Willpower Doesn’t Work


Willpower Doesn’t Work by Benjamin Hardy debunks many ideas we hold about how a lack of willpower is the reason we fail to make permanent changes in our life—changes that we want to make.

This isn’t totally new ground, but Hardy argues that “willpower is actually holding you back.”  So, what does work?

He says that if you think you need willpower to achieve something, you are not addressing the deeper internal conflict:  you don’t know what you want, and you haven’t committed to it.  Once you really decide what you want and commit to it, the issue of willpower is no longer relevant.  He quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.”

So, how do you assess your level of commitment? He says commitment requires:

  • Investing upfront
  • Making it public
  • Setting a timeline
  • Installing several forms of feedback and accountability
  • Removing or altering everything in your environment that opposes your commitment

Change your environment.  That was an idea that resonated with me.  He says, “the best use of your choices is consciously designing environments that facilitate your commitments.”  Envision what you want your future to look like and take steps to make that enhanced future happen.

In my case, I have hired a trainer who comes to our house three days a week.  My wife and I consciously designed our environment to support our commitment to do weight resistance exercise three days per week.  We invested in a trainer, made it public, built in a timeline, we’re accountable to the trainer, and we set up an exercise room.  We employed the same technique with diet.  We hired a chef with the directive to shop and cook nothing but the healthiest food for our family.  If there is no junk food in the house, we must eat healthfully. It isn’t about willpower.  We’ve removed options and limited choices; we’ve “created an environment that makes your [our] goals inevitable.”

Hardy gives lots of examples.  Though “change your environment” could be taken to an extreme, like changing where you live, Hardy gives lots of more “do-able” examples.  You could do things in different places like taking your laptop to a coffee house without the charger.  That forces you to get done what you need to do in a finite amount of time.  That falls into a category he calls “forcing functions,” where you turn a behavior you’d like to do into something you have to do.

Hardy also talks about our over-connected society and the importance of getting away from email, cell phones, and always having to be on call.  This isn’t just for younger generations.  This is for us.  Even when I get together with my buddies to go for a walk, one of them has his cell phone on and takes every call.  It isn’t like he is a doctor on call a limited number of hours per month.  While he considers always being available great customer service, I see his behavior reducing his potential for happiness.

Hardy talks about addictions, even ones that aren’t crippling.  We are addicted to certain behaviors that contradict our goals—too much social media taking time away from things that are important to us, for example.  We have to approach making changes like we are overcoming an addiction.

Hardy includes a chapter about eliminating unneeded stuff.  Several years ago one of the hot books was The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō.  I interpreted Kondō to say you should dispose of everything unless you have a good reason to keep it.  I never went that far, but I did some decluttering, and Hardy suggests I do some more.  Disorganization and clutter sap energy.

If you read the book, you will identify plenty of valuable ideas, but you won’t be willing to do all of them.  For instance, Hardy advocates time of reflection/prayer and gratitude and journaling in the morning.  It’s all I can do to work-out first thing in the morning three days a week and drag myself to the office for my first meeting. On the other hand, developing a morning ritual and/or purposefully stating your goals and intentions for the day while your energy is fresh is an objective I can get behind.

Willpower Doesn’t Work is an intriguing book that I would highly recommend.