One of my close friend's husband is a psychologist and his busiest time of year is the period just after New Year, leading up to Valentine's day. The reason: most people set their New Year's resolutions and within a few weeks have given up and this has led to feelings of low self-esteem, doubt and depression which is not the best way to start the year.
One possibility is that these people are weak and lack drive and commitment. But, I really cannot buy-into the idea that all these people are weak-minded and weak-willed.
And, being fascinated with human behaviour and psychology, this phenomenon got me thinking, reading, asking questions and digging deeper into the research available to find out what could be reasons for such high rates of drop-off.
What I have discovered is pretty amazing and could be transformational for many of you reading this...
Science is telling us that it's not your habits, rituals and routines that determine your success. Its your willpower in managing these that determines your success.
In the Garden of Eden, when Eve ate the apple the serpent offered to her, what was going on in her mind? What was the reason she said yes? And, most importantly, what can we learn from her?
Science is telling us that 85% of the decisions that we make are at an unconscious level.
What does this then tell us about Eve's decision to say yes?
Let's explore the willpower - habit connection further...
What Exactly is Willpower?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of willpower is: the ability to control yourself : strong determination that allows you to do something difficult (such as to lose weight or quit smoking)
Willpower is a real form of mental energy, powered by glucose in the bloodstream which is used up as you exert self-control. So, willpower is a finite resource and the only way to replenish it is to eat/drink glucose.
Willpower prepares people for life - Charles Duhigg
Why Is Willpower Vital to Success?
In the 60's a sociologist called Walter Mischel was interested in how young children resist instant gratification; he offered them the choice of one marshmallow now, or two if they could wait 15 minutes. For many years his findings remained of little interest to anyone. Then, due to a chance talk with his daughter who had been a part of the experiment, he decided to track some of the children down, and made a startling discovery.
Mischel's findings have recently been confirmed by a remarkable long-term study in New Zealand, concluded in 2010 by psychologist Terrie Moffitt of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and her colleagues. For 32 years, starting at birth, a team of international researchers tracked 1,000 people, rating their observed and reported self-control and willpower in a different ways.
What they found was that, even taking into account differences of intelligence, race and social class, those with high self-control – those who, in Mischel's experiment, held out for two marshmallows - grew into healthier, happier and wealthier adults.
Those with low willpower, the study discovered, fared less well academically. They were more likely to be in low-paying jobs with few savings, to be overweight, to have drug or alcohol problems, and to have difficulty maintaining stable relationships (many were single parents). They were also nearly four times more likely to have a criminal conviction.
Willpower is one of the most important predictors of success in life. More so than having a high IQ, rich parents and access to resources.
3 Steps to Improving Your Willpower
A study led by Wilhelm Hofmann of the University of Chicago, showed that people with the best self-control were the ones who use their willpower less often. Instead of fending off one urge after another, these people set up their lives to minimise temptations. They proactively use their willpower in advance to make decisions that help them avoid crises and conserve their willpower reserves.
- Identify what you want / set a goal eg. eat less and exercise more
- Choose a response ahead of time.
- Make a conscious decision of what you will do when you are faced with temptation. This is often called the cold blooded - hot blooded emotional state and this is where our biggest weakness in creating habits lies. Why? Because the decision to change is made rationally (cold blooded emotional state). However, at some point we will be faced with the situation we are trying to change e.g. losing weight and most often our habit tries to override our decision e.g. option to eat healthy or to eat that delicious hamburger and chips because it is harder than going with the habit (hot blooded emotional state)
3 Tips to Ensuring You Achieve Your Goal
- Get social support.
- Reward often.
- Don't overreact when you mess up.
The Willpower - Habit Link
- How your Habits Hinder Success and What to Do About It
From what I've shared above, willpower is essentially about teaching people good habits so that when they are faced with that inevitable temptation, they have already created a response on how they will deal with it.
40 - 45% of the decisions we make each day are not actually decisions, they are habits - Wendy Wood, Provost Professor of Psychology and Business
What Do We Know About Habits?
They are the easy, automatic responses our brain creates for the hundreds of different repetitive tasks we do each day. The reason our brain does this is to help make it more efficient and less energy consuming.
“Every habit has three components. There’s a cue — that’s a trigger for automatic behavior. There’s a routine — the behavior itself. And finally, there’s a reward. The reward is how your brain learns to remember this habit for the future. (source: Charles Duhigg)
“Everyone from Aristotle to Oprah tells you how to change your habits. But they almost always focus on the routine, the behavior. What we’ve learned is that it’s the cue and the reward that shape how habits form, and, more importantly, how to change them.” (source: Charles Duhigg)
If you want to change anything in your life, you have to premeditate the cues and rewards so that you change your routine over time.
- Teach people to make a decision ahead of time - a cue
- Give yourself a reward - once you have stuck to your decision
Over time, and with lots of repetition,your routine changes and as a result you create a new habit.
3 Practical Ways to Make Your Habits Stick
In the article How to Make Healthy Habits Stick, written by Sarah Mahoney where she interviews Wendy Wood, she outlines 3 simple ways to make your habits stick that I have adapted for you:
One: Start small and make it easy
Hate going to the gym? Then start walking. Want to cut down on meat but can't stand fish? Try eating more chicken. Healthy behaviors you can see yourself continuing have more meaning than something you’re unlikely to stick with. So for example, you cannot say you want to lose weight, eat 2 healthy meals and then binge on chocolate and crisps in between.
Two: Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
One study shared by Wendy found that people “had to repeat a behavior almost 300 times before it became a habit. So, you may find yourself sleeping straight for 300 nights with your running clothes on like Shawn Achor (author of The Happiness Advantage) in order to make it easier to roll out of bed for your early morning your exercise routine before you have a habit.”
Three: Create the right context
Performing the new behavior the same way each time is also important. “To form a habit, repeat something in the same situation over time,” says Pippa Lally, a research psychologist at University College London who researches habit formation.
So, in conclusion if you are serious about change, you have to be clear on your goals and become more conscious about your habit loops so that you can create cues and rewards to allow you to achieve your success.
Willpower is about being able to practically plan this process so you use it optimally.
And, if you do all these things, you (theoretically anyway) will give yourself a greater chance at becoming the success you want to be.
What all this information says about Eve is simply that she was as much a victim of her conditioning as we are. We however have the knowledge, emotional intelligence and resources available to use to manage our willpower-habit connection much better.
Today's post is largely inspired by Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, an absolutely awesome read that I highly recommend picking up if you are serious about change.
I have included a talk by Charles below - it gives you a high level look at detail covered in the book.
Summary and Conclusion
We all have habits we'd like to change.
We explored the willpower - habit link and I shared how you can consciously through discipline or willpower harness the power of your brain for change.
We know that change is hard unless we know how to focus our attention and use our discipline to create new neural pathways that allow our brain to create a new habit
We explored 3 ways to ensure your habits stick - which one will you choose and why.....?
So, now you have all you need to make some important changes. Choose wisely and keep it simple. Get some quick wins that will motivate and get you momentum in the direction you want to go. See what happens and be sure to let me know how you go by commenting below.....
Until next time, I will
See you at the top!