Many of us who are pursuing ambitious goals and aim for self-improvement rely on willpower to get us there. When you want to lose weight, you use your willpower to prevent yourself from eating a cupcake…
When you want to save money, you use your willpower to stop yourself from making meaningless purchases…
And when you want to wake up early, you use your willpower to get out of your bed immediately without hitting the snooze button…
On the surface, this approach looks like it makes sense. Often, it seems like it’s the only approach we can take. However, as science has shown, only relying on your willpower to achieve a goal or change a habit turns out to be a failing strategy for the majority of people — no matter how good their intentions are. Instead, you need systems to guarantee consistent results.
Your Willpower Isn’t The Most Reliable Method For Consistency
According to research, your willpower is largely regulated by the pre-frontal cortex, which is a relatively new part of the brain. The problem, however, is that the pre-frontal cortex consumes a lot of energy.
This energy runs out as the day progresses, as higher cognitive functions such as decision making, focusing, thinking, and problem-solving all drain energy from the brain.
Thus, it becomes harder and harder to tap into your self-discipline and willpower as energy is drained from the pre-frontal cortex. Just like a muscle that has been doing a lot of heavy lifting, it’s too weak and energy drained to go another round. This is why, according to science, your willpower is a finite resource and thus not a reliable tool for consistency.
You might be able to fight off impulses and procrastination early in the day when your willpower ‘muscle’ is still at its strongest, but you’ll have much more trouble later in the day when your energy starts to dip.
In other words, we need a more reliable method if we want to make consistent progress and successfully change our behavior.
In reality, we make impulsive decisions and fall for temptations much more often than we realize. This is because, within the moment, the brain prefers instant gratification over delayed gratification. It craves rewards right now over possible rewards somewhere in the future.
Our brain prefers the instant sugar high of a snack over the delayed and ambiguous reward of ‘better health’ by a healthy salad.
And it prefers the comfort of procrastination right now over the possible future reward of writing an article. It’s how we’re wired.
This craving is almost always much harder to resist than we think beforehand. And it’s exactly why we aren’t that reliable at all. It’s why we say and believe we’re going to do X, yet in reality, do Y more than we’d like to admit. We think that next week we’ll be super disciplined and exercise consistently, eat healthily, read daily, and work hard — but in reality, we keep on falling prey to procrastination and impulsive decisions.
That’s exactly why we need a more reliable method for achieving goals, making consistent progress, and successfully changing habits. What we need are systems. Systems will always outperform willpower.
Don’t get me wrong, willpower and self-discipline are essential traits for success. However, where your willpower has a success rate of 75% (which is an ambitious estimation), your systems will have a 99.9% success rate.
Set Up Systems To Consistently Make Progress
In my eyes, a system can best be described as one or more actions that are automatically set in motion through something external (software, tools or other people) or because of an action you took in the past. These systems largely remove the need for willpower as they either do the work for you or they force you to do the work without having a choice.
For example, when you set up an automatic saving or investing plan, you remove the need to tap into your willpower to save money or prevent yourself from spending money unnecessarily. As a system automatically takes care of your savings, you’re taking temptations and impulsiveness out of the equation.
It’s because of my automatic saving and investing plan that I’ve been able to improve my financial situation consistently. If it weren’t for that system, I might have blown it on meaningless stuff. Most people, however, haven’t automated their finances and thus rely only on their willpower. Maybe that’s why 69% of Americans have less than $1000 in savings.
Meal prepping is another form of a system you could set up that removes the need for relying heavily on your willpower. When you cook healthy meals for the entire week, you don’t have to decide at the moment between that unhealthy hamburger or that healthy chicken salad.
The decision has already been made for you by your actions from the past. This is why, according to research, meal prepping has been associated with less obesity and a healthier diet.
Pre-committing to a specific activity is also a form of setting up a system. For example, when you want to exercise more often, schedule your classes or personal training sessions in advance. Get some skin in the game and hold your future self accountable by pre-committing.
When it’s harder to cancel than following through, you’re using a system instead of merely relying on your willpower.
Whenever faced with a choice between doing something and not doing something, we need to tap into our willpower to make the most beneficial choice. This requires mental energy, conscious attention, and self-discipline.
This is why we’re most likely to mess up during the decision-making process. Our lower self gets the opportunity to try to talk us out of exercising, working, studying, or meeting new people — and it succeeds more often than we’d like.
However, when our systems have already made this choice for us, we have no other option than following through with it. The decision is made for us, and thus we’re forced to take action. This makes us more consistent than we could ever be when relying solely on our willpower.
For example, if you want to improve your focus and productivity, use a tool to block certain websites and apps that distract you from your work. Instead of wasting your limited willpower on this activity, outsource your effort to a system.
Maybe your goal is to stop snoozing and to get out of bed early. In that case, it’s a terrible idea to rely only on your willpower. I’ve snoozed an embarrassing amount of times in my life simply because I tried to rely only on my willpower.
Instead, I decided to set up a system that forced me to get out of bed without even having the possibility of snoozing. I put my alarm clock in a different room so that I physically had to get out of bed and get moving.
Because of this external system, I no longer needed to fight against my own impulses and lower self. My success rate dramatically increased while I actually had to tap less into my willpower than I used to.
Your social circle is also a form of a system, which either works for or against you. When you share your goals or ambitions with your social circle, they might automatically work for you in many different ways.
For example, systematically sharing your goals and progress with a few accountability partners serves as a system to actually do the work and make the progress that you want to make. In fact, a study by the American Society of Training and Development has shown that people who pursue their goals with accountability partners have an average success rate of 95%.
It’s because of my accountability partners that I’m more consistent with my actions and progress than ever before. Simply having to confess my excuses and lack of action to my accountability partners is something I desperately want to want to avoid, so I do the work regardless of my mood and motivation. If I would go at it alone, I’d probably talk myself out of it one way or another.
All in all, you’re outsourcing your willpower to your systems and environment — and there’s probably nothing more powerful than that.
Remember, unlike ourselves, systems never procrastinate, make impulsive decisions, or try to talk us out of doing certain things. They work for us on those moments where we would be working against ourselves.
Now Do It
Whenever you feel motivated or inspired, use this momentum to set up a system that makes your future actions much easier or even effortless. Knock that one domino down that instantly takes all other dominoes down with it.
Prep your meals for the week to ensure you eat healthily. Set your alarm in another room so you have to get out of bed and you can’t snooze. Set up an automatic saving or investing plan to consistently improve your finances. And use your social circle as a powerful system to keep you accountable for your goals.
This way, you’ll make consistent progress that significantly compounds over time.
If you have any other system working for you that I didn’t mention here, feel free to share them in the comment section!
To Your Personal Growth,
Founder Personal Growth Lab
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