Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Ali Luke.
Does this sort of thing happen to you? I’m trying to lose a few extra pounds right now, and we had a packet of mini chocolate cookies on the kitchen counter. The first couple of times I saw it, I ignored it. But before long, the inevitable happened: I’d scoffed a handful of mini cookies. I was tempted to blame myself for lacking willpower, but is that it?
Your ability to use willpower to resist temptation isn’t constant. You might be able to ignore those cookies when you’re feeling at the top of your game — early in the day — but when you’re feeling tired, frustrated, or just bored, it’s much easier to grab a handful without even thinking.
There’s an easy solution, though.
Put those cookies out of sight and out of easy reach.
That might sound ridiculously simple, but it works. The trigger for wanting a cookie is seeing them right in front of you. If you can’t see them, you’re less likely to think about them — just like when your phone is in another room, you’re much less likely to get up and fetch it just so you can scroll through your Facebook feed.
This applies to all sorts of scenarios, of course, not just cookies.
In any situation in your life or work where you need willpower to stay on the right track — the track you want to be on — then it’s better to use stronger scaffolding instead of stronger willpower. (Tweet this.)
Scaffolding is anything you can put into place that makes it easier to do the right thing and harder to do the wrong one. This is sometimes known as “distributed willpower” — making decisions that help you boost your willpower by using your environment. (For an excellent look at this, check out Timothy A. Psychyl’s article External Supports for Your Willpower.)
Types of Scaffolding to Try
In practical terms, what types of scaffolding might you put in place? You might try:
1. Making a Commitment to Someone Else
When you’re working alone towards a goal, it can be tough to stick to your planned steps along the way. By working with someone else, you’ll feel more motivated to carry on.
For instance, you might plan to go for a run with a friend; that way, you’ll be less likely to skip it. You won’t want to let your friend down, you won’t want to look lazy, and it’ll probably be more hassle to rearrange (you’ll have to contact them) than to simply stick to your original plan!
2. Getting Technology to Work With You, Not Against You
Most of my distractions are tech related. It’s all too easy to glance at Facebook while I’m stuck on something I’m writing, only to end up going down an internet rabbit hole.
Rather than trying to resist distractions with willpower alone, I use technology to help. The Chrome plugin Focus blocks websites that I don’t want to use during my workday. If I try to go to Buzzfeed, for instance, I get a message reminding me to stay focused on my goals.
Whatever your own technological setup, you can use plugins or other tools to help you stay focused. For periods of focused work, you might switch off the internet altogether and silence your phone.
3. Establishing Regular Routines
Once you’ve built a good habit, it doesn’t take all that much effort and willpower to maintain it. If there are particular actions you’d like to take each day, see if you can chain them together into a routine.
Perhaps you want to develop a strong morning routine where you spend some time setting yourself up for a good day — a healthy breakfast, planning the day ahead, meditation, journaling, writing, or whatever’s important for you. Once you get used to doing this at the same time every day, it’s easy to keep up.
4. Preparing Your Materials Ahead of Time
When you do need to use some willpower, make everything as easy as possible for yourself. If you want to get up and go straight to the gym, get your workout clothes ready the night before, so you can put them straight on.
If you’re going to get up and spend ten minutes journaling, put your journal and pen where you need them the night before. It’s so easy to end up changing your plans if you haven’t got the things you need readily available.
5. Rearranging Your Home or Office
Look out for places where small tweaks to your home or office could make all the difference. If you’re trying to eat more fruit, for instance, how about keeping the fruit bowl on your desk upstairs instead of in the kitchen downstairs? (While you’re at it, you might want to move any chocolate bars out of your desk drawer too.)
This doesn’t just work with food, though it can be particularly helpful there! If you want to read more business related books, try keeping one next to the sofa (so it’s an easy alternative to TV) or having one on your bedside table.
Pinpointing Where to Build Your Scaffolding
To figure out where best to start building scaffolding, look for where things are currently going wrong.
For me, I know that my day always goes better if I wake up before my two young children and have some time to myself first thing. That means I can read the Bible and pray, write in the sentence-a-day journals I keep for my kids, and plan my work for the day.
It took me a while, though, to establish this routine, and the root of the problem was that I wasn’t getting into bed on time the night before.
Maybe you’ve got a similar struggle. Let’s say you want to head to the gym in the evenings, but once you get home, you just can’t summon the energy to get off the sofa. The issue there might be with the timing of your gym trip: Perhaps it would be better to pop your workout gear in the car in the morning and drive to the gym straight after work, before coming home.
Figure out the point at which things start to go wrong, and build your scaffolding around that, using one or more of the suggestions above.
Do you find yourself using up willpower when better scaffolding might be what’s needed? How could you start putting more scaffolding into place in your life today?