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Forget Willpower. You Need Systems
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Forget Willpower. You Need Systems

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Fact of the matter is, you may lack willpower in some area of your life. It doesn't matter how strong-willed you are. If you work against a biological imperative or societal pressure, your conscious choices are less likely to win out.

The desire to submit to your impulses is not a moral failing. It's an adaptation to help us survive in the wild. But in the modern world, it leads us into temptation for short-term satisfaction and away from long-term success.

Some examples:

  • You know that doing the dishes right now makes more sense than doing them late at night, or worse, tomorrow. But you’re tired and you let the dishes sit.
  • The willpower to eat less is not strong enough to overcome the biological drive to eat. And if you’re restricting, you’ll be tempted to eat more. 
  • You know that saving now will make your future more comfortable and that you should spend less money each month, but you don't do it because of the pull to add those items to your cart.

The point is that willpower is not limitless. It varies from person to person, and in specific situations, you're more or less successful at controlling your impulses or cravings.

What works better? Systems

Systems involve setting yourself and your environment up for success so that you can get closer and closer to your goals without even trying. 

Why Do We Lack Willpower?

Most people are lacking because they either have a goal that their biology or environment is not geared towards helping them achieve, or they don't have a system for self-control.

Biological Reasons for Lack of Willpower

Willpower involves several biological factors:

  • Emotional need. You're experiencing a strong emotion that motivates you towards instant gratification, such as sadness or anger. You know that your “down” feeling will pass and so will the desire, but the urge is compelling at the moment.
  • Habits and triggers. You’ve built a habit over weeks, months, or even years that is difficult to break.
  • Addiction. You're addicted to something – perhaps food, alcohol, television – that is detrimental to your health or the progress of your goals. You know you should quit, but so far, you've been unable to. (Once you’re at the point of addiction, your brain is wired differently and it may be more difficult to overcome than simply making a decision.)

Social Influences

You have social pressure towards instant gratification. Consider these examples:

  • You're surrounded by friends who like to eat unhealthy snacks, and it's hard for you to avoid temptation.
  • You have family members or co-workers that work against your goal of getting fit because of their own insecurities.
  • You don't have access to the resources you need for self-control, such as healthy food or a workout plan.

A Lack of Willpower Is Not A Moral Issue

We all have certain moments when we lack the self-control needed to reach our goals.

One thing that's important to remember is that this isn't necessarily due to low willpower. In fact, lowering your willpower might not be a bad thing!

It's like eating and hunger. Your body can only function at a certain level of fullness before it needs to spend time and energy digesting food.

Hunger isn't a moral issue, it's just the way that our bodies function. The simple act of eating a snack doesn't mean you're weak or greedy – after all, if you needed to spend time digesting, wouldn't you rather be munching on something healthy?

Having low willpower is precisely the same. It doesn't mean that you're weak-willed or lazy. If your willpower is depleted, the best course of action for a healthy lifestyle (in the short term and the long run) would be to replenish it by taking care of it.

Move Over, Willpower. Set Up Systems Help You Achieve Your Goals 

The first step to fixing your lack of willpower is noticing that you lack willpower at all. The important part is figuring out what's causing you to lose your willpower. 

Then, enter systems. 

Systems help minimize the decision process involved with goal behaviors. You can decide once how things will go, then essentially press “play” and watch it happen. Systems effectively remove willpower from the equation as much as possible. 

Think about having to pay your taxes every quarter in a big ugly lump sum, versus having them incrementally withheld from your paycheck. The withholding is a system that removes your will to pay from the decision process completely, and that way, you’re less likely to find yourself in a financial bind when the bill comes due. 

Here are examples of systems that could help you achieve your goals. 

Home: Closing Duties

  1. Make a list of 20 minutes worth of work that you need to do most evenings. These should be tasks that will set you up for a great morning the next day. It might involve making the kids’ lunches ahead of time, wiping countertops, planning your must-do tasks for tomorrow, or loading the dishwasher. 
  2. Set your smartphone to chime 20 minutes before you want to wind down at the end of the day. 
  3. Set a timer for 20 minutes. Get through as much of your list as you can. As the days go on, you can recalibrate your list, adding and subtracting activities so that you get close to 20 minutes every time. 
  4. When your 20 minute timer is done, stop where you are. You can be done, and reward yourself with whatever it is that helps you wind down in the evening. 

Fitness: Workout Snacks

Workout snacks are shorter workouts spread throughout the day that take a few minutes each, instead of relying on one longer workout that could take an hour or more and often involves changing clothes, leaving the house, reserving a spot in a class, etc. 

  1. Split a sheet of paper into two columns. 
  2. In the left column, make a list of 5-10 things that you do every day. (Read an email, end a meeting, make tea, check the mail, etc.)
  3. In the right column, add a mini-workout that you can do right near your desk that’s attached to each activity. So, next to “end a meeting” you might put “30 second wall sit.” 
  4. Now, when the left column activities happen, that’s your prompt to do the right column activity. So, every time you read an email, you do five push-ups. Or, every time you go to the restroom, you do 20 calf raises on your front step.

The point is that these mini-workouts, or workout snacks, add up to a lot of movement throughout the day!

Saving Money: Automation

Consider the tax withholding example above. What if you could do that with your savings account? Most banks can help you set up automatic withdrawals from your paycheck to savings. A lot of investment accounts can do the same. 

You may miss the extra cash at first, but soon, you won’t even think about it. Plus, it’s encouraging to watch your nest egg grow. 

Systems give you the flexibility needed to adjust your behaviors when you notice that you're losing willpower. Remember, there are no moral issues about low willpower – it's just the way your psychology works.