Medium writer Benjamin Hardy makes the case for why and how to shape our environments to support success.
- How to use the sunk cost fallacy to your advantage
- The definition of a forcing function and how to apply them at work
- Why pen and paper beats digital journaling
Since late 2015, Benjamin has been the #1 writer on Medium.com. Ben’s writing focuses on self-improvement, motivation, and entrepreneurship. His writing is fueled by personal experiences, self-directed education, and formal education. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Industrial and Organizational Psychology at Clemson University. His research focuses on the psychological differences of wannabe entrepreneurs and actual entrepreneurs (dreamers vs. doers).
Items Mentioned in this Show:
- Ben’s Website: BenjaminHardy.com
- Ben’s Book: Willpower Doesn’t Work
- Ben on Medium.com
- Book: Counterclockwise by Ellen Langer
- Book: Drive by Daniel Pink
- Book: Influence by Robert Cialdini
- Book: Mindfulness by Ellen Langer
- Book: The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk
- Book: The Power of Moments by Chip & Dan Heath
- Book: Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith
- Book: Write It Down, Make It Happen by Henrielle Klauser
- Term: Parkinson’s Law
- Term: Pygmalion effect
Ben, thanks so much for joining us here on the How To Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.
Thank you, Pete. Very glad to be here with you, man.
Well, so you’ve got a pretty cool claim to fame, and it’s that you are the number one writer on Medium. I guess we measure that in page views by the tens of millions. So, congrats. That’s really cool.
How does that happen?
I mean, a lot of luck, a lot of good timing, and a lot of things. I mean, I started writing online in 2015 shortly after becoming a foster parent of three kids, was in a PhD program, still in that program actually. I’m almost done. It’s organizational psychology, so I have lots to talk about because it’s psychology of the workforce, how to keep people motivated and whatnot.
But, yeah, I mean, after I became a foster parent it kind of really put a lot of external pressure on me. I’d been wanting to be a writer since 2010, had spent from 2010 to 2015 reading, reading, reading, reading, and I’ve always been an intense journaler. But it was when I became a foster parent actually did that pressure kind of really forced to like think about – think things through.
And then that led me to investing some money into a domain name, an online course that taught me how to write viral articles, and then seeking mentorships. And then just pumping out lots of articles in my spare time and getting lucky and, I mean, I could tell you as much as you want to hear as far as, in my opinion, what makes good writing but, yeah, having lot of…it’s been a fun ride.
Well, I would be intrigued if maybe there is a key principle or rule of thumb or mantra that you keep front and center that contributes, you think, to the success there.
Yeah, yeah, I mean, as far as the marketing, you have to get really, really good at writing headlines and structuring articles in a way that is very easy flowing for people to read. As far as writing, the three components are being very good. You know, you’ve got to be a very good communicator. Being able to weave concepts, principles, stories, so you have to communicate but not just communicate head knowledge.
You have to have the head knowledge which is expertise or something on a topic because if you don’t have that then you just sound like you’re sharing your opinion and it’s not credible. But if you just have the head knowledge, if you’re just writing facts then it’s not compelling and it’s not persuasive. And so I think kind of the triple threat is knowing your stuff so well but actually knowing when it… and then understanding it kind of at the heart level, the emotional level, and being able to speak from experience in a communicative way and a persuasive way.
So kind of emotions, expertise, and good communication is what I think really makes it powerful because when you can speak really persuasively but then you’re backing your stuff up with like, you know, tons of science or compelling or very credible sources then not only is it emotional for people, but they’re like, “Oh, wow,” they believe it’s true because you’re backing it up over and over and over. And so that’s kind of some keys, I think.
Oh, cool. Thank you. Well, I appreciate that. It wasn’t just like, “Well, the key is to put a number in your headline,” and then it’s like the eight reasons willpower doesn’t work, “You won’t believe number six.” That’s all there is to it, you know.
That’s all you need, my man. That’s it. Now you can go be famous.
I had a hunch like each of those things sounds hard in the sense of, “That’ll take some time to develop that capability just like real life.”
Oh, yeah, it’s not an overnight thing, you know what I mean? So you can apply some strategies overnight that make a big difference but at the end of the day you’ve got to be good at what you do. Like Cal Newport says, you’ve got to be so good you can’t be ignored.
Well, so I’m excited to see you have put some of these skills to work in crafting your book here Willpower Doesn’t Work. Tell us what’s this all about?
Yeah, Willpower Doesn’t Work is kind of, I mean, I don’t know I’d call it a manifesto but it’s like a countercultural punch in the face to Western culture. So Western culture, especially in the self-improvement world but also like in the pop psychology world, is very individualistic. That’s just our culture. We’re a very individualistic society. We’re very focused on ourselves.
And so when we’re talking about self-improvement and stuff like that, we’re always talking about, you know, we’re always focused on the self, you know, have more willpower, have a better mindset, how to set better goals. I mean, it’s all about you and there’s no focus on the context around you. There’s no focus on the environment or very little because in our culture we kind of downplay how much the environment truly shapes us.
So what the book is all about is it’s all about, first off, how important our environment really is, the fact that you’re a different person in one situation than you are in a different situation, and how environment shapes your identity. And then, really, ultimately how to shape the optimal environment so that you can succeed.
And there’s a curt quote that comes from Marshall Goldsmith. He wrote the book Triggers, and the quote is, “If you do not create and control your environment, your environment will create and control you.”
I go into a lot of science and research since I study organizational psychology, but there’s been a big shift over the last 50 years in the research. So back in like, well, really, it’s been a long time coming, but in the 1920s and 1930s, all of the research on leadership, for example, was focused on men. So the first core leadership theories were the great men leaders, great men theory of leadership. I mean, it was like it all about how leaders can only be men.
And then we went to the trait perspective where it’s like, you know, you could only be a six-foot tall man. And, ultimately, we were all focused on traits and stuff, and even personality types. I mean, it’s so popular. We’re all so focused on these fixed traits. And, in my opinion, the science at this point it’s pretty clear that it’s all about the environment, and about creating that environment, that’s why companies like Zappos are so popular.
But all the research in organizational psychology is focused now on, “How do you structure environmental settings so that employees can be successful so that leadership can happen?” So, really, this book is just all about, “How do you setup the environment so that you can win?”
Intriguing. Well, so maybe we should back it up a little bit when you talk about winning. I guess that really starts with a decision to commit to a particular goal, result, outcome to begin with. So what’s your take on where it all starts and how you arrive at a point of conviction that this is the thing that I shall pursue?
I love that. So it actually directly relates to my research. And so throughout my doctoral research, and I know that we’re not going to be talking about entrepreneurship specifically on this video or on this episode, but I actually do study the difference between wanna-be entrepreneurs versus actual entrepreneurs but it relates to everything. Really it’s the difference between dreamers and doers, you know. What is the difference between those people who can never reach that point of conviction versus those people who become fully committed?
And, ultimately, kind of what I’ve included after studying all sorts of people on this topic is that, yes, you have to have some internal desire, but that’s too focused to get on the individual. You have to ultimately do something in the real world. And so there’s a few components but I think the main one is that once a person starts financially investing in themselves, in their skill development, in their relationships, once they actually start investing money in what they want to do, then all of a sudden they become hyper committed.
Like there’s a lot of research in economic stuff called escalation of commitment where like once you commit, or once you start investing money, dollars, into something you become very committed to it, almost so committed that it becomes hard not to commit. It kind of goes along with the idea of sunk cost bias where you become so…have you heard of sunk cost bias before?
Right. Certainly. It’s like you’re trying to justify what you want, you know.
Hundred percent, yeah. Almost all the research on sunk cost bias points in the negative direction, it becomes an irrational commitment. But, it’s the same level of commitment that leads to success. The only reason people think it’s irrational is because often it ends in failure. You know, if you think Elon Musk, he was so convicted in his companies that he sunk all of his money into it. And because he succeeded, we all think he’s a hero. If he had failed we would’ve called him irrational.
But the same principle applies. If you start investing money, you become very committed whether that’s to an organization, whether that’s to a goal, whether that’s to a relationship, whether that’s to your skills, once you become invested, you become committed, and as you get committed then you start to wrap your identity around that thing. You start to change your identity and believe that you are that thing, whether that’s entrepreneur or leader or writer, and you start to go from wanting to be that thing to actually being that thing.
Yeah, that’s intriguing and powerful. You know, this is bringing me back to Robert Cialdini talking about commitment consistency in his book Influence and those sorts of principles. Now when it comes to money, is it important that it be a sizable sum of money or do you really get the ball rolling if you spend 12 bucks on an Amazon book in the direction that you’re pursuing, like things are happening already?
I, a hundred percent, think it can definitely start small. I mean, I have been coming to grips with this principle, and, by the way, I love Cialdini. I’ve spent so much time studying his work in commitment and stuff, but, yeah, it always starts small. Like when I was first starting my PhD program, when I was like really starting to say, “I want to start this whole writing thing.”
As a PhD student you’re making 12,000 bucks a year. You’re getting about a thousand bucks a month plus you get your tuition paid for. And so for me it was like, “Okay, I need to buy a website,” and that domain name costs 800 bucks. That’s more than $12 but I bought an online course for $197 that taught me how to write viral articles or viral headlines.
And so I do think it can start small, it can start with books, it can start with really what needs to happen is that you see yourself moving in the direction you want to go. Like if you watch yourself buying and reading books on a topic, you’re like, “Oh, I’m observing myself performing these behaviors.” That’s how people develop their identity, it called self-signaling in psychology.
Basically, what it means is that we, ourselves, we don’t really know ourselves as much as we think we do. We judge ourselves the same way we judge other people. It’s based on our behaviors. And so if you start watching yourself behave in certain ways, you’ll start to believe it, and that’s how confidence develops. You know, confidence is the product of successful behavior, and so once you start behaving in a certain way, and you start to kind of developing some consistency, all of a sudden you start to have confidence, then you can become passionate about it.
Okay. That’s cool. I like that. And so, then, when it comes to the environment, you know, I dug your quote from Marshall Goldsmith. It also reminds me of one by Churchill who said, “We shape our dwellings and then our dwellings shape us.”
By the way, Marshall McLuhan also says we shape our language and then our language shapes us.
Okay. We got a full-blown theme here.
By the way, the whole book is about how your environment shapes you, and that the only way to proactively become the person you want to be is to shape the environment that you know will shape you.
All right. Well, that’s compelling. So let’s hear it. How do we go about taking those steps to shaping such an environment?
I mean, first things first. You have to somewhat – I mean, you kind of have to know what you want. You don’t need to know all of it because a lot of the change happens once you’re in the environment. Or I think there’s so many layers to this question. I think, for the starters, I’ll talk about, in the book I talk about two types of optimal environments.
So I call them enriched environments, and that comes from a lot of theory and organizational psychology about basically how people have been structuring jobs. They call it job enrichment which is basically all the stuff that Dan Pink talk about in his book Drive, I believe, about creating jobs where people have more autonomy and stuff. I mean, that’s all based on research in organizational psychology.
But, basically, the two types of optimal environments that I talk about in the book are environments of high stress and then environments of complete rest. And, basically, it’s the idea that you need to be fully engaged and absorbed in whatever environment you’re in. So in order to be fully absorbed in, let’s just say, like a flow state, where you’re totally engaged in what you’re doing, you’re totally focused, there’s got to be several factors.
You’ve got to have high level of responsibility, there’s got to be consequences for performance. Ideally, you should be doing something that you’ve never done before and that somewhat above your skill level. I mean, it needs to be challenging and difficult, and there needs to be feedback, you know what I mean? It’s basically like the equivalent of being at the gym with a personal trainer. It should be very difficult and you should be having to rise to an occasion, rise above what you’ve done before so much so, and very few people work environments are like that.
Most people are in a semi state of distraction, there’s tabs open on their stuff, there’s notifications popping on their phone, there’s very low consequence for bad performance, it’s mundane, it’s routine. And so step one is, “How do you create an optimal environment that’s high stress?”
Then step two is you can’t do that all day, it’s not about being busy, it’s about being productive. And so you need to, have an environment for rest and recovery where you fully detach from work and where you, then, just focus on whatever it is you want to do at home whether that’s to be with your family or whether that’s like rest and recover in some other way.
There’s a lot of research in organizational psychology that talks about a concept called psychologically detaching from work. And, basically, it means that in order to fully be engaged while you’re at work, you need to fully detach and be engaged in life and rest, and let it go. And there’s like all sorts of negative effects if you don’t ever detach from work, like you have a hard time fully engaging, you burn out quicker.
And so I think, kind of just bringing this together real quick, there’s a quote from Dan Sullivan, he’s the founder of Strategic Coach, but he says, “Wherever you are that’s where you should be. Wherever you are make sure you’re there.” And so the idea is when you’re fully resting, like actually rest and recover. Almost all of your best ideas are going to happen while you’re resting. And then while you’re at work you can fully engage at a much higher level. You can be much more proactive, you can take on more responsibility.
And so I think that, first off, understanding those two types of environments and kind of assessing yourself how often are you in those types of environments. Like when you’re actually home, are you actually resting? Or is your environment setup for failure? Like do you have a TV in your bedroom? You know what I mean? Like, is your environment setup to fail?
And so I think, first off, is assessing how often are you in a flow state and knowing that flow is purely based on your environment is number one. I don’t know if you want to just talk about that first and then we can talk more about how to actually structure those things.
Sure thing. So I would like to hear about how one constructs both a high stress and a high recovery environment. And so it sounds like the antithesis to high stress was, “Hey, you know, we got a lot of bad distractions, we’ve got not a whole lot of really high stakes,” in terms of if you succeed or fail in a given day, it’s like, “Well,” you know, you’re probably not going to be fired or promoted or get a fat bonus or whatever kind of, on most days. So how do we go about putting an environment in place in which we do have this stress so that we could be totally in and rocking? And then afterwards let’s talk about the recovery side.
Totally. Absolutely. So there’s a concept I talk about in the book called forcing functions. And forcing functions are basically a simple way to kind of manipulate your environment so that basically desired behavior is the norm, it’s the automatic. I mean, a simple forcing function literally is just leave your phone away from your person. Like if you’re not required to use it, like while you’re at work, for example, don’t have it around you. Leave it in a bag or something.
Basically, just put constraints in place so that you’re not going to do something stupid. That’s basically what a forcing function is.
Other forcing functions, and this is more relevant to just like self-improvement, but I think it could be related to the job site. Like Ramit Sethi, for example, he’s like an online entrepreneur, but he invests like a good amount of money every year into a personal trainer. And when he does that, and it’s almost the same principle we’re talking about before, it forces him to go to the gym. You know what I mean?
And so let’s just say a person has a goal, whatever it may be, get a promotion or get a better job. A lot of it is thinking what you want and then embedding these forcing functions to make it happen. I mean, a very simple interesting forcing function just for high productivity is, so one of the people I talked to, he purposefully, if he’s going to go work for a few hours, like let’s say at the library or something, he purposely leaves his power cord at home for his laptop because he knows that now his laptop only has three hours of battery. For him, it forces him to be more focused because he knows that his battery is going to die in three hours, then when it’s dead, and he’s got to go home. Those are really simple low-level things.
Well, I’d like some more. So we talked about, hey, leaving the phone, leaving the laptop charger, paying some money up front for a personal trainer. I’d love, if you got it, a smorgasbord to spark some inspiration.
So is this all straight up in the context of being at work?
Well, I think it’s okay if we drift a bit in terms of things that boost your general productivity and effectiveness and energy but, yeah, if you got some office-specific tidbits those are great to prioritize.
Yeah, definitely. Definitely. For me, in what I’ve seen, a lot of it has to do if you’re in a job, for example, like how can you take on more responsibility? A very simple forcing function is literally just applying Parkinson’s Law which is tell your advisor whoever it is that you need to report that that you’re going have something done very soon.
Like if you tell them vocally that you’re going to have their report back, or whatever it is that you have to give them, if you give them a very short timeline on where you’re going to have it back and you’ve made it verbal so that now they’re expecting it, all of a sudden you’re going to get to work. Parkinson’s Law basically is work fills the space of the amount of time you give it.
And then asking for more responsibility, like seeking greater responsibility, actually trying to – I mean, a lot of these are very simple and basic.
Yeah, you just want to – and say it like how it is. If your job is not setup so that those things are in place, I’m not saying go quit. I’m saying you might have to have some conversation so that you can be in a position where it does matter. That may require that you seek more mentoring or something. A lot of it is just taking responsibility for your job and for your situation.
If you need to have a conversation with your boss and say you want more work, or you just need to show up more. A lot of that is just being proactive. That step is not necessarily about tweaking the environment but it’s more about tweaking the expectations around the environment. And there’s a lot of research that talks about how you rise or fall based on the expectations of those around you, that’s called the Pygmalion Effect. And so if you have leaders that don’t expect much of you, sadly you’re probably going to drop to those expectations.
Okay. That’s potent stuff. Now let’s talk about the flipside of it then when it comes to building out the high recovery environment or any, why it’s forcing functions to be implemented there.
Totally. So to the extent you can, and I think Greg McKeown, who I know has been on the show, one of the things he talks about is literally just asking for specific things with your job. I mean, if you can ask for certain days off or certain types of schedules, asking if you can work from home. But if you can’t, asking for certain amounts of time off.
So, basically, the idea is this. The best creative insights are not going to happen while you’re at work. The research that only 16% of creative ideas happen when you’re sitting at your desk. And so, you need to be very focused when you’re at work but you also want to optimize for rest and recovery, you want to optimize for being away.
And so there’s a lot of research and a lot of cool ideas around sabbaticals, around mini retirements. If you think about Bill Gates, he did his think weeks where two weeks a year he would leave. He would totally detach, he was very inaccessible, and he would just spend time reading articles thinking. And he said that’s where his best ideas came from.
And you can apply that at a really small scale. A lot of people talk about having a disconnected day where you leave, where you go away for a day and you just rest. You don’t have you phone with you, you’re unreachable, like you just go and have a you day where you’re just resting, or you’re maybe listening to an audio book or writing in your journal, or going on a hike.
The more of those types of days you can embed into your life, or weekends, or mini retirements where you’re doing maybe like a five-day weekend, like once every month or two, the power of leaving your routine environment is very important because when you’re outside your routine environment, when you allow yourself to actually rest and recover, then you start to get some really good clarity, and there’s strategies around getting that clarity and connecting with your why.
Like I would talk about writing in your journal in specific ways, and I talk about that in the book. So there’s a lot of kind of research around the idea that the power of a decision is based on the emotional state that you make that decision. And so a lot of people, they don’t make powerful decisions because they’re not in a very powerful mental place when they make that decision.
When you get out of your routine environment, when you can kind of see the forest of your life for the trees because you’re kind of outside of it, you’re not like staring it in the face, you can kind of take a breath, you can look at life, you can kind of reconnect with who it is you want to be or with your core values or whatnot.
The more of those days you can take, especially if you’re spending time in self-improvement, like reading audiobooks along the way, or writing in your journal and thinking about your goals, it’s making powerful decisions in those states that allows you then to come back into your environment, into your life, at your job, wherever you are and live in a much higher level. And I think everyone who’s listening to this podcast, regardless of where they are in their career, they’re probably listening to this podcast because they want to upgrade themselves and they want to continue to upgrade their career.
And so I think spending plenty of time resting and recovering, first off, so that you can psychologically detach so that you can come back and be in flow while you’re at work so you can be super productive while you’re there, but also giving yourself plenty of time to totally just detach and reset and reconnect with yourself, and then make powerful decisions outside of your environment about who you want to be, what you want to do, and then jumping back into life, and actually living that out, that’s how you upgrade yourself, that’s how you become successful regardless of your career path or your job. You can become successful in any field if you give yourself plenty of time to self-improve. Stephen Covey calls that sharpening your saw.
And so when you talk about a powerful state for a powerful decision, so it sounds like you’re sort of contrasting that, as opposed to a state in which you have very narrow shallow distracted attention and feel constrained to not have a lot of time, energy, focus, attention to having that time, that rejuvenated space to rock and roll.
So that sounds like what you mean by powerful state because, well, I got Tony Robbins in my head right now. I was like, “Make your move chest,” you know, powerful state, peak state, jump up and down. So are you talking about a powerful state in the sense of, “I am so freaking excited,” as well as, “Hey, I’ve got sort of time and resources to apply the thought”?
I would say it’s slightly a blend of both. So there’s a really good book called The Power of Moments that recently came out by Chip and Dan Heath, and they talk about powerful moments whether they’re peaks or like pits. Pits are like hard moments where you’re facing hard truths, or just transition moments. Those are the things that generally are most memorable. Like when you think back on your life, you’re generally thinking about highs, lows, or transitions. Those are the kinds of things that are most potent in our memory.
Like with the Tony Robbins like how you get yourself into an elevated state so that you can make bigger decisions, there’s some good stuff in there but a lot of it is mostly just getting clarity, getting clear on what you want, reconnecting with what you want. And so I would say it’s kind of a blend of both.
All right. So I would like to talk a little bit about this clarity and this journaling stuff here. So we talk about giving it the time, energy and attention and space required to touch base with what’s really important and what matters. But it sounds like you’ve also got some particular prompts or questions that you suggest pursuing in order to really zero in on that.
Yeah, definitely. Giving yourself the space to do it is important. For me, when I’m journaling, and read plenty of books on this. A really, really good one I would recommend is called Write It Down, Make It Happen written by some English professor of some sort. She was great.
But, basically, journal writing has been found to be helpful for a lot of reasons, one of them being emotional regulation. So a lot of people have a lot of suppressed emotions of some sort, you know, suppressed trauma. One of the best books on the topic that’s staring to get a lot of steam is called The Body Keeps The Score. It’s written by an amazing medical doctor.
But, basically, a lot of the reason people are stuck is because they have suppressed energy or emotions that they just don’t want to let come back up. And one of the main tools for writing in the journal is just to emotionally regulate, writing about what you’re dealing with, getting kind of understanding your emotions. There’s a lot of really cool research talking about it.
Well, so another one of the kind of myths that I try to slam in this book is the idea that you don’t necessarily have what I would call a fixed personality. In Western culture, because we’re so individualistic, we think that the personality you’re born with is the personality you are for the rest of your life, and that’s why we’re so focused on personality tests and stuff like that.
From kind of combining a lot of the stuff in the medical field about trauma, what usually happens when a person goes through a traumatic experience or even just stress, is that they start to – basically it’s what they would call, your personality becomes frozen. You stop living in the present, you stop integrating new experiences, and you kind of get stuck. Or you stop creating these peaks, pits or transitions, these challenging moments that gets you.
And so kind of going back to journaling, one of the reasons, so you want to write in it to break through some of those emotions, but you also want to write in it to purposely create some of these life-altering experiences. They don’t have to be these high-high peaks like the Tony Robbins style, although that’s what they call them is peaks. Tony didn’t make up that word. He just used it in his own ways.
But peak experiences come from Abraham Maslow. But, ultimately, I think you want to create those. And so in my journal, not only am I writing about the emotions and stuff that I’m dealing with, but also you want to think about what are the experiences you want to create that would allow you to continually upgrade as a person and so you want to strategize in your journal.
Not only write about the stuff that’s difficult but you want to write about the things you want to actually do and why you’re writing. Because what’s cool about writing pen and paper is that it allows you to focus on the topic but it also allows your mind to wander at the same time. And when your mind is wandering, it’s able to make connections to distant places in your memory or in your brain or just based on where you’re located in the environment.
And so while you’re writing you actually end up getting a lot of a-has and insights, or at least you come up with ideas that are things that you can then attempt to do, whether that’s you may get the idea to call your advisor or your boss and make a recommendation, or send that email, or an idea to maybe be more productive or proactive at work, it maybe an idea of how you can help a colleague.
It’s basically giving yourself the space to think and then maybe developing the confidence to actually try stuff you haven’t been trying so that you can actually do stuff to get different results.
And so that’s intriguing when you mentioned the pen and paper situation is helpful because you’re focusing on the thing, and yet also wander. So you’re saying you don’t get the same effect in a digital writing environment.
Nope. Not at all. No, writing with a pen and paper is so slow and kind of tedious that it allows you to wander in random places, that’s why journal writing is inherently random, you know what I mean? Often, for most people, it goes from topic to topic is because not only are you slightly focused on a topic but your mind is also like roaming around, and so it picks things up that you couldn’t pick up if you were so – I think it’s a better tool for creativity on a brain level for most people than just writing in an app.
Awesome. Well, thank you, that’s a great distinction to tuck in here. Well, Ben, it sounds like we could cover a whole lot of goodies here. You tell me, is there anything else you really want to make sure to highlight before we shift gears and hear about a few of your favorite things?
No, we can just shift gears.
All right. Sure. Well, can you share with a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
Sure. I think I’ll just probably repeat the one I did before just to emphasize, “If you do not create and control your environment your environment will create and control you.” I guess another one that goes with that is just, “Willpower is for people who haven’t decided what they want to do.”
Okay. Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or a bit of research?
I really like Ellen Langer’s work honestly. She’s my favorite psychologist. She’s a Harvard psychologist. She wrote two really good books and has spent several decades studying. Her research is really non-conventional but her two books are called Mindfulness, and she’s kind of the godmother or the queen of mindfulness which her stuff is so different than the pop stuff that you see online these days.
She wrote a book called Mindfulness and she wrote a book called Counterclockwise. And her Counterclockwise study is so interesting. Basically, what she did was she took – do you know the Counterclockwise study?
I really don’t. Let’s hear it.
Okay. Okay. Cool. So she took a bunch of men in their 70s.
Oh, okay. Go on.
Yeah, you know it?
We’ll see. We’ll see.
This study actually happened in the ‘70s, in the 1970s. So she took a bunch of like eight men in their 70s and took them to a place that they designed to look like the 1950s. And so it looked like they had old pictures, old magazines, and basically what she did was she had the men get dropped off by their families and then they spent the time reminiscing as if it was the 1950s.
And so they couldn’t talk about anything after the year 1958, and I think that this study actually happened in 1978, so it was like 20 years earlier. And so they had to pretend like they were the 50-year old version of themselves, and they had to pretend like that that’s who they were, so they had to talk about current events of the time as if it was real. They had to talk about their job as if that was who they were, and they spent five days doing this.
And then when the five days was up, and what’s interesting is that a lo of the people who came when they’re getting dropped off by their kids, they were coming in on canes and stuff, they had to, you know, they could barely – so they came in, some of them can’t even really walk. And what Ellen Langer and her team of graduate students did is they treated them as if – it kind of goes this whole idea of actors but it’s very different.
They treated them like human beings and gave them the context to act differently than they would’ve been expected to act because there’s so much interesting research about how, you know, I already talked about the Pygmalion Effect about how people respond psychologically based on the expectations of the environment, but their biological metrics also kind of are altered by the expectations of the environment, that’s a new and emerging field called epigenetics.
But, basically, what happened with the study was after like five or seven days, it was time for the study to be over, and these men scored totally different on their dexterity, their vision was better, their memory was better, some of them who had walked in on canes like walked out on their own two feet. It’s a very compelling study, and it’s called the Counterclockwise study, Ellen Langer.
Basically, that kind of opened the door for a lot of her research in studying how context and environment and expectations, and all of these things relate to identity. And so one of the big a-has that I would hope that anyone that hears this ideas takes is that who you are in one situation is not who you are in a different situation.
That is kind of a Western perspective and it’s a very fixed and rigid mindset and it totally ignores the power of context. So who you are in one situation is different from who you are in a different situation. Your personality is not fixed but it’s fluid, and it’s also based on environment, and your identity is not singular but it’s based on your situation.
And so once you kind of get those things then your level of responsibility becomes shape the environment that shapes you, or as Churchill would say shape the building, or whatever, shape your home that shapes you. That’s kind of, I think, ultimately where the responsibility comes when you start to understand these things.
And my prediction, because now that the fields of epigenetics and stuff, and neuroscience are becoming so popular and they’re realizing the power of environment, my prediction is that you’re going to see a big shift in a lot of the self-improvement writing, and it’s going to start to focus a lot more in environment because the science that’s been around in psychology for three decades is staring to become very compellingly clear in other fields now.
Oh, intriguing. Thank you. And so you’ve list a few but could you also share with us a favorite book?
I think I’ll just stick with the recommendation I gave about The Body Keeps The Score, that’s a really good one right now for me.
Okay. Cool. And how about, is there a particular nugget or piece that you share that seems to really connect and resonate and get folks sort of quoting you back to you?
Yup, definitely. It brings all these ideas together. So, number one, it’s not your personality that shapes your behavior, it’s your behavior that shapes your personality. And, the behavior that leads you to certain environments, so that’s one key is your behavior shapes your identity. Number two is it’s not confidence that leads to success, it’s successful behavior that creates confidence. I think that those two are nuggets that people can internalize, they can actually make some big change in their lives.
And, Ben, if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
I would point them to my book Willpower Doesn’t Work. they can read all my articles on Medium.com, they can check out BenjaminHardy.com, but, yeah, my big ask or my big challenge would be go check out the book Willpower Doesn’t Work.
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action you’d issue to folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?
Try as hard as you can to create these two types of optimal environments in your life, or what I would call enriched environments. And I think that it’s really good to really assess how much time you’re spending in these types of environments. Because your environment is either pushing against you or it’s pulling you forward. And if your environment is not pulling you forward, and if it’s pushing against you, then you’re going to have to use willpower.
So I think it’s easier actually initially to start with the rest and recovery environments. Like when you’re home, be home. Leave the distractions alone and actually do something engaging at home and disconnect from work, and then with those insights and rest that you’ll get, like actually make your job high level, make it high demand, take on more responsibility, create consequences through publicly saying when you’ll have stuff done, take on more responsibility.
I would say just create more enriched environments in your life through forcing functions like we’ve talked about or just through making your life more engaging. Those types of environments are very rare in today’s society. Most people are very distracted, very few people are fully on or fully off. And if you can create those environments it’ll allow you to do that. It’ll change your life.
All right. Cool. Well, Ben, this has been so fun. I hope that book is a smashing success, and I wish you lots of luck in your writing and all you’re doing here.
Thank you, Pete. Seriously, thanks for being so accommodating and for taking the time. It means a lot.