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Health & Wellness

Why Habits, Not Willpower, May Be the Real Key to Change

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If you’re like most people you probably feel you don’t have enough willpower.

In the American Psychological Association’s annual survey on stress, people regularly cite lack of willpower as the number-one barrier to following through on changes that would improve their lives.

Willpower, in fact, is a limited resource. Experts have come to believe that like a muscle, willpower may become fatigued with use. And we call upon our willpower constantly, whether it’s biting our tongue when an in-law makes a hurtful remark about our wardrobe choice or resisting the urge to have another slice of pie or deciding not to splurge on a new, expensive pair of shoes.

Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., author of The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, calls the capacity to say no — to chocolate brownies, a sale at the mall, driving over the speed limit — “I won’t” power. There’s also the “I will” side of willpower. That’s saying yes to what needs to get done; climbing out of a warm bed to go to the gym or sticking with taking your medication when it’s easy to skip the regimen.

Beyond the “I won’t” and “I will” elements of self-control, there’s “I want” power. That’s the ability to keep your eye on the big picture and tap into your priorities beyond the short-term gratification of posting a cutting comment on Facebook or ordering French fries instead of salad.

If we want to make changes in our life, the trick is to minimize the amount we rely on willpower. And we can do that through habits and by planning ahead.

Psychologists recommend a willpower-conserving technique called “implementation intention” or “if-then” thinking. Here you have a plan in place to deal with probable temptation, such as fattening food at a party. An implementation intention might be, “If they serve cake and cookies after dinner, I’ll split a cookie in half and fill the rest of my dessert plate with fruit.”

Or you can use implementation intention as way to pre-commit to goals.  “When the alarm goes off at 6:30 a.m., I’ll change into the workout clothes I laid out the night before and go for a thirty-minute walk.”

Caroline Adams Miller, a life coach and co-author of Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide, trains clients in the technique, with, she says, remarkable success.  “The idea is to make as many behaviors as possible automatic,” Miller says, “so you don’t exhaust yourself trying to make new habits every day.”

“If-then” thinking is buoyed by McGonigal’s suggestion to connect actions with the big picture. You might keep those large intentions somewhere in clear sight. One example: Post the affirmation “I want to nourish my body and spirit with healthy foods” to your refrigerator door.

That’s just one way of priming your surroundings to support your goals, says Benjamin Hardy, author of the new book Willpower Doesn't Work: Discover the Hidden Keys to Success. “Your environment is either pulling you forward toward your goals or pushing you against them,” he says. “If you’re serious about losing weight, don’t force yourself to use willpower to not eat the junk foods you don’t want to eat. Remove them from your home.” In their place, you might keep healthy snacks like baby carrots, cut-up celery and hummus dip visible and within reach on the top shelf of your fridge.

If you spend some time going over your daily routine and the habits or goals you want to put in place, you can probably come up with other ways to do what Hardy calls “outsource willpower to your environment.” Do you often forget to take your morning medication because you’re so eager for the first cup of coffee? Hardy has a devilishly easy fix: “Put your pills in your coffee cup so you can’t pour the coffee until you’ve taken them.” Hardy himself has removed all social media apps from his smartphone so he’s not tempted to check his Twitter account every few minutes when he’s out with his family.

Want to stick to an exercise regimen? Relying on waking up each day and deciding whether you feel like working out is likely to lead to a lot of missed sessions at the gym. Instead, eliminate decision-making and willpower exertion by prepaying for yoga classes or scheduling a twice-weekly plan to meet a friend for a brisk walk around the neighborhood.

“Making a 100-percent commitment is a lot easier than making a 98-percent commitment.”

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