Willpower alone is not enough to change behaviours on key areas such as carbon reduction, we also need to ‘choice-edit’ our environment

Pooran Desai

Happy New Year!  As we enter the second half of January, many of us may well be struggling to keep our New Year’s resolutions.  Our willpower is often not enough to support lasting behaviour change.

Behaviour change is increasingly recognised as key – arguably it is the single largest factor - in reducing carbon emissions for instance. 

Recently I came across a great TEDx talk by Al Switzler entitled ‘Using Skillpower over Willpower!’  Al points out that the greatest chance of success with changing behaviour is to control the sources of influence. 

Self-motivation and willpower are only part of the story - the others sources of influence arise from the wider environment in which we find ourselves. These include peer pressure and access to choices. 

Choice-editing can go hand-and-hand with a world of abundance.  So perhaps it is better to call this ‘choice-managing’

For example, if we are trying to lose weight, willpower alone usually doesn’t succeed when there is birthday cake offered in the office and the supermarket checkouts are bedecked with chocolates. 

With the worsening predictions on levels of obesity, I heard former Conservative cabinet minister Lord Tebbit calling for people to take more responsibility for their eating habits. 

I have some sympathy for that view (in the same way as I think we should take more personal responsibility for our environmental impact). 

Unfortunately the evidence clearly shows that willpower just doesn’t work for most us. There is little point in berating ourselves or others if we are really going to solve these sorts of problems. We will need to control the sources of influence on our behaviour in order to support better behaviours.

This will mean that we will have to change our interpretation of freedom of choice. It has changed with regard to smoking for instance. It will have to change with respect to the availability of sugary, fatty, fibre-depleted foods. 

It will have to change with respect to choosing carbon-intensive products and services. We will need to “choice-edit” our environment. 

The application of choice-editing is already with us - from the relatively mundane level such as at B&Q where you can no longer buy patio heaters (see their One Planet Home strategy) to planners at the London Borough of Waltham Forest who no longer give planning permission to fast food outlets within 400 metres of a school or park.

But choice-editing is just one side of the coin. 

The other side of the same coin is the infinite number of healthy and green products and services we can provide. 

Choice-editing can go hand-and-hand with a world of abundance. So perhaps it is better to call this “choice-managing”. 

Regardless, the 20th century interpretation of freedom of choice has outlived its usefulness.

Instead, imagine the city of the future, filled with choice, but every one of those choices makes you, me, our society and our planet healthier and happier.  

It is the recipe too for a truly healthy economy.

Pooran Desai is co-founder of BioRegional