Jenny had been successfully managing the diet she started several weeks ago. Today was an unusually hectic day. With all of the stress she encountered, she was no longer able to resist temptation; her cravings got the better of her. She overate at dinner and continued to eat throughout the remainder of the evening. She was ashamed about what she had eaten and became highly critical of herself for her lack of willpower. She felt defeated and within days her old eating habits reemerged.
When it comes to unsuccessful efforts at habit change, Jenny is not alone. Every year, millions of people make New Year’s resolutions and in less than 60 days about 75% or these resolvers have resumed their old habits. Most cite lack of willpower as the barrier to their success.
The conventional belief about willpower is that it is a character trait that you either have or you don’t have. Willpower is not a character trait. Willpower could be more accurately defined as the effort needed to resist temptation and make positive change. This effort requires having the awareness and skills necessary to address a complex interaction between psychological, biological, situational forces. Habit change is then framed in the context of a process of change rather than just a goal to be achieved.
Motivation is a primary psychological component necessary to making behavioral change. This seems like a bit of a no-brainer, but motivation is complicated. We become motivated to change a habit for the better. But there is also a part of us that is motivated to stay the same. Thus, we are faced with competing motivations. The habits that we are trying to change have served a purpose in our lives.
For example, it might have provided a means of coping with stress or a source of pleasure and this habit has the advantage of offering immediate rewards or benefit. Conversely, the benefits of habit change are usually goals that usually are not going to be immediately realized and serve purposes not related to pleasure or coping with stress.
Old habits also have the advantage of being well rehearsed and can be set in motion with little or no thought. New habit behavior involves mindful effort, which requires considerable energy to successfully plan, execute, and maintain. Choosing between old habit behaviors versus new habit behaviors might be thought of as choosing between gently floating down the lazy river compared to swimming upstream against a heavy current.
As we go through our daily routines, there are environmental or internal cues that trigger habit behavior into action: a work break could be a cue for a cigarette or a snack; the beer vendor at a sporting event could trigger the desire for a drink; and the sight of scratch-off tickets in the gas station might prompt a return to gambling. Internal experiences such as boredom, loneliness, and at times even happiness also can influence the emergence of old habits. Often these cues are subtle and capable of automatically triggering behaviors before we even know we are engaged in it.
So how do we tilt the “willpower odds” in our favor? There are a number of strategies that can be adopted to greatly improve our chances for success.
It is important to learn to transform self-criticism into self-compassion. After Jenny overate, she proceeded to emotionally berate herself and in the process deflated her motivation to continue her weight loss plan. We are taught to be self-critical at an early age, to shame ourselves, and devalue ourselves when we make mistakes. It is commonly assumed that being self-critical is motivating.
If we punish ourselves, we’ll be more motivated to do the correct thing the next time. Research has consistently demonstrated that this is a harmful approach to habit change and that it will likely lead to failure. Self-criticism is emotionally hurtful and stressful. Our chances of resorting to old habits to cope with those feelings are greatly increased. A better approach will be to develop an attitude of self-accountability and mindfulness that begins with the recognition that successful habit change is a process.
There are going to be bumps in the road. When these temporary setbacks occur, they should be viewed as learning opportunities to first identify what went wrong and then to develop strategies to address similar “bumps” in the future.
Limit the number of major habit changes you plan to make to just one at a time. People who simultaneously choose to lose weight, exercise, give up smoking, and stop gambling, stretch their willpower resources too thin. This results in having little willpower reserve in the face of temptation. Choose to work on just one habit at a time. Stress and willpower can be competing forces for the body’s energy. Learning effective ways to develop resilience to stress can reduce its energy demands.
When these energy demands are lowered, more energy is available for willpower. Common strategies to deal with stress include: exercise, especially activities such as yoga or tai chi; getting sufficient rest; mindfulness meditation; spending time with friends and family; engaging in daily leisure activities that exclude television or video games; and spending daily time outside in nature. Even brief involvement in these activities when they are done consistently can have a significant impact on our ability to handle stress.
Having a better understanding of willpower and developing effective strategies to maintain it will greatly enhance your ability to change habits and achieve your goals.
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