It seems common sense to think of will-power – our capacity to do or not do the things that matter to us – as coming only from within us. If I can’t start something or stop something, develop a new habit or take up a project, if I find myself procrastinating, then it must all be down to me, and me alone. And, if that’s the case then pushing harder, or harsh self-criticism, or both, seem to be the way to go in order to get myself started.
But self-punishing is hardly life giving, and barely supports our capacity to flourish and get up to what matters in a sustained way. And it’s based on a profound misunderstanding, deeply rooted in our culture, that we are essentially separate from the world. If I’m separate, if the world is essentially divided into me (my mind, my thinking) and everything out there which I have to move or push against, then when I find myself not moving or not pushing what other conclusion can I come to than (1) I’m not trying hard enough and (2) there’s something wrong with me?
But there is another way to look at this that takes into account how open to the world, how indivisible from the world, we are. When we see this we also start to see how much we are affected by who and what is around us. We discover that the world is an affordance for certain things – that different places and people draw out of us different kinds of action and inaction, and that this is often a better description of what’s happening than ‘I willed it’.
Chairs beckon me to sit, paths beckon me to walk, people who are open and receptive beckon me to speak, others beckon me to keep quiet. Place a stack of chocolate biscuits on my desk, and I am drawn to eat. Place a phone in my pocket, filled with incoming messages, tweets, emails, voicemail – and I am drawn to check.
Our whole physical and social world acts as a scaffold or a pathway for our action and inaction.
The startling corollary of this is that how we are in the world is not brought about by inner will alone. It is also, in large part, brought about by what and who we choose to surround ourselves with in our homes and work spaces. In this way the worlds we build for ourselves also make us.
And just as the road layout and road signs here in the UK are an affordance for driving on the left (they call for left-of-the-road driving), and those in mainland Europe or the US are an affordance for driving on the right, we can begin to lay out – with our choice of possessions, tools, spaces and relationships – paths that are an affordance for distraction and delay, or for doing what matters most to us.