Our ability to change habits is an important part of cultivating a healthy and happy life, but there are many different factors to consider when trying to change a habit.
One of the best things to do is identify your habit loops. This means finding the “cue-routine-reward” that fuels your habits, and then trying to change your habit by changing the way you respond to cues in your environment, or using different rewards to reinforce a new course of action.
However, understanding the structure of your habits won’t always be enough to modify your behaviors. There is an element of willpower that plays a key role in all habit change.
Willpower is the self-discipline to do something even if you don’t have a lot of motivation to do it.
For example, those who have strong willpower will be able to resist a slice of cake or push themselves to go to the gym, while a person with less willpower will find it more difficult to do these things if they aren’t already used to them.
Recently there has been a good amount of research on how we can maximize our willpower when changing habits. Here are the important findings:
• Willpower is a limited resource that needs to be used wisely. When researchers have participants resist eating a cookie, they perform worse on a difficult puzzle afterwards. That’s because when we exercise our willpower at one task, we have less willpower to dedicate to another task. Therefore, it’s best to only focus on changing one major habit at a time. If you spread yourself too thin, by trying to change too much about your life at once, it’s very likely that you will get tired faster and give up quicker on your goals.
• Willpower can be strengthened like a muscle. While it’s true that it’s limited, we can build upon our long-term capacity by actively exercising our willpower more often. Practice by changing small habits first – like switching soda with water, or just going out for a walk every morning – and then you can move onto bigger habits once you strengthen your willpower and motivation. It’s just like exercising any other muscle. You can’t expect to go into the gym and bench press 200 lbs, but if you work at it overtime then maybe one day you will. Our willpower works the same way.
• Believing you have more willpower makes you push yourself harder. A study published in 2010 in Psychological Science found that students could fight off taking a break from studying simply by having the mindset that they can go longer. When motivating ourselves to change habits, it’s important to remember that our attitude and beliefs play a crucial role. If you believe that you can achieve something, you’re more likely to push yourself and go that extra mile. But when you believe your willpower is weak, you’re more likely to settle for less.
• Practice taking a step back. One of the best ways to disconnect from our routines and change our behavior is to practice a short STOP meditation. This is when we step back from what we are doing in the moment and reflect on our current mindset. Willpower requires focus and awareness. If you go about your day unconsciously, without ever second-guessing yourself, then you aren’t exercising very much of your willpower and potential.
• Once you build a new habit, you can concentrate your willpower on another new habits. Habits are often characterized by the fact that they are routine and automatic. When you first learned how to tie your shoes, it may have taken a lot of effort and concentration. But now that you’ve practiced it so many times, it’s second-nature to you – and therefore it takes practically no willpower or energy at all. In the same way, once we build a new habit we no longer need as much willpower to do it, so we can begin focusing that willpower on adopting new behaviors.
Psychologists admit that some people are probably born with more willpower than others. However, it’s good to know that we can improve our willpower in various ways by exercising it more.
Learn more tools in psychology in the digital guide The Science of Self Improvement.