2 December 2014

Changing the architecture


One of the important findings from the world of behavioral science is that willpower is a finite resource. Sure, some seem to be able to show more of it that others. But regardless of inherent or learned capacity for it, everyone can run out of it.

The understanding comes from fields of research such as why apparently smart people eat badly or fail to exercise, or other such dangerous behaviours. Moreover, they do so in full knowledge that these behaviours are bad news for almost all aspects of their life and despite their stated intentions to act differently. The idea is that since willpower is finite, if you spend all of it forcing yourself to work long hours, there is none left to help you choose healthy foods or turn your phone off and get some sleep.

Making sure you spend your willpower wisely is the obvious first line of attack. But so often, people don’t feel able to change their routine to allow for this. Topping up your willpower ‘account’ is the second line. You can do this by making sure you are well slept, well fed and surrounded by supportive people, among other things.

The third line is more of a workaround than a solution. But it is better than nothing. You can change the choice architecture. In other words, you can set things up to make it harder to make the bad choices and easier to make the good ones, acknowledging that when you are tired and worn out, your good intentions will go out of the window. 

Some examples:

  • If you don’t have the biscuits in the cupboard, you’ll not reach for them ‘just tonight’. Instead have you chosen healthy food at the ready. In moments of good willpower, prepare them for your future willpower starved self. Wash your fruit, put it in a nice bowl or do whatever you need to make it more appealing and convenient to choose.
  • Cycle or walk to work. Once you are there, you have to get home the same way! Make it easier to choose by ensuring you are fully kitted out with clothing to keep you warm and dry for bad weather. Make sure the bike and kit are ready to go by the front door so there are no excuses in the morning when you are running a bit late and bleary eyed.
  • Choose your workplace and house based on your chosen training venue. Make sure you’d have to literally drive past it on the way home to excuse yourself from training.
  • If you climb with a partner who habitually leads and sets up a top-rope for you, climb with someone else or instruct them to refuse to lead for you under any circumstances. Better still, climb with partners who would mercilessly rib you for even suggesting that you skip your turn to lead. The shame would be less painful than just attacking swallowing your leading phobia.
  • If you need to get stronger openhanded, set your wall accordingly (see photo above). Don't have a wall? Make one!


Everyone can think of instances in their own routine where they habitually make poor choices. In 9 out of 10 I described many of the big and important ones, but the number of decisions we make that influence our performance is huge. Try to think of ways you can make it harder for your future willpower starved self to make the right decisions at those crucial moments in everyday life.

3 comments:

Martin McKenna said...

Cool post. I like the idea of willpower being a resource that you can spend. It seems very true to reality and will definitely make me think if I'm spending mine correctly!

Umberto said...

Hi Dave, I agree with Martin: cool post, great idea. By the way, I've stolen (with pride) one sentence from the post. You go always straight to the point, no excuses for any reader, as I noted by reading "9 out of 10". I'm going to change some of my routines. Ciao

Norm Rasmussen said...

Really makes you think about your own willpower as a "resource"! But I think most of us will find our mind fails before our body. If we can just convince, against all excuses, to just climb....