Willpower is for jocks. A limited resource to begin with, made even less useful by being depleted by simple decisions, like what to wear to work or eat for lunch. Constantly switching between tasks seems to be a good way to expend it as well. So relying on willpower to change your (or someone else’s) behaviour is not a sustainable strategy.
But what if you changed the environment instead?
Trying to cut back on candy and snacks? Clear out the cupboards. It’s much easier to avoid foods that take some trouble to obtain. If you need to go to the local store every time to satisfy a craving, it’s less likely that you’ll actually do it.
Trying to start exercising in the morning? Aim for 10 minutes to make the goal easy to achieve and to build positive reinforcement. Then put your sneakers and sportswear next to the bed before going to sleep.
When I finally realised that checking Facebook was likely to put me in a bad mood, I deleted the app. And the apps you want to spend less time on, but don’t want to get rid off completely? Put them in other screens and into folders. The more clicks it takes, the less likely it is you’re going to open them accidentally and without intent.
Want to watch less TV and read more? Leave the remote to another room. And when you finally come home from work and collapse on the couch, have a book waiting at arms reach.
Changing the environment is also the smart and sustainable way to create organisational change. Design processes, metrics, rewards, incentives, information flows, tools, management systems, goal setting, performance reviews etc. in a way that they support the behaviours you want to see from the people in your organisation, and discourage those that are toxic.
Want to be more innovative? Get rid of metrics that encourage people to protect business as usual. Replace them with ones that reward creativity, controlled risk-taking and learning. Get rid of informational silos and start using systems that support total transparency.
And treat those changes as experiments. Organisations are complex adaptive systems, where seemingly simple changes can have surprising and significant side effects. Just look at what happened in Yahoo: Fixed project-based employee evaluations meant that none of the top engineers wanted to work with each other, as it would have reflected poorly on their individual performance scores. Consequently the most important projects never had the best possible team working on them.
Of course, none of this matters if you don’t first figure out what the desired personal and organisational behaviours are.
Heath, Chip & Heath, Dan (2010). Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. New York: Random House.
McChrystal, Stanley et al. (2015). Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. New York: Penguin Publishing Group.