*This post contains elements of prior posts, but is a new post!

The Big Idea— Most people try to make changes in their lives by using willpower while ignoring the environments they place themselves in. But research plainly shows that willpower is like a muscle that fatigues if you use it too heavily in a short period of time. Today we will learn how to bypass this common human tendency and dramatically increase your odds of making big changes in your life.

A few years ago, my wife and I got the chance to take a bucket list trip to the Galapagos Islands.

One of the fascinating things we got to see on our trip were Darwin’s famous marine iguanas, found nowhere else in the world. They served as a key species in unlocking his theories.

Marine iguanas are an incredible living example of evolution. Unlike any other iguana, their bodies have adapted to find food in the marine environment.

They can dive up to 100 feet deep and remain under water for up to 30 minutes. Over time, they developed flatter tails that propel them in the ocean, webbed feet for swimming, longer claws for clutching slippery rocks, and blunt noses in order to eat seaweed in tight underwater cracks.

Unlike the typical green iguana, their skin is also darker to absorb heat from the sun so they can remain warm while submerged.

The environment literally shaped their physical bodies.

As humans, we aren’t much different. According to research, our environments play a gigantic role in shaping us—physically and psychologically.

Many people try to make changes in their lives while ignoring the raw power of the environments they are choosing to place themselves in. They simply believe they can use willpower to fight for the changes they are seeking.

But research shows this is not an effective strategy. Willpower doesn’t work.

Willpower diminishes with use

According to a 2018 study by US News & World Report, 80 percent of people fail at New Year’s resolutions, and most of them by mid-February!

Why are the vast majority of people failing at their goals?

Surely there are more people with the determination and will to succeed?

In 1998, renowned psychologist Roy Baumeister conducted a fascinating landmark study that helps explain why willpower is so ineffective in helping us make changes in our lives.

Let me summarize the results of his study.

Subjects were instructed not to eat anything for 3 hours before the experiment. Baumeister then placed two groups of people in rooms, 1 group with a plate full of healthy diced radishes, others with a plate full of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.

But here’s the catch—the subjects with the radishes could eat whatever they wanted, but those with the plate of chocolate chip cookies were explicitly forbidden from eating them.

The cookie group had to sit and stare at the enticing plate of cookies for a significant length of time, resisting the urge to eat one.

Next, all participants were given an extremely difficult puzzle to solve and timed on how long they would persist in trying to solve it (it was actually not solvable).

The result?

The group that had to endure staring at the cookies without being able to indulge, gave up on the puzzle much faster than the other group.

In other words, they had exhausted every ounce of their finite mental energy resisting the cookies and had no persistence left to try to solve the puzzle.

The study concluded that willpower is like a muscle that fatigues when used too much in a short period of time.

Or, as one of my pastors used to say frequently, “If you struggle with alcohol, don’t go to your favorite bar for the nachos.”

Choose your environments carefully

Organizational psychologist Benjamin Hardy spent most of his time in graduate school studying willpower.

His bestselling book Willpower Doesn’t Work is the culmination of his studies.

Hardy convincingly argues that people should use their limited willpower to consciously design their environments to make their goals easier to achieve.

When you want to change badly enough—you arrange your entire life around it.

Whether you want to be a professional skier, a great writer, or ensure you stay sober—you have to get yourself around people further along in the journey.

You need to place yourself in the environments that will shape you into the person you long to become.

Consider the following ways you can design your environments:

  • People you choose to hang out with (social environment)
  • Information you choose to consume (mental environment—read, watch, listen)
  • Places you choose to go (physical)
  • Experiences you choose to have (memory and emotion)

Here are a few more studies that highlight the power our environment has on us…

In a massive study, The Equality of Opportunity Project, results showed that whether you will improve your economic situation is highly predicted by the county you live in.

In their 2009 book Connected, Harvard and Yale alumni James Fowler and Nicolas Christakis explain research on how social networks influence many things from weight gain to heart disease to suicide.

In our culture of hard-core individualism, we like to think we can make changes on our own while ignoring our physical and social environments. But countless studies debunk this thinking.

“We shape our buildings (i.e. environment), and thereafter they shape us.” –Winston Churchill

Turn information into action

  1. Use your limited willpower to carefully pre-select environments that facilitate your goals. If you want to improve your leadership, your marriage, or your relationship with your children, you can schedule yourself into environments that make it more likely that you will achieve those goals. If you want to become a better leader, attend leadership workshops. If you want a better marriage, invest in a marriage retreat. If you want to stop eating sugar, don’t even keep it in the house.
  2. Hang out with people whose habits you want to develop. As Jim Rohn famously said—You are the average of the top 5 people you spend the most time with. Choose your inner circle carefully because you will become them. Limit time with people whose habits you don’t want.
  3. Read what you want to become. Consume information that shapes you into the person you long to become.
  4. Invest heavily into your goal up front. According to “sunk-cost-bias,” people are likely to wear shoes they hate simply because they paid a lot of money for them. You can use this to your advantage by paying a lot of money up front for something you really want to pursue. It will literally pull you forward toward your investment.
  5. Make your commitment public. This creates psychological tension that makes you want to have your actions match your words.
  6. Set a timeline. Without a timeline, goals are just ideas. Deciding when to do something launches your brain into action.
  7. Create feedback and accountability systems. Ask a friend if you can report weekly progress to them on your goal.
  8. Remove everything possible from your environment that hinders your goal. Too many competing priorities will dilute your most important goals. It will strip vital momentum from your highest aspirations. Cut out things that put drag on the most important changes you want to make in your life.

Suggested Resources

  1. Willpower Doesn’t Work—Benjamin Hardy
  2. Connected—Fowler and Christakis
Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Opinions expressed are the authors own.
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