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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.


Using enjoyment as a tool to reach goals

States of mind

One particular self-motivation is so simple in concept (though hard to get used to), and yet so rewarding when you get it to work, I sometimes jokingly refer to it as the “Holy Grail method” of self-motivation. I say this because the most valuable possible insight we could get into self-motivation is something that enabled us to be eager and happy about doing the things we want to see ourselves do.

You may be disappointed with how very simple this is, but I’d urge you to give it a try anyway, since it’s very easy to get started with (though it’s likely to take a lot of effort to master). Here’s the method: enjoy doing the things that you would need to do to reach your goal.

I know that may not exactly sound like the wisdom of the ages, but it’s worth digging into a little more to see its value: most self-motivation involves making it easier or more desirable to reach our goals, since it’s very hard for a human being to do something she or he doesn’t want to do, short of threats. Since threatening ourselves into self-improvement doesn’t work very well (you’ve probably tried it in the past; I know I have), that means that we are most likely to attain goals if we find ways to make the actual attaining more attractive.

But even assuming a person has already figured out both a goal and the steps that would be needed to reach it, without taking some preventative steps, actually doing something that one has avoided in the past can seem daunting, painful, or ennervating–especially just before one begins.

For instance, let’s posit someone named Marsha (not Marsha Brady: some other Marsha) who is badly backed up on paperwork at her job. Let’s say Marsha (who prefers to be called Estelle, but at work they still call her Marsha and thus so will we) has allotted time to do that paperwork and even gone so far as to stack up the paperwork in priority order. But when she actually reaches for that top sheet and lifts her pen, or even thinks about doing so, she’s immediately awash with memories of all the anxiety she’s had in the past about doing the paperwork, whatever problems that started her on avoiding it in the first place, the embarrassing moments at staff meetings when she’s had to admit her paperwork isn’t done, and so on. Trying to even start on her paperwork makes her feel queasy and afraid, and she tends to suddenly think of several non-paperwork things that really need to be done right away and can’t wait. So Marsha’s paperwork sits there until she’s fired, and it gathers dust, is eventually shoved into a nook, is neatly preserved under a collapsed formica countertop when the building is demolished, and is excavated eight hundred years later by excited archaeologists. Which helps Marsha (and us) not at all.


So, this is an example of not enjoying the steps. An example of enjoying the steps would go like this: before starting the paperwork, Marsha puts on some music she really likes, asks Jimmy Lee in the next office to cover if someone needs something, shuts the door, and puts her phone on Do Not Disturb. She pictures herself handing the completed paperwork to her dumbfounded boss. When she picks up the first page, she still begins to experience those memories and anxieties, but she was expecting that and allows herself to be conscious that this is happening. She uses idea repair for the worst of the thoughts that are distracting her, and as she fills out the paperwork she enjoys the music, the scratch of the pen on paper, and the idea that she is (however slowly) getting through the mountain of formerly dreaded paperwork. There are some annoyingly difficult parts to fill out, but whenever she gets to these she reminds herself that they are completely doable and just take some time. She feels on top of things, and even brave.

It may take a dozen sessions before Marsha catches up on her badly neglected paperwork, but the first time she goes out of her way to enjoy the process,  a lot of the anxiety about the project will be relieved–because it turns out that not only can she do the paperwork, she can even enjoy doing the paperwork. She has had to set up her environment to help her, enlist the support of a coworker, deal with negative thoughts, use visualization, and focus on minor things about the process that she enjoys, but it has worked. The more she does this, the more doing doing paperwork gets reinforced in her brain as something that she can enjoy. Eventually she’s likely to need fewer and fewer of the assisting techniques, and may start doing her paperwork by habit. Instead of her pile of undone paperwork, the future archaeologists discover a DVD of Harold and Maude, which is of immeasurably greater cultural value.


You’ll notice that the slight discomfort of this process is probably less than the discomfort Marsha would experience if she didn’t do the paperwork–but it’s an approach that requires mindfulness, effort, thought, and insight into our goals and hangups, which is one reason everybody doesn’t do it all the time. Another reason is that we have some deeply ingrained responses to certain kinds of experiences. For instance, a person who is eating less to get in better shape may eat in response to feeling hungry because of the built-in anxiety we have about starving (after all, remembering to eat is what keeps us alive, so under ideal circumstances hunger is a very handy reminder). Yet if you’re trying to get in better shape by eating less, a little hunger is a good thing–we’re just not used to experiencing it that way, and have to be mindful enough and deliberate enough to fight both habit and instinct in order to actually enjoy it. But it can be enjoyed. For someone who wants to lose weight, hunger (as a result of a healthful change in diet) is the feeling of victory. Savor it while it lasts, since our bodies get used to changes in our diet and the feeling is likely to go away.

Even if you’re not convinced by this idea of enjoying the exact things that you tend to avoid–and I hope you will become convinced, sooner or later–please reflect that at the very least, difficult steps can be made less unpleasant with a little attention to setting up our surroundings and awareness of our own mental states. Give it a try! Or don’t–but in that case it’s on you that our distant descendants will never see Bud Cort fake his own death.

Phone photo by itselea; digging photo by Wessex Archaeology.

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