Deep down we all know that willpower doesn’t work. That doesn’t stop us from pretending it does, though. Dr. Ben Hardy wants to reshape our ideas of how to get things done, achieve goals, and transform ourselves by changing our environment.
The book (affiliate link) starts in an obvious place: Why willpower doesn’t work. Dr. Hardy has an interesting perspective here, because he’s not only a human (and therefore has lots of experience with the failures of willpower) but a psychologist as well.
He wanted to study willpower and upon learning reliance on willpower was a sinking ship, changed his focus to learning what does work.
It should be noted that this book is not just for people who want to achieve huge goals. The fact is, even tiny changes in our health and daily habits—such as how often we pick up our phones to scroll social media—are changes that most of us try to accomplish through willpower.
But it doesn’t work. So, what does?
The Book’s Core Thesis: Your Environment Shapes You
If I was forced to summarize the message of this book in a sentence, it would be something like this:
What you can’t change through willpower can be changed through environmental design.
Dr. Hardy takes a cue from the world of biology to set up this thinking. I’m always a bit skeptical of this approach. In this case, I think it works as a loose analogy but it shouldn’t be pressed further.
In the early 19th century, a view of how species change known as Lamarckianism rose to prominence. This view held that species acquired characteristics largely through their environment. After Darwin introduced his own theory, which seemed to account for more data, Lamarck’s theory fell out of favor and was largely dismissed.
The 20th and 21st centuries, however, have shed new light on this. Lamarck was right in many ways. This new scientific field—“epigenetics”—understands that species do undergo biological change based largely on their environment. It’s not only what genes an organism has that determines its traits, but how those genes are expressed through environmental stimuli.
Hardy latches onto this analogy to demonstrate that we do not muster the ability to change by clenching our fists, looking deeper within ourselves, or trying again and again. Instead, he suggest that intentionally designing your environment to create the conditions for change to take place is how it actually will.
The Basics of Environmental Design
The theory of this book is not hard to understand. And if you’ve ever tried to do something through force of will alone, you know the book’s premise is sound.
Environmental design can take many different forms and can be used to accomplish various changes.
For example, want to get better sleep? If you have a TV in your bedroom, you are setting yourself up for failure. Because you must, through willpower, decide not to watch TV in bed.
Watching TV in bed is a bad idea for numerous reasons, from blue light to generally keeping your brain active. The science behind why having a TV in your bedroom is hardly controversial. It doesn’t even seem like a good idea.
Yet many of us, myself included, still have one. And if I want to get good sleep I’m forced to intentionally choose not to turn it on. I actually have an even bigger problem. My current environmental design promotes the TV being on, because I have Alexa turn off all the lights in the house but turn on the bedroom TV as part of my nighttime ritual.
The fix? Remove the TV from the bedroom. Simple, right? But it solves numerous problems. Not the least of which is accomplishing my goal of getting better sleep at night. Do you see how that is a more effective agent of change?
Using “Enriched Environments” to Make Change
Before moving into the meat of his material, Dr. Hardy explains how using enriched environments is necessary to produce the mental stimuli needed in order to change your behavior.
The two types of enriched environments are high stress and high recovery.
To understand this simply, consider what happens when we exercise. Our muscles must be under stress in order for them to grow stronger. Muscle fibers are torn apart in the “stress” process in order to take in more protein.
What we now know is that the muscle doesn’t grow when stressed but when recovering. Astute exercisers pay keen attention to recovery periods. That is when their muscles are actually growing—during the high recovery, rejuvenation period.
As with the epigenetics example, it’s funny how often our biology finds analogies with our behavior. There is mounting anecdotal and scientific evidence that our very best breakthroughs come in periods of rest.
A daily nap, a 10-minute walk, working only 3-5 hard hours per day, and other important habits have been shown to increase creativity and effectiveness when working. Your brain literally solves problems while you sleep, leading to Eureka moments. See Rest (affiliate link) by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang for more on how important rest is to your daily effectiveness.
Elon Musk is a freak of nature. That he can do what he does is not evidence of how to build a life; it’s simply evidence that exceptions to the rule exist.
Hardy explains that having high stress and high recovery environments is crucial. Begin by considering which kind of environment you are trying to build, and be intentional about including both.
Again—high achievers may be tempted to think that they should only create high stress environments in order to get things done. This is a mistake. Your high recovery environments are at least as important if not more, so don’t neglect them.
When Dr. Hardy mentions a high stress environment he is not suggesting you be in distress. The goal is positive stress—the kind of environment likely to produce change.
Most people’s daily life is filled with distress because of distractions and other harmful elements of their environment. Creating a space to do your best work—even if that space is temporarily stressful—is a far cry from living with the overwhelm of constant distress and noise.
Some Examples of Designing Your Environment Instead of Relying on Willpower
As the book progresses, it moves further away from philosophy into practical application. I appreciated it. In fact, the pace picked up so much that I was having a hard time mentally keeping pace with the author.
I listened to this one during morning walks over the last few days instead of reading, so I didn’t have time to stop, highlight, and reflect. The point: This is one you’ll want to take your time with and/or mark for revisiting over and over.
Here are some of my biggest ideas and takeaways from the book:
This is more of an overarching thread that is woven throughout the entire book. What you’re really doing here is making small decisions that, through the power of leverage, make bigger decisions much easier and/or unnecessary.
In the truest sense, outsourcing is a way to get more done with fewer resources (or an exchange of resources). I took about two hours yesterday to develop a more robust process for updating and maintaining websites in our company.
Once I figured out the process, I simply recorded a 10 minute video and created four recurring tasks. These tasks are now assigned to my team, and this process will take place every month on autopilot. This produces both technical and customer satisfaction (so, marketing!) results for my business, and it only took a couple hours of my time.
That’s similar to what you are doing with environmental design. You outsource decisions to your environment instead of fighting the mental battle. If chips aren’t in the house, you can’t eat them. It’s no longer a mental decision, but an environmental one.
Daily Sacred Space
Obviously, we spend most of our time in one place. Although Dr. Hardy spends one section detailing the specifics of a rotating environment (grab the book to read that), the kind of flexibility he describes there is unreasonable for most people.
Most of us have a normal daily routine. Hardy’s main point is that rather than run that routine on default, we “rig” the environment as much as possible to produce the results we want.
Some practical ways of accomplishing this are crafting a morning routine full of good habits, starting to journal and creating a space where that happens, and finding a place to pray and meditate. Dr. Hardy is a Christian and finds these practices to be important for his relationship with God.
By the way, “sacred” here doesn’t have to mean low light and incense burning. Dr. Hardy’s sacred space is his car each morning outside of the gym, pre-workout. The point is to have a place where your personal time and time with God happens. Every day. Like clockwork. You would be amazed at the results this one practice will have.
This section was one of the most powerful for me. It’s no secret that humans operate on “default” most of the time. This is a good thing. A routine doesn’t have to become a rut.
Sadly, for many people it is.
Realizing that most people are going to operate by default most of the time, one of the powerful ways to create change without the use of willpower is to choose new modes of default operation.
I have practically implemented this (prior to reading the book) by designating a time of day that I check and respond to email. I even place a note in my email signature that I check email every day at 4, and if something more urgent than that comes up, to please email my project manager Brian.
There is so much you can do here. You could set the default alarm on your phone to go off every morning at 5:30 and place the phone across the room to ensure you get out of bed. You could leave your laptop at work so you are not tempted to work from the house.
You could go to sleep in your workout clothes so that when you wake up in the morning you’re already halfway out the door. These small decisions that involve almost no willpower, and yet almost entirely eliminate the need to make a decision at all in the moments that matter.
If/Then Implementation Intentions
If/then statements are the holy grail of behavior. This is how software works. If you were to look at the code of most software tools, you would find that actions are downstream from other actions.
If this happens, then do that. Dr. Hardy suggests we can tap into this to help define what will do in any given situation in order to produce change.
You could start by creating positive or negative consequences for the actions you take. Simply associating a 10 push-up requirement with the consumption of a particular habit-forming food can be enough to, in the moment, dissuade you from taking the action.
This is thanks to the wonderful programming from our Creator. We generally want to live with wholeness and integrity. This is why we have a conscience and how the Apostle Paul can tell us to walk by the Spirit instead of the Flesh. When we do something we know is wrong, we feel out of alignment with ourselves.
So if you decide there will be consequences for your action in a moment of clarity and then break that contract with yourself in the moment of decision, it will have an effect even more painful than simply taking the desired action.
Thus something like: If I see a suggestive image on Facebook and am tempted to overstay my welcome, I will immediately close the app and tell my wife I love her.
“Implementation Intentions” are therefore a powerful way to outsource the “you” that is tempted to your previous defaults by circumstance to the “you” that has decided what you will do when those circumstances arise.
The chapter on Forcing Functions came just after the one on triggers and implementation intentions, leading me to a little confusion. I imagined they were more similar than they are.
Once I understood the difference it made a lot more sense. Here’s Dr. Hardy’s decision of forcing functions:
Forcing functions are about making one decision that makes all other decisions either easier or irrelevant. For example, my decision of removing all social media apps from my iPhone stops me from having to decide if I’ll check my Twitter account every thirty minutes. Sometimes out of bad habit, I’ll mindlessly pull out my phone to check Twitter and realize the app isn’t there. I’m then reminded of the wise decision I made previously to shield myself from my own self-sabotage.
If “implementation intentions” are about what you will do in response to a bad potential bad decision, “forcing functions” are about crafting the environment around you in such a way that removes the decision altogether.
“…true commitment is about outsourcing these inner strengths (your external defense systems) to an environment that makes them subconscious and instinctive,” says Dr. Hardy.
This is literally making change happen by reprogramming your daily course of action. With social media removed from your phone, you will eventually stop habitually checking it. This moves the decision to do so out of pre-frontal cortex entirely. Translation: It no longer becomes a decision because it is automatic.
Forcing functions need not be so specific, though. They also come in the form of constraints on time, investment, increasing the difficulty of a task, and more. Here’s the list Dr. Hardy gives:
- high investment;
- social pressure;
- high consequence for poor performance;
- high difficulty;
- and novelty.
I would personally describe this in terms of conditions rather than outcomes. Most of us focus on what we want to happen. But “making things happen” is a function of willpower—not environment.
Focus instead on changing the conditions which lead to outcomes. Conditions are far easier to manipulate and rarely require the kind of intense decision-making that goes into outcome production.
The Point of No Return
Dr. Hardy has studied a concept he calls “‘the Point of No Return,’” which is the moment it becomes easier to move toward your goals than to avoid them. Actually, your point of no return is the instant that pursuing your highest ambitions becomes your only option. You’re fully committed to what you want to do, and this commitment creates a deep sense of confidence and congruence.”
Entire books have been written about this concept. It’s the idea that some motivations drive so powerfully toward a particular end that the resulting pain from failure to achieve the outcome is too great to bear.
I had a “point of no return” moment in 2015 when boarding a rollercoaster. I didn’t want to ride it anyway, but I wanted that to be my decision. After waiting in line for what felt like forever, the ride attendant tried to get me into the seat—but I couldn’t fit.
The “OMG” bar would not go down over my 280lbs frame. And no it was certainly not muscle weight. The embarrassment was too great. Finally, after living a manifestly unhealthy life, I had reached the point at which I could no longer stay.
It was easier to become the kind of person who ate Whole Foods like meat and vegetables than to stay fat.
There’s an apocryphal story Dr. Hardy tells in the book of a military commander who leads an invasion of a distant land. Once they arrive, he sets the boats on fire, eliminating their only way of escape. It was overtake the inhabitants of the land or die. No third option.
Sometimes these moments happen unintentionally (as in my example), but they can also be intelligently designed (such as the boat burning example). Finding a point of no return (additional examples include making a large investment in something or committing to be held accountable for reaching certain goals) is a great way to outsource change to your external environment.
Willpower Doesn’t Work, But You Don’t Need it Anyway
If the bad news is that willpower doesn’t work, the great news is that it’s highly irrelevant.
Don’t spend another day gritting your teeth to accomplish goals. Whatever habits you want to form or break, goals you want to achieve, or way of living you aspire to, begin by looking outwardly.
How can you design an environment conducive to change? How can you outsource your mental workload? How you could eliminate decisions in the moment?
Environmental design is a powerful tool, and this blog post has barely scratched the surface of what you can learn from this powerful book. Grab Willpower Doesn’t Work (affiliate link) from Amazon today, and get started creating the kind of change you’ve always wanted to see.