Like many other men, I have struggled with destructive habits.
I have consumed on a regular basis excessive alcohol, disgusting pornography, mind-numbing television, and emotionally-triggering (and unenlightening) news.
I have pursued immature, dramatic women, surrounded myself with negative, stagnant friends, and avoided any sort of movement that made me sweat.
And I have suffered as a result:
- Alcohol affected my critical thinking and deprived me of the REM sleep I needed to function.
- Porn decreased my assertiveness and distorted my sex drive and sexual desires.
- Weak women filled my life with drama, depleted my emotional energy, and made it harder for me to get high-quality women. (Read: How To Date Out Of Your League)
- Television made me stupider and less focused.
- “Outrage” news made me distracted and anxious.
- Pessimistic friends instilled me with a victim-mindset and diminished my ambition. (Read: Why You Should Ditch Old Friends)
- Sedentariness made me physically and mentally weak and lazy.
Each of these habits in their own way negatively impacted my life.
And while now I’ve overcome them, why did I indulge them for so long?
Let’s take a look at a couple possibilities:
- Lack of courage (Read: Why You’re Stuck)
- Lack of awareness.
- Lack of deservedness.
- Lack of responsibility.
And finally, the most assumed one…
- Lack of willpower.
Willpower is not something to be easily dismissed. According to Brian Tracy, the famous, inspirational personal development coach, “Willpower is essential to the accomplishment of anything worthwhile.”
And Brian Tracy is not alone in those beliefs.
You can hardly hear a story of someone who’s achieved his dreams who didn’t have to push himself through some pretty awful times. It’s conventional wisdom and part of American mythology that the difference between those who succeed and the those who fail is determination and will.
And it’s hard to deny there’s a lot of truth to it. Willpower is, clearly, an important factor in success.
But does willpower deserve all the attention and emphasis it gets? Is it really all that matters?
Not at all.
In fact, if you ask me, willpower gets way too much credit.
Tell an alcoholic struggling to quit drinking that he just needs to “will” himself to stop, and he’ll look at you like you’re the biggest, most condescending asshole in the world.
And he’ll have every right to. What useless advice!
Of course, you might not care – you might just tell yourself that he doesn’t have the “will,” he’s weak, and nothing can be done, rationalizing it by reminding yourself of stories you heard about people who quit on the spot and never touched a drop again.
Fair enough. But still – you’re unhelpful, and frankly, out of touch.
Unless they’re ignorant to their actual desires, chances are they have been trying to “will” themselves out of their situation for years, in vain. And their inability to do it consistently has only tortured them. Reminding them of that isn’t doing them any favors.
But not to worry. Fortunately, there is a better way.
Willpower may not be a fixed resource, but it’s always a finite one.
Some people have more willpower than others. That is indisputable. And it’s also indisputable that this mental toughness – derived in part from genetics and in part from experience – gives these people a major edge in the game of life, particularly when confronted with situations where they lack environmental control.
But what about in situations where they do have control?
A thought experiment:
If I told you that you needed to go from New York City to San Francisco, how would you get there?
Would you walk? Would you drive? Or would you take a plane?
Obviously, taking a plane would require the least amount of willpower. Yes, you would have to “will” yourself into a cab to get to the airport, wait to board your flight, and endure the five hour flight across the country.
But all of that would also require significantly less willpower than the two days it would take to drive, and a hell of a lot less than the 60 days it would take to walk.
Indeed, the vast majority of people wouldn’t even be able to handle walking the distance – they would get tired, cold, hungry, disillusioned, and would give up. Distance aside, they’d have to go over all sorts of physical barriers such as mountains and deserts. Suffice to say – it wouldn’t be easy.
Would that make them “pussies” for not being able to hack it?
You could say that. And you could also say that the extreme few who would manage to push through would deserve to be lauded and praised for their extreme determination.
But you could also say that they’d all be idiots.
I mean really, would taking 60 days to walk instead of 8 hours to fly be the best way to get from Point A to Point B?
People idealize willpower, but these same people often unnecessarily waste it.
Your willpower is limited. And while you can and should attempt to push your boundaries and grow that willpower, when it comes to achieving your main goals, why make it more difficult for yourself?
Successful people don’t make things more difficult than they have to be.
They realize that time begets money and that willpower begets accomplishment. So they know accomplishing a goal in less time and with less willpower does not make them “weaker” – it makes them smarter – because now they have more time and willpower to dedicate to their next goal (or to leisure, if they choose).
They don’t walk – they don’t even drive – they take the plane, and use the mental energy they saved from not having to exert themselves on that additional 59 and 2/3rd days on other things that actually matter.
Many men think that they don’t have enough willpower to succeed, but in reality, they’ve simply set themselves up in systems that are designed to drain it from them.
Willpower matters, but if you’re putting yourself in situations where you constantly need to use it to get anything done – you’re walking to San Francisco my friend, not flying.
Don’t do that.
Instead, get yourself into a “success system” that will take you to where you want to be; like a plane, it will move you to your destination automatically. You just have to get on it, and the rest is taken care of for you.
To get into a good “success system,” you must become more aware of yourself and how you fall into your bad habits, and then change your environment so bad habits become impossible.
When I became introspective on my life (Step 1), one interesting thing I realized was despite the fact that I was getting drunk a lot, I actually kind of hated it.
I didn’t like feeling out of control. I didn’t like that I wasn’t able to focus. And I hated that I couldn’t carry on coherent conversations with people, that I ruined the productivity of my next morning (if not the whole day), that I screwed up my sleep cycle, that I wasted money, and that I would wake up with a sore back from sleeping awkwardly that would take days to recover.
So why did I continue to do it?
Because I wanted to feel numb.
Because my life wasn’t in the place I wanted it to be at, and I wanted to stop thinking about it.
Incidentally, that turned out to be the reason for pretty much all of my other vices too.
I used porn not because I liked it or was horny, but because I was anxious and wanted to avoid work.
I dated low-quality women not because I liked them, but because their desperation made me feel like I was attractive and in control.
I watched television not because I enjoyed it, but because it stopped me from having to think about how I wasn’t where I wanted to be.
I read triggering news and commented on it not to learn more, but to be “right” and give myself the indignant delusion that I was doing something worthwhile (here’s looking at you, Keyboard Warriors).
I hung out with losers not because they inspired me, but because they made me feel like less of a loser.
I avoided working out not because I had “no time,” but because I wanted to avoid pain and discomfort.
Instead of trying to become more successful and focus on my goals, I was trying to escape from them.
The irony of all of this, of course, is that this put me in a worse place, and wrecked my confidence (Read: How To Be Confident), feeding the cycle of bad habits further. And the cycle only stopped when I hit rock bottom and had a nervous breakdown.
Something had to change.
The less you give yourself to resist, the easier it will be to resist what you must.
I had a hard time resisting bad habits not because I needed more willpower, but because I gave myself too many bad habits to resist.
Being alone in my apartment with work flexibility, internet access, and no enforceable oversight was a recipe for my self-destructive habits to proliferate.
If the desire for me to indulge in one of them popped into my head, at first I’d reject it. But whenever the stress of work popped up and I felt the pressure to “escape,” the temptation would resurface. The result was me saying “no” to the temptation over and over again, until finally my willpower gave out. After all, I only had to open a browser to end it all.
You can say “no” a million times to a bad choice, but all it takes is you saying “yes” once to it to bring it to fruition.
The way things were set up, I didn’t have to make a single choice not to indulge these vices; I had to make an infinite number of them.
I was fighting a battle I couldn’t win.
Why was I allowing my bad habits to decide the “field of battle?” Why couldn’t I go against them on my own terms?
If a habit is wrecking havoc on your life, the easiest thing is not to fight against it, but to design your life away from it.
There’s a reason why alcoholics join support groups and get rid off all the alcohol from their houses:
They’re forcing themselves to expend more energy to indulge in their bad habit than they are to avoid it.
Denying the alcohol on the counter an arm’s reach away from you requires far more “no’s” than rejecting the theoretical one in a store far away from you that you have to physically move yourself to visit.
And it’s no different for any sort of temptation. If you’re hanging out with a girl you’re attracted to when you’re in a relationship, it doesn’t matter how “loyal” you say you are – you’re playing with fire, because your “system” is incentivizing you to cheat.
“Out of sight, out of mind” may be a truism, but that’s because it’s filled with truth. The more accessible something is to you, the more you inevitably think about it.
And this has some major implications for busting bad habits.
The less decisions you force yourself to make throughout the day, the more mental energy and willpower you’ll preserve.
Willpower is not only finite, it is precious. It is what drives us forward to better ourselves and our world.
Smart people don’t put themselves in environments that tempt them into bad habits because they know in the long-term they are unlikely to resist, no matter how much willpower they have.
“Power through” without addressing the environment is garbage macho advice that rarely works and always leads to frustration and exhaustion.
After I became aware of my bad habits and why I was doing them, I didn’t attempt to do what I had been doing for months with just more “will.” I changed my surroundings (Step 2) to make sure they weren’t an option.
Now, rather than spend my day making multiple decisions to resist my bad habits, I make a single decision to leave the house with everything I need for the day, and to go to an environment near my gym without my phone or internet connection so making the best choices for me is the easiest thing to do.
The result has been significantly less stress, at least three times as much productivity, and a massive decline in my bad habits. And of course, overall a much better life.
No one cares how much willpower you have; they care about your results. If you have a lot of willpower but deliberately use it poorly, you may be “tough,” but you are also dumb and ineffective.
If you find yourself struggling with a bad habit, don’t try to force yourself to stop doing it; become aware of your environment, see if/how it’s facilitating the habit, and then change it.
(And the same goes for the reverse – if you find an environment that facilitates good habits, encourage it)
This is a lifetime practice, and as your goals and vices evolve, so will your environmental needs. You will constantly be tweaking them.
And you should.
Remember: you only live once. Don’t be afraid to change everything up to make your life easier for you.
Life doesn’t have to be a struggle. All it takes is a little introspection and some environment design, and you can change any habit you want.
Try it out and let me know what you think.