Reducing The Need For Willpower

There was a bowl of chocolate covered almonds sitting out in the kitchen. Throughout the day, every time I would go to grab a drink, grab a snack, or get something for anyone in the household, the little bowl of treats called my name. I really like dark chocolate covered almonds (or nuts of any kind). On a normal day, I don’t really eat any sweets. If I do, it’s typically a small nibble after dinner. In fact, we try not to keep many unhealthy things in our household because I know my willpower is weak when I’m hungry and ready-to-eat treats are around.

choco nutsI think everyone has some type of change they would like to make in their life. Throughout the years we often think in terms of resolutions or goals. While I still participate in the practice of thinking through areas of self-improvement, I’ve come to the conclusion that systems work a lot better than willpower. In fact, most people concentrate on the goals they would like to meet and the mental power it takes to ‘deny oneself’. However, I think we rely too much on our own will power when we would actually be better served by putting ourselves in a position to succeed in making needed changes. Wouldn’t it be nice if it was easy to make significant changes in our life? What if it was easier to eat healthier, work out more, have more time and waste less money. Too often, our lives are simply designed to fail. We spend more time dreaming about the results of our resolutions, but spend entirely too little time on the systems that make our goals succeed. We need better systems in place to reduce the need for willpower.

Decision Fatigue
I know that I only have a finite amount of willpower. In fact, the concept of decision fatigue has been discussed at length in both academia and popular press. I only have a certain number of times I can tell myself “No” each day before I give in. Knowing this, I already set myself up by automating important things. My 401k deductions, online bills, saving for emergencies, charitable giving, and all financial tracking systems are automated. I know I must personally work out early in the morning and get important things done while my brain is still fresh. I’ve also come up with personally defined rules about drinking alcohol and how much to spend in various situations so I don’t have to make those decision on the spot. I know myself well enough to understand that when I’m tired and mentally drained I will make less wise decisions. Dan Ariely’s book on human behavior, Predictably Irrational, explained why we often make decisions that are not in our best interest, especially when we are mentally exhausted. The great news is our lack of will power is that it is predictable and constant. And we can plan accordingly.

Planning for Success
It doesn’t take a lot of action to dream about what we want. If done the normal way, making substantive change is really hard. The good news is that putting systems in place to make our goals and resolutions takes much less mental effort than making the explicit change. However, if we spend a bit of time on the relatively easy task of preparing for change and habit development, we can make the process of making change much easier and dramatically increase our likelihood of success. For example, the time I have to workout each morning is 5:45-6:45am. I’m not a natural morning person but I’ve discovered that the AM is really the only time I can consistently workout. For years I tried to wake up early but to no avail. However, the two things that helped the process were actually quite simple. The first seemingly easy step was to lay out my workout clothing the night before. While simple, walking up in the dark (if your spouse is still asleep) and wondering through the drawers or dirty clothes for gear is a predictable way to derail an early morning workout plan. Secondly, I have my workout planned in advanced (reducing the need to think that early), and I go to bed before I am completely exhausted (I often read in the bed). Once I get to the gym, I typically have a good workout- the hardest part is actually consistently getting there. Laying out clothes is not very hard. Neither is spending 10 minutes a week to print workouts. But, the simple steps involved both make the end goal (of working out early in the morning) much more likely and consistent.

The same concept has been applied to our meals, spending and clutter. Designing a healthy home, planning our meals, and making the best choice easier than the poor choice makes our habits effortless. So, in addition to considering new habits and resolutions, take some time to plan the systems that will make it much easier for the plans to succeed.

Making It Happen
Planning for success is certainly the first step. Simply positioning our life where good habits are easier than bad habits is a less painful step than actually changing the habits. Leo does a great job talking about how to implement systems and rules instead of draining our willpower over each and every minor decision. I’m also curious about accountability and tracking how well I’m doing with the habits. I’m trying something new this year- tracking healthy habits with an app. I really love to track things. I like to keep myself accountable and see how I do over long periods of time. I am using the unique app, Way of Life, which makes tracking multiple things much easier. In fact, it may get a post of its own in the near feature if I’m still using it daily and enjoying it. Here are a few of the things I am planning to do (and systems to make them more likely):

  •   Write an Hour Each Day
    • I am literally blocking out, on my calendar, an hour each day devoted exclusively to writing. I have my material easily accessible and I have a priority list of what I want to write about
  • Walk/Run 10,000 Steps Daily
    • This one is pretty easy most days due to my normal schedule but I’m no longer walking around as much this year so I’ll take lunchtime walks and short ones when I get home.
  • Lift Weights 3 Days a Week
    • I have all my workouts written out. I plan an easy lift for Mondays so I don’t dread it and I can get up easier. I also have a workout partner and we schedule fun activities in the mornings occasionally as well.
  • Read a Daily Devotion
    • When I get to my office before I do any work at all I do my devotion (while my computer is booting up). I keep my book on my desk and place it there when I leave each day. The simple reminder is enough to get it done. I also set a really low bar (just a sentence or two) so it has been pretty easy thus far.
  • Not Eating Random Sweets
    • I am still planning to have plenty of sugar, but I want to plan each treat. If I plan on having something sweet, I plan to decide before a meal what I will have when I finish. My goal is not to eat any “random sweets” throughout the day. We have also stopped buying sweets and I’ve made some ready to go snacks (and protein shakes) available in the fridge when I feel hungry and want some fuel. I also read the book Mindless Eating and it is pretty awesome and completely changed the way we shop, present, and store our food.

I love the challenge of filling my life with better habits. But I know myself. I know will power alone will fail me. So, It is crucially important that I design my life and systems to reduce the need for will power. How about you? Do you have systems in place that make healthier habits easier? Any suggestions for me or other readers?

3 thoughts on “Reducing The Need For Willpower

  1. Relax man, nuts are healthy. Just don’t buy chocolate covered ones. I believe the studies say something like one handful of nuts per day will make you live seven years longer.

    • Nice, I do enjoy some delicious nuts. We eat a lot of peanuts, almonds and pecans. I have a weak spot for the chocolate covered ones so we don’t buy them often for our own home.

  2. Great article, couldn’t agree more. Glad to see you’ve committed to writing every day. Hopefully, that will translate into more blog posts!