You wake up and find yourself in unfamiliar surroundings. You’re on a beautiful island. After some exploration, it dawns on you that you can’t get off of this island.
For the time being, you are stuck here, in this small paradise.
As you spend time there, you realize something unexpected: on this island, you find yourself becoming the person you always hoped you could be. And it takes no effort at all.
How is this possible?
To explain this, we must first examine one of the great delusions in our culture.
The Willpower Paradigm
Most of us are used to thinking in terms of the willpower paradigm. This is the notion in our culture that the way to succeed is to try harder.
And if you fail, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough.
You could have and should have gotten yourself to do the work, but instead you chose to be lazy, you didn’t do the work and so you didn’t get the result.
This kind of thinking misses the mark. At best, it keeps us stuck and fantasizing that “tomorrow”, at some later point, we will finally manage to muster the willpower needed to achieve our goals.
Like the hero in a Hollywood movie who, in the last moment, finds a new well of inner strength, snatches victory from the jaws of defeat and goes on to live happily ever after.
But life is not a Hollywood movie. And the willpower paradigm is not a useful model.
If we think of different beliefs like different operating systems or software programs, then the willpower paradigm is a program that constantly fails.
Many of us continue to rely on willpower and motivation, even though we actually have ample proof that this doesn’t work. We’ll feel a swell of motivation and convince ourselves that this time, we really will get up early. This time, we will go to the gym. This time, we will say no to the donut.
But we’ve felt this way 100 times before. We’ve made and then broken this promise to ourselves 100 times before.
It just doesn’t work.
If the willpower paradigm is bad software for the brain, what’s the alternative?
A much more useful way to think of behavior change is what we’ll call the environment paradigm. Instead of assuming our outcomes and actions are a result of what we choose to and will ourselves to do, we assume that they are primarily the result of our environment.
What that means is:
Your life is the way it is right now because of your environment.
You do the things you do because of your environment.
You are on the trajectory that you are on (good or bad) because of your environment.
If you want a different life and different outcomes — if you want to be a different person — you primarily have to make changes to your environment.
That’s the environment paradigm. Like the willpower paradigm, it’s an overly simplistic view of the world. It’s a model. But it’s a far more useful model than the willpower paradigm.
Let me prove it to you.
We can prove to ourselves that the premise of the environment paradigm is true, through thought experiments. In a thought experiment, we can contrast extreme environment differences and compare them to willpower differences needed to achieve a target outcome.
The subject of our first thought experiment is Joe. Joe is 40 years old, works a fairly stressful office job and, like most of his peers, his health is in a pretty bad state. He's overweight, has elevated blood pressure and is slowly but surely headed for Type II Diabetes.
He's tried to do something to improve his health countless times.
He's signed up for the gym, bought several diet and exercise books, watched motivational videos,... he's on some kind of diet more often than not.
But he inevitably falls back into bad habits.
Let's look at environment factors. Joe works a job, often more than 8 hours a day. He sits in a chair for almost all of that time. He gets to and from work by car. During his long commute, he sits in his car seat. At home, he's usually exhausted and spends his evenings sitting on his comfy couch, watching movies or playing video games.
At home, Joe's fridge is always stacked with snacks and junk food. He doesn't have the time or energy to cook for himself. At the office, there's a vending machine with candy bars, sodas and snacks. The healthiest thing in there are small packets of nuts that are as overpriced as they are over-salted. On lunch breaks, the team from the office almost always heads to the nearby mall's food court, where the choices range from KFC to McDonalds.
Joe has a gym membership, but he rarely makes use of it. After work, he feels too exhausted and before work, in the mornings, he doesn't feel rested or energized enough to go.
The Solution, According to the Willpower Paradigm
According to the willpower paradigm, the situation is clear: Joe needs to try harder.
He needs to start cooking his own food and bringing healthy meals with him to work. He needs to say no to vending machine food. He needs to say no to lunch break at the food court. He needs to get up earlier and go to the gym; no more whining about feeling tired!
If Joe did all this, would it solve his problems?
Some of them, yes.
It’s true that Joe could do all of those things and get fit and healthy and lean, eventually. But it’s also easy to see how hard this would be to keep up. He’d have to resist temptations, go against the group at work (and draw attention to himself while doing so) and sacrifice many hours of his free time.
He’d have to make the hard choice over and over again, every single day. It’s easy to see how a single bad day could bring the whole tower of cards crashing down, isn’t it?
But that’s the price of success, right? You want something worth having, you have to suffer and be disciplined. Every day, no exceptions.
This is the problem with the willpower paradigm and it goes a long way to explaining why so many people like Joe exist. It explains why so many people struggle, continually try to change and continually fail.
Joe can try to change his behavior, but he’ll still be sedentary all day, he’ll still be surrounded by junk food, he’ll still be surrounded by colleagues who pursue their career to the detriment of their health, he’ll still feel the stress and pressure that makes him reach for junk food and snacks in the first place…
The solution I’m proposing is about changing Joe’s environment rather than trying to force a behavior change via willpower.
But could mere environment changes truly be a better solution for Joe? Is it really a completely different paradigm, or is it just a different shade of difficult? Will it actually make Joe more likely to succeed?
Well, this is a thought experiment, remember? So, let’s go all out.
Let’s airdrop Joe onto a remote island.
Whole Food Island
On this island, Joe’s environment is radically different. Here’s what Joe finds in his new surroundings:
He has a nice little hut to live in, but there are no chairs anywhere in his new home. The bed is close to the floor and there are some sitting cushions, but no chairs, no couch, nothing.
There’s a small kitchen, but no food or snacks anywhere to be seen. But there’s always freshly made, delicious herbal tea and fresh water available.
Every day, a friendly, charming chef comes by to prepare meals for Joe. The meals are delicious and beautiful — some of the best food Joe has ever tasted.
All the meals consist entirely of healthy, whole foods and they fulfill Joe’s nutritional needs precisely. The chef also invites Joe to join in with the cooking if he ever feels like it.
In the living room of his hut, Joe finds that there’s no TV. There is a shelf stacked with books and there’s even an option for one of his favorite pastimes: video games. But the only option is a VR headset. In other words, he can play video games, but using his entire body rather than just his thumbs.
Outside his hut, Joe is a short walk away from a beach where he can go surfing, with the help of friendly instructors, whenever he feels like it.
There are no shops or restaurants anywhere to be found. Joe would find that there’s literally nowhere he can go on the entire island, where he could get access to junk food.
Whole Food Island is not a lonely place. Behind Joe’s hut, there’s a small village on top of a steep hill. The village is full of friendly people and there’s always stuff going on there. Yoga classes, gym classes, groups going on cycling tours, groups going rock climbing, people gathering around a fire at night to talk, sing and dance.
Of course, this paradise island is a fantasy.
But think about it: Joe is overweight, utterly unfit and rapidly heading towards diabetes and other diseases because of his lifestyle.
Would Joe remain fat and unhealthy on Whole Food Island? Would he develop diabetes? Would his health trends continue on their previous trajectory?
Clearly, the answer is: no way.
Just being on Whole Food Island would completely transform Joe’s health and physique.
Even if Joe makes absolutely no effort at all, he’ll lose weight and become way healthier than before, thanks to the prepared meals and complete lack of unhealthy food.
On the island, Joe is surrounded by opportunities to be active, to be social and to learn.
Without making any real effort, Joe is likely to get in pretty good shape.
For starters, since there are no chairs to sit on, Joe’s posture would improve and his base level of activity would go up.
Playing VR games will involve movement, giving him some light exercise. He’d probably walk up that steep hill to the village at least once a day to go join the other islanders. He’d probably join them on group activities just for the fun of it. And he’d probably read more books than before and even learn how to cook, just because those activities are so easily available.
Joe’s mental health would also improve almost immediately. Not only because of the peaceful, natural and stress free surroundings, but also because of his increased physical activity, real-life social connections and so on.
So, let’s contrast the two scenarios. In Joe’s current environment, we can imagine how he could improve his outcomes, but it would be a constant uphill battle. Every day, he’d be waging a war against his environment. And the outcome still wouldn’t be ideal because of all the stress, all the sitting and so on.
Even if we turn the willpower dial all the way up, ideal outcomes are still unlikely.
On the other hand, if we turn the environment dial all the way up, we can end up with ideal outcomes, with almost zero effort. On Joe’s worst day on the island, he’d have better habits and do more good for himself than on his best day in his current environment.
Let that sink in.
The Path of Least Resistance
Let’s explore this a bit further. What if Joe wants to prove me wrong? What if he’s like “screw you and your thought experiment, Shane! I refuse to do better on Wholefood Island than I did in the real world!”
What would it take for Joe to remain fat, sick and miserable on Whole Food Island?
Remaining overweight would be very difficult. Since there’s no unhealthy food anywhere on the island, Joe would have make the effort to find the unhealthiest food he can get his hands on and negotiate, cajole or threaten people to give him more of it than he needs.
What about exercise? Joe can refuse to improve his fitness, but it’s going to be tough.
To remain at a level of activity similar to what he did in the real world, he’d have to spend most of his day lying in bed, which would require quite a lot of willpower.
And since there are no distractions around, he might accidentally gain self-awareness during his bed-bound protest.
He’d also have to give up on one of his favorite things: gaming. Because VR gaming involves whole body movement, he can’t do it without getting at least somewhat fitter.
What about mental health and happiness? He can avoid social contact or he can try to actively make enemies of the people on the island, in order to maintain his level of misery.
So as we can see, Joe can refuse to better himself, but it’s challenging to say the least. Staying fat, sick and miserable on Whole Food Island takes more effort than getting fit, healthy and happy in Joe’s real world scenario.
This shows us an important principle: we can always ask ourselves “where does the path of least resistance lead?”
It’s unpleasant to admit, but our outcomes tend not to stray very far from the outcomes the path of least resistance leads to. The path of least resistance is where we end up on our bad days, it’s what we follow when we’ve run out of willpower.
The question is: how can you construct an environment in which the path of least resistance still moves you towards your desired outcomes?
We Must Buy Our Freedom
There is, unfortunately, a dark implication in all this. Joe doesn’t have complete control of his environment. He has to work at his job, so he can earn money, so he can pay bills and taxes and so on.
His life may be fairly miserable right now, but it’s a comfortable kind of misery. If Joe steps out of line and stops paying the bills, his life will be made truly awful by the system he lives in (think: homelessness and all its consequences).
Right now, Joe can’t change the fact that he spends 11 hours of his day at the office or on commute. He can approach his boss and suggest positive environment changes like standing desks, meeting free days, a policy of deactivating notifications and so on, but chances are, those suggestions will fall on deaf ears.
Many of the most high-impact environmental factors that contribute to Joe’s current situation are simply not up to him to change.
The system and environment we find ourselves in is not well aligned with leading a fulfilling, healthy, joyful, purposeful life.
There’s another important thing the Whole Food Island thought experiment illustrates: we can clearly see that living on such an island would be wonderful, but we can also clearly see it as an impossibility…
Whole Food Island doesn’t exist. And if it did, only the wealthiest among us could afford to live there.
But then, the entire point of the thought exercise was to take things to an extreme.
To live a good life, we don’t have to be private island owning billionaires. But we do have to buy our freedom, to some extent. If you’re operating at the bottom of the hierarchy in our society, flipping burgers for minimum wage or being an office drone in a job where working unpaid overtime is the norm, you’ll be hard pressed to live a good life and achieve meaningful things.
We must break out of the human zoo and doing so is expensive.
The Path to Freedom: Environment, Habits, Skills, Outcomes
Okay, so how do we break out of the human zoo and get to a place where we truly can determine a meaningful portion of our environment?
We can use what we've learnt so far to achieve this goal.
Your environment determines your behavior. What do you get when stable environmental cues trigger you into a specific kind of behavior regularly and reliably? Habits. Habits, repeated consistently for long enough, form skills. And skills lead to outcomes.
You can, right now, begin to shape your environment to:
- Upgrade your life quality
- Move yourself towards the outcome of breaking free
Picture this: you wake up at the same time each day (time cue) and find your running kit already laid out next to your bed (environmental cue). You also have all apps except your music app blocked on your phone as well as all use of your computer, tablet etc. blocked and the WiFi in your apartment turned off at this time in the morning (environmental friction to prevent unwanted behavior). You get used to going for a run each morning (habit). Over time, this improves your running skill and leads to outcomes such as improved cardiovascular health, improved energy, weight loss etc.
That's an example of how we can tweak our environment to achieve a health outcome.
What about taking freedom as the target outcome? What specific outcomes and skills do we need, to buy our freedom? What habits and behaviors would lead to those skills and outcomes? And what environmental changes would facilitate those habits and behaviors?
A major component here is financial freedom.
There are many paths to financial freedom, but they all involve one of 2 things.
- Income streams that are decoupled from your personal time
- Work that is so perfectly aligned with your strengths and values that it doesn't feel like work (and pays enough to alleviate financial worries).
The example of financial freedom is not as easy to nutshell as the fitness and health examples above, but the principle remains the same.
You can work backwards from the desired outcome:
Desired outcome: gaining financial freedom so we can design a life that is more like Whole Food Island and less like Joe's drab office.
Skills that facilitate this outcome: being able to do high performance, focused, high quality work in whatever your field of expertise is leads to greater career opportunities and a higher salary. Applying a sharp mind to entrepreneurial projects & investments, being a strong leader and good communicator lead to financially lucrative outcomes.
Habits that build these skills: actively learning new things on a regular basis, developing a habit of deep, distraction free focus, habitually putting a portion of your income into savings and investment accounts, actively building your network,...
Environment changes that facilitate these habits: removing mindless distractions like your Netflix subscription, TV, gaming consoles, social media apps. Stacking a bookshelf with interesting reads and starting a book club. Practicing focus by blocking all entertainment and distraction options and/or disconnecting your WiFi at certain times of day to cultivate deep focus. Hosting social events that bring interesting people together,...
What Does Your Path to Freedom Look Like?
Buying your freedom is like a compounding investment. You start making whatever environmental changes are currently under your control, with the aim of gaining a bit more freedom. You then invest that freedom into further environment changes, which you use to gain more freedom and so on, until you've completely untangled yourself from negative environmental factors that are outside your control.
This is not easy to do, but it is possible.
The path to this freedom looks different for each of us, but the underlying principles are the same for everyone.
What does your path to freedom look like? What is the first change you will make to your environment, to move yourself towards your desired outcomes?