analogous to being paralyzed.

Hyperfocusing is the body’s way of saying I’m busy! I’m not listening! Have you had the experience of mentally poking, nagging, even yelling at yourself to stop what you’re doing so you can start the next activity, all the while completely ignoring yourself?

Part of the problem is that researching toenail clippers is an easy way to avoid working on that presentation; in other words, hyperfocusing is a super-effective avoidance tactic. Even if there’s no presentation to work on, making the next click on the current web page is an effortless way to avoid doing virtually anything else, including the very process of deciding what to do next, which might involve those “executive function” thingies.

So let’s make interrupting hyperfocus the easiest, lowest-commitment thing to do, something that you have no motive to avoid. As soon as you become aware that you might be hyperfocusing, take a palette cleanser moment.

I was introduced to the concept of palette cleansers on my thirtieth birthday. I was given the gift of a gourmet dinner at a restaurant called the DePuy Canal House in High Falls, NY. It was, like, nine courses, including—I kid you not—both rabbit- and venison-based appetizers. Between the rabbit and deer, my wife and I were each brought a tiny dish of sorbet. I asked if this were some abstruse European custom of inserting a proto-dessert before the main course (after all, Europeans eat salad after the entrée—and the Canal House had adopted this un-American sequence). I was informed that the sorbet1 was a “palette cleanser”: it would, in effect, rinse off my taste buds, so that the flavor—pardon me: flavour—of rabbit would be completely gone from my mouth, and the venison would be a full, untainted gustatory experience unto itself.

This is either genius or unsupportably bourgeois, but in any case we can make good use of it as a way out of hyperfocus. We can put a tiny, flavor-neutralizing activity in between a hyperfocused activity and the next activity we might be avoiding. Here’s how.

Palette Cleanser Technique

  1. When you feel like poking yourself to stop hyperfocusing, perform a benign physical action that involves the use of at least three limbs—for example:
    • standing and patting your head (two legs + one arm)
    • hopping while touching your chest and back at the same time (one leg + two arms)
    • a split with jazz hands (all four limbs)
  2. Choose what you want to do next (and what you were just hyperfocusing on must be a valid option!)


Make the palette cleanser activity both easy to do and completely non-functional; i.e. it should require no special effort, and shouldn’t be useful for accomplishing anything. Thus, doing ten push-ups is great exercise, but a risky palette cleanser. Marching in place while touching your nose (left-right, left-right, halt!) is more like it. Going to your mailbox to retrieve the mail is too useful; instead, just walk to the other side of the room and knock the wall with your pinky-knuckle. All a good palette cleanser requires is that you unseat yourself and move your limbs.

Your choice of what to do next must be unconditional. You must be able to choose anything feasible. Flying to Saturn is out of the question, but doing laundry, writing a report, eating ice cream, making dinner, ordering pizza, and going right back to what you were just doing all have to be chooseable. If you rule out any option, then whatever part of you would vote (consciously or unconsciously) for that forbidden path will work to avoid the palette cleanser activity in the first place. The palette cleanser can have no fetters. To be a neutral activity it must come with no strings attached.

The client who described her hyperfocus as paralysis tried the stand-up-and-pat-head palette cleanser, and it worked. Most of the time she chose to start doing something else, often something productive. Sometimes she chose to return to the same thing she’d been doing, but found that she usually returned for a fixed period of time—say, another 15 minutes—and then stopped without needing a second standing pat on the head.

The palette cleanser technique works because it uses your body to interrupt itself. Hyperfocus is a human behavioral version of inertial motion,2 analogous to a runaway train: it can’t be stopped just by thinking about it; it needs physical brakes. Stopping the hyperfocused motion is the goal, even if only for a minute, even if you decide to go right back to it. The purpose and the benefit of the palette cleanser technique is not to get you to be productive, it’s to give you that vital space, that precious moment, in which you can choose freely. Stopping = Freedom.

A physical spoon of sorbet is a tasty, simple, and super-effective braking method.

  1. Wine is another commonly used palette cleanser. 

  2. The law of inertial motion: “Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.” — Isaac Newton. “Axioms, or Laws of Motion.” Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. 1687. (Emphasis added.) 


What Is Will? (2)

II. How Will Works

In part one of this post, we found that will and intention are two different things. In the “Millie-Willy” plays we saw how easy it is, on the one hand, to intend something (in Millie’s case, to knit) but not engage the will actually to do it, as well as, on the other hand, to persist in doing something with a strong force of will without intending to. In the case of less complex creatures, such as spiders, will without intention is the rule; a spider will weave her web despite having no capacity whatever for mental intention. Hence, the following distinction between will and intention:

  • Will is the force that initiates and sustains action
  • Intention is the idea of an action

This distinction implies something important that goes against common sense, namely that will is not to be sought or found primarily in the mind, but rather primarily in the body. Clearly there is a relationship between an intention and a resulting will-full action—but only when an action does indeed result. Bottom line: a bodily action without mental intention (e.g. a spider weaving a web) evinces will, but a mental intention without any follow-through action (e.g. Millie saying she will knit, but not actually doing it) evinces only thinking, but no will. The proof of will is, as it were, in the pudding, not in the thought of cooking it nor in the recipe for it.

Also in part one we further saw that:

  • Free will = intention + will
  • Humans have free will
  • Spiders1 have unfree—that is, instinctive—will

When mental intention and bodily action are coordinated harmoniously, the result is a freely willed act. Humans can do this. Spiders cannot. A web-weaving spider cannot choose whether to weave her web; the spider’s body performs the act purely on instinct, which, by definition, is unintentional. Humans can do something else that spiders cannot do: procrastinate. Procrastination occurs when mental intention can’t get it together with bodily willed action.

It is my intention in this multi-part post to see where both of these paths lead—the path of human free will, and the path of creaturely unfree will. In this part I’m going to embark on the road less traveled: will as it manifests without free intent; creaturely, bodily, instinctive will. Let’s first examine the characteristics of will on its own, without the complicating factor of intentionality. Intention, after all, appears to be a kind of premeditation—a rehearsal in imagination—of what can only become reality in a bodily act of will. Perhaps unfolding the nature of the bodily act can yield clues about the nature of its mental doppelgänger, the intention. If you’ve ever suffered from procrastination you know from experience that no matter how much you know about your intention, your bodily will remains elusive and mysterious. Let’s head straight into that mystery, and delve into the phenomenon of will in itself. Our purposes shall be to observe the phenomenon of will as it presents itself, to distinguish will from its lookalikes, and to characterize, as faithfully as possible, what we find left standing. In this way we’ll build upon our working definition of will, which currently is: the force that initiates and sustains action.

Spider Will

With apologies to arachnophobes, back to spiders.

The picture of a spider spinning a web is a quintessential example of will. If it’s still difficult to think of spiders as demonstrating will, that’s probably because we humans find it difficult to imagine spiders deciding to do what they do. In other words, we still think of will as one and the same as intention—it’s a stubborn habit of our thought. Will, we intuit, is chosen action. Whatever the reason (and we’ll get into it presently), our habit of conflating will and intention gets in the way of imagining spiders as willful. Taking a closer look at this shall uncover an underlying aversion we have to thinking of spiders as possessing will. If spiders are willful, at least one of these two disquieting propositions must be true:

  1. Spiders behave willfully, so they must also have intention
  2. Spiders don’t have intention, but behave willfully; thus it is possible to have will without intention

One of these notions is impossible, but the other is only counterintuitive.

A spider with intention would be either ludicrous2 or scary. Picture Ari-the-spider crooking one leg at the joint in an “aw, shucks” gesture, and exclaiming:

Golly! I s’pose I’ll trap me a plump ol’ fly, liquify his innards, and sip out his guts while I watch the sunset. Mmmm mm! That’ll be a lovely way to end a long, hard day at the silk mill.

Or, clicking her fangs and salivating neurotoxin:

Today, that fly. Tomorrow, your BRAIN.

Either of these would be a statement of intention before the act. The second spider statement is the stuff of horror films, and our horror is precisely that “aversion” I referred to above: we don’t want spiders to have their own intentional will. Luckily, spiders act on instinct, and part of the very definition of instinct is that it is un intentional. A spider with intention occurring in nature is impossible.

Mere Action (Billiard Balls)

Whew!—spider-acts are unintentional. But in what sense are they willed? Isn’t the action of a spider merely action? If the spider can’t control her own actions, doesn’t that mean precisely that she has no will?—In other words, why attribute will at all to a non-intending being; why accept proposition #2—that there can be will without intention—at all? Why not instead say that spiders simply perform actions without will?

Well, what would activity without will look like?

Billiard balls. Billiard balls move, with no will of their own, in accordance with Newton’s first law of motion, the law of inertia:

Every body [i.e. object] continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.3

But this is only what activity without will would look like, because billiard balls cannot act. Once struck, billiard balls give the appearance of activity; we see them moving, not quite like a spider, but moving nonetheless. But no 8-ball can jump into a corner pocket on its own initiative, because billiard balls have no will. A spider could jump (or crawl) into the corner pocket, uncompelled by any external catalyst, purely on its own power. In order for the 8-ball to move, however, some external force must be “impressed upon it”: a cue ball could hit it, or a hustler-spider (like the infamous Fast Arachne) could whip it with a silk thread. A billiard ball must be moved, because it is passive, not active.

Actor and Form

While a billiard ball can only move when acted upon by “forces impressed upon it” from the outside, a spider, like all living organisms, acts by virtue of “forces impressed” from within itself, namely its will. Let’s refine our working definition, accordingly:

Will is the force that initiates and sustains action from within the actor.

Spiders do seem to be demonstrating will. They are, unlike both billiard balls and supercomputers,4 creating their own activity. And they are doing so without any intention. So we are back to proposition #2, will without intention, and our minds boggle. We watch Ari-the-spider weave silk, and we observe, clearly and distinctly, that this is no chaotic activity, but rather a structured and purposeful one. It looks intentional. In fact, this is true of any willed action; it is non-chaotic.5 We must add another refinement to our definition of will:

Will is the force that initiates and sustains formed action from within the actor.

—Formed, structured, organized… planned, even. Here a paradox arises. The spider’s weaving of her web appears to be thoughtfully formed action—it predictably produces an intelligible structure—and yet simultaneously appears to be thoughtless action: unintentional, instinctive, habitual, like Millie knitting sweaters for no reason. How can spider web-weaving appear intentional and yet be unintentional? This will require some unraveling.

Characteristic Behavior

Any rigorous observation confirms that spiders function in purposeful, evolved ways. Spiders can be said to behave like spiders. Behavior is characterological; naturalists will speak of “characteristic behaviors.” As we noted in the “Willy-Millie” plays, especially the second one, will is necessary to overcome inertia and activate a specific behavior (e.g. knitting a sweater or weaving a web). The will that initiates and sustains the behavior of spiders is directional, if not consciously directed: they will create webs. The will of spiders takes specific form, even without conscious designs: they build spiderwebs, not inchoate masses, and not picnic baskets. (The same could be said of a magnolia tree’s producing magnolia flowers rather than unformed plant mass, and never roses nor daisies nor any other flower than magnolias.) The will of a spider is intelligent in these ways—purposeful, formational, understandable—yet not intellective in the sense of deliberately thoughtful.

Is it any wonder that we tend to think of will and intention as one and the same, even though they are distinct? Whether a willed act is intentional or not, it looks intentional! When we observe the operation of will in ourselves, we notice most prominently our intention prior to the willed action. Millie’s will is most apparent to herself when she first thinks “I’m going to knit” before actually knitting. If we were to ask Millie, “How do you know you willed your knitting to happen,” she would reply, “Well, I thought to myself that I was going to.” And even when intention is absent, as when a spider builds a web, or a magnolia tree flowers, or flamingoes dance… the instinctive behavior bears all the earmarks of intentionality, including organization and purpose. Moreover, when intention is absent it doesn’t occur to us that will is even involved; it seems like the action is just happening on its own, unwilled. A perfect example is when Millie knits unconsciously, out of habit, and Willy tries to stop her. To Millie, she is just doing what she does without thinking about it, completely unaware that her body is acting on will impulses (she might say, “I’m just knitting,” but not “I’m willing myself to knit”). Willy, on the other hand, projects intention onto Millie’s knitting, even when no intention is there. (That he asks her why she is knitting a sweater in summertime betrays his assumption of an intention—i.e. a rationale—on her part that she can explain.) We, watching this play, discover that Millie is acting without intention, apparently mindlessly, and we experience the feeling that she is behaving like a machine; that is, without will, her movements proceeding robotically. The unwilled mere activity that we imagine as well as the intentionality that Willie imagines are projections on our part and on his. But in fact Millie’s will to knit is acting on its own. You know what this implies?

Unintentional willed action is unconscious.


Probably most of our human willed activity is unconscious. I mean this in a basic way. As I compose this paragraph, I am eating a bowl of Cheerios. The fact that I am having a breakfast snack at five in the afternoon is intentional on my part. My stomach growled. I replied, “Right away, sir!”, stood up, walked to the kitchen, put the cereal box, the milk container, a bowl and a spoon on a tray, brought it all back to my desk, and commenced eating. All intended. But right at this moment I’m sitting up straight and holding the bowl above the computer keyboard, and the spoon is right at my mouth, and I’m wondering: How did my arms move into these physical positions? And, for that matter, how are they maintaining this attitude instead of succumbing to gravity or lethargy or both? Is the gliding of my hand toward my maw a consciously chosen motion, or a habit? It’s more like habit; I know I learned to feed myself with a utensil, but I don’t think about it anymore. Once the food is in my mouth I chew, and this I never had to be taught. The only time I ever chew with intention is when I’ve bitten the inside of my cheek and want to avoid biting it again. My movements while I eat—and, for that matter, while walking to the kitchen—are almost always unconscious.

Deciding to go somewhere, e.g. the kitchen, and actually going there is intentional, but each individual act of putting one foot in front of the other repeatedly until arriving is somehow wrapped up in the package-act of going. How many of your actions each day are consciously intended? Package-acts, such as going out to meet a friend for coffee, include within them many—many—unconscious acts. Every step, every muscular flexion, is a purposefully formed action initiated from within; i.e. a willed action.

Will, Not Code, at the Cellular Level

Indeed, I can’t think of a single example in the world of an action performed by an acting organism without the benefit of an inertia-interrupting and chaos-defying force. Can you? That force characteristically matches the description of will. The only objection we might have to calling the daily head-turning of sunflowers willful is that it’s obviously not consciously willed (i.e. intentional). And yet, examples of willed action without conscious intention are so abundant, even in our own daily living—walking, chewing, blinking, swallowing, digesting, and so on—as to be literally countless. Unconscious, unintentional activity that is nevertheless purposeful, organized, and even regulatory is occurring right this moment in your body at the cellular level. We are prone to think of our genes as the code that determines our physiology, but on behalf of code monkeys6 everywhere I must insist that there is no such thing as code that was not coded by a coder. Anyone who has written computer code can tell you that there is no way it can write itself.7 And yet, as Stephen L. Talbott explains in “Natural Genome Remodeling,” writing and rewriting themselves with purpose is precisely what genomes do all the time:

It is now indisputable that genomic change of all sorts is rooted in the remarkable expertise of the organism as a whole. By means of endlessly complex and interweaving processes, the organism sees to the replication of chromosomes in dividing cells, maintains surveillance for all sorts of damage, and repairs or alters damage when it occurs—all with an intricacy and subtlety of well-gauged action that far exceeds, at the molecular level, what the most skillful surgeon accomplishes at the tissue level. But it’s not just a matter of preserving a fixed DNA sequence. In certain human immune system cells, portions of DNA are repeatedly cut and then stitched together in new patterns, yielding the huge variety of proteins required for recognizing an equally huge variety of foreign substances that need to be rendered harmless. [Emphasis added.]

Intelligent Will—with a Caveat

Spooky, huh? Genomes behave not so much mechanically (“not just a matter of preserving a fixed DNA sequence”) as appropriately (“well-gauged action”), responding to chromosomal needs (“repairs”) as well as to environmental dangers (“foreign substances”). It would appear that unconscious willful activity is intelligent.

But wait! Am I implying a doctrine of Intelligent Design? Nuh uh! Don’t even go there. I’m no expert on the varieties of creationism being propounded nowadays, but let’s consider the most simplistic version of Intelligent Design, which is common enough to address. The conception that there is a single, immeasurably vast mind intending the actions of all spiders and all badgers and all coral is severely problematic, if for no other reason than that it projects onto the cosmic ether the intentionality that is M.I.A. in unconsciously willed activity. This is tantamount to casting God in the role of Great Code Monkey in the Sky.8 This in turn raises two further philosophical objections. First, divine intention would be too boring! If you think waking up every morning because it’s “time to make the doughnuts” is Sisyphean, imagine mentally sustaining the activity of all the bacteria on earth. Not even the combination of omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence in the divine Mind is sufficient to explain endlessly intending such apparently mindless activity. Second, the divine-intention proposition is too brutal. A spider that paralyzes a fly with venom, injects digestive enzymes into its body, and then sucks out everything except the exoskeleton is both gross and scientifically fascinating, and as long as it’s instinctive and unintentional it is amoral. If it is intended, however, it’s brutal; not evil, exactly, because neither malevolent nor against any known civil or sacred laws. It’s just—how shall we put it?—unevolved.

Parting ways from notions of intelligent design, it is nevertheless worth repeating: unconscious, unintended, willed activity demonstrates intelligence. That intelligence is not coded in by an outside coder; neither shall we say that this is merely “the way it is according to nature,” because saying that says nothing useful, and serves only to waive off the matter as a philosophical annoyance. Rather than turn our backs, let us, for now, live with our questions while contemplating that unconscious intelligent action—even without the influence of any brains or nervous system at all (e.g. magnolia trees, sunflowers, coral, bacteria…)—is not only possible but constantly evident all around (and in) us.

With a final refinement we may now say:

Will is the force that, of its own intelligence, initiates and sustains formed action from within the actor.

Where does will’s intelligence come from? We might as well as ask where intelligence’s intelligence comes from, because intelligence, in itself, is not traceable in nature.9 For instance, it’s not our physical brains that guide our genomes; it’s the other way around: DNA is the most basic building block of biology,10 and it demonstrates intelligent activity.

My intended purpose here is not to dive into metaphysics (well, maybe just a little), but to take a wakeful, realistic, and useful view of will. “Wakeful… realistic… useful…” these are three of the paramount qualities of executive functioning, which runs on free will, and doesn’t run at all without it. But will’s freedom doesn’t come free; it must be won. Won from what, we might ask. What is free will free of, exactly?—Mindless repetition; circularity. Surely you’ve noticed how unconscious will tends inflexibly to repeat itself. This is will’s sustaining power in action. The beauty part of intention is that, as the thought-form of an action completely separate from the act of will which it contemplates, intention creates the possibility of a free relationship between thinking and acting. Executive functioning is what we can do that spiders can’t. This is what we’ll look into in the next chapter of this post.

  1. And, implicitly, other life forms that do not demonstrate deliberative cognition, such as butterflies, and coral, and Chicago Cubs’ Cleveland Indians’ fans.… 

  2. Excepting Charlotte (from Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White), of course. 

  3. Newton, Isaac. “Axioms, or Laws of Motion.” Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. 1687. 

  4. Computers, with no code originating from one or more programmers outside of them, perform precisely zero functions. 

  5. I’m using “chaotic” here in its scientific sense of formless, disordered, confused, rather than in the qualitative sense of carefree and unpredictable as popularized in the Dungeons and Dragons alignment system. 

  6. Computer programmers, especially those working in basements with all windows obscured by stacks of old hard disk drives and defunct keyboards, are sometimes lovingly referred to as code monkeys. 

  7. Some skillful code monkeys might protest that they have written programs that generate code on the fly, but my point is that code-generating programs have to be coded in the first place. Another way of putting it is that computer code cannot mutate and evolve in a Darwinian sense. 

  8. I am by no means making fun of divinity. I am, however, satirizing a poorly thought through idea. In many respects, the doctrine of Intelligent Design is just as materialistic as the framework of biological determinism, which many people of faith revile as spiritually bankrupt. 

  9. In making this claim I realize that I am opening a hotly contested can of worms known as “the mind-body problem” or “the hard consciousness problem.” Briefly the question is this: What is the relationship between the physical organ of our brain and the immaterial thinking of our mind?
        To illustrate the distinction between brain and mind, do this exercise. Think the concept of a perfectly straight line. If you’ve mastered the most basic Euclidean geometry, you are able to think this concept. But there is no such thing as a perfectly straight line occurring in the natural universe (because, for one thing, space is curved by gravity). The concept of a straight line is non-physical; it is purely conceptual. When you think the concept of a straight line, what is your brain doing? It is lighting up in various ways that neurologists could measure by gluing little circles to your head. But one thing your brain is not doing is producing a tiny physical straight line in your skull. The question that the hard consciousness problem asks is: How is consciousness able to conceive that which the brain is not able to manifest?
        My saying that “intelligence, in itself, is not traceable in nature” assumes that there is such a thing as intelligence-capable-of-conceptualizing that is not one and the same as physical brain activity.
        It is a matter of scientific fact that the existence of such non-physical intelligence has never been either proven or disproven.
        I would argue that the provability of numinous intelligence is a self-defeating proposition: satisfactory proof implies physical pudding, after all. Thus, the very definition of provable rules out any possibility of non-physical phenomena. This line of reasoning has always struck me as solipsistic. But this debate is way beyond the scope of this post, and I fear I have indulged it too far already. 

  10. Not being a biologist, I would be grateful for a correction if I’m wrong about this. 


What Is Will? (1)

I. Will and Intention

The usual conception of will is that it is mental intention; a thought of doing something. “I will knit a sweater.” Then the brain sends signals to the muscles, and the act of knitting is performed. This would be an example of free will: choosing a course of action and executing it. Having the thought of doing something, then doing it.

But why is it that our will doesn’t seem to work sometimes? It is a rare human being indeed who has never experienced intending to do something that didn’t get done, such as reply to a letter or e-mail, or write a report, or fix a dripping faucet. I’m not talking about conscious choices not to do something you originally planned to do; I mean the activities that simply end up not having happened. This is what makes procrastination so baffling: procrastination isn’t really a choice; not when it feels like procrastination, anyway. Procrastination—the “dilatory”1 kind—is what we do when we’re not doing what we intended to do. The mental intention is there, but the intended action isn’t. When we intend to do something, we say, “I’m going to do that,” as if to mean, “I’m squarely facing that activity and I’m on my way toward it, but I’m not there yet.”

A Short Zero-Act Play Not About Will

Scene: Millie, while texting, talks to Willy, who is playing a computer game.

Millie: I’m going to knit a sweater.

Willy: Are you knitting it right now?

Millie: No, but I’m going to.


Of course it is possible that, in a revision of the above play, Millie could demonstrate determination and grit and actually do what she intended. In that case her claim, “I’m going to,” would turn out to have meant: “I will knit a sweater, even if it’s the last thing I do!” This alternate scenario is closer to the essence of what will is. That which is willed will in fact happen. There is no such thing as willed activity in theory; that’s an oxymoron. There is no such thing as will in intent only. Will is will in action by definition.

We don’t look at Hamlet when he’s deliberating whether he should revenge his father now while the murderer is defenselessly praying on his knees, or whether he should wait for a more opportune moment when the murderer will more likely go to Hell instead of Heaven—we don’t watch this scene in the theatre and admire Hamlet’s willpower while he intends and intends and intends to act. Meanwhile, the two other characters in Shakespeare’s tragedy who have lost their fathers—Laertes and Fortinbras—both singlemindedly pursue their respective revenge plots. Neither is able to achieve his goal immediately. Laertes must collude with the king, because his target is Prince Hamlet himself, whom Laertes kills at the first viable opportunity. Fortinbras marches his army into an utterly profitless battle, just to move into position to get what he wants and takes at the end of the play, which is the crown and country of Denmark itself.

The proof of will is in the follow-through. For Millie’s sweater to get knitted, all that’s necessary is Millie’s will—plus some dexterity, some yarn and knitting needles. And yet, if she knows how to knit, and has the tools, won’t the act of knitting follow naturally? Why is her will necessary?

A Short Zero-Act Play About Will

Scene: Willy visits Millie in the rec-room at the Home for Ennui.

Willy: Aren’t you going to knit your sweater?

Millie: I don’t want to.

Willy: If you don’t, they’re going to take away your needles and yarn.

Millie: I don’t care.

No further action. The curtain doesn’t fall. Eventually the audience gets bored and wanders away.

Will is necessary because it is the force that overcomes inertia. Without the will to knit, poor Millie will waste away in the Home for Ennui watching reruns of Lost.

But how can she engage her will to knit if she never says or at least thinks: “I’m going to knit”? Doesn’t she need intention as well as will? If her will is free, then sure. If she chooses to knit a sweater of her own free will, her intention will be evident in her choice, as her will shall be evident in her follow-through action. But does intention always precede an act of will? Is intention a prerequisite for action? As we’ve seen, intention is not the same thing as will. Intention goes hand-in-hand with choice and decision, but does not necessarily lead to execution. If Millie chooses to knit, she will have that intention, as she did in the first play, but this does not guarantee that she will knit the sweater.

What about the reverse case?—If she in fact knits the sweater in an exercise of will, must she have intended to do so?

A Short One-Act Play About Will

Scene: Willy, dressed for Saturday night, tries to get Millie to go out with him.

Willy: Come on.

Millie: I’m busy knitting a sweater.

Willy: Every time I look at you you’re knitting a sweater. Why are you knitting a sweater now, anyway? It’s midsummer.

Millie: I don’t know. Everyone in my family knits sweaters all year round. It’s just what I do.

Willy: Stop knitting! (He grabs the yarn.)

(Millie stabs him with a knitting needle. She keeps knitting. Willy crawls to the emergency room of the nearest hospital and eventually lives happily ever after, but is a little cold in winter, because he never wears a sweater.)


Millie does indeed knit the sweater. Her will is strongly evident: she will knit, despite Willy’s attempts to dissuade and stop her. But far from freely intending to knit, she appears to do it out of habit, perhaps even mindlessly. Knitting in this case is more like an inherited trait than a choice. She is impelled to knit. The forethought that we associate with intentionality is not there.

It is the freedom in free will that complicates will. With freedom of choice we may do as we intend. But then whether or not we follow through on our intentions we can’t predict with any certainty. We may intend to act, but (in a condition of freedom) we are neither impelled nor compelled to do so. Free will is evident when conscious choice and the will to effect that choice are united. For Millie to exercise her free will, she would have to say (or think) “I’m going to knit a sweater,” and then actually knit one.

If, just for the purpose of observation, we remove the complicating element of freedom of choice, will as the pure force that effects action is much easier to see. Will that is not free looks like instinct. It’s involuntary and inexorable. This is what we’re seeing in the last short play, above. Millie’s behavior in that play is a bit unnerving, because there’s something just a little inhuman about her this time (even without the stabbing); something almost mechanical. She’s like a knitting machine. In other words, she’s like a spider.

Spiders that spin webs2 do so instinctively.3 It’s what they do. If you ask a spider, “Why are you weaving a web now?,” she will reply: “I don’t know. Everyone in my family weaves webs all the time. It’s just what I do.”4 If you destroy her web, she will not stab you, because she’s not big enough to hold knitting needles (silly!). But she will start making her web all over again without hesitation. If you destroy the web again, she’ll weave it again. If you destroy it a hundred times, she will weave it again every time, until she dies. The spider will weave her web.

We tend not to notice will in these kinds of contexts—spiders and their webs, ants and our picnics, birds and the worms that eat of kings—because we free-willers automatically associate will with intention. But distinguishing will from intention can clarify confusing behaviors, like procrastination, in which conscious intention points in one direction and unconscious will—perhaps in the form of an underlying aversion, or an interfering habit—goes in any direction but the chosen one.

The story of will so far:

  • Will is not one and the same as intention.
  • Whereas intention is the idea of an action, will overcomes inertia and initiates action like a force.
  • It is possible to intend something but lack the will to make it happen.
  • It is possible to act with will without intending to do so.
  • Less complex life forms—spiders, for instance—demonstrate powerful will in their behaviors. Spiders do not have free will, though; their will is instinctive.
  • We human beings have free will, in the sense that we may choose (i.e. intend) a course of action, and then carry it out in an exercise of will. But there is no automatic guarantee that we actually shall follow through.

What is it that makes our will free, while the will of spiders is solely instinctive? In this post’s following two episodes, we’ll answer that question by searching more deeply into how will functions. We’ll also go into the reasons we conflate will with intention, and tend to see intention when we’re really looking for will (as when we’re trying to get ourselves to do something we’ve intended to do, but keep not doing). It all turns out to be related to bodies, intelligence, and executive functioning.

To be continued…


  1. What kinds of activities do you…

    • intend to do, but just don’t?
    • do without intending to?
    • have no trouble intending and doing?
  2. What does “the will to win” mean? How do you manifest it? Where do you feel it, and what does it feel like?

  3. Try to feel your will when you stick to your guns.

  4. Try to feel your will when you change your mind.

  1. “Often with the sense of deferring through indecision, when early action would have been preferable.”—Oxford English Dictionary

  2. Not all spiders spin webs. Many hunt down their prey (gulp!). However, for the purposes of this post, in which I am comparing web weaving to knitting, every time I refer to spiders, I will mean those types of spiders that spin webs. 

  3. I am indebted to Dr. Scott McPartland for the image of spiders weaving webs as a metaphor of instinctive will activity. 

  4. Don’t take my word for it. Ask Charlotte (from Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, page 39):

    I’m not entirely happy about my diet of flies and bugs, but it’s the way I’m made. A spider has to pick up a living somehow or other, and I happen to be a trapper. I just naturally build a web and trap flies and other insects. My mother was a trapper before me. Her mother was a trapper before her. All of our family have been trappers.


Those who spread their sails

Those who spread their sails in the right way to the winds of the earth will always find themselves borne by a current towards the open seas. The more nobly a person wills and acts, the more avid they become for great and sublime aims to pursue.

— Pierre Teilhard de Chardin


Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

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