Willpower in the Time of Coronavirus

The evolutionary psychology behind staying motivated while working remotely.

Posted Mar 26, 2020

 Ryan McGuire, Gratisography
Source: Used with permission: Ryan McGuire, Gratisography

Writers I follow on social media are beating up on themselves for all the work they aren’t getting done during the coronavirus quarantine.

They aren’t being fair to themselves.

The latest science on willpower explains why they feel so unmotivated—and suggests the answer to changing that: to getting and staying motivated.

I explain in my “science-help” book, Unf*ckology, that “willpower (a.k.a. self-control) is the ability to fight off temptation in the moment and cling—like a shipwrecked rat on driftwood—to your long-term goals.”

Research on willpower by psychologist Robert Kurzban and his colleagues suggests that willpower is not, as previously believed, the sort of stuff we run out of, like orange juice—a “limited resource.” Instead, it seems willpower is a sort of evolved monitoring system—our mind’s way of stopping us from persisting in survival-impinging behavior.

For example, if the ancestral you chipped endlessly away at a tree in hopes of getting to the steak you believed was inside, you would eventually have become too bummed out—too lacking in willpower—to finish. This would have kept you alive to go chase a squirrel to fry up or at least hunt down some berries so you wouldn’t starve to death.

Accordingly, the Kurzban team’s research suggests that willpower is energy for self-control that’s “financed” by reward. Simply put, our mind needs to see that we aren’t doing some difficult or tiresome task for nothing, spilling out all our energy without anything to show for it.

Give your mind the sense that your work leads to reward, and it will release more energy to you. This is why a kid can be too weary to do his homework yet not too weary to toss his math book behind the couch and play video games for 13 hours straight.

Luckily, this “is it rewarding?” monitoring system seems to be pretty sensitive—fronting you more willpower if you give it the smallest signs your efforts are being rewarded. This can come in the form of the feel-good of a snack, a nap, or even praise for you and your work from somebody you respect.

Conversely, “negative” emotions—feel-bad emotions like sadness and loneliness—erode our willpower, often even before we start.

We tend not to realize how important our social world is for keeping our spirits up. But we evolved to be a cooperative species, a social species—to borrow from Ms. Streisand, “people who need people.”

This makes this social distancing in the age of coronavirus especially hard on people’s work motivation

But there’s an easy way to change this without going out and breathing on people. And it’s free. And it's surprisingly motivating—as I personally discovered over the past few weeks.

I’m a member of the Invisible Institute West, the West Coast arm of a professional non-fiction authors’ group that started in New York. (To be in the group, you have to have a non-fiction book published by a major publishing house or at least be under contract to write one. We meet monthly for dinner and to hear an invited speaker talk to the group.)

In early March, one of our members, Annabelle Gurwitch, a comedic essayist and memoirist, started hosting Monday night writing sessions at her house. Authors from our group would come over, say hi briefly, then get on their computers and write. No talking or socializing at that point. Just writing.

I wanted to go, but I no longer have a car, and Annabelle lives about a $300 Uber ride from me.

At the same time, coronavirus started to look seriously scary to people in the U.S., and I started seeing a lot of writers and thinkers on Twitter saying they were too upset and too obsessed with the news to get any writing done.

Annabelle sent out an email:

Hi invisibles, are you having as much trouble writing as I am? I am considering moving Monday nights to Zoom. ... What about this idea - we do a group Zoom, anyone of us can join in, and we sit quietly and write, just like in person. We’re just virtual, we write for...hour or two, then have a little 5 minute chat break and write again, could do 3 hours, 2 hours. Anyone interested? Annabelle

People were into it, and Annabelle scheduled the session.

We all came on Zoom at 3:30 p.m., talked for a few minutes, then we all put our sound on mute (while leaving the video up). We took a break at 5:15, and some people left, but Annabelle and I both stayed on for another hour. 

Normally, at 5 p.m., I am too tired to keep writing—I pretty much face-plant on the couch—but the fact that I wasn’t alone was amazingly powerful. I felt similarly in the Zoom writing sessions in the days that followed.

A big part of this is not just knowing that others are writing as you are but being able to flick back to the page with all their faces engaged in their work. The only real downside is that people will see the weird thing you do with your face while writing and remark on how you haven't changed your clothes in a week (after you show up in the same hot pink fleece jacket every single day).

Of course, you don't have to be a writer to take advantage of this video meetup thing. People are having cocktail hours and even sexytime on Zoom. 

Ultimately, I think it’s essential that we recognize and acknowledge how vital other people are to our well-being. Using technology to maintain community is the way to both be at our most productive and to keep social distancing from turning into social isolation.

Disclosure: “As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.”


Kurzban, Robert, Angela Duckworth, Joseph W. Kable, and Justus Myers. "An opportunity cost model of subjective effort and task performance." Behavioral and brain sciences 36, no. 6 (2013): 661-679.

Kurzban, Robert. "The sense of effort." Current Opinion in Psychology 7 (2016): 67-70.