Many New Year’s resolution are about changing a behaviour and, changing a behaviour often boils down to creating a new habit or getting rid of an old one: eating healthy food, learning a new skill or exercising 3 times per week.
I recently read about psychology research which proves that humans have limited amount of willpower. A really interesting fact when it comes to changing behaviour. Think about it. You need willpower to make changes to your life: to reach out for your new guitar and practice rather than the pack of cigarettes or to make yourself a healthy snack rather than grab a bag of crisps.
Here’s how you can use this fact to help you create a new habit or get rid of an old one.
What do you mean we have limited willpower?
Changing habits or behaviours requires action and follow through. And action and follow through are fueled by willpower. It’s not enough to be able to recite what constitutes healthy foods. You also have to buy them, eat them and limit the unhealthy food to lose weight. Most of us know this yet a high percentage of people find it very difficult to stay thin.
Psychology research tells us that we have limited amount of willpower so limited fuel we can use to take action and change habits. Knowing this brings an interesting perspective to the whole thing. If you have a limited amount of something, you need to make sure you use it effectively. So to successfully change, you need to focus your limited resource of willpower in the right place or to reduce the amount of action you will need to take (so that you require less willpower).
How can I use this to build a new habit?
What if instead you had planned ahead and stocked up your fridge with healthy snacks? Even better what if some of them were ready to eat, for example a fruit salad?
For years I struggled to exercise regularly. I would join the gym, go for a month than give up. I didn’t mind exercising but I really hated the drive to the gym, showering in the common areas (it was cold) and the time it took for the whole thing. We now have a gym at home. I have 3 steps to take to get there and it takes no time at all. And I get to shower in my own warm bathroom. In 2013, I managed to exercise every week I wasn’t sick or on holiday. I think that is pretty good going for someone who didn’t do much exercise for most of her life.
What new habit do you want to adopt? How can you reduce the effort required?
How can I use this fact to get rid of an old habit?
Let’s say you find it hard not to get distracted by email and Facebook and to focus on your work. However, as soon as you launch your computer, your email and web browser come up and you are automatically logged into email and Facebook. This is not going to make it easy to stay away.
How about you remove the automated login features and you stick the programmes in a folder so that you have to look for the software before you start it? Yes, it’s going to be annoying. That’s the whole idea. To make it so annoying and hard to do that you have to consciously decide to put the effort in to access the software.
Trying to stay off junk food? Don’t buy any. Want to stop watching TV? Take the batteries out of the remote. Better still, hide the remote far away from the TV so that when you sit there you have to get up to turn it on.
What habits are you trying to get rid of? How could you make them more difficult to do?
I’ve always been told that if I wanted to change something, I should try to do one thing at once. For example, not try to stop smoking and lose weight at the same time. This always sounded like common sense. Now I have a scientific reason to explain why: we have limited willpower so obviously, if we are thinking of changing more than one thing, we have to be careful that we don’t stretch this valuable resource too thin.
Common sense also tells us that it takes 21 days to adopt a new habit. This is not scientifically proven but is worth using as a gauge. The idea being that after 21 days, you may be in a position not to worry about willpower anymore as your new habit will have become part of your routine. You’ll have to judge when this happens based on what you are trying to change and your personality but this is good to use as a starting point for any habit building exercise.
What new habit do you want to build? What can you do to reduce the effort required?