The Way of the Will 3: Diversion

If you’ve had a toddler, you know this tactic.  When your child reaches for a fragile or unwholesome object, you divert his attention with some other attractive activity.  Aunt Grace’s shiny knickknack is not good to touch, but the silky ears of her puppy are!  But for children who are learning boundaries, it is not good to rely exclusively on diversion; they do need to be taught that some things are simply forbidden.  So as they get older we drop this ploy and expect them to develop self-control.  But happily, some few children discover how to divert themselves.

As explained in the last post, the Stanford marshmallow experiment showed that children who successfully resisted the temptation to eat a treat went on to have greater success in many areas of their teen and adult lives.  What made these children special?  How were they able, at such a young age, to control themselves while temptation was staring them in the face?  They used what Professor Walter Mischel calls “strategic allocation of attention.”  In other words —they distracted themselves.

STRATEGIC ALLOCATION OF RESOURCES: UR DOIN IT WRONG“Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow…the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from Sesame Street.  ‘If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,’ Mischel says. ‘The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.'”

Many of the children who failed had engaged temptation head on.  They would attempt to stare down the marshmallow, trying to control themselves by force of will.  This approach is doomed.  What we would think of as summoning up determination —“I will not eat the marshmallow, I will not eat the marshmallow, I will not eat the marshmallow,” is not effective at all.  What does work is distraction, or as Charlotte Mason termed it, diversion.

“Children should be taught…

    • That the way to will effectively is to turn our thoughts away from that which we desire but do not will.
    • That the best way to turn our thoughts is to think of, or do some quite different thing, entertaining or interesting…

This adjunct of the will is familiar to us as diversion, whose office it is to ease us for a time from will effort that we may ‘will’ again with added power.”

—Charlotte Mason                                                      

Diversion is like the martial art of Aikido.  You don’t block a blow, you divert it.

Although a large force is necessary to stop the punch directly, only a small force is needed to deflect it.

Similarly, a large force of will is necessary to resist temptation directly, but only a small force of will is needed to deflect it.  Your choice of weapon for this task is important.  It should be a “quite different thing, entertaining or interesting.”   Consider your tactics beforehand, so you are ready when the time comes.  Ideally you should find a diversion that is both compelling and innocuous.  Sift through your habitual daydreams, the thoughts that have worn deep ruts in your mind.  They will be easy to turn to.  Or alternatively there may be a fascinating idea that has recently captured your attention.  Choose wisely!  You don’t want to reinforce your bad habits.  Examine your ideas for toxicity and don’t turn to anything that you would not otherwise will  for yourself. 

…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things…practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.                                                                —Philippians 4:8-9                                   

Note that you don’t have to try to divert yourself with only lofty ‘spiritual’  ideas.  Whatever is good, if there is any excellence—sports or novels or home improvement or happy memories or Fermat’s Last Theorem if that floats your boat—just so long as it’s wholesome.

Sometimes, redirecting the thoughts is not enough.  Temptation will not be banished, and you feel your resolve weakening.  Then it is time for action.  “Do some quite different thing, entertaining or interesting.”  Physically remove yourself from the temptation: the website, the snacks,  the bad company.  Again, don’t be a martyr about it; go to an activity you can enjoy.  Think about this beforehand.  What do you like to do that isn’t bad for you?  Take a leisurely walk outside, or keep a good novel handy.  Take a little time for a creative pursuit you never get around to.  Call a friend. 

This may seem counterproductive.  You think you don’t have time to indulge yourself, and what you really need is the willpower to quit dillydallying and get to work.  But remember diversion is a tactic, not an end in itself.   Charlotte said that “after a little rest in this way, the will returns to its work with new vigour.”  How is this so?  Like a muscle, will is replenished after a rest.  Diversion is useful when the will is depleted and needs a strategic retreat to regroup.  By choosing to divert yourself with a wholesome activity rather than an addictive time sink, you are exercising the will muscle with small weights.  With practice you will become able to lift heavier ones. 

“When the overstrained will asks for repose, it may not relax to yielding point but may and must seek recreation, diversion. A change of physical or mental occupation is very good, but if no other change is convenient, let us think of something else, no matter how trifling. A story book we are reading, a friend we hope to see, anything….   In a surprisingly short time (the will) is able to return to the charge and to choose this day the path of duty, however dull or tiresome, difficult or dangerous. This ‘way of the will’ is a secret of power, the secret of self-government, with which people should be furnished….”

—Charlotte Mason

You can also take advantage of “productive procrastination” at times when you have the mental energy for it.   Rather than succumbing entirely to, for instance, surfing instead of writing, leverage your disinclination into less daunting but still productive work, like starting dinner early, or decluttering a part of your office.  The trick is to choose a task that gives satisfying, quick results.  You don’t want to get sucked down a rabbit trail that causes you to abandon your goal.  You want to distract your brain from the idea of giving up, and provide an ego boost.  This gives you a little momentum to carry forward into your other work.  Set a timer for 15 minutes or so if you need to remind yourself when it’s time to switch back.


The old adage, “a change is good as a rest” does not apply to physical labor, but to the work of the mind.  Charlotte advocated short, varied lessons for primary school children for this reason.

“…the brain, or some portion of the brain, becomes exhausted when any given function has been exercised too long. The child has been doing sums for some time, and is getting unaccountably stupid: take away his slate and let him read history, and you find his wits fresh again.”

As children were trained in the mental habit of paying attention lessons would be lengthened, but still varied, in order to give one mental muscle a rest while another is put to use.  So can we take advantage of this principle to stay productive when we are inclined to quit.

Imagine you are learning to ride.  You are beginning to get the hang of controlling this powerful animal, but can’t yet make it do everything you want it to.  You are riding across a green field when something spooks it and suddenly you find yourself on a runaway horse!  You pull back on the reins as hard as you can, but he has the bit between his teeth and won’t slow down at all.  Then you see it straight ahead—the edge of the forest!  The branches are thick and dense. Your horse may weave through safely, but you will surely be knocked off!  What do you do?  Give up trying to stop the horse, and steer him instead. You pull the reins to the right, and the horse veers off, back around the field.  Disaster is averted.  The horse may still be running, but at least you can direct him.  Let him run on the level grass until he calms down and will obey again.  This can happen to even the best riders, but as you practice and become more skillful, you will be less likely to lose control and quicker to regain it.