Traditional thinking says we perceive, decide through reason, and then act through willpower. If we want to live a better life, we therefore need to get better at reasoning and foster a stronger power of will. Brooks says this model has placed too much faith in the strength of reason and willpower and their ability to produce the best results.
The evidence suggests reason and will are like muscles, and not particularly powerful muscles. In some cases and in the right circumstances, they can resist temptation and control the impulses. But in many cases they are simply too weak to impose self-discipline by themselves. In many cases self-delusion takes control.
The most recent research points towards the first step, perception, as by far the most important.
Perceiving isn’t just a transparent way of taking in. It is a thinking and skillful process. Seeing and evaluating are not two separate processes, they and linked and basically simultaneous. The research of the last thirty years suggests that some people have taught themselves to perceive more skillfully than others. The person with good character has taught herself to see situations in the right way. When she sees something in the right way, she’s rigged the game. She’s triggered a whole network of unconscious judgments and responses in her mind, biasing her to act in a certain way. Once the game has been rigged, reason and will have a much easier time.
At the center of perception is that which we choose to give our attention. It is much easier to perceive in the right way if we decide which parts of our outer worlds will get let in and which parts of our inner worlds will dominate our behavior. Those who can control their attention control their lives, says Brooks.
The whole drama of voluntary life hinges on the amount of attention, slight more or slightly less, which rival motors ideas receive… Effort of attention is thus the essential phenomenon of the will.