When Willpower Won’t Work
Our 3-Step Process for Creating a Goal-Nourishing Environment
When a plant doesn’t grow, we don’t criticize the plant…
We don’t say, “This plant is useless.”
We don’t say, “Ugh, this always happens. You never grow. I shouldn’t have even planted you in the first place.”
No. Instead, we ask if it’s had enough water and sunlight. We consider the quality of the soil. Maybe the room is too dry, or too cold, or too humid. Some people even play music for their plants to encourage growth.
In other words, we consider the environment. We assess the conditions that the plant is in, and we try to change those conditions to support the plant’s vitality.
Yet, the experience is quite different when it comes to the way we treat people. We talk to ourselves and others quite differently.
When people don’t grow, succeed, or accomplish their goals, we tend to blame the individual. When people make poor decisions, we usually see it as a personal failure.
When we, ourselves, do the same, the response is usually harsher.
For many of us, that means an onslaught of damaging self-talk, regret, frustration, stress, and depression, leading to even more destructive decisions. It creates a negative feedback loop and directly impacts our beliefs about our ability to change.
In other words, we are jerks to ourselves.
This is why I often tell my clients, “What would you tell a friend going through your situation?” The response is often worlds apart.
Even pop-psychology and self-help books over-emphasize individual agency. We hear that we are capable of anything if we just try hard enough. We hear that we need to work harder, care more, wake up earlier, take ownership, change our beliefs, change our actions, and persevere despite the odds.
Don’t get me wrong. These are all great things, but they emphasize change based solely on willpower. And so they ignore the importance of the environment. They ignore the profound impact of the external world on our personal development.
This is a critical oversight. We are in constant relationship to the world around us, making constant exchanges and interactions in an ecosystem of sorts.
We influence it. It influences us.
In considering your goals, you must also consider how your environment supports or hinders your progress.
The environment encompasses all aspects of your surroundings: culture, family, relationships, social circles, living space, resources, etc.
Your environment contains cues, or triggers that set off a chain of events leading to a behavior or set of behaviors. The external cues lead to a series of thoughts, which leads to an emotional response, which leads to behavior.
For example, driving past a fast food restaurant can activate thoughts of warm, crispy, salty fries. These thoughts will lead to a physiological response as we begin to experience a craving for the food. There is now a desire that we didn’t have before. This leads to the behavior of going through the drive-thru and ordering. If this happens enough times, we may begin to experience cravings as soon as we get in the car, perhaps after a long, stressful day of work.
And so we go through life conditioning (and being conditioned by) these cues, or anchors from our environment. We link certain stimuli to certain emotions and certain emotions to certain behaviors. These sequences are the patterns that govern our lives.
They are also the reason we often fail to change.
Although our willpower works sometimes, it is not entirely reliable. There are several things that compromise our willpower, which is why we often find ourselves doing something even though we know very well it’s not “good” for us.
See, people don’t act based on what they know. They act based on how they feel.
If how we feel is determined by what’s happening around us, then our knowledge doesn’t stand a chance in certain situations.
But there is good news here: We can recondition ourselves.
When we are aware of the impact that our environment has on our behavior and lifestyle, we can begin to make external adjustments to produce the personal changes we want.
Even small tweaks to your external environment can create massive internal shifts and give you the support you need to change, for good.
These internal shifts support us in making more external adjustments. This is the upward cycle of self-transformation.
I always tell my clients: Make the wrong decisions the hardest and the right decisions the easiest.
Through this, you can play with rewards and demands in the environment to drive you in the right direction.
Put yourself in surroundings that demand the most of you. Necessity is the birthplace of high performance. Necessity to act. Necessity to perform. Necessity to become great. Put yourself in situations that eliminate all other options. Put yourself in situations that demand excellence.
Change happens when your should become musts.
This change usually doesn’t happen through willpower alone, but also through optimizing your environment. The two must work together.
With this in mind, you can begin to optimize your environment for personal success using this 3-Step Process.
Grab a sheet of paper, a blank document, or a journal and begin…
Step 1: Analyze
- Identify your goals. What changes do you want to make in your life?
- What are the behaviors that are currently getting in the way of you reaching those goals?
- What is the chain of events that lead to those behaviors? Think about the situations, thoughts, and emotions leading to those actions. When, where, and how do those limiting behaviors occur?
- What cues from your environment are leading to those limiting behaviors? Identify the signals or triggers that kick off the causal chain identified above.
Step 2: Strategize
- What behaviors are needed to reach your goals?
- What changes can you make in your current environment to support and encourage those behaviors?
- What changes can you make to reduce exposure to the cues you identified in Step 1?
- How would these external changes make a difference in your life?
Step 3: Optimize
- Begin with one change you identified in Step 2.
- Make a plan for implementing this change. Start with something feasible to increase your chances of success. It’s usually best to choose something small, but impactful. Target a simple change that is likely to generate the greatest outcome.
- Assess the results of this change after one week and adjust as needed. Consider any changes that should be made. Do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.
- When you are ready to implement another change, return to your list from Step 2 to repeat the process.
- Make one change weekly and within a month you will begin to see substantial results as you condition yourself to your upgraded environment and begin to make changes with greater ease.
Here are some examples of changes our clients have implemented to optimize their environment in support of their goals:
- Moving your cellphone away from the bed, so you have to get up to turn off the alarm
- Using an app (Alarmy is our go-to) that requires a certain action, such as scanning a barcode, to turn off the alarm.
- Removing all junk food from the house and replacing it with healthy alternatives
- Meal prep and keeping healthy snacks in your car or bag for convenience
- Packing gym bag the night before
- Taking a different route home from work
- Donating all clothing you haven’t worn in 3 months
- Changing your social circle by joining (or leaving) a group or initiating conversations with people you admire
- Making commitments to others and having an accountability partner
- Creating separate spaces for work and relaxation or other activities
- Taking the television out of the bedroom and/or living room
- Unsubscribing from mailing lists that don’t provide you with value
- Turn off all lights before bed; use candles instead.
- Eliminate use of screens after 8 PM
- Put your phone in a drawer when you get home in the evening
- Using apps or systems to track daily performance and progress
- Scheduling automatic delivery of household goods or items