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  • Andy Robinson

How to Stick to Your Habits When Willpower is Low

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

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When it comes to sticking to our good habits and making progress towards our goals, most people think that all they need is some more willpower. But research is starting to show more and more that there is another force at play that shapes our behavior and supports or undermines the goals we set for ourselves … our environment.

I found an interesting article in the Washington Post which describes this very thing … Google Crunches Data While Munching in Office. In 2012, Google faced a problem that might pale in comparison to the usual projects, but nevertheless led them to create a team of behavioral science Ph.D.’s to investigate the following:

Why do employees eat too many M&Ms? And how do we stop them?

According to their rationale, eating too much of the free candy might hinder Google’s efforts to keep employees happy and healthy.

So their team went to work, and they surveyed employees, collected data on the proximity of employees to the M&M bins, consulted academic papers, and eventually launched an experiment.

What if the company kept the sweets hidden in opaque containers and covered them with a lid while openly displaying healthy snacks such as pistachios and dried figs?

The result: In the New York office alone, employees consumed a mind-blowing 3.1 million fewer calories from M&M’s over only 7 weeks. That’s 9 vending machine-size packages of M&M’s for each of the office’s 2000 employees!

Now, did the employees suddenly decide to eat healthier? Certainly not. All Google had to do was make the convenient choice the healthy one. If you still really wanted M&M’s, you could get up and get them. But because only healthy choices were displayed publicly, workers went with the new easy choice without even thinking about it.

Most people think that enormous amounts of willpower or motivation are enough to make good choices in our lives. But more often than not, the environment around us has the final say in our decision-making, even if we don’t notice it.

This makes even more sense once you realize that your mind is like a muscle. Just like your muscles get tired after a hard workout at the gym, your willpower muscle is depleted with every choice that you make throughout the day. This also explains why, after a long day at work, all you want to do is watch TV and eat junk food.

In recent years, books such as Nudge by Richard Thaler have shown us how to use choice architecture – the art and science of designing our environment for success – in order to save willpower and make better choices. So where else can we use choice architecture in our lives? Here are a few examples:

  1. Want to create a better morning routine? Turn your phone on flight mode or even leave it outside your bedroom and wake up with an alarm clock so you don’t check your emails right after waking up

  2. Want to watch less TV after work? Make it harder to do so by removing the batteries from the switch and hiding them in a different room

  3. Want to work out every morning? Have your workout clothes ready and a friend waiting for you outside so you can’t back out

  4. Want to eat healthier? Hide the sweets and display healthy snacks instead

Once you understand the impact your environment has on decisions you make on a daily basis, you will find it easier to stick to your good habits even when willpower is low. It’s easy to start with one small choice and work from there. What choices will you make today?

Have a great day!

Max Weigand

Executive Coaching Intern CRG Leadership InstituteLLC

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