082: You Don’t Need Willpower

In This Episode: You really don’t need willpower, and relying on it for change is a recipe for failure. So how can you succeed at the things you want to change without it being so danged hard? Well, a psychologist who has studied willpower says there’s a much, much, better, and easier, way.

082: You Don’t Need Willpower

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Welcome to Uncommon Sense, I’m Randy Cassingham.

I got a chuckle when I read the American Psychological Association’s page about willpower. Right up top it says, “With more self-control would we all eat right, exercise regularly, avoid drugs and alcohol, save for retirement, stop procrastinating, and achieve all sorts of noble goals” — and the part that made me chuckle was that sentence didn’t end with a period, it ended with a question mark.

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Yes, it’s true: I gesture as I speak when recording the podcast. (Photo: Kit Cassingham)

They go on to say that in their annual Stress in America survey, the respondents cite “lack of willpower” as the number-one reason they are not able to make healthy changes to their lifestyles.

The APA defines willpower as: 1) The ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals; 2) The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling, or impulse; 3) The ability to employ a so-called “cool” cognitive system of behavior rather than a “hot” emotional system; 4) Conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self; and 5) A limited resource capable of being depleted.

The article goes on to say that with practice, you can increase your willpower. To which I say, you’ve probably been meaning to do that, but you just haven’t been able to motivate yourself to spend the time to do it. The article header estimates it takes 32 minutes to read the whole thing, not counting 34 references to read in various books and journals.

Yeah, I didn’t even finish the article, let alone go through the “further reading” suggestions.

There are two factors I want to discuss here, starting with the last part of the APA’s definition of willpower: They say it’s “A limited resource capable of being depleted.”

I don’t think you have a tank of willpower and you drain that tank over the course of the day. Rather, I think you have a tank of decision-making capacity, and drain that tank over the course of the day. What we call willpower is really just making a decision: should I buy that cake, or something else?

That drained tank is called “Decision Fatigue” and it’s real. It takes mental and to some extent physical energy to make a decision. The “process of choosing may itself drain some of the self’s precious resources, thereby leaving the executive function less capable of carrying out its other activities,” said a paper published by Psychology Today. “Decision fatigue can therefore impair self-regulation.” What’s self-regulation? Part 4 of that definition of willpower: “Conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self.”

A 2013 book from a “world-renowned researcher in the fields of neurology and psychiatry” from the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine claims that adults make around 35,000 decisions a day, vs a child’s about 3,000. Well, maybe, if you count deciding where to put your foot every time you take a step, but let’s agree that every choice, from what to eat and where to go, is a decision, so we do make a lot of decisions. By the end of the day, we’re so tired of decisions — our tank of decision-making capacity is so empty — that we can be talked into damn near anything, even if its contrary to our interests. Which sounds a lot like “a lack of willpower.”

That’s why highly successful CEOs delegate a lot of decisions. They save their decision making capacity for the important ones.

Another common strategy used to just cut down on how many decisions we make was demonstrated by Albert Einstein: he wore the same thing every day. He bought several gray suits, several identical ties, white shirts, etc. so he didn’t have to decide what to wear. Steve Jobs: same thing: remember his trademark black turtleneck? And the same with author Tom Wolfe with his white suits. Singer Johnny Cash’s black suits earned him the nickname “The Man in Black.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted in a TV interview that he owns “maybe about 20” identical grey T-shirts. “I mean, I wear the same thing every day, right? I mean, it’s literally— if you could see my closet at home.”

And it’s the same with me. I wear the same brand of black socks every day. Unless it’s really cold out, and then I’ll grab from the drawer of identical wool socks. I have six pairs of black jeans. A dozen black T-shirts. Color comes from the shirt on top: I have about 15 identical long-sleeve shirts in several colors, and around 10 identical short-sleeve shirts in various colors. Sure, if I want to go wild I have a few other choices, like some cool Hawaiian prints. But pretty much, no decision-making involved. I’d rather save that brain power for more important things.

Willpower is just another name for the ability to make a decision. When you have plenty of capacity, you probably make pretty good decisions. When you’re exhausted at the end of the day, well, that’s when you scarf the pizza and ice cream, or go out drinking with the boys, or make other decisions that you regret later.

So for those who want to apply Uncommon Sense, how do we fix that?

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Hardy’s book. Click to see on Amazon.

Organizational psychologist Dr. Benjamin Hardy says “Willpower Doesn’t Work” — actually, that’s the title of his 2018 book, which is fascinating. He says that America’s obesity epidemic isn’t the result of a lack of willpower, but rather, “our radically changing environment” is to blame. Industrialization took us away from hard jobs in the fields, and we now work indoors — usually sitting down. Rather than eating farm-fresh foods you or a neighbor grew, we eat out of packages or cans. Or worse, we drink out of cans. We’ve become addicted to sugar, caffeine, and carbs, and then use alcohol to counteract them all — and then go back to work, sitting in your chair.

That puts our bodies into survival mode: we don’t sleep well, and then we get up and do it again, day after day.

Is it any wonder we don’t do well in making decisions? Isn’t that how most high-dollar timeshares are sold? No rush! Come in the afternoon! Have some sugar! Wanna beer? And as long as you don’t get up and walk out, they push and prod and promise and persist until you’re totally exhausted — have no juice left to make good decisions — and god forgive you if you sign, even though that may well be contrary to your interests.

So, if willpower isn’t the problem, what is? Hardy said something about the environment we’re in. The thing to do, he says, is to change your environment. Want to eat better? Then have better food in your house. If there’s no ice cream and cookies, you’re more likely to eat the good stuff that is there. Trying to stop smoking? Then don’t go out drinking with the guys, or have any smokes in your car, or your house.

But don’t rely on willpower to keep you from reaching for junk food or cigarettes or whatever you have decided to avoid. And really, changing your environment is a lot easier in addition to being a lot more successful.

“Rather than relying solely on your own internal resolve,” Hardy writes, “true commitment means you’ve built several external defense mechanisms around your goals. …Conditions to make the achievement of your goals inevitable.”

“We adapt to our environments,” he continues. “Thus, a conscious personal evolution involves purposefully controlling and creating environments that shape us into the person we want to become. … We adapt and evolve based on the environments we select. You are who you are because of your environment. Want to change? Then change your environment. Stop the willpower madness already.”

When you set up your environment in this way you don’t have to rely on willpower. You don’t have to make decisions. And best of all, he says, by setting up your environment the right way, you get “an environment where endless creativity and boundless productivity is the norm.” It’s what I set out to do instinctively by living in a quiet, rural place to write, and is part of why I remain creative and productive.

Though, speaking of running out of juice, I did recently too: that’s why Uncommon Sense episodes paused for a couple of weeks. When I need to concentrate on what pays the bills, which is writing and publishing the This is True newsletter, then that’s what I do — that’s the environment I set up for myself. There’s no point in letting my tank go dry, a-k-a become exhausted. But there’s always room for improvement: I’m only a third of the way through Hardy’s book, and you can bet I’m taking notes on how to do it even better. You can too, but you really don’t need willpower.

The Show Page for this episode is thisistrue.com/podcast82, which has links to Hardy’s book and other sources, a link to help support this podcast, and a place to comment.

I’m Randy Cassingham… and I’ll talk at you later.

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6 Comments on “082: You Don’t Need Willpower

  1. Absolutely. My dad taught me to think ‘won’t power’ instead and that has taught me to make an initial decision NOT to buy or do what I’ve learned (the hard way, as he always said I chose because I like to experience) isn’t good for me. (Like cheese in Moscow ~ it is SO GOOD and I was gaining SO MUCH that I decided to say no when I saw it in the store.) I’ll look for the book and if it stumbles into my frame of sight, I’ll skim it. Thanks!

  2. I like your examples. Did you know Kris Kristofferson only wore black tee shirts and jeans for many years? He didn’t want to waste time trying to figure out what to wear. My own wardrobe is similarly simple. Just a few colors and very simple designs.

    I also remember my Mother’s advice when trying to decide something: When in doubt, don’t. I often follow it.

    And often regret it when you don’t, I’d guess! -rc

  3. Decades ago, our religious teachers, encouraging temperance and chastity, told us as youth, “Make the decision before you meet the temptation; choose to stay out of environments where you may be tempted.” Hmmm, makes sense in light of what you have told us here.

    • That was called “Avoiding the near occasions of sin” back in Catholic school… and it was hammered home to us, over and over. Completely apart from any religious meaning it’s pretty good advice!

  4. Interesting article, unfortunately I locked onto the beginning where you stated you got a chuckle from the fact of a question mark vice a period. What locked me up was the transcript as shown, would call for a question mark. However when you read it, you changed the positioning of two words which then made it a statement. I am referring to; “With more self-control would we all eat right, exercise regularly, avoid drugs and alcohol, save for retirement, stop procrastinating, and achieve all sorts of noble goals”. This is as written in the transcript. When you read it, you changed; “would we”, to “we would”. Once I could get my focus past that, I was intrigued enough to do further research on the topic. All of which boiled down to common sense. Thanks for the mental exercise.

    I hate when I don’t notice when I read something wrong! Thanks for the heads up. -rc


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