161) From Shitty-ness to Well-ness, Part 16: The Final Step to Rational Self-analysis; Sub-section 2 — The Power of Context

So what does work then? (NOTE: it’s not Personal Responsibility….lol…..)

The thing to emphasize for effective goal pursuit is emphatically NOT “taking personal responsibility.” While not COMPLETELY unimportant (obviously), this whole “make your bed” mantra is only a tiny, tiny piece of the puzzle, and if over-focused on, it becomes basically a huge, shaming, blaming, counterproductive, disempowering lie.

It turns out that the FAR MORE IMPORTANT thing that will catalyze behaviour change is not motivation.   

It’s CONTEXT. Like every real estate agent knows, “location location location” is everything.

Waaaaaaait a minute there, Dolderman.  What about all those stories of human endurance, and people going to heroic lengths to achieve success, and people quitting their addictions “cold turkey” just because they “set their mind to it?”  What about Terry Fox?  What about Paralympians? What about all those INSPIRING examples we have of what humans can achieve when they dig deep, deep down and find their inner strength?  What about all that?  Huh? 

Stupid psychologists; what do you know anyway?  Why, my Uncle Fred lost both of his legs in the war.  And not only did he crawl out of the jungle, he became a mountain climber, and learned to levitate, and invented time travel.  (And then we never heard from him again….)  …..blahblahblahblahblah…..

Yes, motivation CAN BE extremely powerful.  Yes, tapping into your “inner strength” CAN BE enough to accomplish pretty much anything.  (Like I acknowledged earlier, in the brief aside about the “nugget of truth” in Conservative thinking, that isn’t really Conservative thinking per se but is just universal common sense….)  

But while your Inner Roar can, theoretically, be enough to see you through the long-term of sustainable lifestyle habits, usually, it isn’t.  Especially if you’re talking, like, AWESOMENESS.  Things like Optimal Performance, and Excellence, and Mastery.  Then no.  

That is precisely why these are “inspirational stories”.  Because they are not NORMAL.  They are not what happens to MOST PEOPLE who rely on their inner “grit” to get them through the long slog to success.  Compared to the people who achieve amazing things out of sheer willpower, there are far, far, far more people who give up their gym memberships after a month, fail to quit smoking, lose weight and then pile it all back on, “try to quit procrastinating” for like, forever, and never make a whole lot of progress, etc.  Including me!!  I’ve failed at all kinds of things, if you want to think about it that way.  SO MANY THINGS.  And I’ve always believed since I was embedded with these toxic things as a kid, that The Key was personal responsibility, and so, if your life was not good it was all your fault, you useless piece of garbage….etc….  

(Because that is ultimately where that goes, for the people for whom life is overwhelming.  This is why, when you see people who are REALLY struggling in a sense of say, homelessness or addiction or mental illness or whatever, it is absolutely true that you don’t know how you would be doing, having gone through their circumstances, with their supports and resources around you, etc.  We all would like to think we can rise above anything.  But clearly, life can overwhelm people.  And we need to destigmatize that and let people have compassion, and acceptance, so they can actually Heal.)

The funny thing is, when you do look at the inspirational success stories, you do of course find extraordinary people with extraordinary determination.  (Which is why these are the stories everyone pays attention to;  they are — exceptional — i.e., “not what happens for most people”).  BUT you also find that there is an overwhelming amount of support that the success stories received as well.  Overwhelming.  

So if you have superhuman determination and such, then good for you!  Use that power for Good!  But what sets MOST successful people apart isn’t their initial enthusiasm or their willpower; it is usually that they are able to utilize the power of CONTEXT, so that their desired behaviours happen more and more easily, and therefore more and more often.


Gee though, “context” certainly sounds boring.  Even if you put it in BLOCK CAPS, it’s still just “context”.  This is not very impressive, Dolderman. 

But you already know that CONTEXT is important! 

For example, what is one of the first and most common things people do when trying to quit smoking?  

Get rid of their smokes!  Right?  If you don’t have easy access to smokes, then it’ll be that much harder to relapse.  This is changing your CONTEXT.

You might also start avoiding situations, and people, who “trigger” the urge to smoke.  For example, when I was a cigarette smoker back in the day, I could barely even imagine shooting pool without smoking.  I would’ve been like, pfffffft, that isn’t even possible; you’re crazy!  Smoking is just part of the game!

So when I started trying to quit smoking, shooting pool was tough.  I always ended up smoking anyway, and if I hadn’t brought any smokes with me (being a “non-smoker” and all…you know…), then well, you know how it goes:  Two beers in and,  “Hey buddy, mind if I bum a smoke off you?”

And then you know what happened?

Smoking was outlawed in public establishments.  Including pool halls!!! (Which completely amazed me, to be honest; I thought people would just rebel en masse, and refuse to comply.)  All of a sudden, the CONTEXT changed, and I started having pool games without a cigarette in my hand.  It actually WAS possible!  Who knew?

But without that change in the law, this would have been a real challenge.  Playing pool simply “triggered” the compulsion to smoke, and it was very difficult to change that.  By the time I was in the pool hall, regardless of my motivation earlier when I “vowed to quit smoking”, I no longer possessed that motivation.  Pool Hall Me wanted to smoke.  

Food is the same.  If you don’t have shitty food a 10-step walk to the kitchen away, then you will eat less shitty food.  For example, myself, I have ZERO PROBLEM not chowing down on chips, if I never buy chips in the first place.  Because if I do get a craving for chips, but I have to go all the way to the store to get them, then it’s pretty likely that before I make all the effort to do that, I’ll change my mind, remember my goals to lower my blood pressure, or just be too lazy to go to all that work for some chips.  

But if there are chips in my cupboard, they will be significantly diminished, or non-existent, by tomorrow.  Ditto for ice cream.  Chocolate.  Pie.  (omgggg, pie….)  Weed.  I mean….yeah.  


Yeah, I know.  It sounds boring.  But it’s insanely powerful.  

When you set up your context, you use the power of literally, everything OTHER THAN your willpower.  Think about this for a second.  This will blow your mind….

Context = “everything around you” = the stimuli in your environment = the patterns of associative firing in your neurophysiology that automatically triggers certain behavioural responses = What You Are Going To Do ….. unless you exert willpower to override that context.

In other words, you have a choice. You can rely on your willpower for all the important things you have to do. OR you can rely on intelligently setting up your environment for all the important things you have to do, and leave your willpower for when you REALLY need it.

Blockbuster — The best of times, the worst of times

It does take willpower to override context.  In some ways, this is obvious.  For example, if you’re trying to study, and people are having some annoying loud conversation nearby, it’s going to take you extra “willpower” to concentrate on your studying.  Right?  Or if you’re about to get angry because someone’s yelling at you, it takes willpower to stay calm, and not “lose it”. THAT takes a lot of willpower.  Right?  

Yes!!  I totally agree.  

But it goes way deeper than that, when it comes to understanding how to change our lifestyle habits. One of the easy-to-overlook keys, is to REMOVE CHOICE whenever possible. Because it turns out, making choices is hard; they drain our willpower; if we have to make too many of them, they can leave us seriously depleted to the point we no longer even give a damn about the goals we told ourselves we were going to pursue.

We’ve ALL experienced this, I’m sure, at some point when trying to choose what movies to watch with some friends.  I mean sure, sometimes it’s a piece of cake, and there’s some awesome movie and everyone’s like, yeah cool maaaaan.  But other times?  You scroll through the online menus forever.  Or, back in the days of Blockbuster stores, I keenly remember times when my friends and I would have browsed the shelves for so long, considered so many different options, we would end up so burnt out, we didn’t even want to watch a movie anymore and just went home.

This is also an illustration of the power of context.  For maximal effectiveness of the willpower that you do have, CONTEXT should kind of “flow” you in certain directions, effortlessly, as you step through your day. The opposite is constantly relying on yourself to make decision after decision after decision, about how you’re going to spend your time. And that is totally exhausting. 

 So set up your CONTEXT so that the desired behaviour is automatically triggered.  With sufficient contextual triggering, you will Do The Thing.  (And it won’t even take that much motivation or willpower!)

For example, let’s say your goal is to lift weights and build muscle, then start with the right CONTEXT — either get a gym membership very close by, or prepare a space in your house that’s already clean of clutter, where there’s room for your workout, mats and weights or whatever you need, right there.  Know in advance what specific exercises you are going to do for a given day.  Map out a basic plan.  Even put your workout clothes there the night before, so all you gotta do is pull them on, and boom, workout time.  Once you take those CONTEXTUAL steps, the workout is far more likely to happen.  And without the sheer willpower-in-the-moment.  And pretty soon?  It becomes basically effortless; it’s just “how you live.”

A Well-known Canadian Psychologist who is actually a Pretty Great Guy 😉

After 25+ years spent evaluating, helping to design, researching, etc., behaviour change programs, I can tell you with confidence that most people (even professionals who do “behaviour change” for a living), under-appreciate the power of CONTEXT.  Because when it comes right down to it, we WANT to believe in willpower.  It’s just so much sexier and keeps us in the driver’s seat of our own selves.  We want to believe that we are in charge.  And so, we pursue all these ways to increase our motivation and willpower.  Which is almost entirely a waste of time and energy.

For example, one of the most influential environmental psychologists in Canada over the past several decades is a wonderful fellow named Douglas McKenzie-Mohr.  Great guy.  Very personable.  Very smart.  Very kind hearted.  He has spent about three decades giving workshops all over the country, teaching corporations, hospitals, government agencies, city planners, health care professionals, etc., how to design effective behaviour change programs.  And it is like pulling teeth.  People are so locked into thinking that humans are rational, and all they need is the right information.  But it’s just not true. 

There has been ENORMOUS demand for Doug’s expertise.  Imagine, say, $500/person for a workshop.  20-60 people or so, can be run through each workshop simultaneously.  (You do the math….)  

And he could do this every couple of days, year round, as much as he had the stamina for.  There was that much demand for his insights. 

And these insights?  Don’t take this as a minimization of his work, because I don’t mean it that way at all.  Doug did the hard work to translate Psychology insights into effective, implementable techniques that could be systematized to any scale, from a single person’s life to the collective behaviour of a nation.  That is a huge accomplishment.

But the core insights themselves are basic Social Psychology principles.  

So think about that for a second.  Doug built his whole post-academic career, and was stupendously influential, by teaching PROFESSIONALS how to use CONTEXT.  And yes, he was expert in the nuances, which is why he had the impact that he did.  But the basics, are basic.  And yet, they are still overlooked in practically every sector of public-behaviour change. 

(e.g., the roll-out of COVID vaccinations, pretty much everywhere, was an abysmal failure of good behavioural planning.)

So maybe CONTEXT sounds obvious, but it is not, even for agencies who spend million$$ on public health and safety campaigns.  The overwhelming expenditure of money goes into information campaigns, trying to convince people that something is important and they should Do The Thing.  (I.e., trying to motivate them).  This is why public information campaigns usually fail, and always under-perform relative to the amount of $$$ that goes into them.  

Bridges & Barriers

So, without deep-diving like Doug does for his clients and audiences, if you wanted to use CONTEXT more effectively for your own goals, how do you do this?

In essence, you write down the desired behaviour(s) you want to engage in, and you write down the undesired behaviour(s) that you want to be lessening.

For each one, write down the CONTEXTUAL  factors that make it more easy, convenient, enjoyable, fun, socially validating, etc.  Then write down the factors that make the behaviour more difficult, inconvenient, a pain in the butt, not fun, not socially rewarded, or multi-step and complicated.  

Then, you try and figure out which ones you can push around.  If you can strengthen the bridges and reduce the barriers to the desired behaviour (and/or if you can strengthen the barriers and reduce the bridges to the UNdesired behaviour— then magic happens.  And with far less “willpower” required.  

(That’s it.  It’s that simple.  Of course, there are many, many nuances in order to implement this more skillfully, and that’s where Doug’s genius comes in.  I may unpack this in blog posts someday; but if you want to go to the source, read Doug’s book “Fostering Sustainable Behaviour:  An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing”.  It’s totally worth it.)

Pretty much everything in life works like this.  Whatever the CONTEXT supports, is what is likely to happen.  

  • Success gurus who aren’t beating the over-simplistic “personal responsibility” drum, say this all the time — being successful is about who you spend your time associating with.  If you spend time with success-oriented people, you’ll be putting yourself in situations where you are more likely to run into or create opportunities for success.  Poof.  Magic.
  • On the other hand, if you want to be a chillz hippie with lots of friends who are really into music and hanging out in campgrounds and sitting under the moon getting high and laughing about stuff?  Then go put yourself in contexts where those people are.  Poof.  Magic.  
  • If you want to be a criminal, a great chess player, a religious evangelist, an intellectual, a scientist, a gymnast, a musician, an author, depressed, happy, unhealthy, healthy — then the principle is the same:  Put yourself in contexts where people who are like that, go, and where stuff like that stuff happens.  Poof.  Magic.  

In the next post, we will start to unpack, in practical terms, how to USE the Power of Context in your own favour. This gets to the heart of effective behaviour change, from the Rational Self-Analysis perspective anyway….. And it’ll help you reach your goals!

  2 comments for “161) From Shitty-ness to Well-ness, Part 16: The Final Step to Rational Self-analysis; Sub-section 2 — The Power of Context

  1. anu
    July 5, 2023 at 4:34 pm

    Hi Clara,

    Love this post from you. So interesting to hear about your experience when smoking in public establishments became banned, and the decision paralysis at Blockbuster 😀

    I wonder why JP emphasizes personal responsibility so much more over context. I don’t know how or if his theological perspective influences his thinking wrt personal responsibility, but I feel like maybe it’s a combination of being introverted and intellectual? Perhaps these and his amazement of what conscious willpower can do fixates him on personal responsibility?
    Maybe he thinks in cases where the environment can’t be altered and all one has is oneself, it’s possible to continue to thrive as much as possible. Frankl comes to mind, and from what I remember JP’s touched upon him.

    I thiiiink (maybe) he’s mentioned the high ceilings of churches and their intended effect on one’s mind & experience. And he mentions the beauty of some historical architecture. But, yeah, he doesn’t emphasize context very much.

    A personal note here: When I came to the university envt, my life changed. It was the independence from my parents, the city & ability to explore, newfound social life, & the intellectual stimulation that helped me thrive. I didn’t have to do anything. I feel that I was just a plant placed into better growing conditions.
    One might say, one can use one’s willpower to place oneself into better growing conditions. I’d say, perhaps. But there may be many who don’t have the a) money (to move into a desired neighbourhood, for example) or b) knowledge of what would be a desirable environment from them (physically or socially).

    “If you want to be a criminal, a great chess player, a religious evangelist, an intellectual, a scientist, a gymnast, a musician, an author, depressed, happy, unhealthy, healthy — then the principle is the same: Put yourself in contexts where people who are like that, go, and where stuff like that stuff happens. Poof. Magic.” Love this. It’s so much more likely if one puts oneself in the context.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • claradolderman
      July 17, 2023 at 4:11 pm

      Hi Anu! Lovely to hear from you, as always. To respond to your interesting discussion here, two things come to mind. First, yes I agree 100% that use can use your willpower to place yourself in healthier growing conditions. Totally totally true!! (And also, as you note, sometimes there’s no so much choice involved, given contextual constraints.) I repeatedly take pains to emphasize when dissing the “personal responsibility” viewpoint, that there IS a role, a very very very important one, to be played by willpower, intelligent/wise choices, the contexts one goes to and the people one associates with. Those do largely determine one’s life, I believe, and are MOSTLY under one’s own control, especially long-term. (Your comment about knowledge is intriguing tho! When knowledge is a barrier, and access to that knowledge is a barrier, then….hmmm…..this is a real challenge.)

      WRT to Jordan? I don’t really know what makes him tick, so why, exactly, he over-emphasizes personal responsibility as he does? I dunno. However, he IS very, very ideologically opposed to “the Left” — writ large. Social justice concerns, poverty alleviation, communal self-governance, environmental concerns, race, gender — basically, Jordan is ideologically wedded to a belief system that gives incredible trust to hierarchical societal institutions and structures, and thereby has wedded himself to unfettered capitalism and an absurdly myopic Ayn-Randian view of humans, which demonizes anything he deems “Marxist” or “postmodern” or “communal” (even though he himself has not read Marx (a single read of the Communist Manifesto right before a debate, doesn’t count as “reading Marx”), nor clearly would pass an undergraduate exam on post-modern philosophy, nor clearly knows much about the millennia of indigenous experience in self-governance and the communal living that has been humanity’s universal norm for almost all of history….). Ironic for a self-described member of a native tribe. When he debated Zizek, and admitted he hadn’t actually read Marx??? oh my god….how did he not die of shame?

      For a scholar, this should be more than embarrassing; it’s pathetic. When I started my essays critiquing Jordan, I still gave him credit for being a deep thinker and careful reader. I do not believe that about him anymore. His reasoning is so sloppy and un-grounded in actual science (using a few scientific findings, without balance across the field, and then three planet’s worth of conjecture based on his own idiosyncratic beliefs, doesn’t count….), about so many things he talks about, that I don’t see him as a scholar in any way anymore; I see him as an ideologue/Youtuber/preacher/grifter, and generally nowadays pay him no mind because his ‘teaching’ now is mostly repetition of his philosophy, and right-wing dog whistles. There are far better thinkers in the world to learn from. Like….practically all of them! 😂

      “imho” 😉

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