How to meet your goals without willpower

The trick is not to force your brain to make good decisions.
The trick is not to force your brain to make good decisions.
Image: Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader
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With a new year ahead, many people are resolved to do more and better, to get ahead, and to muster the willpower that until now has eluded them.

The good news is you can forget about willpower. Many psychologists no longer believe in it. The notion, rooted in the Victorian era and Judeo-Christian thinking about resisting sinful impulses, implies that we have a limited amount of energy that people of strong character use to fight temptation. This concept is now being replaced with a more nuanced view of how the brain operates.

Humans are complex creatures. Though we know some things are good for us—like getting exercise, or completing tasks on our to-do list—we can’t always do the right thing. Or rather, we can, but we need to use certain tricks, carrots and sticks, limits and lures, to create habits that get us results. According to New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, 40% of actions we take aren’t decisions. They’re part of the mental routines we create, which are basically shortcuts, helping us operate on automatic.

To ensure that our automatic responses are positive ones, we can set up circumstances that cue us to do the right thing and eventually turn that thing into a habit. Duhigg argues that we aren’t destined to be any one way, but can completely rewire our brains by creating cues that associate positive experiences with activities we know we should do. His research leads him to believe it’s wiser to eat chocolate after a workout than kale chips, say, because soon enough your brain will fuse the chocolate cue and the exercise into one positive experience and start looking forward to workouts as much as it does cake.

When it comes to getting to the gym, there’s no end to the tricks people use. For example, some sleep in their workout gear to ensure they  exercise in the morning. Others pack their gym bags in advance and put them where they can’t be ignored. These little tricks eliminates the need to decide to exercise anew each time. You train your brain to make exercise a routine by eliminating silly little obstacles, like getting dressed or finding your sneakers.

The same applies to all areas of life. We make to-do lists not just because we’ll forget what we have to do, but because writing down goals turns reaching them into a series of satisfying items we can cross off the list. Whether it’s a simple daily list or a bullet journal that encompasses a slew of goals and activities over the course of a year, the decision to commit an idea to writing makes it more likely that idea will become a reality. It’s a trick we play on our brains, which might otherwise be inclined to cheat by avoiding contemplating the very things that we should face to feel better about ourselves.

Writers rely heavily on cognitive tricks to complete their work. Karl Ove Knausgaard, who wrote the six-volume epic memoir My Struggle in about two-and-half years, found that deadlines forced his creativity. Likewise, novelist Jessie Greengrass explains in LitHub that she gets her writing done by simply making it a daily morning habit. She does it whether or not she wants to and has gotten so used to the routine that she no longer struggles with sitting down.

My own approach to writing is similarly tricky. Fundamentally, I’m a bit lazy and somewhat contrary, so I impose nonexistent deadlines on my stories in order to force myself to produce them. But I also often choose to give myself slightly more time than I might need. Then I start piecing together a tale without any pressure. In fact, I regularly tell myself I’m not really working at all, just preparing to write by looking for resources and images and scribbling a few sentences. Often, before I know it, a whole post is written without me even thinking I’m getting it done. What might have seemed like an onerous task turns out to be pretty fun.

Your brain isn’t an enemy seeking to undermine you, but it does need some training, a little help to push it in the right direction. Whether it’s smiling when you’re sad to lift your mood, or eating off a smaller plate to be sated with less food, the games you play with your mind can help you make the right choices. Optimal lighting and temperature in an office can improve productivity (pdf), for example, and so can switching locations to a coffee shop where others are working (paywall) or playing motivating music.

If you want to tackle your 2019 resolutions with gusto, don’t worry about cultivating willpower. Honesty is not always the best policy. When it comes to getting things done, some gentle deception will do the trick. Don’t convince yourself to do what you know is good for you. Pull a bait-and-switch on your brain and you could succeed without really feeling like you even tried.