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Why willpower doesn’t work, and what to do instead

March 9th 2018 / Anna Hunter / 0 comment

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According to organisational psychologist Benjamin Hardy, “willpower is nothing more than a dangerous fad that’s bound to lead to failure.” So if willpower doesn’t help us to achieve our goals, what does?

Willpower: it’s seemingly required to get us through an epic work project, cajole us to the gym and prevent us from eating that fourth HobNob. Yet, according to psychologist and author of the recently published Willpower Doesn’t Work, “if you want to make any permanent change in your life, willpower won’t get you there.” This seems at odds with many a self-help tome telling us to look inwards to source the required strength, force and determination to succeed. If inner resolve isn’t enough to spur us on to glory in our personal and professional lives (clearly Hardy is onto something here- one of the top reasons that we cite for not achieving our aims is a lack of willpower), then what does actually work to help us to reach that career milestone, nail a fitness challenge or get back in control with our finances? Leave the willpower at the door and do these instead…

Change your environment (before it changes you)

Hardy doesn’t beat around any bushes when stating what it takes to realise your ambitions:

“Everything in life is a natural and organic process. We adapt and evolve based on the environments we select. You are who you are because of your environment. Want to change? Then change your environment. Stop the willpower madness already.”

Hardy’s tone throughout is pretty frank. In his view, “willpower sucks and you need to forget about it.” Instead, he advocates proactively shaping our environment before it starts to control us. Basically, if we’re not actively altering our surroundings for the better, we’ll simply be reacting to environments that we find ourselves in that may not align with our intentions or values, and as such we’re doomed to backslide into old behaviour patterns and habits.

Willpower constitutes “white-knuckling” our way to change, while dictating and enriching our own environments means that accomplishment becomes more automatic, rather than an effort. Dissolving internal conflict by making your environment harmonise with your end goal will mean that you needn’t flex the willpower muscle at all- according to Hardy it’s a finite resource that tires quickly. Hence drinking all the wine on a Friday evening when you just CANNOT. Eliminate the wine, eliminate the need for willpower at all.

There’s actually quite a bit of elimination chat in this book, but it’s presented as a positive that puts you firmly back into the driving seat of your life, rather than a means of cruel deprivation. If you’ve firmly decided to ditch the Sauv, removing it from the vicinity and creating a new goal-orientated environment for yourself, in which you’re not defaulting to the pub and surrounding yourself with Sauv drinkers, will lead to a quicker, smoother and happier process of change overall. It’s not a new concept, but the practical tools in the book and pure no-BS sense presented in every chapter will help you to create a positive external environment meaning that you needn’t exhaust you inner reserves in a quest for change. Not that it’s easy, mind…

Adapt, one wardrobe clearout at a time

We’ve just covered removing elements of life that are in conflict with the positive decisions you’ve made, but leaving old crutches and comforts behind can sting, as Hardy acknowledged:

“If you want to evolve to another level, you need to let go. There will likely be some withdrawals. You’ll be tempted to revert back. But if you do, you won’t make it out of your current atmosphere. You won’t leave your current environment and enter into one with far greater possibilities.”

How to resist harking back to former habits without willpower? Get practical. This is where Hardy comes over quite Marie Kondo about things, but a clear environment has been proven to be conducive to a clear mind, and instilling targets and organisational discipline will make you feel more peaceful and in control without a flicker of your old friend (foe) willpower. Whether it’s flogging your clutter in a car boot sale, never having more than 50 emails in your inbox at once (Hardy’s personal limit) or cutting Insta scrolling back to max ten minutes a day, instilling upper limits and holding yourself accountable will help you to thrive in whatever challenge you’ve set yourself. Hardy also outlines ‘lower limits’, such as cooking at home twice a week, completing a set number of workouts or booking at least one trip a month to literally remove yourself from your day-to-day environment, which brings us to…

Relocation, relocation, relocation

It’s fair to say that Hardy isn’t a fan of standing still in any capacity, but one thing that he’s particularly passionate about is “rotating your environments”. Changing your physical environment day by day, or week by week, forces you to get out of your rut, upping your energy levels, creativity and productivity. If you’re slumped at the same desk every day, surrounded by the same people, eating the same food, working on the same presentation, it’s easy to see why progressive change might elude you. It’s for this reason that your best brainwaves might come to you on a city break, when you take a different route to work or even just when you’re in the bath, as opposed to the boardroom. Make regularly switching up your surroundings and regime a priority and new avenues will materialise apparently by magic, without you having to metaphorically push a rock up a hill. That said, routines aren’t all bad…

Establish a morning ritual

You know that galvanised, enthusiastic buzz you had when you made a decision to go for something? You need that every damn day, and preferably on waking:

“You need to act consistently from the peak state that formed your decision. It needs to become who you are. Being who you need to be becomes natural when you have a sacred environment and daily ritual for shifting yourself into the role and identity you want to make permanent.”

Getting into this productive pre-noon groove is apparently made a whole lot easier by ‘journaling’- writing down your goals, plans and insights to strategise, clarify, affirm and solidify your course of action. Add in other elements that help you to attain your ‘peak’, whether it’s yoga, meditation or any place or activity that get your juices flowing, but whatever you do, always come back to your journal and analyse whether you’re on track. If not, give yourself the time and space to figure out what you need to do next, without the ‘dopamine distractions’ of modern life. In essence, create a sanctuary far away from social media and work emails- being temporarily unavailable will ultimately make you more present and productive in the long run. The same goes for your working hours- limit and ring fence them so that they don’t control you. Hardy has some seriously compelling suggestions to take to your HR department...

Step up

Not in a street dance sense (niche pop culture reference), but in a slightly ‘scaring yourself’ context. Apparently creating environments of positive stress and high demand will mean that motivation comes to you without you having to exert effort to summon it, plus you’ll grow into your goals almost without realising it. Whether it’s imposing your own deadlines, seeking out a high powered mentor or leading an initiative that’s outside of your comfort zone, seizing the bull by the horns makes willpower redundant.

Curate the process

An action plan is all very well, but you need to account for the journey, how you’ll tackle obstacles and navigate your route to success in any given timeline. Visualizing your ‘trip’ as well as your goal will reduce anxiety, make change less daunting and equip you with a specific toolkit should things go awry and the dreaded ‘F’ word (failure) loom on the horizon. Be confident in your abilities, and include the conditions upon which you’ll absolutely quit your objectives.

Grab a megaphone

You don’t need to broadcast your hopes and dreams to the nation, but you do need to make your aspirations public and fully invest in your aims. In short, don’t flake out on yourself and make your social and professional environment favourable to achieving whatever it is you’ve set out to do. This will, as Hardy terms it, help you to ‘outsource motivation’. If a certain person isn’t on board with who you’re trying to be, instil healthy boundaries and limit your interaction with them. A bit like you did with the Sauv. You don’t need the megaphone for this bit FYI- quietly step away from distractions and complications that don’t serve you, supporting loved ones where you can without absorbing negativity. Easier said than done, but necessary according to Hardy, who himself turned a troubled childhood in a drug afflicted family around to focus on what he wanted to get out of life. He published this book and is currently studying for a PhD while fostering three children with his wife, so he must be doing something right…

Willpower Doesn’t Work, RRP £13.99, buy online

Follow Benjamin Hardy on Twitter @BenjaminPHardy

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