Willpower Won’t Get You There

You want to have a habit. Exercising, flossing, practicing. You keep it up for a while. Then, like clockwork, a couple of days later, you stop. You blame yourself, cursing your willpower for not being strong enough.

Except, willpower doesn’t work for anyone. Willpower won’t get you where you want to go. There’s a better alternative.

Why won’t willpower work? A couple of reasons. First, it’s the weakest muscle in the body: after a single exertion, it wants to go back to rest. This seems obvious given how hard it is to keep doing something, but many think it’s just them. It’s not.

You see, willpower is really not made to be exercised. It even gets tired as the day goes on. Take a look at what you do throughout the day, and for most people, the later the time of day, the worse the decisions. Have you ever woken up and looked at the browser tabs open from the night before, wondering how you could have spent so much time watching something so useless? This is called decision fatigue, and it’s the reason why tech gurus wear the same shirt every day.

Second, using willpower to push yourself to do things is like pushing a boulder up a hill. It works for a while, but it’s not the natural state of things. That boulder wants to go down, and it’ll keep pushing you until you give up. You need to exert force just to maintain the status quo, let alone change it.

The only way to stop the boulder from pushing is to flatten the hill. The hill is your environment, and for most of us, it’s sloped, so it’s making everything come against you. If your group of friends drinks, you’ll drink too. If you have a game console in the living room, you’ll use it. If your family is untidy, you won’t mind the odd object on the ground.

But I’m not the first to say this. If you’re reading this, you likely already know that your environment is important. The cliche sentence goes: “you shape your environment and your environment shapes you.” Everyone has heard of it. Thing is, it’s really abstract. So let me make it more concrete.

Your environment is just the friction between you and the things you do:

If there is one thing you can count on, is that you will always do what’s easiest to you. Every day, every hour, every minute. That’s just how we evolved as humans.

In the chart above, playing video games and browsing Instagram are the actions that take the least number of steps. So this person will find themselves doing those more than the rest.

Your environment only works for you when the things that are easy to you and the things that are good for you are the same. So in our case, we could help our person out with some modifications:

We changed their environment only slightly, but this person is already much better off. Doomscrolling apps are uninstalled, fruit and books are on the table, the exercise equipment is easy to reach, and the game console is in its box. Mathematically, this person is going to have a good day.

I call this friction control. You’re a chef, and friction your ingredient. Manipulate your surroundings by removing friction from one place and adding it to the other. You’ll find willpower was overrated the entire time.