Bypassing Willpower

Mountain PeakIf you want to accomplish something consistently, relying on willpower is the worst thing you can do.  As Jerry Seinfeld points out, your current self doesn’t really care about your future self.   If you want to work out consistently, you can’t rely on if you feel like working out.  Most likely how you are going to feel is too tired, or too busy.  Habits are one good way to bypass your willpower, but changing your environment is a better one.


Never Miss A Workout

Going for a run consistently is important to me.  But more often than not, once I get home from work I’m likely to not go out again.  The way around this is simple, Run Home.  Depending on where I’ve lived, I have had my wife drop me off at work, or taken the bus to work at the beginning of the day, and then changed clothes after work and run home.  When I live farther away from work, and take the bus, I have take the bus part of the way home, and get off on a stop that is 3-4 miles away, and run the rest of the way.  When I do this, I almost never miss a day of running.

The reason this works is that I have changed the value proposition.   Instead of getting home and having a choice between going running or relaxing, the choice is between running home or calling my wife and asking for a pickup.    What’s going to happen there is pretty clear.   I completely skip any opportunity for low willpower to matter.


Get Ready Faster

But changing your environment isn’t just useful to make yourself exercise.   It is useful anytime your motivated planning self wants to make it impossible for your tired lazy self to wuss out or forget something.

For a while I’ve wanted to get ready for work faster in the morning. My previous habit was to wake up and eat breakfast while I use my computer, check email, surf, etc.    This always took a lot of time.  It was easy to do things slowly and waste time when I was groggy in the morning. I marveled at how quickly my wife was able to get ready in the morning.

But when I tried to resolve to either eat faster, or skip going on the computer, I always found myself back sliding.  I could be diligent for a few days, but not long term.   The problem was I was trying to rely on willpower at a time when my willpower was at its lowest.   Even waking up in the morning after getting little sleep due to the baby was a challenge.  Trying to force myself to operate at a higher level in that state was a fool’s game.

The solution was simple, change my environment.   I already routinely pack a lunch to take to work.   Now I also pack some toast and a hard boiled egg & maybe some yogurt to eat as breakfast right when I get to work.   It gives me an immediate energy boost to start the workday, and plugs a 20-30 minute leak in my morning routine.


The Practical Details

If you are going to manipulate your environment to bypass willpower, make sure you focus on the practical details.  For instance, when I run home from work, I want to carry as little in my backpack as possible.   Carrying shoes turned out to be a pain in the ass, so for a long time I just left my work shoes at my desk, and wore running shoes to and back from work.  Eventually I decided to embrace business casual, and just bought a pair of all black running shoes to wear and skipped the dress shoes entirely.


I’ve Never Regretted A Workout

Despite all this planning, there are still times I am forced to rely on willpower to work out at the end of the day.   When that happens, I try to remember   “I’ve never regretted a workout, but I’ve often regretted skipping one”



Photo at top of page from Flickr here

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