November 1, 2016

Four Powerful Life Changes to Increase our Willpower.


Joshua Earle/Unsplash

“If you want to change your behavior then change your environment” ~ James Clear

I had been running for a few months, but couldn’t reach my 10km target.

No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t and would joke with my friends as being the “ninekm man.”

I happened to be in London and my hotel was close to Hyde Park. One late morning, I went for a run and set my running watch to nudge me on time and not kilometers and when I finally stopped, it read 10.84km.

The weather was much cooler as opposed to the merciless African heat back home, and I was encouraged by the sight of many runners at the park. However, I broke my mental barrier and when I went back home, I would regularly run 11,13 and 15km.

I pride myself on being well disciplined. I am a student and an advocator of self-discipline, self-reliance, self-help and self-development. (Everything that’s self.) I read it, I practice it, I teach it and almost all my achievements are because of my willpower and the strength I have in saying yes or no when I need to.

The undeniable fact is that designing our environment helps when our willpower fails.

James Clear’s article describes how Anne Thorndike—a primary care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston—and her colleagues completed a six-month study that was published in the American Journal of Public Health.

The study took place secretly in a hospital cafeteria to prove that by changing the environment—the way that food and drinks were displayed—indirectly influenced the purchasing choices of customers.

Researchers reorganized the way drinks were displayed, whereby bottled water was made more visible and within reach, and sugared soda drinks were not made as accessible. The results were remarkable as soda sales dropped by 15 percent and the water increased by 30 percent. Consequently, the customers ended up making healthy choices without relying on the use of their willpower.

Decades of research as detailed in books like The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal and Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, confirm that willpower is not something we have or don’t have, but rather it is a resource that can be used up, depleted or on the other hand built up and restored.

Willpower is like a muscle; it gets exhausted if we use it too much.

This doesn’t mean that we should ignore willpower, but can acknowledge that environment plays a big role.

Here are some ways to use environment to our advantage:

1) Use environment to break mental barriers.

We often have mental barriers that are difficult to break, no matter how much willpower we have. We need the help of some change in conditions to give us that extra edge or push.

I’ve been trying to cut out sugar in all its forms from my diet, especially when it comes in the form of a Yorkie chocolate bar, cheesecake or any type of cupcake. Recently I’ve found that the best way to stop my sugar splurge is to make sure it’s out of my sight.

I don’t allow it at home and when I eat out, I make sure that I’m not around when dessert is served. Though this may seem extreme, it’s allowed me to limit myself to only one dessert or sugary food per week.

2) Use environmental triggers.

We often associate certain sights, smells or actions with what we can and can’t do. All these environmental triggers are part of the conditions that subconsciously mould us. 

I love to smoke a cigar when I’m writing, but as my writing increased so did my smoking. I wanted to reduce the cigar intake but continue my writing. The cigar had inadvertently become an environmental trigger.

Now, I go through the ritual of smoking a cigar, cutting its cap, smelling it and just putting it next to me on an ashtray. I then get into my writing and forget all about smoking it.

3) Create an infrastructure that supports what you want to do.

No matter how disciplined we are, it’s difficult to behave in a certain way when everyone around us isn’t. If you want to stop smoking, then maybe it’s best to avoid friends who smoke and places where people are more inclined to smoke.

My writing has increased ten fold by going to various writers conferences, doing online courses and putting myself in the right places where like-minded people can support what I love to do. I take both their criticisms and their support wholeheartedly as we are united by a common passion—the love of reading and writing. That’s not something that I can share in my present life with my work colleagues or most of my friends.

4) Choose the right people around you.

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with” ~ Jim Rohn

It’s sad, but we have to admit that some people are just not good for us. They are negative and self-destructive and as much as we love them, they are struggling with their own demons. They don’t want us to do our thing and as such will pressure us, and put us down the second we do something for ourselves.

It’s difficult for kids to be able to run away from their toxic parents or peer group, though there are many examples of exactly that happening. However when we mature and know what we want, we have to know which people to keep, and which ones to let go, as they stand in our way.

Environment matters. We are quick to blame it when things don’t go our way. The economy is bad so sales numbers are down. However, we don’t mention the booming economy when sales go up and we rather applaud only the sales team.

The conditions and infrastructure around us drives both our good and bad behaviour and when we acknowledge and understand that fact, then we are able to align ourselves with a favourable environment.

When we use our willpower in the right environment, then it makes it easier for us to succeed in life.


Author: Mo Issa

Image: Joshua Earle/Unsplash & Shawn Whisenant/Flickr 

Editor: Sara Kärpänen

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