For most people, self-control and health go hand-in-hand: getting out of bed for a morning run instead of hitting the snooze button, passing on the pizza in the office kitchen in favor of a salad, going to sleep at a reasonable hour instead of staying up until 3 a.m. binge watching your favorite new show. It’s all a simple matter of willpower, right?
Wrong, says self-improvement expert Benjamin Hardy, PhD candidate and author of the new book Willpower Doesn’t Work: Discover the Hidden Keys to Success. “A lot of the basic research in psychology says that your willpower is essentially an exhaustive resource,” says Hardy. “It’s not unlimited; it runs out very fast.” In other words, if you rely on willpower—a finite resource—to get things done, once that resource is depleted, so is your ability to stay committed to your goals.
But if self-control isn’t the answer, what is? According to Hardy, it’s your environment.
“Nearly every behavior is outsourced to an environment,” says Hardy. “What you do and how you act is actually completely shaped by your situation, even if you don’t know it.” So if you want to hit your health and fitness goals—whether that’s running your first 5K or cutting sugar from your diet—set up your environment so you don’t need self-control to succeed. Here’s how to do it.
Remove Triggers That Might Derail Your Success
If your environment is full of temptations, you’ll be forced to rely on self-control to resist them. And once that willpower is depleted, you may be more likely to give in. So get rid of those triggers. “It’s a lot easier to eliminate a temptation [than it is] to avoid it,” says Hardy.
Trying to cut soda out of your diet? Make sure there’s none in your house. Want to stop eating junk food but your co-worker always has candy? Limit (or eliminate) interactions with them in the vicinity of their desk. Your environment determines whether you’ll be successful in hitting your goals, so make sure there’s nothing in your environment that threatens your ability to succeed.
Think 5 Steps Ahead
No matter how effective you are at removing triggers and setting up your environment to support your health and fitness goals, there are going to be times you’re tempted to go off course (like when you’re trying to make better food choices and your partner brings home a gooey chocolate cake from your favorite bakery). While you can’t avoid every temptation, you can try to anticipate them and come up with a plan of attack so you don’t get stuck relying on self-control in challenging moments.
“Implementation intentions are a psychological strategy in which you predetermine what you’re going to do in as many situations as you can,” says Hardy. “It’s planning for obstacles, it’s planning for challenges, it’s planning for things along the way that are going to derail you. And then it’s having a pre-planned response [that helps you overcome the obstacle].”
Surround yourself with healthy people
“When you put yourself in proximity to certain types of people, you begin to adapt to their mindsets, their beliefs, and their value systems,” says Hardy. So, if you want to hit your health and fitness goals, you need to surround yourself with healthy people. The more time you spend with people who are making positive decisions, the more you’ll adapt to fit in with them, and the easier it will be for you to make positive decisions, too.
So if your goal is to run a marathon, consider joining a running club. If you’re trying to make better food choices, spend time with people who reach for whole foods instead of fast food. If you want to learn about meditation, surround yourself with people who practice mindfulness. No matter what your goal—or level of willpower—if you make smart tweaks to your environment, you’ll have what you need to succeed.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.