Cultivating the will is of the utmost importance to mental training. While it is important to learn how to deliberate purposefully over major decisions, it is equally important to train the will to guide the more frequent and numerous small decisions that we make with little thought in our daily routines.
However, even for the major and deliberate decisions, the influence of a well-trained will is significant. It is the will that causes us to recognize opportunities and act upon them, and it is the will that causes us to recognize a good decision. In any moment, the will determines the motivations that prevail. And in any contest between two people, the man of a stronger will prevail over a man whose will is weak - even when there are considerable practical advantages in favor of the weaker individual, he will defer to the leadership of a man whose will is stronger.
The effort that must be expended in developing an attuned will is considerable, but is repaid by the ease of thinking afterward. A strong and well-trained will makes most decisions virtually automatic, and renders a person capable of exercising good judgment with minimal effort.
But ultimately, the will is the mechanism by which a man demonstrates his character. When we speak of a man's character, we are expressing admiration for his decisions - both the major and the minor ones. A man of strong will may not necessarily be a man of good character if his will leads him in the wrong direction, but a man of weak will is invariably a man of poor character.
Training the Will
The best and perhaps only way to train the will is to use it deliberately for a given purpose. The intellect may be trained by the performance of imaginary exercises, but the will can only be trained by actual application - because if a person is to come to rely upon his will, it must prove itself trustworthy in actual situations.
Again, there are many decisions we make in our daily lives without deliberation - for efficiency, we rely upon habits and fast judgments. Seize upon these opportunities to train the will - those in which time permits a person to be deliberate where deliberation seems unnecessary - and in which the application of the mind achieves small but constant rewards.
He further suggests that the will is best skilled by "accustoming it to face disagreeable things." It requires little willpower to commit oneself to an easy and pleasant course of action. In those situation the body follows the mind gladly. It is in situations where something difficult and unpleasant is required that we must learn to apply our willpower to identify, act upon, and commit to the completion of action.
A will that is trained in this way is ready to respond, even in a great emergency. The difference between a small inconvenience (such as giving up a seat on a train to an elderly person) and an act of heroism (such as rushing into a fire to save an injured person) is merely a matter of degree - the basic choice is the same, but only the details of the specific situation differ.
The will is built slowly, just as is the body. A man cannot hope to run ten miles if he has never run ten yards, nor can he hope to stand firm in the face of a significant peril if he has never abided a minor inconvenience. Those who refuse to develop their will through practice will find that it fails them when it is truly needed.
Habits are to man what instincts are to animals: they enable him to act quickly and accurately without deliberation. The difference is that instincts are innate whereas habits must be developed. A child's habits are taught to him, and he is merely the subject of being conditioned by others - but the habits of an adult are those of his own choosing.
It requires some effort to consciously develop good habits. Where thought is not applied, men choose the easiest course of action that leads to an obvious goal. The easiest course is in most instances to do nothing at all, to allow others to suffer and struggle, or to add to their inconveniences, and to allow oneself to continue to be as a child - the benefactor of the actions and influences of others, without self-direction.
Atkinson proposes a four-step process for developing habits, conceding that he has borrowed heavily from other sources (Professors James and Bain):
- Recognize that there is in any situation one course of action that is most effective and efficient at achieving a goal - if these situations routinely occur, then they are good candidates for the application of habits.
- Consider the qualities of a situation in which a habit should be used. That is, identify the key sensations that serve as "triggers" to activate the habit and be observant to them.
- Dedicate yourself to purposefully undertaking the action when you encounter the trigger. Especially avoid re-evaluating the situation and finding excuses to refrain from acting or to do something differently, as doing something different each time is poison to the development of habit.
- Seek opportunities to practice a habit in everyday life, and practice them literally every day. In time, they will become truly habitual, and there will be no need to be intentional in seeking opportunities.