Some people make things happen; other people have things happen to them; and then there are those who just wonder what happened!
For those who often find themselves in the latter groups, the problem is four-fold: Making the decision in the first place to accomplish a task; having the willpower to act on the decision, having sufficient time to accomplish it; and finally, having the necessary resources. I know it all appears so simple as to run the risk of being easily dismissed, but let’s explore the idea a little further.
In human life, we all have agency. In other words, each person has the ability to actively make things happen rather than passively letting things happen to them. The Baha’i teachings address the issue of making things happen this way:
The attainment of any object is conditioned upon knowledge, volition and action. Unless these three conditions are forthcoming, there is no execution or accomplishment. In the erection of a house it is first necessary to know the ground, and design the house suitable for it; second, to obtain the means or funds necessary for the construction; third, actually to build it. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 157.
We all want to make things happen in our lives, and for the good of the world. But doing that depends on the power of our intentions—the force of our will, or, as Abdu’l-Baha puts it, our volition.
The pathway to hell, they say, is paved with those good intentions. C. S. Lewis, in his book, The Screwtape Letters, elaborates upon this same theme and gives us a clue as to what can undermine volition. In his relentless effort to school his neophyte devil nephew Wormwood in the art of counseling patients on how to go in the wrong direction, Screwtape, an old and experienced devil, advises Wormwood that the way to ensure the triumph of evil over good is to encourage his patient to have noble intentions—but then not act upon them.
The initial effect? More energy is required to either sustain an existing intention or generate new ones. Eventually, in the absence of any action to carry out the intention, he becomes numb—he no longer has any feelings with respect to intentionality. He has become completely ineffective in exerting his will or volition in the world.
There seems to be very strong indication from human development research that, although evidenced in varying degrees, willpower, or volition, is one of the gifts with which humans are naturally endowed. So, what has happened to us that we have such flabby wills? While researching this issue, a Russian psychologist named B. Ziegarnik revealed a rather interesting finding, one that she or others later termed the “Ziegarnik Effect.”
Briefly, Ziegarnik found that in some rather mysterious way, as one decides to do something, or accepts the delegation of a task from someone else, the mind directs a portion of its available energy to be held in a sort of psychological impound or escrow account, to be spent only for the completion of that task.
If we fail to complete the task, or worse, forget the original decision, that energy nevertheless continues to remain within this psychological lock-box, unavailable for the completion of other tasks. Should one continue to make decisions and not act upon them, the cumulative effect causes the system to experience a power failure, as most of the energy that once was available has been spoken for. How often have you heard yourself say, “Whatever happened to my day, the past week, or my life?”
Moreover, Ziegarnik’s research indicates that both the remembered as well as the forgotten decisions we have not acted upon will create anxiety—because on some level we’re subconsciously bothered, nagged and even haunted by not having completed the tasks we’ve promised to tackle. This condition can lead to sleeplessness and a general state of lethargy and apathy as well. Sound familiar?
While undoubtedly there very well may be genetic and cultural factors that contribute to or limit one’s ability to get things done, I am convinced that no matter where we find ourselves on the genetic promise or cultural orientation spectrum with respect to volition, we can all benefit from training. Although many suggestions can be given for reversing the Ziegarnik Effect, let’s just look at a few.
For starters, we should avoid making conscious decisions or taking on those made for us by others unless we are truly willing and able to act upon them, and consummate them quickly and with distinction.
I should like to underscore the importance of completing tasks with distinction. Completed tasks done superbly actually cause an impulse to be sent to the pleasure center of the brain, bringing not only delight but also a release of new energy and enhanced motivation. Once you’ve built the house, in other words, you’ve not only completed the task but primed your mind and soul to energetically accomplish the next one.