Some people believe that willpower will always fail, and that the environment will always win. They say that we should improve our environment rather than train our willpower. This idea attempts to average us down to the lowest human denominator—and that is incredibly limiting and uninspiring.
Those authors speak from the point of view of “what usually happens”—of your conditioning. I am speaking from the point of view of “what’s possible for you”—your potential. Mindful Self-Discipline is not about who we are conditioned to be. It’s about who you can become. It’s about your potential, not your current limitations.
Environment is important, but it’s only half of the story—and often the half we have less control over.
People say that “willpower doesn’t work” because they haven’t fully developed it; so it’s not dependable for them. By the same token, with the way digital distractions are increasing in our modern life, soon enough future generations will be saying that “focus doesn’t work”, because nobody can concentrate anymore!
If you never rely on your willpower, you will never be able to rely on your willpower. That’s not a good place to be, because willpower is essential for both success and happiness.
You Will Always Need Willpower
Unless we are perfect people (with no internal conflicts) living in a perfect environment (with everything around us fully supporting our goals), we will always meet some form of resistance or obstacle. That is the case especially if we are trying to develop ourselves, stretch beyond our current limits, or achieve anything difficult.
We can’t escape that fact. And when we do meet obstacles, we will need willpower to overcome them. We will need to have the discipline to make choices that are difficult, choices that are against what our external environment is triggering us to do, or against what our internal environment (impulses) is pushing us to do.
Of course, it’s great to resolve internal conflicts, aligning all aspects of our personality to move forward together. Meditation, self-reflection, therapy, and coaching can help. It’s also a great idea to seek the best environment for our goals, or improve our existing environment.
Still, we will always meet resistance on the way to our goals. When that happens, we will need willpower. It is futile to try to design a life where we won’t need it, just so we can avoid the pain of exercising it. Such life would be stale—devoid of growth.
Willpower Can Fail—So What?
Emphasizing that willpower is exhaustible and that the environment always wins is like saying that our muscles are exhaustible, and that gravity and the weights always win. Even if that is true, it doesn’t mean that exercise is futile. The whole point is that we transform ourselves in the process.
Perhaps there is a natural tendency of willpower to eventually exhaust itself. So what?
It’s also the natural tendency of the body to get dirty and sick. Does that mean we shouldn’t clean it and attempt to keep it healthy? Does that mean that healthcare doesn’t work?
It’s the natural tendency of love to fade away after years of marriage—does that mean we shouldn’t attempt to keep it alive? Does that mean love doesn’t work?
It’s the natural tendency of our mind to get distracted—does that mean we shouldn’t exercise our power of focus? Does that mean focus doesn’t work?
Many of the most valuable things in life require effort to be achieved and then maintained; and our effort may not always succeed. But it is worth it. The price of giving up exercising our willpower, self-care, love, and focus, is much, much higher.
Willpower doesn’t work if you haven’t trained it. It works if you have.
Self-Reliance is Evolution
In nature, the less evolved an animal is, the more it lives and dies by its environment. Humans have the greatest ability to survive in any environment, because we are resourceful. We can’t control the environment, but we can create tools and methods to influence it, and we can refuse to be controlled by it.
With self-discipline, we can thrive despite the external environment. Further, self-discipline allows us to master our internal environment, acting according to our goals and aspirations, despite temptations.
Consider the 1972 Stanford marshmallow experiment. In this study, a child was left alone in a room with a marshmallow and a choice: to eat the single marshmallow immediately, or to wait until the researcher returned and get two marshmallows.
Follow-up studies showed that children who delayed gratification to receive the greater reward had better life outcomes. They got higher SAT scores, had better social skills, earned more money, engaged less in substance abuse, could cope better with stress, and had overall better physical and mental health.
Today, willpower and self-discipline are essential for you to survive and be happy. We live in times where the survival of the fittest means survival of the focused.
Use Your Environment, But Don’t Be Dependent on It
Using your environment to your benefit—by removing temptation or placing reminders around you—is a shortcut. And we live in a shortcut-obsessed society. The problem is when we overuse the shortcut, we become dependent on it. We get to a point where we can’t do the work without it anymore.
Or we may try the available shortcuts to achieve our new goal and give up when they fail—because we’ve lost the ability to rely on ourselves and exercise our willpower.
If you focus only on environmental triggers you will be able to build some good habits. But if you focus on your environment and your willpower, you will have both good habits and strong willpower.
I use both. It is the environment that makes my alarm clock ring at 2:30am every morning. It is willpower that gets me up. It is habit that takes me to the cold shower every day; it is willpower that turns on the tap.
Even if you could design a “perfect” environment, please don’t. Imagine a life where you never lift anything heavier than five pounds—it’s comfortable, but it won’t make you strong. And sooner or later you’ll need those muscles!
You need to be prepared for life, and in life many times we have no control over our environment. But we can have control over ourselves—and, for that, developing willpower is key.