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Why Willpower and Discipline Fall Short: The Power of Environmental Design

When Willpower Isn’t Enough

If you’ve known me for more than five minutes, you’ve likely heard me say that if you rely on memory or mood, you’re setting yourself up to fail. Said another way: willpower and discipline are insufficient to achieve our greatest self.

Have you ever tried to stick to a diet, only to be seduced by the leftover birthday cake in the fridge? Or pledged to keep your workspace neat, but those pesky papers just seem to multiply overnight? If you have, you’re not alone. We’ve all been there, wrestling with our willpower, only to find it plays hide-and-seek when we need it the most. Some might even be contemplating a “my willpower ran away with the spoon” complaint now. It’s okay; we’re in this together.

Traditionally, society has placed a hefty emphasis on willpower and discipline as the keys to success. If you want to change your habits, buckle up, grit your teeth, and push through. The mantra was simple: Mind over matter. But what if we’ve been missing a critical piece of the puzzle? What if controlling your environment through behavioral engineering and environmental design is the secret to lasting change?

Willpower and Discipline

Behavioral Engineering: The Power of the Nudge

Behavioral engineering isn’t some fancy sci-fi concept where you wear a futuristic helmet to rewire your brain. Nope, it’s far simpler and more practical than that. It’s the application of behavioral science principles to influence actions and decisions. Think of it as a gentle ‘nudge’ encouraging you to make better choices.

Let’s take a classic example from the world of public health: hand sanitizing stations. Placing these stations at the entrance of public places is a classic nudge. You see the station, you remember the ongoing pandemic (as if we needed reminding, right?), and you’re more likely to sanitize your hands. The environment was designed to facilitate healthier behavior. No willpower or discipline is required. And the best part? These small nudges can add up to big changes over time.

Environmental Design: It’s More than Just Feng Shui

Don’t get us wrong; there’s nothing against Feng Shui. But when we say environmental design, we’re not just talking about the optimal placement of your water feature. We’re talking about shaping the environment to make desired behaviors easier and undesired ones harder.

Imagine you’re trying to eat healthily (we see you, leftover birthday cake!). What if, instead of relying on sheer willpower to resist the cake, you rearrange your kitchen so that healthier food is more visible and accessible? Or better yet, you don’t buy the cake (blasphemy, we know, but stick with us here). No cake in sight, no temptation. The environment is designed to minimize the need for willpower and discipline, making healthy eating the path of least resistance.

Willpower and Discipline: The Old Guard

Sure, willpower and discipline have their place. They are like those old family recipes – they’ve been around forever and often do the job. But let’s face it, relying on willpower alone is like attempting to climb Mount Everest in flip-flops. It’s an arduous task, and you’re set up for failure immediately.

Why? Because willpower is finite. It’s like your phone battery – use it too much without a top-up, and you’ll run out. This concept, known as ‘ego depletion,’ suggests that self-control or willpower draws upon a limited pool of mental resources that can be used up. So, while willpower and discipline can be part of the solution, they aren’t the whole answer.

The Marriage of Behavioral Engineering and Environmental Design

This is where behavioral engineering and environmental design sashay into the picture, arm in arm. Together, they form a powerful framework to foster habit formation and change behavior.

Here’s how you can apply them in real life:

  1. Identify desired behavior: Start by figuring out what habit or behavior you want to develop. Let’s stick with our healthy eating example. So, our desired behavior would be to eat more fruits and vegetables.
  2. Design your environment: Make the desired behavior easy. Keep a fruit bowl on your dining table or desk where it’s easily seen and reached. Stock your fridge with fresh vegetables. Make the healthier choice, the easier choice.
  3. Engineer nudges: Use small prompts to encourage the behavior. A colorful salad recipe on the fridge door, a reminder on your phone to eat your veggies or a weekly fruit delivery can serve as nudges.
  4. Reassess and adjust: Don’t be afraid to tweak things if they aren’t working. If you ignore the fruit bowl, try placing it somewhere else or swapping in different fruits.

The goal is to make healthier behavior the path of least resistance. When your environment supports your goals, you don’t need to flex your willpower muscles as much. The environment does the heavy lifting for you.

Unleashing the Power of Your Environment

In conclusion, while still valuable, willpower and discipline aren’t the be-all and end-all for achieving our goals. Instead, behavioral engineering and environmental design emerge as powerful strategies to alter our behaviors and habits effectively.

By leveraging these techniques, we can shape our surroundings to support our aspirations by removing fiction. This way, we turn our environment into an ally rather than an adversary in our quest for change.

Remember, small tweaks in your environment can significantly change your behavior. But, if you’re mired in a world of self-doubt and second-guessing, it may be time to ask for help. Schedule a FREE Strategy Call with Charles to discuss how coaching could help you better manage these challenges.

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