It’s Monday and I am lying in bed, with an open window and a pleasant temperature in the room while outside it’s getting progressively hot. I am at my grandparents’ place and just had a nice breakfast. I have planned my goals for the week and feel positive and motivated to start working. But there’s a slight problem – the Internet connection doesn’t work. “The collapse of modern civilization has come! How is it possible to not have internet in the 21st Century!?! People are planning to conquer Mars and I can’t access google.com”
My frustration kept growing as I attempted every possible combination or trick that I could think of to get the connection to work. Nothing. I sat down and through “What can I do without internet now?” I realized that in fact, the things I’ve been struggling most with I could do without being connected since I had everything I needed on my laptop. I have been having troubles with completing some work on the online course I am doing for at least 2 weeks now, constantly getting distracted by other tasks or just pushing it back. Having no Internet connection was in fact exactly what I needed, since nothing could distract me. I could just sit down and work as there was nothing else to do!
Removing roadblocks to prevent procrastination
We get puffed up with the desire to get a new habit established. We make a new year’s resolution that we will keep that diet, or will read more, or will play the guitar. We put the calendar on the wall with the goal to mark every time we do what we committed to do. Or maybe we have a diary to track the progress.
What happens? The first week is patchy with ticks and then the second week maybe has one or two. The third is completely empty and four months later we have completely forgotten about our resolutions until something painfully reminds us.
So what went wrong? We had the motivation; we had the commitment and the energy to do it, but we didn’t remove the roadblocks around us so that it is easier to keep our commitment. For example, imagine you get up in the morning and you want to read, but the book is far on the shelf and your phone is next to your bed. Very naturally you grab the phone and 30 minutes later you are drowning in your Facebook feed. Imagine instead, if your phone was thousands of miles away (or at least that’s how it will feel) on your desk and the book was next to your pillow? I can tell you that absolutely every single time I follow the first pattern I fail to keep my reading habit going and every time I follow the second I am on track.
What if you wanted to eat healthy and loose weight? If every time you got home there was nothing in the fridge, you would end up going out and buying food, probably fast food – expensive and far putting you away from the goal. Imagine instead if during the weekend you made a weekly plan of your meals; went to the store and bought everything you need; cooked few meals to last you until Wednesday and planned the lunch at work and the dinner at home? Well I bet you will have much more success with sticking to that diet. In fact, it would be more effort to go out and buy food than to eat what you had already cooked.
Adding roadblocks to increase productivity
The same principle can be reversed and we can put roadblocks to make it more difficult for us to do things that move us away from achieving our goals. One example was placing the phone further away from us so that we can focus on reading instead.
Another example – if you made a commitment to watch less television, but every evening you come back from work you are so completely depleted of energy that the only thing you want is to sit down in that sofa and turn on the TV. A simple cure would be to hide the remote control somewhere in another room, in a drawer. Then, put a book on the table next to the sofa. Next evening when you come back from work and sit down on the sofa, reach for the remote and don’t find it you will probably get frustrated and swear at me a bit. But then, your energy will be directed to the next easiest thing – reading the book. You can do the same with writing (add a notebook instead of the book) or playing the guitar (just put it next to the sofa in an arms reach).
Will power, the depletable resource
Psychologist Roy Baumeister has studied will power and at the end of the twentieth century discovered that will power is in fact a resource each of us has. It is a resource that can be very quickly depleted and as such it is not a reliable foundation for building habits.
The reason willpower is so ineffective at sustaining change is that the more we use it, the more worn-out it gets.
Multiple studies have shown that when you put people in a situation where they have to use their will power to control themselves in doing something, every task given afterwards will be executed very poorly. For example in one study Baumeister placed in front of 2 groups of students a bow of chocolate cookies and a bow of radishes and salads. The first group was told not to eat the cookies and the second group was told they could eat whatever they want. Then, both groups were given puzzles to solve. The second group outperformed the first one many times. This same study has been repeated in many different contexts with many different people to prove the same thing over and over again.
No matter how unrelated these tasks were, they seemed to be tapping into the same fuel resource.
Our will power weakens the more we use it.
When we make our commitment to establish a new habit, we often do so very naively. We rely completely on our will power to fulfill that commitment. But as day after day our work, chores and troubles come, they all suck from the same resource – our will power. This weakens our effectiveness and ability to continue the habit we so passionately committed to in the first place.
The solution is to create a path of least resistance by removing the roadblocks on the road to the activities that establish our habit. And also by adding roadblocks on the paths to the activities that we use to procrastinate and ultimately move further away from achieving our goal.
Next time you want to establish a new habit, sit down and plan. Think, what are the activities you need to do every day in order to sustain and nurture that habit. Now think how you can make it easier for yourself to do those activities. What roadblocks can you remove? What roadblocks can you add on the path to the things that take your time and attention away from what is important to you?
Reply and let me know if you have had similar experiences and if you have experimented with the concept of roadblocks? Have you ever felt your will power depleted prematurely?