How to Stick With Good Habits (Even When Your Willpower Is Waning)

I’m sorry, but no matter how many articles bark willpower strategies at me, in the real world, things just don’t seem to pan out. Fitness buddies flake, eating organic racks up a grocery bill that’s impossible to stomach and, well…the best-laid plans of mice and men and all that.

Sticking with good habits is a lifelong pursuit, which, needless to say, can feel like a very long time. Sure, once things like eating healthy and frequenting the gym become routine, lack of willpower or motivation may become less palpable. However, behavior change is always a challenge, but one I aspire to conquer, which is why I’m always on the lookout for new tricks of the trade—as are scientists.

Recent, encouraging research suggests that building better habits or altering your behavior patterns isn’t totally, or even mostly, dependent on your own self-control or ability to self-motivate. We social animals are, in fact, more products of our environment than prisoners of our own minds, at least according to Anne Thorndike, a primary care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. In a six-month study published in the American Journal of Public Health, Thorndike and her colleagues demonstrated the power of “choice architecture,” or the way options are presented. Thorndike’s team helped thousands of people develop healthier eating habits simply by altering the “way the food and drinks [were] displayed” in their cafeteria.

Originally, the cafeteria contained three main refrigerators, all of which were filled with soda. The researchers added water to each of these units and placed baskets of bottled water throughout the area. Over the next three months, the researchers witnessed a significant drop in the number of soda sales and, conversely, a rise in the percent of bottled water sales. Visitors were not primed in any way to choose water over soda. When similar adjustments were made with the cafeteria’s food options, the researchers witnessed similar results. Make the environment more conducive to good decisions and people will naturally follow suit.

Usually, people see good behavior as linked to willpower, motivation and discipline. However, studies such as this one demonstrate that environment is just as strong a factor. Chris Powell knows this—why do you think every Extreme Weight Loss comes with a free full-on home makeover? Easy access to treadmills and workout equipment helps even the initially willpower-less stay on track.

According to health guru James Clear, among others, willpower is a finite resource. It’s not that some people have it and others don’t, it’s that our stores of willpower are directly affected by all of the things we do throughout the day. For some, there’s simply none left over by school pickup. When our drive is depleted, we’re more susceptible to environmental influences. If we’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, effortful activities like heading to the gym fall to the wayside. Even at-home yoga may seem like too much of a task.

However, being aware that your environment weighs so strongly on our decisions makes it easy to manipulate said environment to our own advantage—be the “choice architects” of our own fate, if you will. Place healthier foods at eye level or in more visible spots. Hide away your comfort foods. Organize your room, office and other areas to promote productivity. Sort your laundry at the beginning of the day and leave it by the washer or the door, so it’s a much simpler task later. Design your environment so as to make the good behaviors easier and the bad choices harder. All these little tiny little changes will add up and (hopefully) lead to better choices.

…Now to find the motivation to reorganize…