For most people, the tendency is to see will power like a bridge. It's what enables you to cross over the troubles of life and get to the other side, where things are better, you are better and there's nobody between you and the finish line. And if you don't have enough will power, well, then, shame on you for not constructing your own way out. Surely, people say, you must not have wanted to cross over badly enough. It's your fault.
Except, actually, it's not. As NYU psychologist Adam Alter tells Business Insider, the idea that will power is a good way to move forward is completely bunk.
Repeated temptation wears you down, mentally and physically
On the American Psychological Association's yearly Stress in America survey, people regularly point to a lack of will power as the top reason they don't follow through with changes they want to make--the above view that we're to blame for our own failure is widespread. But according to Alter, the examples of people exerting self-control over the long term are few and far between. People might do OK for a while, but they get worn down by repeated temptation.
The APA notes that factors like mood, personal beliefs and internal motivation all can be helpful in resisting the urge to give in, buffering you against "will power depletion". But it also points out that research has shown that, when people are repeatedly tested with temptation, the glucose levels in their brains go down. In other words, will power is as much physical as it is mental. Staying on track takes energy, and when you're too low on fuel, your risk of falling off the wagon goes up.
Building a surefire route to success
Alter asserts that the best way to resist temptation and stick to a better way is to create new "behavioral architectures". That just means you organize or build your daily routine (and life) in such a way that what's tempting isn't accessible anymore. The distance or lack of logistical access essentially eliminates your vice as a legitimate choice, making it easier for you to stick to new, healthier and productive habits.
"You need to do something like change the environment, make sure the temptation is out of reach so that it's no longer possible to be tempted," Alter says.
And Alter isn't alone in his view. In The Huffington Post, author, speaker and consultant Dr. Ali Binazir calls the putting away of temptations as the "Odysseus protocol". (This is a reference to the ancient story of Odysseus, who, when still lucid and out of harm's way, took precautions to ensure he wouldn't be ensnared and killed by the Sirens.)
Applying behavioral architectures in the real world
So what does creating behavioral architectures or following the Odysseus protocol look like in real life? Here are just a few examples:
- Leaving your phone on the charger outside of your bedroom so you don't check Facebook or your work email late into the night
- Bringing only cash with you to the store to avoid overspending
- Taking a different route home so you don't stop at the fast food place you usually go to
- Delegating some responsibilities so you don't feel obligated to stay late
- Setting designated review or check-in times on your calendar to prevent micromanaging
- Creating a to-do list for the day and bringing only the documents related to the identified tasks with you to avoid distractions/multitasking
- Signing out of your chat messenger so you don't interrupt others with unnecessary pings
Whatever you're aiming to improve, when you make a modification, be clear about the "why" behind the change. Be equally as clear about why the solution you pick is preferable over other options, too. The more focus you have about how you'll benefit and what your risks are, the easier it likely will be to tolerate any growing pains the change might bring. And if you do fall off the wagon, don't beat yourself up. Just grab your hammer, build and try again.