Make Willpower Irrelevant

If you want to get to the next level, you need willpower to make creative breakthroughs and steady progress. Don’t you? After all, willpower helps you to beat distractions and delay gratification to make wise choices. But willpower is limited. It gets depleted the more you use it and as the day goes on. While you could do certain things to boost and improve willpower, you could also shape your environment so you don’t need it. Your situation and circumstances either encourage or discourage positive change.

When you’re building a new habit, do you rely on willpower?
Is willpower the main driver to sustain positive change?
What can you do when it fails you?

This is Episode 31: Make Willpower Irrelevant

Hello and welcome to The Incrementalist, a productivity show on making big changes in small steps. My name is Dyan Williams and I’m your host and productivity coach.

If you want to get to the next level, you need willpower to make creative breakthroughs and steady progress. Don’t you? After all, willpower helps you to beat distractions and delay gratification to make wise choices. But willpower is limited. It gets depleted the more you use it and as the day goes on.

The stages of change are precontemplation (you deny you have a problem), contemplation (you acknowledge there’s a problem and weigh the pros and cons of change), preparation (you commit to the change), action (you behave and act in new ways to effect change, which is shaped by internal factors like willpower and external factors like rewards and consequences), maintenance (you keep the good habits and drop the bad habits), and relapse (you slip back into old behavior).

There are obstacles to reaching a desired result or making a positive change. The obstacle is what you need to do to get there. The obstacle is how you feel about what you need to do to get there. Your behavioral activation system involves how you perceive the rewards that spark action. Your behavioral inhibition system is how you perceive the threats that stop action.

Willpower is just one element of the change process. While you could do certain things to boost and improve willpower, you could also shape your environment so you don’t need it. Your situation and circumstances either encourage or discourage positive change.

In his book, Willpower Doesn’t Work, author and organizational psychologist Benjamin Hardy explains that willpower is trying to avoid what you don’t want. It’s the opposite of making a decision. It means you have not made a full commitment yet. If you have no excuses and no exceptions, you will not have to make a new decision each time the situation changes.

The more you have to use willpower, the easier it is for the situation to beat it. But if you’re 100% instead of 98% or 80% committed, you can better design your environment for success. Being fully committed reduces decision fatigue and sets you up for success.

Decide ahead of time what you really want. Your ability to make the best choices gets used up each time you have to make a decision. Social psychologist Roy Baumeister defines decision fatigue as the emotional and mental strain caused by having too many choices to make. Each time you have to make a decision, you burn up your willpower.

What you eat is largely determined by what you keep your in your fridge and pantry. Let’s imagine you’re addicted to junk food. It makes up a big part of your daily diet. It’s harder to cut back when you keep picking it up at the store and drive thru. Giving yourself potato chips and other highly processed foods to choose from makes willpower more necessary. But if you swap 100% of your junk food with healthier food, willpower is less of a driving factor.

You first need to get clear and specific on what you want before you can design the ideal environment. Then define positive goals to approach instead of negative goals to avoid.

An activity either helps you accomplish something you want or avoid something you need to do. You’re either gaining traction or getting distracted. When you consume any media, such as this one, does it add to momentum or add to friction. If it’s the former, continue and apply what you learn. If it’s the latter, stop and be more intentional.

Set clear intentions on what you want to start and finish as life happens and time marches on. Your motivation will taper off as the novelty wears off. Have implementation intentions and an if-then strategy. Focus on the specific actions that will help you reach your goal, and pair them with cues that remind you take the action. If x happens you will do Y. If you’re offered soda, you will ask for water instead.

Do a daily review and weekly review to plan what you’re going to do and decide what your priority will be for the next day or the next week. That way, you’re less prone to default to reactive mode.

Choose up to three things you will do that support your priorities. If you have 10 things on your to-do list, you’re not prioritizing enough. The point is not to stay busy doing many tasks, but to stay focused on the few high leverage tasks. Do the 20% that gets 80% of the results.

In your weekly review and planning session, consider what you did. How do you feel about what you did? What were the wins, the setbacks, and significant moments? What did you do well, what could you do better, and how you will apply lessons learned the next week?

For more, listen to Episode 8, How to Plan Your Ideal Week.

Your present self and future self are two different people, says Benjamin Hardy. If you imagine the future and future you, your present decisions will improve.

How do you want to be and show up 90 days from now? A year from now? Three years from now? This if your future self.

Practice strategic ignorance. Block things that are not serving your future self and how you want to be and behave. Be willing to miss out on opportunities and activities that are not aligned with your highest goals or desired life. Limit your options, inputs, and information to the vital few. It’s okay to be uninformed in areas that don’t really matter to you. It’s okay to not be active on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, or the latest social media app.

You don’t need willpower to block distractions when they aren’t there in the first place. Take the auto alerts and unnecessary notifications off your phone. Or at least delete the news app that’s mostly about negative stuff you don’t control. Think about whether the information and commentary you get sucked into really enhance your life or sharpen your perspective.

Be willing to say no to things, especially when the opportunity costs are higher than the rewards. Although you want to stay open, you also need to practice discernment. Are the meetings, appointments and commitments you put on your calendar essential or really beneficial? Are you aligning with your highest priority and doing the best thing with your time? There is a limit to the number of worthy causes you can take on.

What is your desired identity? What is your ideal lifestyle? Are you practicing habits that reinforce and confirm who you want to be? Build a process and system that make the desired goal inevitable.

Focus on you’re able to control and influence. Stick with the process or system that puts the goal in the background and your current behavior in the forefront. Then your present action is not behavior change, it’s just what you do. You’re not overthinking how to make things perfect or procrastinating when you need to move forward.

Goals are great for one-time wins. But systems are for repeated wins.

Practice strategic remembering, which involves putting reminders, of your future self, in your environment. Think about the goals you hope to achieve and the person you aspire to be. Instead of displaying your old diplomas and outdated certificates in your office, you could hang up motivational artwork on your wall.

You also want to keep a visual cue of your wins and progress. I launched this show in January and I had planned a minimum of 10 episodes. Each week that I publish a new episode, I put a check mark on my wall calendar. The calendar is a 25 x 36 dry erase board showing the whole year. I don’t get a check mark if I miss a week. I aim to publish weekly because I prefer to not break the chain. At the same time, I can intentionally stop the show, pivot or cut back.

Make your commitments public and set timelines for when you will ship your work. Create an environment of accountability. Have a peer group who encourages you, supports you and gives you honest and open feedback. Or join a mastermind or get a coach to help you move toward what you want. Or you could have one trusted friend for reporting on whether you did your big 3 things for the day.

Support networks and accountability partners help you navigate setbacks instead of hold on to trauma, big assumptions, and limiting beliefs.

The Pymgalion Effect means you rise or fall to the demands of expectations and situations. In the 1960’s, researchers Rosenthal and Jacobsen found that teacher expectations affected their students’ performance.

Your ability and motivation are not innate, but depend on your situation. While it’s valuable to know your personal history and how the past has affected you, you don’t let them define you, your present or your future. When you’re aware of your emotions, you can process them better. You’re not suppressing them or numbing yourself. You use the information to design your environment. You reframe the problem, find solutions, and replace bad inputs with good inputs.

Be willing to put yourself on the hook for things that matter. When your situation involves fewer responsibilities and a light load, you can stay idle. Like a pickup truck that is stuck in snow, you sometimes need a heavier load to gain traction and get unstuck. Having responsibilities and a load shape your perspective on what is essential and what’s not. You have a bigger reason to take action with a sense of purpose and to grow into your goals.

Make use of forcing functions to create desired outcomes. A forcing function is a catalyst that aligns your short-term incentives with your long-term goals. You could remove alternative options and set deadlines so you will be compelled to act regardless of whether you feel motivated.

Parkinson’s law says work will expand to fill the time allotted for it. The more hours you give yourself to work on a project, the longer you will take to complete it. Giving yourself a shorter time frame is a forcing function that helps you to focus, stop procrastinating and get into a flow state.

Of course, forcing functions don’t always work especially when the timeline is set for you and the project doesn’t exactly match your interests. But when you commit to a situational constraint, willpower becomes less of an issue. In collaborative projects, joint ventures and time-sensitive projects that affect others, the stakes are higher. If you agree to submit an article to the editor or deliver a presentation on a certain date, you’re more likely to complete the project than if no deadline had been set. You will rise to the occasion when you care and don’t want to let others down.

Ship your product when it’s good enough to meet the needs of those it is meant to serve. It’s through the process of creating that you hone your skills and build the confidence to create. When you look back on past work, you will see that there’s usually or always something you could have done better. But undone projects clog up your mental bandwidth and drain your energy. Try strategic coach Dan Sullivan’s 80% approach, going for 80% gets results while striving for 100% is still thinking about it.

Cultivate peak experiences that allow you to stretch and grow beyond your limits. A growth mindset allows you to keep moving up in skill levels. The peak state is a rare, exciting, and motivating experience that enriches your environment and transforms your desires into reality.

A 2011 study reported that only 16% of creative insights occur when you’re at work. You get more mental breakthroughs when you’re in the shower, driving, walking or doing recreational activity. When you’re not focused on the task at hand, you can have deliberate day dreaming or mind wandering. This is useful for making connections and sparking ideas, as long as you know how to stop ruminating on negative thoughts and stories.

Having the right amount of load adds traction. But persistent overload keeps you stuck and caught in the frenzy. To have mental breakthroughs, you must integrate pure work with pure play. The creative generation state has to be cycled with rest and incubation.

Psychologically detach from your work by engaging in meaningful and interesting activities outside of work. Disconnect completely to get into a peak state. Indulge in long weekends, vacations, retreats and sabbaticals. Schedule them as you would any other important appointment or meeting.

When you’re absorbed in leisure, you’re more present and more able to fully recover and recharge. Also carve out time for meditation, prayer, walks, journaling or other quiet, reflective practices. Deliberate rest allows you to design the ideal environment and preserve your willpower. Listen to episode 10, Rest Even When You’re Busy.

The Incrementalist approach involves using systems and processes and practicing habits to be productive. You get a compound effect of intentional and consistent action. You design your environment to learn and grow, raise your baseline, do what you must, and make willpower irrelevant.

Check out episode 20 on the compound effect. And to get an integrated view of how to be purposefully productive, read my book, The Incrementalist book. It’s available at The links are in the show notes.

You usually need willpower to change your environment. But it’s really the environment that allows you to sustain the change.

If you found this episode helpful, please share it with others online or through your social networks. If you enjoy the show, subscribe and take a few seconds to give it a five-star rating and review on your favorite app. These small things make it easier for others to find the show and check it out. Thank you for joining me and tune in again for the next episode of The Incrementalist.

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© 2021 Dyan Williams