Shocking News for Entrepreneurs: Why Willpower Alone is Not Enough

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but willpower alone doesn’t work.  Entrepreneurs are well known for their bulldogged determination and perseverance.  We all know the feeling of setting big, exciting goals but falling short despite hard work. After enough failure, it’s easy to conclude that you are the problem. But what if it isn’t?


Willpower is the power to exert your free will against internal or external obstacles.  Your willpower is like a muscle. It’s a finite resource that depletes with use.  You can only lift that 10 lb. weight a certain number of times before your bicep is fatigued and the lift is impossible.  Therefore, by the end of a strenuous day, your willpower muscles are exhausted and you’re left with zero self-control.


If at that stage of fatigue, you need to exert willpower to do something (and we all know there is always something more to be done when you are an entrepreneur…), you will be experiencing internal conflict.  


You might feel as if your desire for your goals isn’t strong enough and/or you aren’t invested in yourself and your dreams.  But you are! The sense of conflict can also come from a challenging environment that is in opposition to your goals.


To achieve a goal you need to make a committed decision by:

  • Investing upfront
  • Make it public
  • Set a timeline
  • Installing several forms of feedback/accountability
  • Remove or alter everything in your environment that opposes your commitment


Rather than relying solely on your own internal strength, true commitment involves building external defense systems around your goals.


For example, if you want to eat healthily, remove all unhealthy foods from your house. 


If you want to be more motivated, take on greater responsibility and increase the stakes for both success and failure.


You can design your worldview by shaping your external inputs:

  • The information you consume
  • The people you surround yourself with
  • The places you go
  • The experiences you have


You must proactively shape your environment to have the life you want so you can subsequently shape your thoughts and behaviors.


Part 1: Your Environment Shapes You


Historian Will Durant spent four decades studying the history of the world and concluded that great leaders did not shape history. Instead, he found that difficult situations created great leaders. He found that necessity creates more greatness than intelligence or vision. He said that the ability of the average man could be doubled if it were demanded.  In the world of entrepreneurship, you are finding that pressure-filled situations are causing you to show up more than even you thought you could.


In our individualistic culture, we often believe our environment is separate from us. The truth is that our environment shapes everything we do and think. Your environment has a direct and measurable impact on the rest of your life unless you actively change it. Most people live small because their environment doesn’t require them to become more than they currently are.


Goal-setting and attitude changes only work for a small subset of behaviors, such as giving a public speech, because it is something you rarely do, thus it requires your conscious attention.


Every environment has a set of written or unwritten rules and it shapes how you think, act, and behave. Consider this experiment; a group of fleas are placed in a jar. When there is no lid on the jar, the fleas can easily jump out. However, when the lid is on the jar, the rules of the environment change. Quickly, the fleas become trained not to jump so high. Three days later, when the lid is removed, the fleas remain at the lowered height and do not jump out of the jar.


The same is true for you (no, I’m not implying that you are a flea). Who you are and what you can do in one environment is very different from who you are and what you can do in another. You are always acting in a role and the roles are typically fixed. You act a particular way because of the rules of the situation you are in. 


You can change your patterns and change your roles by altering your environment. If you remain stuck in the same roles and patterns, it doesn’t matter how much willpower you exert – you will always be confined within the limiting context of your role.


When you’re in an enriched environment, your desired behavior is automated and outsourced. When you’re in an ordinary environment, you must remain conscious of what you’re doing and thus you require willpower to act in desired ways.


Part 2: How to Make Willpower Irrelevant


Peak experiences are deeply moving, and it is often in these moments that we have our best ideas and can truly assess what we want in life. These experiences happen when we connect with ourselves. Peak experiences happen during periods of rest and recovery. 


Schedule “disconnected days” for relaxing, thinking and learning.  These are crucial for entrepreneurs and, because of demands, often rarely taken.  Resting and recovering will actually increase your productivity. Only those who truly detach – mentally, emotionally and physically – can reattach when they start working again. After you are rested, you will return empowered and energized. Journaling is a key part of resting. Take an honest look at your life, how far you’ve come, and where you’d like to go. This will help you stay connected to your “why.”


It is important to have a daily environment to help you stay on the right path toward your goals. You need to continually check-in and make course corrections to ensure you’re going in the direction you want to. A good way to do this is to begin each day with a morning routine to put yourself into your best state.


You should journal every morning to set the tone for your day. Write your goals down daily to deepen your own sense of belief and desire in those goals. Success happens when you take twenty steps in one direction. Most people take one step in twenty directions. 


Elimination is the fastest path to progress and forward momentum. In order to rise above your current environment, remove the excess baggage that is keeping you where you are. Get rid of the physical objects you don’t need, distractions, people that don’t inspire you and your short-term memory.


If you’re stuck doing automatic behavior, change your default option and your behavior will change too. People often take the first choice given to them. Our environment prompts behaviors; so to break unconscious habits, change your environment.


Act consciously and do everything with intention. Easier said than done, I know, but it becomes more of you each time you focus on it. If you know ahead of time what you’ll do if you veer off course, you’re more likely to stick to your habit. For example, you can make a plan such as ‘if I enter the kitchen and want to eat a cookie, then I’ll drink a glass of water instead.’  You must replace an addictive behavior with another behavior, so implementation intentions are crucial.


Part 3: Outsource High Performance and Success to Your Environment


If you want to achieve your goals, you must determine which environments produce the best outcomes. You can make the best of your environment by structuring it with forcing functions, which are self-imposed situational factors that force you to act and achieve what you want. For example, you can leave your phone in the car if you want to be present with your loved ones. Instead of relying on your willpower, you can remove the option (distraction) altogether.


You can set up external defense systems around your goals too. For example, if you leave your laptop charger at home, you will be more motivated to work hard during the few hours you have until your battery runs out.


You can use social pressure to hold you accountable to your goals. Again, it’s not willpower that drives you, but external pressure. If you create consequences for failure, you will work much harder.


If you put yourself in higher-pressure environments, you are more likely to thrive. Set tight deadlines for yourself and commit outwardly so you can’t back down. Compete above your skill level so you can learn from your opponents. Compete in public so there is more pressure to succeed.


Learning through doing is far more powerful than reading a textbook. Context-based learning often involves immediate feedback on your performance so you can get better, quicker.


Find a mentor or a coach to help you. Investing in yourself is the best investment you can make and you will see huge returns.  


At EntrepreneursRx, our mentorship relationships always remind us of the benefit of personal guidance.  When you have someone (aside from yourself), to hold your feet to the fire, stuff gets done! 


Keep implementing what you learn until it becomes unconscious. To turn a skill to automaticity, you must first master the skill. Then, make your training progressively more difficult. Add time constraints so you are forced to work quickly. Finally, practice it with intentional distractions to encourage the automatic response.


Set up your environment to optimize for productive work. The best creative work requires a blend of intensely tight focus for one to four hours, followed by a relaxed mind in a different environment. 


Work according to your personal energy levels instead of the social norms, such as nine to five. Many a creative genius came up with their best ideas at 2 a.m.  


Switch up your environment to keep your brain active.  Provide yourself with mental breaks throughout the day and take a short walk. If you can rotate and alternate your working environments, you will have more energy and focus.


Every environment has its own set of rules, but these rules are not absolute. Shatter the traditional rules and replace them with new and better ones. If you play by the same rules as everyone else, your results will be the same as everyone else. You must reshape the rules of your environment to thrive and the best way to do that is through new connections. Collaborate with people with different worldviews and you will come up with unique ideas and strategies. 


You are not bound by your past, but you should honor it. The more sense of history you have, the more context you will have around yourself and the more sense of control you will have over your life.


Don’t let your success go to your head. Remember that you are not the cause of your success. Instead, you are the product of your changing environment. Stay in a continual state of humility and gratitude.


Willpower is not an effective approach to personal change. Outsource your willpower to a goal-enriching environment and you will flourish.


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