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Last week, my daughter’s cat repeatedly woke me up — as soon as I fell back asleep, there it was, meowing at the door. This small disturbance set up the pattern for my entire day. Work that was typically easy to complete required a great amount of willpower to finish, and by the end of the day, I was exhausted, had a headache and gummy bears sounded really, really good.
In today’s attention-stealing world, many of us may find ourselves in similar situations, using every last drop of willpower to complete our work, take care of our families and somehow find the time to take care of ourselves. The problem is that we only have so much willpower in our reserves; if we are constantly fighting environmental disruptions, we will quickly deplete our resources.
Some of the environmental disruptions we face are beyond our control, and we can’t avoid all of them. But we can do everything in our power to adapt our surroundings and create an environment that enables us to thrive.
What is your environment?
Everyone has heard that a good night’s sleep and a healthy diet help you perform optimally. However, what we don’t often consider is that sleep and diet are not isolated practices — they are a part of our environment along with everything we encounter throughout the day. Each element of our environment — from our sleep to our diet to our office — works in tandem to support or impede our productivity and focus.
Setting up a positive environment includes much more than choosing a comfortable desk chair. Our environment consists of the people around us, where and how much we sleep, what we eat, the content we consume and how we schedule our time. We must proactively assess our environment to locate what is helping and hurting our progress. Ask yourself: What do I need to perform my best? What would my “perfect” work day look like? If you have a household full of kids, you might decide to build an outdoor office where you can work quietly. If you have loud neighbors, perhaps you need to purchase noise-canceling headphones. Whatever it is, we must pay attention to everything in our environment and locate what might be holding us back.
Willpower is a finite resource
Most positive outcomes in life don’t happen by accident — they happen through planning, grit and willpower. Without a plan in place and the determination to stick to it, our goals are mere dreams.
That said, willpower is a finite resource. Each of us only has so much willpower to expend in a day, and every environmental disruption takes a bit more air out of our balloon. If your environment is chaotic, you may find yourself depleted at the end of the day, unable to accomplish the goals you set out, like eating a healthy dinner or going to bed early. This, in turn, can set you up for an ongoing negative cycle of missing your goals the next day.
So if we can’t create more willpower out of thin air, what can we do to improve the odds of achieving our goals? We manage our environment. When we create an environment conducive to our success, we no longer have to expend as much willpower to get through the day. If you’re feeling frustrated by your inability to complete tasks and achieve your goals, consider that your environment may be limiting you, and take stock of what you need to do to change it.
Build a strong foundation
To advance our progress, we need to reserve our willpower for the things that need it most. We must form and commit to healthy habits aligned with our goals. The key is to start small — what is the smallest recurring habit you can commit to that will bring you closer to your goals?
I recently decided I wanted to become healthier and read more. Bit by bit, I began to implement environmental changes that allowed me to move toward these goals. I started going to bed at the same time every night. Once I was sleeping well, I began waking up early to read for an hour. Energized by sleep and mental stimulation, I added a trip to the gym into my routine. A few months later, I have created a morning routine that flies by, even though it’s close to four hours long. Furthermore, I no longer have to expend willpower to do it because it has become an ingrained daily habit.
Setting this routine into motion required willpower. Over time, however, as I began to reap the rewards of my habits, the cognitive load and willpower needed to complete them shrunk. I began to see myself as the type of person who kept a schedule, ate healthily and read multiple books each month. This happened because I created a goal and adjusted my environment to help maximize my chances of reaching it.
Clear the runway
In today’s world of full-time remote work, social media and the 24-hour news cycle, it has become harder than ever to tune out the outside world. As such, we must exert much more willpower to complete tasks or activities that may have once felt simple or exciting.
We control the environment we create for ourselves and the boundaries we set to protect it. The cat may still meow at my door, but I can no longer hear it over the sound of my noise machine. What is the “cat” in your life, disrupting your environment and inhibiting your success? Our environment is the runway from which our dreams, goals and plans take off — and though we can’t always predict the weather, it is on us to make sure the path is clear to start the engine and take flight.