Achieve your full potential without exhausting your willpower and energy.
Think back to the last time you accomplished a goal. It could have been something small, like skipping an enticing dessert for the good of your waistline. Or perhaps you woke up at 6:00 a.m. to exercise before work. Or maybe you finally powered through and met your deadline on some nightmare project.
Whatever it was that you did, it probably involved willpower: the ability to make yourself do something you just don’t want to do. But what if you could get things done without having to add willpower to the equation?
Drawing on the stories of real people, this article lays out strategies for getting things done without wearing yourself down. By redesigning your environment with your goals top of mind, you can make reaching your full potential a whole lot less painful.
When trying to achieve your goals, willpower is less important than your environment.
People often say that willpower is like a muscle; the more you use it, the more you tire it out. And like any other muscle, you can strengthen your willpower over time – so exerting self-control today will make it a bit easier tomorrow.
So, self-improvement is easy, right? To change our lives, we need to push ourselves a little bit harder every day – and before long, we’ll be ready to take on the world! Well, not exactly.
The problem with willpower is that it’s a pretty weak muscle. Our powers of self-control are almost always exhausted these days, but that’s not our fault.
The key message here is: When trying to achieve your goals, willpower is less important than your environment.
Let’s consider the obesity epidemic. The facts are stark: by 2025, it’s predicted that most people in the world will be overweight or obese. Is this down to a failure of willpower? Was its greater self-control that kept our ancestors skinny?
Of course not. In the past, people didn’t need to rely on willpower to stay slim. What’s changed since then is our environment. These days, rather than working outdoors, most of us work sedentary jobs and sit at our desks all day. And the nourishment we rely on is often unhealthy food from a package.
As the author puts it, our environment has encouraged our weight gain. But thankfully, the power of your environment can also be a force for good. How so? Consider Darwin’s distinction between natural evolution and domesticated evolution.
In natural evolution, organisms adapt to whatever situation they find themselves in. So, if it’s helpful to be smaller, a species may start to shrink. Essentially, they’re forced to adapt to their environment.
Contrast that with domesticated evolution, the evolution of animals and plants under human direction. Because we control these organisms’ environments, we can produce desirable traits that wouldn’t occur in the wild – like bigger fruits and fatter livestock.
When it comes to people, many of us are like animals in the wild undergoing natural evolution. We’re often unable to change our environments, so we adapt to them instead – regardless of whether this benefits us in the long run. Others do the opposite. Like how we treat the animals we domesticate, they design their environments so that any adaptation is an improvement, bringing them one step closer to their goals.
The trick is to design an environment that leaves you no choice but to “adapt” into your ideal self. We’ll look at some ways to do just this.
Design your environment with separate spaces – one optimized for work and one for play.
Have you ever worked from home? If you have, you’ve probably experienced some typical problems. Any parent with young children will understand the difficulty of trying to work where you live – but even for the rest of us, it can prove a challenge to work somewhere we normally relax.
So maybe the phrase “work hard, play hard” needs an update: work hard and play hard, yes, but make sure you do each in a different place! In fact, people have been shown to operate at their best when they can make use of two very different environments – one high-stress and the other high-recovery.
The key message here is: Design your environment with separate spaces – one optimized for work and one for play.
These days we often hear about the benefits of a “stress-free” life, but such thinking ignores all the positives that healthy levels of stress can bring. There’s a term for this type of manageable stress. It’s called eustress, and it helps us reach our full potential. The added pressure means that we’re less inclined to be distracted and sluggish, ensuring we give all our attention to the task at hand. And designing environments with eustress in mind is a great way to maximize your productivity!
Take the case of Courtney Reynolds, a young entrepreneur who splits her time between Denver and Las Vegas. While in Denver, Reynolds is in eustress mode, and she makes her environment reflect that. This means she keeps her Denver apartment distraction-free, with minimal decoration and just the things she needs for work.
In Las Vegas, it’s a different story; this is Reynolds’s recovery environment. Her Vegas home is richly decorated with luxurious furniture and a warm color palette. Even her social life changes in her recovery environment. In Denver, Reynolds works from morning to night, whereas in Vegas, she prefers to spend her time socializing with friends.
Believe it or not, you’re most likely to be struck by creative insights and novel ideas when you’re relaxing. Neuroscientists have shown that just 16 percent of mental breakthroughs happen at work. When you ease up and allow your mind to wander, you give your brain the chance to forge new connections – leading to fresh ideas.
With this lifestyle, Reynolds has tapped into a fundamental aspect of human psychology. We work best when we switch back and forth between pure work and pure play. By designing separate environments for each state, you make it far easier for your mind to work hard and to play hard.
You can enhance your creativity by embracing “peak experiences.”
Tosh Oxenreider was stuck in a rut. For a while, her life hadn’t been moving in the right direction. She had plenty of goals, plans, and projects, but she just couldn’t find it in herself to commit to them fully.
Then, on a whim, Tosh and her husband decided to travel the globe with their kids. For Tosh, the effect was profound. As the family moved from place to place, she found she was able to work with a newfound sense of purpose. In short, her ideas began to flow.
What happened to Tosh? Was there something in the air back home that had kept her from achieving her full potential? Not exactly.
The key message here is: You can enhance your creativity by embracing “peak experiences.”
It turns out that simply by changing her environment, Tosh was able to enjoy a peak experience, which is a rare, exhilarating occasion in which you feel and think with heightened perception and sensitivity. For The, uprooting her life and traveling the world was one of these special moments – and experiencing it allowed her to truly see what her life had been missing.
Normally, it’s during such times that inspiration strikes, and we get those all-important “lightbulb moments.” And as we learned earlier, often, this happens when we’re in relaxation mode.
The good thing is, you don’t need to wait around and hope you’ll be lucky enough to have a peak experience one day. In fact, if you’re clever about it, you can make them a regular part of your life.
How? Well, the answer’s simple. First, you need to disconnect and go somewhere unfamiliar. This destination doesn’t need to be your recovery environment. If you want, you can drive just 30 minutes from home. Once you get there, pull out your journal and start writing. Begin by expressing gratitude for everything and everyone you value in your life and reflect on what’s happening in your world. Don’t be afraid to be honest with yourself about your failings. Have you been meeting your goals or slacking off? Write all your thoughts down.
Next, write about your “big picture” dreams. What do you want to achieve in the next few months? What about in one year? What's your life goal? It may be hard at first, but try to identify your fundamental “Why?” What’s your underlying motivation for whatever it is you want to do?
By breaking out of your routine in this way and giving yourself time to consider the big picture, you prepare your mind for peak experiences. They may sound elusive – but the payoff is well worth the effort.
Act decisively now and remove dead weight from your life.
Gary B. Sabin, a successful corporate CEO, tells a funny and instructive story about the illogical ways we avoid discomfort. Once, he took a group of Boy Scouts on a camping trip to the desert. They reached their destination in good time, set up camp, and hunkered down for the night.
But when Sabin woke up in the morning, he noticed that one boy looked sleepy and disheveled. The reason? It turns out, he hadn’t used his sleeping bag that night because he didn’t want to pack it up in the morning. In other words, he’d spent hours freezing just to save himself a few minutes’ work!
When it comes to making tough calls in life, we often adopt a similar nonsensical strategy. We put off taking immediate decisive action and suffer long-term regret as a result. All the while, the solution is simple: bite the bullet, and organize our lives in accordance with our goals.
The key message here is: Act decisively now and remove dead weight from your life.
One example of the many ways we hamper our long-term goals is by wasting time on the internet. We’ve all done it. You’re working on a project and the going gets tough, so you reach for your phone. You get bored of answering emails, so you check your social media. Instead of focusing on our real tasks, we give in to the superficial attractions of the internet.
To counteract this, you need to be firm and decisive. Delete any apps that are standing in the way of your goals. No ifs or buts – just go ahead and delete them. When you remove distractions from your life, you ensure willpower doesn’t even enter the equation. After all, you can’t succumb to a temptation that isn’t available!
Once you’ve temptation-proofed your phone, take the same principle and apply it to your life at large. Is there food in your fridge that you know you shouldn’t eat? Get rid of it – it’s dead weight. You’ll be surprised how much easier decision-making feels when you do this.
As Dr. Barry Schwartz points out in his book The Paradox of Choice, having too many options can be a bad thing. By reflecting on all our potential decisions, we often act in a half-hearted and uncommitted way. Instead of acting confidently, we hem and haw over the details of every little opportunity.
But there’s a better way: recognize the dead weight in your life, and let it go. Once you’ve identified the options that suit your goals, eliminate anything else from the picture.
Make use of implementation intentions to ensure you stay on track.
We’ve all heard of “the power of positive thinking.” According to this theory, if you believe you can achieve something, you’re already one step closer to getting it done. You just need to avoid dwelling on the fact that you might fail.
It’s a familiar notion – but what if it’s entirely wrong? What if thinking about the ways you might fail is actually a great way to ensure you meet your targets?
The key message in this here is: Make use of implementation intentions to ensure you stay on track.
Let’s start with what implementation intentions are. They’re a form of planning that involves identifying how failure might arise – but only to nip it in the bud.
This strategy usually takes the form of an “if-then” response. Think of it like this: when you say to yourself, “Next time I want a soda, I’ll drink water instead,” you’ve already made use of an implementation intention. Your “if” was the desire for a soda; your “then” was the decision to drink water as a substitute.
The key here is to stick with your plan long enough that the shift from the “if” to the “then” becomes automatic. After a while, it shouldn’t require much conscious effort at all, and the desire for a soda will seamlessly trigger thoughts of a healthier substitute.
In fact, psychologists have demonstrated that implementation intentions are very effective for students. When schoolchildren were asked to imagine how they could avoid falling short of their goals, their grades, behavior, and attendance all improved.
As well as helping you to resist temptations, this strategy can also make it easier to identify when to quit. When we face serious challenges, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and bow out early. But if you’ve pinpointed the “if” indicating it’s time to call it a day, you can keep giving it your all, right until you reach your limit.
For an ultramarathon runner, that might mean only quitting the race when his eyesight fails. If he knows he'll only stop running if he can't see anymore, he'll have the confidence to power through any lesser difficulties.
What’s important is to have definite markers so that it’s clear when your “if” has been reached.
Use forcing functions to compel yourself to achieve your goals.
We don’t like to be forced to do things, right? If we think something needs doing, we can always just get up and do it voluntarily. But as you may have experienced, this isn't always the case. We know we need to start exercising, but we don’t. We know we should be working, but we continue wasting time.
There are several reasons for this behavior – like laziness, discomfort, and fear – and the end results are always the same: dissatisfaction and regret for our actions. Willpower alone is rarely up to the task, so what can we do to become our better selves?
The key message here is: Use forcing functions to compel yourself to achieve your goals.
One way to do this is to use forcing functions. These are self-imposed constraints that force you to act in line with your goals. For example, if you want to be more present with your family after work, you might consider leaving your phone in the car when you arrive home. That way, taking calls and answering texts isn’t even an option, so you “force” yourself to disengage from the world beyond your family.
The entrepreneur Dan Martell uses one forcing function to boost his productivity. When he really needs to get something done, Martell brings his laptop to a coffee shop and deliberately leaves his charger at home. Why? Knowing that he has only a few hours of battery life, Martell ends up working far more efficiently than when he gives himself the entire day. By imposing a non-negotiable deadline, Martell is forced to work at full capacity for as long as his laptop is running.
The power of social pressure is another important forcing function. Nobody wants to look like a failure in front of their friends, and most people will go to great lengths to retain the respect of their colleagues. So, tell them what your goals are – and be specific.
The knowledge that you’re accountable to your peers will help you achieve your goals. Often the fear of having to admit that we’ve failed is enough to propel us toward success.
The key message in this article:
Relying on willpower to get things done isn’t just painful, it’s a downright ineffective strategy for change. The best way to transform your life for the better is to create an environment that forces you to live in line with your aims. You can do this by making use of forcing functions and implementation intentions – and by stripping dead weight from your life.
Ditch the nine to five schedules for creative thinking.
The old eight-hour workday made sense when most people were engaged in manual labor or repetitive, mentally undemanding tasks. But in today’s knowledge-based working environment, that schedule is past its expiration date. When you try to sustain mental focus from nine to five every day, the quality of your work rapidly dwindles – so don’t be afraid to compress your working hours into a smaller window.