According to New York Times bestselling author and fitness expert, Adam Bornstein, "Willpower can be faulty, so building systems that guide behavior can ensure that when willpower breaks down failure is not the only option."

There are a few very simple reasons why willpower is an ineffective life-strategy.

  1. Willpower is a limited resource
  2. According to Bornstein, "Willpower the most overworked employee of your brain"
  3. It reflects internal conflict
  4. Most behavior is outsourced to the environment anyway
  5. It's always an uphill battle
  6. Changing your environment directly allows for automated behavior indirectly

Why is willpower so popular?

"People's inflated belief in the importance of personality traits and dispositions, together with their failure to recognize the importance of situational factors in affecting behavior, has been termed the "fundamental attribution error"― Lee Ross, The Person and the Situation

In Western Culture, willpower is applauded because we are highly individualistic. We focus on ourselves and rarely recognize the situational factors influencing us. 

Because we obsess with the individual self, we've gone on to develop personality tests and other ways to put ourselves into a box. All the while missing the key point: we are the product of our environment. 

The people, information, food, and other external factors are shaping our internal reality.

The Biggest Myth In Western Culture (The "Marshmallow Test")

Perhaps the biggest myth in Western culture is the famed "Marshmallow Test." It is an example of psychological research that got under-reported in the mainstream media.

In the Marshmallow test, kids were given an option to eat a sugary treat or wait a few minutes and get two.

These kids were then followed for decades and it was concluded that the kids who had more willpower went on to live better lives. The result of this notion led Western thinkers to have an even greater "fixed mindset" about human beings. Either you were born with the stuff, or you weren't. If you weren't, your future was doomed. 

But that's not the real story.

The real story is that certain kids were taught to re-imagine the marshmallow as something else. To "re-frame" the marshmallow and reframe the situation. Those who were told to do this were far more likely to not eat the marshmallow.

The vast majority of children in Mischel's study were able to delay gratification when they re-framed their interpretations of the situation in front of them.

As Alix Speigel put it: "The point of the marshmallow test was to show how flexible people are -- how easily changed if they simply reinterpret the way they frame the situation around them. But that's not the moral that our culture drew from the marshmallow study. We decided that those traits in the preschoolers were fixed -- that their self-control at age 4 determined their success throughout life. They're happier, have better relationships, do better at school and at work."

According to Psychologist Walter Mischel, the researcher who did the marshmallow test, "That iconic story is upside-down wrong... That your future is in a marshmallow. Because it isn't."

According to Stanford Psychologist, Lee Ross, "We see consistency in everyday life because of the power of the situation." 

Who you are in one situation is different from who you are in another situation. If you had a gun pointed at your head, you'd act different than if you were sitting on the beach.

When surrounded by some people, you're different than when surrounded by others. We rise or fall to the expectations of those around us-- what psychologists call, "The Pygmalion Effect." As famed Historian, Will Durant put it, "the the hero is a product of a situation rather than the result being a product of the hero. It It is is demand that brings out the exceptional qualities of man... [Heroes] form the function of meeting meeting a a situation situation which which demands demands all his potential abilities...I think the ability of the average man could be doubled if it were demanded, if the situation demanded."

How To Reshape Your Situation?

There are two ways you can change your situation:

  1. From the inside-out (re-framing)
  2. From the outside-in (precognition)

In the epic book, PRINCIPLES, by Ray Dalio, the author explains that certain people change from the inside-out while others change from the outside-in.

People who are "planners" like to begin with the end mind. They create a mental image in their head of what they want and strive to get it. This is, obviously, a great strategy for living intentionally. The problem most people who are rigorous about this approach have, is when they reach external resistance, or when their plan starts to fall apart, they also fall apart. They don't leverage their environment or the changes in the environment. They live too much in their head, not the real world. 

Conversely, "reactors" are those people who change from the outside-in. They have a plan, but are more adaptive to change. They take new information and allow that information to alter their plans or strategies.

The cool thing?

You can actually leverage both of these approaches. But only if you don't hold to the pervasive "fixed mindsets" that most people have.

You can purposefully adjust external factors with the intention of changing your internal world-- your mindsets, beliefs, and emotions.

The best method for doing this is by investing tangible dollars into something or someone you care about. 

This is what separates dreamers from doers. 

Example: author and entrepreneur Ramit Sethi invests several thousand dollars per year on a personal trainer. Why? Because when he's invested, he's committed.

When you invest in yourself, you become more committed. I recently invested several thousand dollars into a Mastermind group. That investment changed my psychology in a way I predicted (somewhat).

I knew I'd be more committed when I invested in myself. But I didn't realize just how much my new environment would change me. Being surrounded by millionaires and people running 8, 9, and 10 figure companies blew me away.

Within a few months of being in the mastermind group, I made nearly a million dollars. My psychology changed, because my environment changed. The fastest way to upgrade your environment is by:

  1. Developing what Cal Newport calls, "Rare and valuable skills"
  2. Investing in yourself and your relationships
  3. Being what Adam Grant calls a "giver," where you use your rare and valuable skills to help the right people-- who will then graciously reciprocate

When you invest in the stock market, you may get a 10-15 percent return. When you invest in yourself and your relationships, you often get a 1,000 percent or 10X return.  

Published on: Jan 19, 2018
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.