Why Willpower Alone Won't Make You More Productive (And What To Do Instead)

How to be more productive without willpower

Have you ever sat down at your desk, determined to crank out some serious work—only to find yourself two hours later, feverishly scrolling through social media, no closer to finishing your project than when you started?

Most people think you can “will” yourself into being more productive. But according to Benjamin Hardy, author of Willpower Doesn’t Work: Discover The Hidden Keys To Success, willpower just isn’t the ultimate solution to ramping up your productivity. If you want to change your level of productivity, you first need to change your environment.

And no, “environment” here isn’t just about switching from your office cubicle to a coffee shop; Hardy defines environment as the entirety of your spaces, habits, distractions, interactions, and other folks that you interact with on a regular basis.

We spoke with Hardy to get his insights on how making changes to all the various parts of your personal environment can help spark productivity without the need for gritting your teeth and willing yourself to get it done.

Commit To Who You Want To Be...

According to Hardy, this is the first key to overcoming willpower in order to impact positive change (including becoming more productive): Making a decision about who you want to be and then committing to it.

“If you haven't made a decision yet, then you're going to be required to use willpower,” says Hardy.

So, if you say you want to write a book but haven’t fully committed to that decision, every time you sit down to write, you’re going to be faced with all sorts of internal conflict—should I write now or should I wait until later? Maybe I need a snack. Should I check my email real quick? I think the dog needs to go for a walk—that will require a lot of willpower to push through. And eventually, you’ll run out of willpower and that bestseller will remain unwritten.

“We become the product of our situation unless we're very clear on a decision,” says Hardy.

But once you get clear and fully commit to your decision, it becomes a part of who you are—and when something is a part of who you are, you don’t need willpower to do it.  Instead, it becomes automatic.

Hardy explains:“[For example,] it doesn't take willpower for me to not drink alcohol. It's just not a part of my identity. And so, step one is making decisions and then like really forming those decisions into your identity and who you are.”

...Then Build Your Environment Around That Commitment

Committing to your decision to be more productive and incorporating that into your identity is step one, but step two is just as important.

“The second component—which is really pivotal—is then having an environment that facilitates that identity,” says Hardy. “In Western culture, we’re very individualistic, and so we think who we are is independent of context—but our context is very powerful.”

“So, if you try to make a decision but you're continually in an environment that contradicts that decision, either the decision wasn't a real decision because you didn't [create the] environment to make it happen or that decision is probably going to fail because you're going to be using willpower against your environment,” continues Hardy.

So, for example, if you’ve made the decision that you want to be an entrepreneur, you need to create an environment that facilitates running a successful business:

  • You can join a co-working space where you’re surrounded by other entrepreneurs.
  • Turn off phone notifications  when you’re working so there’s nothing to pull you away from getting things done.
  • Read books, listen to podcasts, and go to conferences that inspire you and get you excited about working on your business.

In a nutshell, if you create an environment that’s so conducive to productivity, you don’t need willpower to succeed.

“[There’s a] quote from Marshall Goldsmith:

‘If you do not create and control your environment, your environment creates and controls you.’

I think that's very very true,” says Hardy.

Eliminate Unnecessary Decisions

Willpower-thumbnail-IIAccording to various sources, the average adult makes a whopping 35,000 decisions every day.

“We're doing so many things, [like constantly checking email and] even just strolling news feeds. We are making thousands of decisions every day that were not required to be made by human beings before the internet existed, before globalization, before even industrialization,” says Hardy.

All of these decisions—and the thought and effort necessary to make them—can lead to “decision fatigue,” the psychological principle where the more decisions you have to make, the harder it becomes to make good decisions. Or, in other words, if you spend all your time and energy making decisions on what to eat, what to wear, or which emails to respond to, it makes it a lot more difficult to make positive decisions when it comes to what really matters (like your commitment to being more productive and getting more done during the day).

Luckily, there’s an easy resolution for decision fatigue—and that’s eliminating any unnecessary decisions in your environment.

“The smartest thing you can do is proactively remove negative things [and minimize the number of decisions you need to make],” says Hardy. “[For example,] take the apps off your phone—that's one decision. You take an app off your phone, then you don't have to think about in the future. It's just removing [unnecessary] choices.”

Take a good, long look at your environment and identify what unnecessary decisions are taking up your time and energy.

For example, if you find you’re constantly getting pulled away from your work by text messages, turn your phone notifications off while you’re doing deep work;  that way, you eliminate all the unnecessary decisions that go along with your text habit (like whether to stop working and look at the text, whether to answer, or whether to continue the conversation) and can put that energy into actually getting work done.

The more decisions you can eliminate throughout the day, the more mental energy you’ll have for the important decisions, like staying committed to working towards your goals.

Know (And Plan For) Your Triggers

Unfortunately, no matter how committed you are to being more productive—and how well you set up your environment to support productivity—there’s going to be things that happen that threaten to pull you back into distraction and hinder productivity.

The key to stopping those things from throwing a wrench in your productivity plans? Anticipating them. And having a plan of action for when they happen.

“It's knowing the when, the where, the how, the who? It's knowing what places, things, people set you off so that then you can actually proactively respond rather than react,” says Hardy.

“You have to basically plan to fail so that you can actually succeed. You do that by not only visualizing the outcome of a goal, but you actually visualize the process [and] the obstacles you're going to face. And then, what you want to do is if you want to create an if-then scenario.”

So, for example, let’s say every time you start to feel bored or restless, you find yourself checking Facebook. The trigger is feeling bored and restless—and the automatic response is scrolling through social media.

Instead of going straight for the automatic response when you feel triggered and losing time and productivity to social media, you can come up with a proactive response to deal with your trigger:

  • “If I feel bored and restless, I will get up and take a walk,” or
  • “If I feel bored and restless, I will take 10 minutes to listen to a productivity podcast,” or
  • “If I feel bored and restless, I will take a few minutes to organize my workspace.”

The point is, you want to replace your automatic response (checking Facebook) with a proactive response (going for a walk, listening to a productivity podcast, organizing your workspace).

Eventually, your proactive response will become automatic—and instead of triggers leading you down the rabbit hole of distractions, they’ll lead you to conscious habits that support your productivity.

Surround Yourself With Support

You get to choose the environments you spend time in—and if you choose to expose yourself to environments that foster productivity, you’re pretty much guaranteed to succeed.

For so long self-improvement basically just talked about how all change happens from the inside out. [But] what all the research and psychology is showing is that the process of change actually happens from the outside in,” says Hardy. “You actually change through your behaviors, through environments, through experiences. You can change from the inside out by proactively deciding which environments will change you.”

If you want to be productive, it’s key to put yourself in environments that inspire you to be a more productive person and help you hit your goals.

If you want to run every day, join a local running group. If you want to dedicate two hours every day to writing your book, go to the library and turn off your wifi so you don’t have anything or anyone to distract you from the writing process. If you want to take your business to the next level, join a mastermind group and learn from other entrepreneurs who’ve grown their business in the way you hope to grow yours.

The point is, the people, places, and things in your environment shape you, so if you want to be more productive, you need to choose those people, places, and things carefully.

What To Do Now

Willpower-thumbnail.pngAccording to Hardy, you can’t use willpower to make lasting, positive change—including changing into a more productive person. But what you can do?

Build up an environment that includes places, people, routines, and more that all support the person you want to be.

And when you do that? You won’t need willpower to get things done—you’ll just be the kind of person who makes productivity a priority.

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Next: Investigating Indecision: Why We Can't Seem to Make Up Our Minds

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