The third principle in my willpower series states: You can improve self-discipline when you
Optimize Your Environment!
The best way to dominate your willpower battles is by winning them before willpower is even demanded. If you wait for temptation in order to resist it, half the battle is already lost. On the other hand, if you avoid temptation, you can win the battle with minimal effort.
Watch my introductory video to get the gist of this principle:
Self-control needn’t always be a struggle. Sure, you must struggle to grow as a person. Yet in order to achieve goals, which is what willpower is all about, you’ll be more successful if you don’t have to struggle constantly, especially with minor matters. For maximum achievement, don’t just use your will hard, use it intelligently too.
One way of doing so is by manipulating your surroundings and how you interact with them in such a way that you minimize willpower demands in selected areas of your life.
Some simple examples:
- “Becoming slim by design works better than trying to become slim by willpower. That is, it’s easier to change your eating environment than to change your mind.” (Slim by Design by Brian Wansink)
- Studying is easier at the library than in a noisy shared apartment.
- Working out is easier in a public gym than in a home gym.
- Abstaining from sugary drinks is easier at home than at the movie theater.
- Behaving virtuously is easier among respectable people.
In this article, I will focus on three types of intelligent self-control planning:
- Manipulate trigger cues that expose you to willpower challenges
- Minimize self-control demands in your home environment
- Surround yourself with people worth emulating
1. Optimize trigger cues
This is crucial for dealing with addiction of any sort. Identify what triggers your craving. Once identified, manipulate or eliminate the trigger cues. For example,
- if going to a certain place triggers you to crave drugs, stop going there;
- if a nude pic of your ex triggers you to crave her presence, shred or delete the picture;
- if Facebook posts trigger you to binge watch YouTube videos, block either page;
- if seeing your PlayStation triggers you to crave video games, put it in a box, and put the box out of sight;
- if sexy chicks on the Internet trigger you to crave porn, restructure and minimize your online activity;
- if seeing someone eating ice cream triggers you to crave sweets, train yourself to feel disgust at the sight of junk food by vividly imagining how weak you feel after a sugar crash.
This might all seem pretty obvious but most people are very hesitant to really take such actions. Realize that they are important. In fact, trigger cues are assumed to be more critical for drug addicts even than physiological withdrawal processes (see Addiction: From Biology to Drug Policy).
Conversely, you can deliberately create triggers to support the creation of a new good habit. In my article about meditation I discuss how you can use this method to your advantage.
2. Optimize your home environment
Place objects systematically out of reach or sight:
- Place your alarm clock across the room so you can’t turn it off without getting out of bed.
- Get rid of every object that can potentially disturb your focus.
- Don’t store food at places where you see it often; hide it in cabinets, especially sweets (which you shouldn’t buy in the first place; no! you don’t “deserve a treat”—and it’s not a treat but a bane to your body anyway).
Write out specific goals you want to achieve that require self-discipline. Write them on a piece of paper (or create a poster if you have the resources), and put it at a place where you see it regularly (a wall, fridge, mirror, top of your laptop,…). This piece of paper may include:
- a structured time plan to organize your day
- a simple to-do list
- a list of daily rituals you want to turn into a habit
- a new principle you seek to ingrain into your personality (e.g., “Speak loudly or shut the fuck up!”)
- a meal plan
- an important piece of information you must memorize
- a positive affirmation
- a declaration of your life priorities
If you work or study at home, don’t work or study in the same room in which you sleep, fuck, relax, watch TV, etc., and don’t allow any distractions in your work or study room: no music, no phone, nothing—just you, your work, and maybe a glass of fresh water. (By the way, if you want to drink more, use a brief, wide glass rather than a tall, skinny one; or do the opposite if you want to drink less, see here.) Furthermore, don’t sit in front of a window, which is a potential source of distraction, rather turn 90 or 180 degrees away from it.
3. Optimize your social environment
Drug addicts who break ties with drug-using associates are over four times more likely to quit using heroin and/or cocaine and stay clean compared to those who do not (Schroeder et al. 2001). That’s why drug treatment programs often advice moving to a new location.
I guess this doesn’t come as a surprise to you; but think about your own social environment:
- Do you hang around with people who eat shitty foods or drink alcohol?
- Do you regularly spend time with lazy folk?
- Do you have friends who are overly negative or often feel depressed, anxious, or unmotivated?
If you want to improve your self-discipline, surround yourself with people who already follow the habits you seek to develop:
- If you want to work out regularly, surround yourself with athletes.
- If you want to make more money, befriend successful people.
- If you want to have a more consistent sex life without settling for one girl, go out with extroverted players.
- If you want to be more courageous, don’t spend your time debating with anxious intellectuals.
- If you want to strengthen your masculine will, stay away from women (unless it’s a purely sexual or business relationship).
Sometimes people tell me how they thrive in an environment where others aren’t as good as them: That’s not thriving, that’s setting the bar so low that you don’t have to feel bad about your reluctance to grow; or it’s a matter of feeling less intimidated. Also, it’s setting yourself up for self-discipline failure.
Let’s take losing weight as a final example:
- You’ll likely snack more when you see other people around you eating (Schüz et al. 2015).
- You’ll likely eat more when you see an overweight eating companion (Shimizu et al. 2014).
- You’ll be more likely to become obese when a friend of yours becomes obese (Christakis & Fowler 2007).
To become more disciplined without having to increase your willpower demands, you can intelligently manipulate your environment in various ways:
- Consider changing your location.
- Replace, manipulate, or eliminate distracting or behavior-triggering objects in your environment.
- Alter your cognitive response to perceptions that may influence your behavior.
- Put obstacles between you and whatever might tempt you.
- Write down your primary self-control challenge on a piece of paper and put it at a place where you see it often.
- Surround yourself with people worth emulating and stay away from the rest.
What could you change in your environment to make yourself more disciplined? Let me know in the comments below!