If you’re anything like me, you know you should go to the gym or read, but you’d rather do nothing. Or you want to eat a croissant and drink a Starbucks Frappuccino, but you know you shouldn’t. And sometimes you give in to your temptations, but other times you don’t.
But some people always seem to be able to resist their temptations. The ones who do what they say they’re going to do. The ones with good habits. The ones who knock off the items on their to-do lists without fail. So, why is it so easy for them?
James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, said: “Motivation is overvalued. Environment often matters more.” In a nutshell, our environment drives our behaviors. This is because we often choose the default option based on the cues around us since it’s easier and more convenient.
For example, if there’s a package of Oreos on the table, you’ll probably eat it. If you see a bottle of wine in your fridge, you’ll most likely pour a glass. If you see the TV remote on the couch, you’ll probably watch TV. Get his point?
So in sum, a lot of our decisions are responses to our environment. This means that people who stick to good habits structure their environment in a way that supports their desired behaviour. And the people who don’t have good habits might be struggling with a bad environment.
Now, I agree with James Clear. Many studies provide evidence that environment often matters a lot more than motivation. And I understand it’s easier to stick to good habits if you structure your environment in a way that 100% supports them.
But I also don’t think it’s realistic all the time. Because sometimes, there are variables out of your control that may influence your environment. This is why I believe it’s important we also build our willpower.
When I lived in Taiwan, I created the perfect environment for myself. I created habits and routines that allowed me to thrive both physically and mentally.
I wanted to journal and read in the morning when I woke up and before going to bed. So, I kept my journal and book on my living room table to make sure it was the first thing I saw when I woke up and the last thing I saw before I went to bed.
I wanted to go to the gym every day right after work. So, I packed my gym bag the night before and left it at my front door. This way, it was ready for me to grab as I walked out of the door for work the next morning.
I wanted to intermittent fast from 5 AM to 1 PM. So, I hardly ever bought ingredients for dinner foods and snacks. This way, it was easier for me to resist wanting to eat dinner. As a side note, I made sure to eat enough for breakfast and lunch to hit my recommended daily calorie intake.
But last year, I moved to Budapest, Hungary to be closer to my parents. And instead of getting my own apartment, I moved in with them. Firstly, because I wasn’t sure how long I would stay in Budapest. And secondly, it’s super common for children to live with parents in East-Asian culture.
Now, here’s the thing. I hadn’t lived with my parents for more than 10 years. I was used to living on my own. My own apartment. My own lifestyle. My own habits and routines.
And after I moved in with them, the habits and routines I had built started to deteriorate. I started journaling less. I started reading less. I started exercising less. I started eating late-night snacks.
At first, I blamed my parents. I would think, “It was their fault I moved to Budapest. It was their fault I lived with them. It was their lifestyle habits that influenced me.”
And then, I blamed my environment. I believed I had no control over my environment. And it was no longer designed for success to support my good habits.
But lately, I realized blaming my parents and the environment was a “cop-out”. Excuses as to why I had fallen off track with my good habits. When in reality, I lacked willpower.
Because look, it’s easy to stick to good habits when your environment is designed perfectly for you. When you live alone.
But… what about when you live with other people? Your parents? Your partner? Your kids? What if your parents like to watch TV in the living room every night instead of reading? What if your partner hates going to the gym and insists you spend time with him? What if your kids love eating chips, chocolate, and cookies instead of healthier options?
This is when willpower needs to come into play. You have to build willpower as well. Because designing your environment for success makes it easier to stick to good habits. But your environment is not the only factor that determines success. You still need to build and use your willpower.
And it’s during these times when you’re confronted with these temptations, that really shows your character. Will you give in to temptation? Will you blame your environment? Will you fall off track when things don’t go your way?
Now, you might be thinking… “But you have the option to move out. It’s your fault you’re stuck in that environment. You have control.” And yes, you’re right. I can move out. But that would only temporarily solve my problems. Moving out is a surface-level solution to the real problem.
Because what happens when I get married? When I have kids? The same problems would resurface again. The real problem is that I lack willpower. And that I blame other people and the environment for why I’m not where I want to be and the person I want to become.
So, as a practitioner of Stoicism, I choose to stay. I choose the more difficult option. The option that challenges me the most instead of taking the easy way out. Because I want to work on myself to become a person of strength and character.
And as Andy Frisella said, “You have to take your hardships and turn them into fucking foundations that you can build on. Because it’s a chance to build grit. Fortitude. And mental toughness.”
So, how can you build more willpower? Thankfully, it’s like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. So, here are 5 ways to build your willpower.
1 – Get enough sleep
Your willpower during the day depends on the quality of your sleep. Even getting less than 6 hours of sleep a night reduces your willpower. So, aim to get at least 7-9 hours every night.
2 - Exercise
Exercise makes you more resilient to stress which boosts your willpower. Even just 2 months of regular exercise improves your concentration, focus, impulse control, and self-awareness. These are all aspects of willpower. This is because the self-control you use to exercise regularly also seeps into other areas of your life. So, try weight-training or something mindful like yoga.
3 – Eat healthy foods
Your brain uses 20% of the energy produced by the body. And willpower is related to the energy that’s available to the brain. This means not eating enough and not eating healthy foods, reduces your willpower. So, try to eat a more plant-based and less-processed diet.
4 – Manage your stress
Stress depletes your willpower. This is because stress makes you focus on immediate, short-term goals and outcomes, but willpower is about resisting those short-term temptations to reach long-term goals. So, learning how to manage your stress is one of the most important things you can do to improve your willpower. You can try journaling, going on walks, exercising, or cooking.
5 – Think and write about your “Why” through journaling
This serves two purposes. Firstly, journaling helps manage stress. Secondly, it lets you think about:
Why you want to change your behaviour
What your goals are
What you’ll lose if you give in to temptation
If the actions you’re taking are in alignment with the person you want to become
By regularly thinking about these questions, you’ll keep these answers at the fore of your mind to reinforce your positive behaviors.
Hope this was helpful!