Don’t Increase Your Willpower — Reduce Your Options

A little over a year ago, I started going on a low information diet. Rather than just reduce the number of feeds in my RSS reader, I dumped them all in one shot. I knew myself well enough to realize that I would open up the reader the moment I felt the need to postpone taking action on something important. So I still found myself opening the reader, but there was nothing in it that would serve as a tool for procrastination. Rather than just limiting my email consumption to one or two scheduled sessions per day, I added Gmail.com to Leechblock, a Firefox extension that blocks your access to designated sites for designated time periods.

The principle is simple: it’s easier to increase our concentration by controlling our environment than controlling our attention. By setting the conditions in which we operate on the front end, we spare ourselves the order of having to make moment-to-moment decisions for staying on task. I kept trying to open GReader and Gmail, despite my conscious commitment to the low information diet. The problem isn’t changing a behavior, it’s changing a habit, and a habit is much more deep-seated and has more momentum than a single action.

Habit Handicapping

There are probably a million ways to change a habit, but I see three main ones. We can identify the psychological cause that drives the habit. I’m too much of a pragmatist to find much reassurance in that approach, at least when it comes to getting past procrastination. We can identify distractions and triggers that divert us from the critical path, like instant messages and phone calls. I think this is necessary but not sufficient. It’s one thing to know that a ringing cell phone is distracting, but trying to ignore it when it rings requires willpower, and exercising that willpower is itself a distraction — like consciously trying not to think of pink elephants.

The third way is habit handicapping: limiting your ability to engage in a unproductive habit. Returning to the GReader/Gmail example, I created a framework in which I didn’t have to tell myself not to check RSS feeds or email. I was free to check them, even if they yielded no results. For a few weeks, I still opened these sites reflexively, then my brain finally made the connection: opening these sites will just show an empty page. Break the causal connection between a habit and its effect by changing the effect. Disrupting that habit has since served its purpose, and now I’m using an RSS reader again, but in a unique way that I’ll explain in an upcoming post.

But surely you can cheat if you really want to indulge in the habit? Absolutely. The point isn’t necessarily to remove the possibility to succumbing to habit, but to put enough sand in the gears to make habitual behavior a conscious choice.. You can leave ice cream in the freezer and resolve to avoid eating it, or you can throw it out so that you have to drive to the store if your sweet tooth is really that strong. I prefer the latter. Imagine how much more fit employees would be in an office without vending machines or coffee makers.

Other examples:

  • Increasing your writing output by composing on a legal pad instead of looking for a fancier writing tool with internet access
  • Deleting your browser bookmarks so that you have to access your favorite time leeches by typing in their urls. Those who are apprehensive about losing their bookmarks permanently can always save them to a flash drive first
  • Leaving cash at home to avoid the vending machine at work
  • Installing a call filter app on your phone that blocks designated calls, or all calls, at designated times. I have mine automatically set to route calls to voice mail during work hours, so I never have to hear or attempt to ignore a ringing phone

Willpower is overrated. We know it, yet we pay lip service to it. Powerful CEOs get things done in large part because they have professional gatekeepers to control their environment, not because they have iron wills. In a world rife with interruption (including self-interruption), controlling our environment is an executive skill that we all need to master.

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