You can use principles of conditioning to set up your life in such a way that your environment supports your self-discipline instead of undermining it.
Make an honest assessment of your environment and try to identify the external factors that influence and shape your behavior.
Maintain and strengthen the factors that fuel your self- discipline, and remove or alter those that unnecessarily challenge your self-control.
When it comes to learning and molding behaviors, reinforcement is better than punishment.
However, genuine internal motivation beats both reinforcement and punishment.
While this appears to counter a strictly behaviorist view, bringing the concept of intrinsic motivation into the picture recognizes the capability of human beings to be driven not just by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, but by their values, deeper motivations, and larger goals.
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The “environment” that surrounds and impacts your behavior encompasses many different things:. • The people you spend time with, including friends and family.
• The attitude and mindset you hold.
• The physical environment around you—for example, your desk and workspace.
• The reading material you expose yourself to.
• Your daily habits, including diet, exercise, hydration, screen time, and sleep quality.
• How organized your daily routines and habits are (or not).
• Your physical and mental health and wellbeing.
• The support you’re receiving from others.
• The presence of addictive, distracting behaviors and temptations.
• Your surrounding culture and context.
• Your own personal willpower and intention for yourself Of the list above, you only realistically have control over the last thing—your own willpower and intention.
All the other things are certainly going to influence you, and sometimes to a far greater extent than we care to acknowledge.
Many people say, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with,” meaning that the people around you have a powerful effect on shaping your behavior, which in turn impacts your choices, your actions, your self-identity, your worldview.
Like our conflicted student in the previous chapter, we can be heavily swayed by those around us—for example, our parents.
We cannot always choose the environments we land in, but we can be aware of and moderate their influence over us.
To do this, you could try to take an inventory of all the environmental factors that are currently weighing in on your behavior—can you manage these so that they’re best supporting you, rather than undermining you? Write down everything in your external world that is motivating you one way or another, and see if they’re really aligned with your higher goals.
Sometimes, we valiantly rage against laziness and lack of motivation with an iron will, when we didn’t strictly need to—we just needed to remove all those things making laziness easier, while increasing our reward and positive reinforcement for working hard.
In this way, self- discipline is irrelevant, because you simply behave in the way that your environment shapes you to be.
As an example, a person with a bad procrastination habit could take a good hard look at the environment they find themselves in.
They might ask themselves:.
• What is my reward or reinforcement for doing “bad” things?.
• Where am I lacking a reward or reinforcement for doing “good” things? They may discover that they are spending too much time with people who don’t really share the same values, and who are unconsciously punishing hardworking behavior (“You’re such a bore.
Take a break and come hang out with us this evening.
We’re starting to think you don’t like us or something.”) while praising procrastinating behavior (“Hooray, you’ve finally loosened up a little, thank God!”).
1 It can be tricky to unravel all the external motivators of your own behavior, but it’s easy once you note what you experience as rewards and punishments.
When you do something, good or bad, ask yourself why you did it and what motivated you.
Life is filled with temptations and distractions, but you may find you can easily resist them if you make a point of more obviously rewarding yourself for doing the harder thing.
Take breaks and give yourself mini- rewards, or join with someone else so you can be accountability buddies—avoiding disappointing someone else can be a powerful motivator to do what you said you’d do! As an example, a man could be trying to lose weight but finding it hard to avoid tempting treats.
But when he looks at his overall environment, he basically sees a whole world of stimuli to which he has learned conditioned responses, all of them being to eat things he knows he shouldn’t.
He notices that he receives plenty of reinforcement for all the behavior he is trying to stop:. • His mother constantly offers him home-baked treats, and is pleased when he eats everything she gives him.
• He has several friends who encourage a habit of eating out in big buffets together, generating plenty of positive feelings around eating too much.
• He works in an office where “corporate cake culture” reigns supreme, and eating a big slice several times every month is seen as being supportive of good team harmony.
• He has a wife who often suggests getting takeout on stressful days, and he associates these with the quality time they share.
In fact, the more he follows this line of thinking, the more he starts to see food as a rewarding experience, because every aspect of his life has framed it as something that brings about comfort, socializing, relaxation, and companionship.
He understands that he could break this association with self-discipline alone, but he could also make things a bit easier on himself by not giving himself so many appealing temptations to be self-disciplined against! So, he joins a dieting group where he is praised often for sticking to his plan.
He gets his wife to work with him on his goals, rather than against them—he spends quality time with her in the kitchen instead, cooking healthy meals.
He offers to occasionally bake the cakes for colleagues’ birthdays so he can show his community spirit while not having to literally eat the cake.
And he could start suggesting other activities to do with his friends that don’t involve food.
Granted, he will still need willpower and self-control to reach his ultimate goal, but it will be much easier if the rest of his environment is supporting him as much as possible.
1 If you can, make doing the right thing easier and more rewarding than doing the wrong thing.
Take the time to make new associations—don’t mentally connect the work it takes you to achieve your goals with avoidance, laziness, fear, or disinterest.
Rather, form positive associations.
Pair challenging tasks with more pleasant ones.
For example, if you always give yourself a tiny treat after every study session, you’ll be making it that much easier to want to do study sessions—no willpower required!
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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
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