Habits and Willpower


So who had a New Year’s resolution at the beginning of this year? How long did it last?  If you’re going strong, excellent!  If not, read this. Last year I read an excellent book called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.  I will summarize what resonated with me from his writings.

He defines a habit as The choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often everyday.”  If you can make healthy eating and daily/regular exercise habits or automatic behaviors you will be living a happy life without having to think about it too much or trying so hard.  Here are the main points:

  1. The three parts of any habit are the cue, routine and reward.  The cue is what triggers the desire to do a certain behavior.  Cues can be determined by environment, emotions and people.  The routine is the specific action that results.  The reward is the end goal which is often the pleasure or satisfaction that the individual desired.  Think of any bad habits you want to curtail and identify these three facets.
  2. Cues and rewards are hard to eliminate so in order to break bad habits the routine must be altered.  For example, I tend to snack at work when I have a desk-work day.  I identified my trigger was an urge to simply do something different for a few moments.  That cue will continue to arise but now instead of snacking, I’ll do something else like walk around or talk to a coworker when I need a break.  What routine can you alter?
  3. Forming a new habit is easier when you believe what you are doing is beneficial.  If you are doing something just because someone else said you should it will be almost impossible to maintain it.  It’s essential to be self-motivated so you will have the self-efficacy to make lasting beneficial changes.

Now on to willpower.  Willpower is one’s ability to forgo temporary satisfaction for a longer term benefit.  It plays a role in changing bad habits into good ones.  Here’s what you need to know about willpower:

  1. It is finite.  That’s why it’s harder to resist a bad behavior such as eating junk food after a stressful day when your use of willpower was called upon a lot.  The good news is when you create a habit you will stick to it no matter what your frame of mind is or how stressed you are.  For example, some people will submit to eating fast food when they’ve had a long tough day.  Even if I had the worst day ever, eating fast food would never enter my mind because I haven’t eaten it for over a decade.
  2. Try to avoid using your willpower if you don’t have to.  For example, if there is a particular junk food you like, don’t keep it in the house.  Out of sight, out of mind is so true.
  3. Willpower builds self-regulatory strength that will trickle into other areas of your life.  People often find that when they develop healthy habits other parts of their lives also change for the better.
  4. It is crucial to anticipate what difficulty you will face and have a plan for navigating through it.  For example, if you will be attending an affair with loads of unhealthy food, don’t go hungry, don’t stand near the food and keep yourself occupied by having conversations.

Have a happy healthy life filled with habits that benefit you and your loved ones.