Why Willpower Fails Us (and What We Can Do About It)

A women struggles with the willpower to eat fruit instead of cake.

I didn’t grow up wearing seatbelts, they weren’t available. When they were available, I still drove without wearing one. Yet now, I buckle up every time. 

Why the change?  It’s not that I consider the consequences of not wearing a seatbelt every time I put one on. It’s not willpower that persuades me to put on a seatbelt: rather it’s a habit.

Recently, I read an article in the New Yorker about the science of creating habits. The article posits it’s ineffective to try to use willpower to break a bad habit or develop a good one. Instead, it suggests we find strategies that don’t require us to be mentally strong such as:

Linking actions together

In order to conserve energy, our brains often “chunk” a series of actions together. This chain of actions frees our brain up for things that require our immediate attention. That’s why we don’t consider every step when starting a car, putting our seatbelt on, checking our mirrors, etc. We associate these behaviors with entering the car and have linked them together.

Linking is helpful, but not when we associate it with a bad habit. In fact, harmful habits are hard to break because they are linked to other habitual actions. I used to automatically snack when sitting down to watch TV.  I told myself I would stop—but found myself snacking anyway.  I needed to change something in my routine—to upset the behavior chain.

Frequently it is more effective to substitute a beneficial behavior to take the place of the unhelpful one.  In my example of snacking while watching TV, I added brushing my teeth before sitting down, thus reducing my desire to snack since my mouth feels so fresh. As a bonus, I am not turning on the TV as often.

This leads to our second strategy…

Another key to self-control—friction

What if a few simple changes to our environment could supply us with robust self-discipline?

For example, in order to lose weight, I intentionally made the routine of shopping the fruit, vegetable and refrigerated sections of the grocery store before going down any middle aisles. I knew that by filling my basket with healthy foods I would be less likely to buy junk food.

We more easily achieve goals by creating situations in which willpower isn’t required. If we make our bad habits more inconvenient, it will be easier for us to resist their allure.

This same strategy can work for encouraging constructive habits, such as exercise and meditation.  Linking those behaviors to other daily events and arranging the environment to make that easy to attain, will give you the confidence to reach your goals in this new year.

Neuroplasticity research describes that as we implement new routines, our mind instills these behaviors into the wiring of our brain, making these behaviors easier to maintain.

I would love to hear from you! Feel free to email me your new year challenges and possible solutions.

Your optimism challenge:

The next time you feel tempted by a bad habit, find some way that you can make the habit more inconvenient. Conversely when you are attempting to develop constructive behaviors linking new behaviors with an action you are already doing will increase your results.

Share your feedback, questions or comments at healthyoptimism.com/contact.

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