What are your goals? Whether you want to lose weight, pack on muscle or increase your mobility, there will certainly be some amount of structure and/or sacrifice necessary to earn the goal you have in mind.
When I ask an individual what they believe it will take for them to achieve their goal, one of the most common answers is willpower. Maybe it’s not the exact term willpower, but it’s usually a synonym such as discipline, accountability or dedication. Something along those lines.
Willpower is a sense control deliberately exerted to do something or to restrain one’s own impulses.
What I don’t understand is why we’ve been lead to believe that building healthy habits is strictly based on willpower and discipline. Americans have been relying on willpower to improve their health for decades and where has that gotten us? Nowhere. In fact, things have dramatically worsened over the years according to the data collected by Harvard University’s School of Public Health.
In 1990, obese adults made up less than 15 percent of the population in most U.S. states. By 2010, 36 states had obesity rates of 25 percent or higher, and 12 of those had obesity rates of 30 percent or higher.
Today, nationwide, roughly two out of three U.S. adults are overweight or obese (69 percent) and one out of three is obese (36 percent).
What I’m trying to say is that we CANNOT rely on willpower when it comes to creating healthy habits. Our willpower WILL fail us, you can bank on that. Trust me, for the longest time I thought willpower alone would help me meet my goals. I found out time after time that, unfortunately, that is simply not the case.
Willpower is Scottie Pippen.
Willpower is great, but will not win you championships on its own.
Willpower needs a Michael Jordan.
ENVIRONMENT is Michael Jordan.
Your environment is the absolute most important component of creating healthier habits. Environment trumps willpower and will always be superior when the two are faced against each other. It may not be immediate, but your willpower will eventually give in to your environment. It could take seconds, minutes, days or even years but it is 100% inevitable. No one is perfect, so to think that we can live, eat, exercise, work, etc. perfectly without giving in to temptation every now and then is purely erroneous.
The key is that we must develop an environment that is preparing us to succeed towards our goals.
Our willpower is limited, unfortunately we don’t have an infinite amount. Think of your willpower as your smartphone. If you’re on your phone talking, texting and playing on apps all day that’s going to drain your battery faster. Eventually, your battery is going to die and you’ll be forced to charge it. If you have to use willpower to turn down unhealthy food choices multiple times a day, that’s going to drain your supply of willpower faster. Eventually your willpower will run out and you’ll be chowing down on a combo meal from McDonald’s. Not good.
One of the best scientific studies that illustrates this is the Ego Depletion study by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published in 1998. This is one of the golden standards when it comes to the topic.
Here’s a brief outline:
Students participating in the study were asked to enter a laboratory room that was set up to look like a taste perception study. The room was filled with the aroma of freshly baked Chocolate Chip cookies, which had just been baked in the room. In the room, there were two different food displays; one was bowl of red and white radishes, the other was a plate of chocolate chip cookies and chocolate candies.
The participants were told which food to eat and how much of that food they were allowed to eat. After the tasting was over, the participants were asked to complete a series of geometric puzzles, however, they did not know that these puzzles were designed to be unsolvable. They were told that they would not be judged on the results of their puzzles, but on whether or not they finish the puzzle and the amount of time spent on them. Each participant was notified to ring a bell when they want to give up on the puzzle.
The results show that the participants who ate the radishes gave up on the puzzles FASTER than those who ate the chocolate/cookies (8.35 minutes vs. 18.90 minutes).
What does that mean? That means the group who was told to eat radishes depleted their supply of willpower by rejecting the delicious cookies. They exhausted their own willpower so much that they quickly gave up on the next challenge they were faced with.
Resisting temptation seems to have produced a psychic cost, in the sense that afterward participants were more inclined to give up easily in the face of frustration.
The key here is to set yourself up for success with an environment tailored towards what you’re trying to accomplish. The goal is to NOT use your willpower, because you’re not forced to use it by temptations in your environment. Instead of having your environment battle with your willpower, we need to utilize these two things in tandem, just like the Michael Jordan & Scottie Pippen analogy I used before.
If you are consistently living with a healthy environment, you won’t need to use your willpower. That way when things get shaken up and you call on your willpower for help, you actually have the strength to keep your eyes on the prize.
Benjamin Franklin once said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” So let’s prep our lives to be healthy.
- Prepare your meals in advance.
- Keep only healthy items in your refrigerator and pantry.
- Hang out with friends who also value their health.
- Be positive and friendly to everyone that you meet.
- Work your hardest in everything that you do.
These are easy ways to create the environment you need to meet your goals.
Don’t rely on willpower anymore. You’re stronger than that.
1) “An Epidemic of Obesity: U.S. Obesity Trends.” The Nutrition Source. Harvard University: School of Public Health. Web. 2 Apr. 2015. <http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/an-epidemic-of-obesity/>.
2) Baumeister, Roy, Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne Tice. “Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Web. 2 Apr. 2015. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/files/attachments/584/baumeisteretal1998.pdf>.