We've got it all wrong about Elon. It's generally believed that what's earned Elon Musk the top spot for the world's most productive person is his superhuman willpower -- a robot-like mental disposition that allows him to avoid temptation, minimize distractions, and execute a level of discipline that would make the staunchest of Navy Seals look like kindergartners.
But it's not true.
Musk isn't famous because of these things. His achievements aren't associated with his willpower. According to science, effortful self-control (the term we scientists use for willpower) is consistently unrelated to goal attainment. This is true even of Musk himself. So, how does he do it? And how can you do it too?
Willpower is overrated
What really matters, and what we need to focus on in our personal and professional lives, is the availability and salience of temptations in our working environments. This means we must become choice architects, curating our environments in ways that nudge us toward our goals, and away from anything else.
By intentionally and only surrounding ourselves with choices conducive to our goals, we minimize temptations, become less cognitively depleted, and thus more able to attain our goals, especially in the long run.
How do we do it? This is where science comes in.
Select or modify to make temptations less likely
Imagine an environment filled with everything that could possibly distract you: your cell phone buzzing with notifications from your social media accounts; your colleagues chatting in the background; your empty coffee mug asking for yet another coffee break.
Which is easier: resisting each one of these temptations (i.e., practicing self-control) or simply not being in this environment in the first place? The former is admirable, but try doing it twice. It's the latter that actually works. It's called situation selection, and it's when you proactively make sure you don't put yourself in a "desire-evoking" situation.
Easier said than done? Maybe. If you're looking for a friendlier alternative, try situation modification. It means exactly what it sounds like: changing an aspect of your environment to make it more in line with your goals. So, instead of leaving your phone at home (selection), put it on airplane mode and hide it in a drawer for a couple of hours (modification).
The power of a nudge
A nudge is a noncoercive, low-stakes environmental cue that gently pushes you toward an optimal behavior response. For example, you're more likely to buy a piece of fruit if it's at your eye level at the checkout counter.
Want to start working out in the mornings? Place workout clothes at the foot of the bed the night before. Want to be more ecofriendly? Stick a "Take the stairs" Post-it on the back of your door. Want to encourage your kids to recycle more? Tape a mini basketball net right above the recycling bin.
In other words, curate your surroundings in such a way that, just by paying passive attention to things around you, you're already one step closer to your behavioral goal.
Hack your habits
It's one thing to do something good once, it's quite another to embrace it as a consistent aspect of your life. Luckily, four simple steps can get you there.
Habits are built on four pillars: cue, craving, response, reward. A cue lets your brain know a reward is close by; a craving is your motivation to act on the cue; a response is the action itself; and the reward is what you get for performing the action.
How can you use this information? If you want to create a good habit: Make the cue obvious; make the craving attractive; make the response easy; and make the reward satisfying.
Let's say you're feeling stressed (cue). You want to relieve the stress (craving), so you pull out your handy pocket journal and write a few words about how you're feeling (response). The result is that you gain emotional clarity (reward), and writing in your journal becomes a positive trigger when encountering stress (habit formed).
If you want to break a bad habit, just flip the above: Make the cue invisible; make the craving unattractive; make the response difficult; and make the reward unsatisfying.