Why willpower doesn’t work and what you need instead

I’ve recently been reading the refreshing book, Why Willpower Doesn’t Work, by blogger and psychologist, Benjamin P Hardy. It’s a short book, to the point and well-structured so that from the outset he’s into the meat of his argument.

Hardy is clear that to have momentum in life you need to know

  • what you want
  • desire it
  • be willing to invest in it
  • align your environment with your desire

Put another way, for Hardy having goals means that you:

  • put your resources where your desires are
  • own them — these are not secret fantasies that you’ve never whispered outloud, but clear aims. Even better if you make yourself accountable to someone for achieving them.
  • plan them — you need a timeline, not a vague sense of sometime, someday
  • nurture them — this is the vital key for Hardy — that you remove anything from environment that opposes your goal

you are who you are because of your environment. Want to change? Then change your environment.

In short, you have to make the conditions so favourable that success is inevitable.

Hardy is a big proponent of the notion that context is all. External inputs such as surroundings., people, food, music, books… shape your world view, values and beliefs . And environments that demand more of us make us adapt:

Necessity is the single most important ingredient … for greatness.

Hardy is interesting in that he is avowedly not an individualist. Getting to where you want to go is not all about gritting your teeth and going at it with dogged willpower. But neither is he a determinism — Hardy is convincing in his belief that we can proactively shape our environment and who we chose to be.

Like the existentialists, Hardy is not an essentialist when it comes to human nature and personality. Rather than having some innate ‘essence’ that controls our behaviour, personality follows on from how we act.

Be willing to be the person you must be.

Neither does behaviour follow on from attitudes. Change comes from changing environment. Hardy points out that even stem cells react according to environment. Environment is more key than genetics since even biology is not fixed, but fluid.

Environment is essentially our Archimedes lever. The right environment will ensure you can always change and learn. But every environment has its own norms and ceilings so the trick is to manufacture the ‘right’ environment.

What is the right environment?

Photo by Nick Hillier on Unsplash

1. an enriched environment

Hardy considers that high stress environments work for productivity, but that short intense bursts also mean that we require high recovery environments. In short, it’s not about one static environment, but doing certain activties in the most optimised places. Both the high stress and high recovery environments are what Hardy terms ‘enriched environments’ where you are either ‘fully on’ or ‘fully off’.

  • You need eustress (stress that is positive and beneficial) to test your limits
  • And you need time (a great deal of time) for rejuvenation
  • You need to full engagement and to be present to each environment.

The metaphor is to sprint, then recover and the recovery should be longer and deeper than the sprint. We have, after all, a lot to recover from. We’re bombarded with technology, we have huge demands from work and people, we juggle the stresses of over-consumption, from food to media to … life.

For Hardy the future of self help is not self-focus but environment-focus. In an enriched environment desired behaviours become automatic and you are fully present and absorbed.

2. rotating environments

Hardy proposes having different environments for different behaviours. He uses a case study of someone with two homes in diffferent locations, one for work, the other for rejevination, but you don’t need an extra mortgage.

You might have a particular space for creative work that includes elements like no snacks (being mildly hungry could be good for creativity), music on repeat/in flow or silence (if that’s how you work) and no media distractions.

You might bundle all your calls and meetings into one day. Make it high energy good fats, proteins and veg…

or designate a space where no work ever takes place.

Using outside environments to make powerful decisions

Photo by Filip Varga on Unsplash

Hardy notes that we need ‘peak experiences’ those rare, invigorating moments of creative insight that arrive when we see the world from a new perspective. The more you are growing , the more peak experiences will set your trajectory.

So how does this work?

Hardy suggests that we all need ‘disconnected days’. Get away from your routine environments. And then:

  • think
  • walk
  • listen to music
  • workout
  • meditate

Above all — journal: write about your

  • life and relationships
  • how far you’ve come
  • what is happening in your life
  • what you are grateful for
  • where you are not showing up in your life
  • the key changes you need to make
  • your frustrations or why you’ve struggled to make certain changes.

And when you’ve done this, you can switch on your phone but only to connect with people who come to mind.

Staying on course

Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

Hardy also suggests a weekly round-up/planning journalling session:

  • how it went
  • wins
  • what didn’t go well
  • significant events
  • plans
  • what you’ve learnt and how you’ll use it
  • bigger picture goals
  • proximal goals (1–6 months)
  • to dos for next week

And a daily time to check in with yourself too. Choose a sacred space (it can be your car if that’s where you can get quiet) and develop a morning routine that helps you start every day in peak state.


Because it triggers you to be a different person. If you don’t do it immediately you’ll slip into old patterns, whereas a morning routine (which might include yoga, journalling, meditating, creative work

  • connects you with yourself
  • puts you into a peak state to achieve dreams
  • frames what want to do that da
  • makes you live proactively to avoid self sabotage
  • makes you aware of your goals

Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.

Ralph Waldo Emerson


Photo by Elli O. on Unsplash

Not all the things we need in order to shape positive environments are about adding activity. A lot of what Hardy recommends is about ‘uncommitting’ from unnecessary tasks:

Subtraction is productivity

To this end, he advises that you remove all excess baggage from your life — ‘stuff’ is energy so he means it in actual terms (throwing out junk, unwanted clothes…) as well as metaphorical terms. Hardy considers that the less you own the more you have, so you should

set limits on things. Some of these should be lower limits, such as at least:

  • 1 trip per month
  • cooking from scratch X times per week
  • doing yoga/exercise X times per week
  • walking X steps per day …

But many will be upper limits. Examples include no more than:

  • 50 emails in your inbox
  • 40 hours work
  • 10–15 minutes of Facebook per day
  • spending limits
  • eating (out) limits …

Uncommitting involves eliminating a lot of non essentials from life in order to shape the optimal environment.

Eliminate distractions

They are quick dopamine fixes that sap your energy so get rid of some apps and have times when you switch off your phone.

Eliminate options

Once you know what you want, stressing over paths not taken is a way to stand still. Know your direction and head there:

the fewer choices you have to make the more powerful your choices will be

Eliminate people

Some people suck all your energy out or refuse to let you change. They may be integral to your life, but you need to find ways to distance their influence.

Eliminate working memory

Hardy notes that you short term memory is finite. Instead of trying to hold it all, write down your insights fast. Similarly, when you need to let someone know something, do it now — be clear, timely and straightforward.

Unplug from work

Few of us can eliminate work, or would want to, but you do need periods of down time and rejuvenation.

Use distraction

We all have habits we want to break and Hardy advises using distraction rather than willpower. The trick is to find yourself some implementation intentions. Simply, this is something you can do to divert yourself from something you don’t want to do, for example:

  • If I want a glass of wine, I’ll open some olives instead
  • If I want sugary snacks I’ll go for a walk around the block instead

Over time, implementation intentions can become automatic and habits change. What Hardy is proposing is that instead of relying on willpower, which always fails, we adopt ‘forcing functions’. These are situational factors that force you to act in a certain way.

A positive view

Photo by Bolun Yan on Unsplash

Hardy’s is an optimistic worldview, but not a glib one. He has faith in the adaptability of people. He believes that change comes from

  • coming up with ideas
  • reflecting on them
  • synthesising the learning
  • doing something towards attaining the idea
  • experiencing the results

He is confident that anyone can commit to change, develop the tolerance needed to things that you fear and deal with the emotions.

Not focussing on fear is key, as is not confusing happiness and pleasure. In this he takes a eudaemonic view that well-being isn’t about instant gratification. Rather it might involve working through discomfort, frustration, uncertainty and even tragedy on the way to deeper attainment.

In short, positive stress (eustress) and high demand outshine willpower every time.

A Collaborative Approach

Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash

As I mentioned, Hardy is neither an individualist nor a determinist. In the world of self development he is a voice against going it alone. He notes that whilst the ‘socialising self’ is dependent on others and the ‘self-authoring self’ sets out to be the independent lone wolf, there is another way.

The ‘transforming self’ stands back and observe, s/he values the stance of others and is open to learning & feedback — constantly adjusting her approach.

The ‘transforming self’ experiences the benefits of collaboration. S/he moves beyond transactional relationships in favour of interdependent and transformative ones. Willpower is all about ‘you’, but Hardy is all about solutions that work.

Instead of willpower he proposes you need these three basics:

  • spiritually you need to rely on your higher power or your values
  • motivationally you need to know what you want, your ‘why’
  • behaviourally you need to shape an environment that works for you not against you

Because willpower doesn’t work.

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Editor, author, feminist & part-time nomad. Helping others develop their writing life and practice. Blog @ https://janfortune.com/

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Jan Fortune

Jan Fortune

Editor, author, feminist & part-time nomad. Helping others develop their writing life and practice. Blog @ https://janfortune.com/

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