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According to 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?

Today’s BIG IDEA—Most people still approach their goals by trying to use sheer willpower, but research plainly shows this is not an effective strategy. Today we will learn how to bypass this common human tendency and dramatically increase your odds of achieving your goal.

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

Let me summarize and simplify the results of his study.

Baumeister then placed several groups of people in rooms, some with a plate full of healthy diced radishes, others with a plate full of calorie-packed chocolate chip cookies. Subjects had been instructed not to eat anything for 3 hours before the experiment. 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.

Group 1 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 far quicker than the other groups.

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

The study concluded that willpower is like a muscle that depletes with use.

Our environment is a powerful factor in shaping us

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.

Marine iguanas are an incredible living example of evolution. Unlike any other iguana, their bodies have adapted to marine environments.

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.

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—externally and internally.

Many people try to fight their way through life, ignoring their environments and just trying to use willpower to make personal changes.

Willpower should be a last resort, not your primary strategy.

Carefully choose the environments you place yourself in

Organizational psychologist Benjamin Hardy spent most of his time in graduate school studying willpower. For the life of me, I don’t know how he wrote a bestseller while completing a doctorate, but somehow, he accomplished this even while raising 5 children (I highly recommend his incredible book Willpower Doesn’t Work).

After years of researching this topic, Hardy convincingly argues that people should use their limited willpower to consciously design their environments to make their goals easier to achieve.

A pastor of mine used to say, “If you have a problem with alcohol, don’t go to your favorite bar for the nachos.”

Likewise, if you want to become a professional skier, you would probably increase your odds if you move to the mountains, ski every day, and start hanging out with other professional skiers.

In other words—when your goal is important enough—you arrange your entire life around it.

More often than not, identity follows behavior, not the other way around.

In an unbelievable study on the effects of our social environments, researchers found that even the friend of your friend’s friend can influence your life without you even knowing it. In their 2009 book Connected, Harvard and Yale alumni James Fowler and Nicolas Christakis explain their theory on how social networks influence human health and behavior. Here is an excerpt from the New York Times book review:

So if your friend’s friend’s friend — whom you’ve never met, and lives a thousand miles away — gains weight, you’re likely to gain weight, too. And if your friend’s friend’s friend loses weight, you’re likely to lose weight, too.”

If this sounds really confusing, here is how it worksIf Joe knows Susie and Susie knows Matt, Matt’s habits are likely to affect Joe (even if they don’t know each other) because they share a mutual friend.

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 are being influenced even when we don’t realize it.

As Winston Churchill brilliantly said—We shape our buildings (i.e. environment), and thereafter they shape us.

Turn information into action

Here are some recommendations:

  1. Use your limited willpower to carefully choose and create your environments. 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. Choose your inner circle carefully because you will become them. Limit time with people whose habits you don’t want.
  3. 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 want to pursue. It will literally pull you forward toward your investment!
  4. Make your commitment public. This creates psychological tension that makes you want to have your actions match your words.
  5. Set a timeline. Without a timeline, goals are just ideas. Deciding when to do something launches your brain into action.
  6. Create feedback and accountability systems. Ask a friend if you can report weekly progress to them on your goal. Research confirms this increases your chances of success.
  7. 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 things that put drag on the big changes you want to make in your life.

Suggested Resources

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

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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