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How to Stick With Good Habits Even When Your Willpower is Gone

How to Stick With Good Habits Even When Your Willpower is Gone

Most people think that building good habits or changing their actions is all about willpower or motivation. But the more I learn, the more I believe that the number one driver of better habits and behavior change is your environment.

Let me drop some science into this article and show you what I mean.

Willpower vs. Environment

Anne Thorndike is a primary care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Recently, Thorndike and her colleagues completed a six month study that was published in the American Journal of Public Health.

This study secretly took place in the hospital cafeteria and helped thousands of people develop healthier eating habits without changing their willpower or motivation in the slightest way.

Here’s what happened…

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Thorndike and her team proposed that by changing the environment and the way that food was displayed in the cafeteria, they could get people to eat healthier without thinking about it. There were multiple phases of the experiment, but the portion that really interested me focused on what Thorndike refers to as “choice architecture.”

Choice architecture is just a fancy word for “changing the way the food and drinks are displayed.” But, as it turns out, it makes a big difference.

The Impact of Choice Architecture

The researchers started by changing the choice architecture of the drinks in the cafeteria. Originally, there were three main refrigerators, all of which were filled with soda. The researchers made sure that water was added to each of those units and also placed baskets of bottled water throughout the room.

The image below depicts what the room looked like before the changes (Figure A) and after the changes (Figure B). The dark boxes indicate areas where bottled water is available.

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choice-architecture

    What happened?

    Over the next 3 months, the number of soda sales dropped by 11.4 percent. Meanwhile, bottled water sales increased by 25.8 percent. Similar adjustments and results were made with food options. Nobody said a word to the visitors who ate at the cafeteria. The researchers simply changed the environment and people naturally followed suit.

    The usual argument for sticking to better habits is that you need more willpower, motivation and discipline. But studies like this one showcase just how important your environment can be for guiding behavior.

    Environment design becomes even more important when you understand the daily fluctuation of willpower.

    The Willpower Muscle

    Decades of research have discovered that willpower is not something you have or don’t have, but rather it is a resource that can be used up and restored. Like tired muscles at the end of a workout, your willpower can become depleted if you use it too much. Much of this research is explained in excellent books like The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal and Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.

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    A classic example can be found by looking at college students. During finals week, students use all of their willpower to study and everything else collapses as a result. People eat whatever they can find, students who haven’t smoked all semester start lighting up outside the library, and many people can’t even muster the strength to change out of their sweatpants. There is only so much willpower to go around.

    We don’t typically think about willpower and motivation as a finite resource that is impacted by all of the things we do throughout the day, but that’s exactly how it works.

    And this is where choice architecture and willpower come together.

    Choice Architecture in Everyday Life

    When your willpower is depleted, you are even more likely to make decisions based on the environment around you. After all, if you’re feeling drained, stressed or overwhelmed then you’re not going to go through a lot of effort to cook a healthy dinner or fit in a workout. You’ll grab whatever is easiest.

    And that means that if you take just a little bit of time today to organize your room, your office, your kitchen, and other areas, then that adjustment in choice architecture can guide you towards better choices even when your willpower is fading.

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    For example, in Richard Thaler’s best-selling book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, he discusses research that reveals that items on the top shelf of supermarkets (near eye level) tend to sell more than items on lower shelves.

    It’s easy to apply this discovery to everyday life: simply place healthier foods in more visible spots in your refrigerator, pantry, and around the kitchen. Meanwhile, you can tuck away cookies, treats, and other unhealthy choices down on the lower shelves. This is one way to use choice architecture to make it more likely that you’ll grab healthy food, even when your willpower is fading.

    To Change Your Behavior, Change Your Environment

    Like the visitors in the hospital cafeteria, choice architecture can help you automatically do the right thing without worrying about willpower or motivation. If you design your environment to make the default choice a better one, then it’s more likely that you’ll make a good choice now and have more willpower leftover for later.

    Environment design works. Talking about tiny changes like moving your healthy foods to a more visible shelf might seem insignificant, but imagine the impact of making dozens of these changes and living in an environment designed to make the good behaviors easier and the bad behaviors harder.

    When you’re surrounded by better choices, it’s a lot easier to make a good one.

    More by this author

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    The Best Way to Create a Vision for the Life You Want

    The Best Way to Create a Vision for the Life You Want

    Creating a vision for your life might seem like a frivolous, fantastical waste of time, but it’s not: creating a compelling vision of the life you want is actually one of the most effective strategies for achieving the life of your dreams. Perhaps the best way to look at the concept of a life vision is as a compass to help guide you to take the best actions and make the right choices that help propel you toward your best life.

    your vision of where or who you want to be is the greatest asset you have

      Why You Need a Vision

      Experts and life success stories support the idea that with a vision in mind, you are more likely to succeed far beyond what you could otherwise achieve without a clear vision. Think of crafting your life vision as mapping a path to your personal and professional dreams. Life satisfaction and personal happiness are within reach. The harsh reality is that if you don’t develop your own vision, you’ll allow other people and circumstances to direct the course of your life.

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      How to Create Your Life Vision

      Don’t expect a clear and well-defined vision overnight—envisioning your life and determining the course you will follow requires time, and reflection. You need to cultivate vision and perspective, and you also need to apply logic and planning for the practical application of your vision. Your best vision blossoms from your dreams, hopes, and aspirations. It will resonate with your values and ideals, and will generate energy and enthusiasm to help strengthen your commitment to explore the possibilities of your life.

      What Do You Want?

      The question sounds deceptively simple, but it’s often the most difficult to answer. Allowing yourself to explore your deepest desires can be very frightening. You may also not think you have the time to consider something as fanciful as what you want out of life, but it’s important to remind yourself that a life of fulfillment does not usually happen by chance, but by design.

      It’s helpful to ask some thought-provoking questions to help you discover the possibilities of what you want out of life. Consider every aspect of your life, personal and professional, tangible and intangible. Contemplate all the important areas, family and friends, career and success, health and quality of life, spiritual connection and personal growth, and don’t forget about fun and enjoyment.

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      Some tips to guide you:

      • Remember to ask why you want certain things
      • Think about what you want, not on what you don’t want.
      • Give yourself permission to dream.
      • Be creative. Consider ideas that you never thought possible.
      • Focus on your wishes, not what others expect of you.

      Some questions to start your exploration:

      • What really matters to you in life? Not what should matter, what does matter.
      • What would you like to have more of in your life?
      • Set aside money for a moment; what do you want in your career?
      • What are your secret passions and dreams?
      • What would bring more joy and happiness into your life?
      • What do you want your relationships to be like?
      • What qualities would you like to develop?
      • What are your values? What issues do you care about?
      • What are your talents? What’s special about you?
      • What would you most like to accomplish?
      • What would legacy would you like to leave behind?

      It may be helpful to write your thoughts down in a journal or creative vision board if you’re the creative type. Add your own questions, and ask others what they want out of life. Relax and make this exercise fun. You may want to set your answers aside for a while and come back to them later to see if any have changed or if you have anything to add.

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      What Would Your Best Life Look Like?

      Describe your ideal life in detail. Allow yourself to dream and imagine, and create a vivid picture. If you can’t visualize a picture, focus on how your best life would feel. If you find it difficult to envision your life 20 or 30 years from now, start with five years—even a few years into the future will give you a place to start. What you see may surprise you. Set aside preconceived notions. This is your chance to dream and fantasize.

      A few prompts to get you started:

      • What will you have accomplished already?
      • How will you feel about yourself?
      • What kind of people are in your life? How do you feel about them?
      • What does your ideal day look like?
      • Where are you? Where do you live? Think specifics, what city, state, or country, type of community, house or an apartment, style and atmosphere.
      • What would you be doing?
      • Are you with another person, a group of people, or are you by yourself?
      • How are you dressed?
      • What’s your state of mind? Happy or sad? Contented or frustrated?
      • What does your physical body look like? How do you feel about that?
      • Does your best life make you smile and make your heart sing? If it doesn’t, dig deeper, dream bigger.

      It’s important to focus on the result, or at least a way-point in your life. Don’t think about the process for getting there yet—that’s the next stepGive yourself permission to revisit this vision every day, even if only for a few minutes. Keep your vision alive and in the front of your mind.

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      Plan Backwards

      It may sound counter-intuitive to plan backwards rather than forwards, but when you’re planning your life from the end result, it’s often more useful to consider the last step and work your way back to the first. This is actually a valuable and practical strategy for making your vision a reality.

      • What’s the last thing that would’ve had to happen to achieve your best life?
      • What’s the most important choice you would’ve had to make?
      • What would you have needed to learn along the way?
      • What important actions would you have had to take?
      • What beliefs would you have needed to change?
      • What habits or behaviors would you have had to cultivate?
      • What type of support would you have had to enlist?
      • How long will it have taken you to realize your best life?
      • What steps or milestones would you have needed to reach along the way?

      Now it’s time to think about your first step, and the next step after that. Ponder the gap between where you are now and where you want to be in the future. It may seem impossible, but it’s quite achievable if you take it step-by-step.

      It’s important to revisit this vision from time to time. Don’t be surprised if your answers to the questions, your technicolor vision, and the resulting plans change. That can actually be a very good thing; as you change in unforeseeable ways, the best life you envision will change as well. For now, it’s important to use the process, create your vision, and take the first step towards making that vision a reality.

      Featured photo credit: Matt Noble via unsplash.com

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