Subscribe via RSS or e-mail      

Examples of aiding willpower through controlling environment

Strategies and goals

cupboardI came across an interesting post today on a blog by Ross Hudgens, which talks about managing his immediate environment to aid his willpower in losing weight: for instance, he takes only a set amount of cash with him when he goes out to bars, leaving his ATM and credit cards at home, making it very difficult to go out and binge eat. He also keeps his cupboards bare of junk food so that unhealthy snacking requires a separate trip to the store. (There are other interesting posts on Hudgens’ blog, although I can’t recommend all of them. While Hudgens turns up a number of good ideas, I think some are more useful than others.)

Modifying our immediate environment can be a useful tactic: it not only helps support good decisions in the moment, but helps foster habits and expectations of good decision-making. However, I think Hudgens goes too far in referring to these strategies as willpower itself: it seems to me that unlike “self-control,” “willpower” refers solely to our decision-making mindset, not to the limitations of our environments (even if we set up those limitations ourselves). In other words, not having the opportunity to easily do something you’d rather not do is not the same as deciding to do it despite having the opportunity.

And I think there are costs to this kind of approach, just as there are costs to any kind of external approach to self-motivation: depending on external factors can cause our success in moving toward our goals to vary wildly when externals change–for example, someone interested in weight loss who is depending on not having junk food available may have little or no self-control in a situation like a party where junk food has been set out. And just as successes can add up and boost mood and confidence (one of the benefits of setting up our environments), failures of the kind I just described can quickly erode confidence and enthusiasm.

Fortunately, some kinds of external modifications can help both with immediate behavior and with long-term attitude, for instance when a person helps encourage progress on a project by making the work environment for that project more inviting. Over time, this can lead to more pleasant and attractive ideas about working on that project and about applying oneself in general. In short, controlling the external environment can be a positive factor and is usually worth some effort, but depending on that over other approaches sidestesp the real issue, that of changing our mindset.

Photo by smallestbones.



  1. jmb  •  Jul 5, 2009 @2:24 am

    I tend to think from your remarks in this post that you have never been on a diet. Sorry if I am wrong.

    Dieters tend to lose and gain the same weight over and over again. In fact of those who lose large amounts of weight, almost all put it back on again. Yes, it would be preferable to have a strong willpower and not succumb to temptation. But after repeating the cycle unsuccessfully several times, developing strategies such as Hudgens has done to aid in the task is a good thing to my mind. For it helps to avoid the guilt felt when one’s willpower has faltered, at least on these occasions.

    Yes changing our mindset may perhaps be the better way and that may be the end result in the long run. After all, sustained weight loss usually means a lifestyle change forever, not just for a limited period of time. Although I think whatever gets the job done should be the bottom line, as long as it does not harm you.

    I am not clear what you mean by self control and willpower in this context.

    Nice to meet Lucas in SL today. I would be happy to have a chat anytime and I am often inworld but mostly I can break off whatever I am doing since I don’t build or design or contribute very much at all to SL. Currently I am exploring SL photography and hoping to do a series of photos of Last’s new castle which I am sure he has shown you already. If not take a tour, or I wlll give you one, since it is truly impressive.

    I live in SL time zone, just for your reference.

  2. Luc Reid  •  Jul 5, 2009 @9:06 am

    Hi JMB! Thanks for coming by, and for the post. I enjoyed meeting you.

    You make a good point, that this post of mine doesn’t delve much into what willpower really is. Some of the other posts here offer more on that subject. Some of the the things that seem to be most helpful for people who want to be able to make good choices (which is what willpower comes down to, in my mind) are having clear goals, establishing a feedback loop (for instance, journaling consistently or having someone to check in with regularly), being aware of what’s going on in our own minds when trouble arises, and being open to enjoying things we’ve thought of as difficult before. There are some other pieces, too, and I’ll really need to explain more of what I mean about the ones I’ve already mentioned, but getting a handle on any one of these parts seems to give a real boost to willpower.

    It’s funny: just moments before I saw your comment I was thinking that I needed to write a post about some of the tools we can apply to weight loss, but I’ve been hesitant because I’m still in the midst of weight loss myself. I’ve lost 40 pounds and gotten much more fit in other ways, but I still have about 15 pounds to go before I feel I’ve hit the balance I want. I certainly understand what you mean about going back and forth with weight loss, since before I started the process I’ve been in these past few years, I had gone up and down a couple of times. So I definitely agree that Hudgens offers some good strategies, but I also agree that weight loss means a lifestyle change. My hope with this site is to support the kind of changes in attitudes and habits that we need to change our lifestyles.

  3. jmb  •  Jul 5, 2009 @5:21 pm

    I would be interested to see what you ideas you would have in a post such as you are suggesting re weight loss. Sorry about my assumption by the way which I was willing to hear was wrong.

    On the other hand, I think I have read every book on the subject of dieting out there. My problem is that I lived the first 50 years of my life never having to worry about what I put in my mouth. That all changed and for the years since then it has been a yoyo process as I have lost and regained many pounds.

    I thought I really had it beat when I lost 50 pounds a few years ago. South Beach — a very good healthy diet that I can endorse as a retired pharmacist. A group of 4 of us met every two weeks for several years, each on a different diet. Some did journaling, if not always, but we all were very supportive of each other. Each had been in Weight watchers and said we did not need to pay someone to tell us what to do. We knew exactly what we had to do and we did it.

    But somehow we all got diet fatigue as I call it, our meetings stopped, usually because of scheduling problems and we all put back on most if not all the weight we had lost. I regained 40 lbs of the 50.

    Now you can imagine the guilt factor here, since you’ve probably experienced it. Although, like commenting, women do guilt so much better than men do.

    Personally I am trying to psych myself to start the process all over again. I just can’t believe, nor can the others, that after the effort we put into our dieting last time that we had not truly changed our eating lifetstyle. I must be the only person who goes to the gym three times a week and runs a weekly walking group and has also put on 40lbs of fat, not muscle.

    Good luck with your program, I hope you are successful this time.

  4. Luc Reid  •  Jul 5, 2009 @10:55 pm

    JMB, thanks for the personal experience and for prodding me to think about some important things here (for instance, getting into good habits and getting tired of the effort).

    As to guilt, don’t count me out! I was raised Catholic, after all. But cognitive restructuring or idea repair has helped me a lot in that regard. Still, I’m hardly immune to it. At least I have some weapons against it now.

    I’d love to hear more about your experiences as things develop. By the way, I’m sorry to hear about your metabolism shift. I imagine that must have been exasperating, as gaining back 40 of the 50 pounds must have been too. It’s no fun to be winning the game and then have someone change the rules!

  5. jmb  •  Jul 7, 2009 @5:27 pm

    Hi Luc (such a French name, I find myself pronouncing it so)
    You have me thinking about how men and women handle being on a diet. An interesting topic I am sure. Not only the mentality of it all, after all women are from Venus and men are from Mars, with all that entails, but also the physical practical side.

    For instance, usually (although not always) women are in control in the kitchen and unlike in a restaurant you cannot make the right choices since there are none or few. Do wives always assist their husbands in this process or do they sometimes secretly thwart them.

    I see you are going to guest post on The Last Ditch. I look forward to reading what you have to say and I promise to leave a comment. My attacker there seems to have gone underground for the moment. 🙂

  6. Luc  •  Jul 17, 2009 @12:42 pm

    So, I did write up a new post about weight loss self-motivation, which I hope will be interesting. In terms of men and women in the kitchen, I guess it depends a lot what kinds of men and women we’re talking about–for instance, I tend to do most of my own cooking, and get involved in planning meals even when I don’t. I also won’t necessarily eat whatever’s put in front of me. But then, all that is a matter of not being drawn to traditional (some people might say “old-fashioned”) husband-wife setups, where one goes out to work and the other stays home and takes care of the household and the children. I’m much more interested in a kind of equal partnership. With that said, are there many traditional husbands who are that concerned with losing weight? (I have no idea!)

    One thing I’ve noticed is that other family members’ eating habits can have an impact on one’s own. For instance, if you buy cookies for the kids but don’t want to eat them yourself (my situation), you have to grow accustomed to not eating cookies that are right in front of you. (In my case, this took a while, but seems to have come out well in the end.)

Leave a Reply

Allowed tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

%d bloggers like this: