• Ciaran Burks

Willpower versus Environment: Hack your brain to get what you want

When I imagine myself, I picture Hercules, Frodo, or Batman. I am a little ashamed to admit it, but within the privacy of my own thoughts, I am the prince that snags the princess, the dragon-slayer, the hero. I have a sneaking suspicion you are too. You are Cinderella, Thor, or Boudica, in the palace of your mind. And as the hero of your own story, like me, you have the guts, the determination, and the will to defeat the obstacles in your path. Ridiculous? A little, but we all believe some variation of this, if we’re honest. The problem is, we are not heroes, and unconsciously willing ourselves to do something is often not enough to get it done.

In fact, exerting effortful self-control – saying no to that slice of cake, getting that memo out on time – depletes our willpower. Willpower is a finite resource, and once we use it up, we are less able to control our emotions, behaviours, and thoughts.

Attempting to “tough it” through difficult situations is becoming increasingly challenging. Relying on willpower to make good eating choices, implement effective strategies at work or keep your temper with your spouse is unlikely to lead to good outcomes. Advertisers are becoming more and more sophisticated by the second. Google knows where you’ve been, what you’ve eaten and what you believe. Billboards stoke primal desires lodged in the amygdala, the almond shaped mass of grey matter that makes most of our decisions for us (without us ever knowing). Curated content is fed to us daily through social media, promising us beauty, riches, social status, sex, happiness and whatever other goal will get us to buy – and buy, and buy. Luckily for us, good research has been done on behaviour. Today I am going to show you how to design your life and hack your brain to get what you want.

Knowing that eating less can be surprisingly useless in getting us to eat less. Did you keep your new year’s resolution this year? Most of you didn’t, and that’s ok. Like me, you focused on the wrong thing, but we are going to change that today. Please remember, I beg you, that knowing what I am about to tell you is not enough. You need to do something about it.

In one study (Wansink, 2004), the researcher studied environmental factors that increase food intake without the knowledge of consumers. You might reasonably expect that a person’s health awareness, physical fitness or love for food are the primary determinants of how much one consumes. In fact, package size, plate size, lighting, availability, and effort all contribute hugely (and often unknowingly!) to how much you eat. I can predict, with remarkable accuracy, how much you will eat by the size of the plate I give you. I can increase your consumption of doughnuts if I bring one to your desk every morning. You’ll eat more if I keep you at dinner longer. If I offer you wine in a large round glass, you’ll drink more than if I offer you a champagne glass (tall and thin). If I offer you a wider variety of food, you are likely to take “a bit of everything” and eat more than if I offer you only one dish. If I give you a bag of crisps while you’re watching the game, you will probably finish them without realising it. You get the idea.

Environment matters.

Change your environment, and you change your behaviour. Don’t buy cookies or put them on the top shelf. Get rid of your giant plates and eat only in the kitchen. These small tricks will change the calories you consume more dramatically, and more reliably, than a documentary on obesity or a tongue-lashing from me.

I plan to write much, much more about willpower and how to influence your behaviour, so let me know if you would be interested in that.

For now, I recommend reading Atomic Habits by James Clear which could change your life like it changed mine. Get it here in paper or an audio.

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© 2020 by Ciaran Burks