Willpower Doesn't Work

Discover the Hidden Keys to Success


By Benjamin Hardy

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We rely on willpower to create change in our lives…but what if we’re thinking about it all wrong? In Willpower Doesn’t Work, Benjamin Hardy explains that willpower is nothing more than a dangerous fad-one that is bound to lead to failure. Instead of “white-knuckling” your way to change, you need to instead alter yoursurroundings to support your goals. This book shows you how.

The world around us is fast-paced, confusing, and full of distractions. It’s easy to lose focus on what you want to achieve, and your willpower won’t last long if your environment is in conflict with your goals–eventually, the environment will win out. Willpower Doesn’t Workis the needed guided for today’s over-stimulating and addicting environment. Willpower Doesn’t Work will specifically teach you:

  • How to make the biggest decisions of your life–and why those decisions must be made in specific settings
  • How to create a daily “sacred” environment to live your life with intention, and not get sucked into the cultural addictions
  • How to invest big in yourself to upgrade your environment and mindset
  • How to put “forcing functions” in your life–so your default behaviors are precisely what you want them to be
  • How to quickly put yourself in proximity to the most successful people in the world–and how to adapt their knowledge and skills to yourself even quicker
  • How to create an environment where endless creativity and boundless productivity is the norm

Benjamin Hardy will show you that nurture is far more powerful than your nature, and teach you how to create and control your environment so your environment will not create and control you.


If we do not create and control our environment, our environment creates and controls us.

—Dr. Marshall Goldsmith


Why Willpower
Doesn’t Work

Willpower doesn’t work.

Let’s be honest, you’ve tried to improve your life a million times—and a million times you’ve come back to the drawing board, frustrated. You’ve tried willpower to kick a bad habit but fell back into old patterns. You’ve tried New Year’s resolutions, but by February, everything reverts back to how it was the year before. You’ve set big, life-changing goals but seem to find yourself far short of them despite hard work. After enough failure, it’s easy to conclude that you are the problem. You must not have what it takes—the grit, the inner strength, the willpower. Perhaps you should just settle for the life you have…

But what if that assessment was all wrong?

What if the problem wasn’t you at all?

Take the near-universal struggle to lose weight. A large portion of the global population is getting heavier despite exerting more and more effort to be thin. Billions are spent on fad diets and gym memberships—and for what? It is projected by several health experts that by 2025, more than 50 percent of all humans on planet Earth will be overweight or obese. Sadder still, those who are trying the hardest are struggling the most. There are a variety of explanations for this global crisis—for example, genetics, personality, a lack of willpower, or bad habits. But these aren’t the cause of the obesity epidemic. Our radically changing environment is.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the world became industrialized, which drew masses of people away from farms and into cities. Rather than working outside as laborers, the trend over the last 100 years has been for people to work indoors, generally while sitting down. Rather than eating local food, most people eat food from a package.

Although the Industrial Revolution was a huge environmental shift, the information and technological age, beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, accelerated the changes to the now-global environment. Technological advancement is now moving at an exponentially faster rate, and very few human beings can adapt to the changes currently shaping our environment.

Most people are the casualties of these rapid environmental changes. Unequipped to properly govern themselves in a new world with new rules, many of them succumb to various addictions—primarily to technology, but also to stimulants such as caffeine, fast-absorbing foods containing high amounts of carbohydrates and sugar, and work.  

All of these culturally accepted addictions fuel one another, putting people under constant stress and sleep deprivation. Put simply, most of us are in survival mode. To be addicted has become the norm, and if you want to control your life, willpower should not be your strategy of choice. There’s too much in our environment that’s pushing against us. Addiction expert Arnold M. Washton, PhD, has said, “Many people think that what the addict needs is willpower, but nothing could be further from the truth.”

The key to getting out of survival mode and overcoming the cultural addictions is not to exert more willpower. Your willpower is gone. It was gone the moment you woke up and got sucked back into your smartphone. It was gone when you were bombarded by a thousand options and choices. White-knuckling your way to change doesn’t work. It never did. Instead, you need to create and control your environment.

Willpower Doesn’t Work

Willpower, or the power to exert your free will against internal or external obstacles, has only recently bombarded the psychological world. But it has done so with force. According to the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America Survey, a lack of willpower is frequently cited as people’s top reason for not achieving their goals. Researchers across the globe are studying how people develop willpower and overcome willpower depletion. To be frank, willpower is for people who haven’t decided what they actually want in their lives. If you’re required to exert willpower to do something, there is an obvious internal conflict. You want to eat the cookie, but you also want to be healthy. You want to focus at work, but you also want to watch that YouTube video. You want to be present with your kids, but you can’t stop looking at your phone.

According to psychological research, your willpower is like a muscle. It’s a finite resource that depletes with use. As a result, by the end of your strenuous days, your willpower muscles are exhausted, and you’re left to your naked and defenseless self—with zero control to stop the nighttime munchies and time wasters.

At least, that’s what you’ve been taught.

Clearly, the research on willpower explains human behavior. But only on the surface level. The very fact that willpower is required comes from several fundamental sources:

  • You don’t know what you want, and are thus internally conflicted.
  • Your desire (your why) for your goals isn’t strong enough.
  • You aren’t invested in yourself and your dreams.
  • Your environment opposes your goal.

Once these four principles are aligned within yourself, the internal debate is over. Thus, all future decisions regarding that matter have also been made. No questions.

So, are you serious about this?

Or are you just talking?

Are you still on the fence, or have you decided?

Until you decide, you’ll be required to use willpower and will continue making minimal progress.

When it comes to achieving goals, making committed decisions involves:

  • investing up front;
  • making it public;
  • setting a timeline;
  • installing several forms of feedback/accountability; and
  • removing or altering everything in your environment that opposes your commitment.

Rather than relying solely on your own internal resolve and strength, true commitment means you’ve built several external defense systems around your goals. It means you’ve created conditions to make the achievement of your goals inevitable. Everything has been put in place. You now have no choice but to act according to your highest desires. Too much is at stake if you don’t.

You Can Design Your Environment to Propel and Sustain Success

We adapt to our environments. Thus, a conscious personal evolution involves purposefully controlling and creating environments that shape us into the person we want to become. Everything in life is a natural and organic process. We adapt and evolve based on the environments we select.

You are who you are because of your environment.

Want to change? Then change your environment. Stop the willpower madness already.

These ideas run counter to a lot of self-help advice, which tends to focus on what you can do, by yourself and for yourself. The pervasive self-help advice is to focus on yourself. This makes sense, because we live in a highly individualistic culture. We’ve been conditioned to ignore context and obsess about ourselves.

Environmental design is different. It’s about creating conditions that make your success inevitable. For example, if you want to be focused at work, you need to remove all distractions from your physical and digital workspace. If you want to eat healthy, remove all of the unhealthy foods from your house. If you want to get creative insights, get out of town and relax for a day or two. If you want to be more motivated, take on greater responsibility and increase the stakes for both success and failure.

Those who focus on environmental design recognize that a person’s internal and external worlds are not clear-cut with fine lines. Although psychological research, for instance, distinguishes between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, the reality is that the internal and external play off each other. When you change your environment, such as surrounding yourself with different people, your thoughts and emotions change. These inner changes then alter your values and aspirations, which requires you to further alter your external environment. Thus, it is by tweaking your conditions that you proactively shape who you become.

You design your worldview by proactively shaping your external inputs, such as the information you consume, the people you surround yourself with, the places you go, and the experiences you have. Most people, however, reactively and mindlessly respond to whatever environments they find themselves in, and thus develop a worldview leading to ineffective behavior and victimhood.

Which brings me to the very definition of “environment.” In a strict sense, we all have internal, external, and interpersonal environments. However, for the sake of simplicity, in this book environment is that which is external, not internal. For example, your environment includes your physical surroundings, the people you choose to form relationships with, the information you let in, the foods you consume, and the music you listen to.

That which is external shapes that which is internal. Put more simply: Your worldview, beliefs, and values didn’t come from within you, but from outside of you. If you grew up a white person in the southern United States during the 1950s, your worldview would likely have been shaped by that perspective. The same is true if you grew up in Europe during the Middle Ages, or in North Korea during the Communist rule, or in 2005 as a digital native with access to the Internet. Your goals, beliefs, and values are shaped by the cultural context in which you live.

Although the environment has never been more extreme or more stressful, it is certainly not your enemy. In Western culture, particularly in psychological and self-improvement circles, the environment has been vilified. Perhaps the most common phrase among these groups is “to be a product of your choices, not your circumstances.” At surface level, this is actually quite good advice. But it’s also naïve and inaccurate.

Yes, your life is the product of your thoughts and choices, as many self-help books explain. But where do those thoughts and choices come from? They don’t self-generate out of nowhere. You shape the garden of your mind by planting specific things from your environment, such as the books you read, experiences you have, and people you surround yourself with.

As will be shown, by shaping your environment directly, you’ll be shaping your thoughts and behaviors indirectly. Furthermore, you’ll create conditions allowing for desired behaviors which are not optional in common conditions. When you shape your environment, you’ll have greater control over your thoughts and choices. Thus, instead of making the environment or “circumstances” your enemy, which has been the traditional advice of self-help, it’s important to realize that your environment is actually the only way you as a person can truly change. New information, new relationships, and new experiences are how you change. You must gather and plant the right seeds from your environment to make a bounteous garden of your life. Consequently, although most environments will indeed shape a distracted and unfulfilled version of you, to attempt to be devoid of “environment” or “circumstance” altogether is not only impossible, but also foolish if you’re seeking growth. Your environment can become your best friend. And as you’ll see, you and your environment are one.

If You Don’t Shape Your Environment, It Will Shape You

Unlike the common prescriptions of self-improvement—such as willpower and changing your attitude, which often are met against a negative and defeating environment—when you purposefully shape your environment, you can make quantum and radical leaps in your development. If you so choose, you can proactively place yourself into situations that demand ten times or a hundred times more than you’ve ever dealt with before.


You adapt to your new environment.

Crafting highly demanding situations and then mindfully adapting to those situations is the key to success. Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

It’s actually quite remarkable how quickly you can adapt from one environment to the next. Human beings are highly adaptive. For instance, Viktor Frankl reflected on his experience in a Nazi concentration camp sleeping comfortably next to nine other people on a small bed. Said Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Yes, a person can get used to anything, just don’t ask us how.”

No matter how extensive the jump from one environment to the next—and, per Frankl, no matter how horrible the environment—a person can and will adapt. Rather than adapting to a negative environment, as the majority of the global population is doing, you can adapt to whatever environment you choose.

This book will teach you how to purposefully shape your environment. It will also explain why your environment shapes you. As such, a primary objective of this book is to show you that you can change in both small and extreme ways. You are not a fixed, independent, and unchanging being. Psychologically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, your nurture is far superior to your “nature.” And you are entirely responsible for your nurture; thus, you can guide who you become. Consequently, by the end of this book, you will be left with no excuses. You won’t be able to point to your DNA, your past, or any of the other reasons why you believe you are stuck. Rather, you will understand the principles and be equipped with the strategies to create the environments that will ultimately create you.

part i


Chapter 1

Every Hero Is the Product of a Situation

Understanding the Power of Surroundings

Historian Will Durant spent over four decades studying the history of the world and recording his findings in the eleven-volume masterpiece The Story of Civilization. He covered, well, the entire scope of human history. He looked at the great and defining moments, and more importantly, he studied the greatest and most impactful people the world has ever known.

And after those thousands of hours of study and careful reading, he concluded, somewhat surprisingly, that history isn’t shaped by those giants. It isn’t some clay that someone comes along and leaves their imprint on. No, in fact, what Durant concluded was that history was not shaped by great men, but rather by demanding situations.

Necessity, he found, is the single most important ingredient in the formula for greatness—not a particular individual’s brilliance or a lone leader’s vision.

This isn’t easy for a lot of us to hear.

As a society, we tend to obsess about individuals and ignore the surrounding context that shapes them. Our movies highlight the charisma and talents of the kind of people who do amazing and impossible things. We believe in the hero’s journey. We wonder whether their talent was genetic, or taught… or, in some cases, the result of performance-enhancing drugs. Our bookstores are filled with books proclaiming the individual characteristics we need to become superheroes ourselves: the aforementioned willpower, grit, self-esteem, and discipline.

In our individualistic cultures, we often believe our environment is separate and distinct from us. That somehow, someway, we are untouched by our environment. The truth is that you and your environment are two parts of the same whole. Who you are and what you can do in one situation is starkly different from who you are and what you can do in a different situation. Yet it is the Western way to isolate and decontextualize, whether it be variables in a science lab or ourselves. We’re really good at putting things in boxes and missing the interplay between everything.

This individualistic worldview runs deep, and it’s actually very difficult for us to consider otherwise or even comprehend that this might not be the whole story. Said psychologist Timothy Wilson, “People act the way they do because of their personality traits and attitudes, right? They return a lost wallet because they’re honest, recycle their trash because they care about the environment, and pay $5 for a caramel brulée latte because they like expensive coffee drinks.…Often our behavior is shaped by subtle pressures around us, but we fail to recognize those pressures. Thus, we mistakenly believe that our behavior emanated from some inner disposition.”

Unfortunately, the pervasive alternative to extreme individualism is complete determinism, where people are viewed as automatons with no individual will or agency of their own. The argument of this book is that both of these extremist views are misguided and dangerous. Without question, each person is shaped by their environment. However, each person also has great power in creating and controlling the environments that will ultimately shape them.

One interviewer pushed back on Durant’s theory, the idea that environments are formative in the creations of greatness: “Haven’t certain individuals, the genius, great man, or hero, as Carlisle believed, been the prime determinants of human history?”

It was Durant’s response that supports the basis of this book:

“I think Carlisle was wrong… the hero is a product of a situation rather than the result being a product of the hero. It is demand that brings out the exceptional qualities of man…[Heroes] form the function of meeting a situation which demands all his potential abilities…I think the ability of the average man could be doubled if it were demanded, if the situation demanded.”

The Power of Surroundings

It’s clear that this wasn’t just the anecdotal speculation of a historian. Durant’s insight that situations are what shape history (and people) have, in more recent times, been confirmed scientifically. Take, for example, the Equality of Opportunity Project, a groundbreaking study performed by Harvard economists Dr. Raj Chetty and Dr. Nathaniel Hendren. This project mapped the likelihood a person will improve their economic situation in the United States.

The results are devastatingly and shockingly clear: Your chances of improving your socioeconomic status are based very heavily on the state and even specific county within that state in which you live. In some counties, you have a fighting chance to improve your economic situation, while in others your chances are dim, nearly zero. Your specific environment of origin has a direct and measurable impact on the rest of your life, unless you actively change it.

Other studies have confirmed the widely quoted line from author and public speaker Jim Rohn that we are the “the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” As it happens, we are also the average of the five people each of our five friends spends the most time with. For example, if your friend’s friend gets fat, your chances of gaining unhealthy weight spike dramatically. This is called a negative secondary connection, and it’s often more dangerous than a negative primary connection because you typically won’t see it coming. In a more practical example: You aren’t solely what you eat, but what you eat eats. Hence, the recent push to provide livestock with better and more organic nutrition.

A person’s environment forms every aspect of their lives, from their income to their value system to their waistline to their hobbies. As will be shown throughout this book, your potential is shaped by what surrounds you. Every idea you have comes from what you’ve been exposed to. Who you become and what you do with your life are constrained by the people around you and the quality of information you consume. Garbage in, garbage out.

Or, as Durant saw it, you are either rising up or shrinking down from the demands of your situation. Most people are living small, not because they lack the inherent talent, but because their situation isn’t demanding more of them. They haven’t placed themselves in a position requiring them to become more than they currently are.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be this way.

My Story

The power of environment isn’t just something I write about—it’s something I study, experience, and marvel at in my everyday life. It is my core strategy for living and thriving. In August 2014, my wife, Lauren, and I moved to Clemson, South Carolina, where I attended graduate school in psychology. Initially, my interest was to study willpower in graduate school. However, throughout the course of my graduate studies, my research, and my personal experiences as a foster parent for over three years, my perspectives changed.

Delving deeper and deeper into psychology, and into my own human experience, I came to realize just how powerful the external environment is. This surprised me greatly, as I had been conditioned to downplay or even utterly ignore the environment around me. I assumed the environment was static and neutral and that people could autonomously do whatever they willed themselves to do.

Yet, in the course of my studies and life experience, I came to realize that context matters greatly—matters more than any of us are willing to concede. Immediately, I began to see just how much my own environment had shaped me. As many people do, I had gnarly and troubling experiences growing up. It wasn’t until I left some of those places and experiences behind—and thrived as a result—that I realized my environment and I are two parts of the same whole. To change the one is to change the other. Thus, I came to realize I could quickly transform my identity, skills, emotions, and very worldview. My nature wasn’t fixed. My environment, and thus my identity, were in large degree under my control.

Moving was one thing that helped me understand what our environment does to us. Another was becoming a foster parent. Our foster kids were born in a county that borders Clemson, where we lived. Their county is in the ninth percentile for upward income mobility—it’s a very poor area with few jobs and fewer opportunities. Due to the legalities surrounding foster children, I cannot go into much detail about their early environment, but suffice it to say their home situation was far from ideal. The chances for these bright, intelligent, loving children to improve their lot in life, as well as their opportunities for happiness and fulfillment, if they had remained in their native environment were practically zero percent. But as Dr. Raj Chetty and Dr. Nathaniel Hendren stated, “The data shows we can do something about upward mobility…Every extra year of childhood spent in a better neighborhood seems to matter.”

When we got our children, it was clear they came from a different world than we did. The five-year-old couldn’t count to ten or identify the first letter in her name. The seven-year-old couldn’t really read but fumbled his way through memorized words, some of them learned incorrectly. None of them could go to sleep on their own, and they all begged for medications to cure any physical or emotional concern.

To say it was a rough transition would be an understatement. Two completely different worlds clashed, and we were forced to become a new and cohesive unit. Lauren and I have been required to change immensely over the past three years as foster parents. We’ve had to learn parenting on the spot and patience beyond anything we’d ever mustered before. We’ve had to rearrange our lives, schedules, and priorities. Yet, this is exactly what we wanted, and we knew the demands of our new situation would force us to evolve into kinder, more loving people. We purposefully shaped an environment we knew would shape us.

Our children, and we along with them, transformed dramatically. They have thrived in their new, rigorous school. They are engaged in sports and other extracurricular activities. They’ve traveled to over thirty of the states in the United States in the past three years, greatly broadening their worldview and exposing them to different environments they never knew existed (and me, too, for that matter). They spent nearly twelve months over the past year refined-sugar free, which reframed their biology—including their self-confidence, ability to learn, sleep, and even be calm. They’ve averaged twelve hours of sleep every night since living in our home. We give them each nearly an hour of one-on-one help with writing, reading, and math each night.

People are often shocked how different our children have become. I say this not to brag about our parenting. We are far from optimal parents, but I will say we are better people for trying. However, I share this to highlight the radical change in environments we have all experienced, and how it has transformed them (and us) in the process.


  • "If you want to get more done, don't worry about willpower--focus on motivation. Challenging the dominant view of self-control as a muscle. Benjamin Hardy reveals that productivity is really about clarity and commitment."—Adam Grant, New York Times bestselling author of Originals and Give and Take
  • "Benjamin Hardy is one of the leading voices on well-being and productivity. Willpower Doesn't Work is an insightful guide to help us thrive in today's world."—Arianna Huffington
  • "Change your environment, change your life. Ben Hardy's book is a prescription for excellence and contains the hidden keys to success."—Ryan Holiday, bestselling author of The Obstacle Is the Way
  • "If you only read one book in 2018, make it this one. . . . This book will help you accomplish more in less time than any other book--by changing your entire approach to confidence and personal commitment."—Inc.
  • "A welcome prescription for those striving to overcome challenges and realize their aspirations."—Library Journal
  • "This is a must-grab book!"—BuzzFeed
  • "In this immensely practical and useful book, Hardy will teach you everything from how to put 'forcing functions' in your life (so your default behaviors are precisely what you want them to be) to how to create an environment where endless creativity and boundless productivity is the norm. If you're ready to set the conditions for your success, this book is for you."—Forbes
  • "Uncommonly thoughtful: that's what I think of when I read Benjamin Hardy's work. Get this book and you'll better understand how to be who you truly want to be."—JimmySoni, editor at the Observer and author of Rome's Last Citizen
  • "In an age when few people think deeply about life, Benjamin Hardy is the exception. Read this book if you want to be better."—Jeff Goins, nationally bestselling author of The Art of Work
  • "Willpower Doesn't Work debunks so many myths about what truly makes people successful. What Ben reveals in his fantastic book is something that can absolutely transform your life in a matter of moments when you understand what it is and put it into practice."—JoePolish, founder of Genius Network and Genius Recovery
  • "With the right models and practices found in [Willpower Doesn't Work], you can control your environment. And with a simple decision to get going, you can take all the action required to begin living the life you know you were meant to have. By reading this one book, you can change a million lives, including your own."—MareoMcCracken, Thrive Global

On Sale
Mar 5, 2019
Page Count
256 pages
Hachette Books

Benjamin Hardy

About the Author

Benjamin Hardy and his wife, Lauren, are the foster parents of three kids. In 2016, Benjamin was the #1 overall writer on Medium.com. His work has been featured at Forbes, Psychology Today, Fortune, Mashable, and others.

Learn more about this author