Hacking Willpower, Optimizing the Defaults

A while back, all the craze about productivity seemed to reside on Willpower. There are several good books about that topic. But what if willpower is overrated? I started to think more about the alternative when I saw a video about Optimizing the defaults. But actually, where I learned about this principle for the first time was in the book The Happiness Advantage. The author shares a great story about someone who finally got himself to practice playing an instrument, you can read about it here; Using the path of least resistance to build new habits.

What optimizing the defaults means is that instead of trying to force yourself to do what you want to accomplish, you make it easy to do so. No longer you’ll need to rely on sheer willpower to accomplish your goals. The same idea is described in the best book about habits I’ve read to date, James Clear’s Atomic Habits. Here is a quote which hit me.

When scientists analyze people who appear to have tremendous self-control, it turns out those individuals aren’t all that different from those who are struggling. Instead, “disciplined” people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control. In other words, they spend less time in tempting situations.

Atomic Habits

James gets into a lot of different details but the most important takeaway for most people I think is this. If you want to stick to a habit, make it easier to do so. If you want to stop doing something (a bad habit) make it hard to stick to it.

You don’t need to be as disciplined as a Marine to start switching things up in your life and making changes. It can be as easy as putting your workout shoes in front of your bed at night, so that they are right there in the morning, reminding you to go for a run.

Be the architect of your environment

I used to not being constant with my workouts. Tired of seeing my progress come and go, I bought gym equipment and put it right next to my room. I have to walk by it every day. Now I train whenever I want, no matter if only for 5 minutes. A rainy day? No problem. Want to workout in Pyjamas? No problem.

The same principle can also be transferred to the digital world. Once I realized how effective optimizing the defaults really is, I started to organize my PC, for instance, only leaving important shortcuts to applications I need for work on my desktop. Minimalism in my digital environment and in my room also proved to really free up mental memory and decision making for me. It is just another case of optimizing the environment.

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