A month from now, you might be looking at your lists of New Year’s Resolutions and wondering how to achieve them. Or maybe you’re like me and come up with crazy resolutions all the time. Either way, you might be wondering what the best approach is. How can you ensure that your new habits stick?
Whatever the best approach is, it isn’t the most common one: relying on your willpower to make it work.
The willpower-dependent approach looks something like this: let’s say you decide to start every morning with a 30 minute jog. The first morning, you wake up, put on your running gear and head off. The second morning, you do the same. After a few days, you feel like this is your new life now. You’re enjoying the fresh air, the challenge, your improving fitness, that buzz that comes from running. It feels like you will never stop.
But for most people, something changes. The novelty wears off. They find themselves forcing themselves out of bed in the morning. They are still jogging, but only going through the motions.
It’s common. This is why gyms are so busy in January but much quieter around March. Despite such a strong start, resolve falters. People often blame themselves at this stage – but it has little to do with strength or weakness. They were trying to build a house by using the wrong tools.
You need a bit of willpower at the start of a new habit. But any strategy that relies on willpower to keep it going is doomed to failure. Willpower is not something that can be relied on for the long-term.
To understand how humans think, it helps to understand how animals think. Compared to humans, most animals are creatures of instinct. If they see a rival, they will challenge them. If they see a mate, they will mate with them. If they are hungry, they will seek food. If they are scared, they will find some place to hide.
Are humans that different? We still react instinctively to events. Any one of our emotions – anger, fear, arousal, joy – can compel us to act, even in self-destructive ways. We make snap decisions that make no sense in retrospect.
But, not always. We can, and do, resist our emotions and instincts every day. We smile to that colleague we hate. We work when we want to play. We perform boring, repetitive tasks because we know that we must. We ignore that person we are attracted to because the consequences of acting on it are high.
It doesn’t always work, though. Ask any dieter how easy it is to override instincts. We know we can deny any temptation… except we can’t always do it. What’s going on? One way to think about willpower is that it is a limited resource. Indeed, this is how science thinks of it. Your willpower comes from a common pool, one that can be depleted.
Think about it – it takes a lot of willpower to do things you don’t want to, like getting through a long day at work. You want to walk away, but you can’t (you have bills to pay, after all). After such a day, how much harder is it to exercise and eat right? You’ve used up your willpower at work, leaving you open to your instincts.
This is why you can’t rely on your willpower. Most of the time, you have some in reserve. But there will be days, weeks, maybe even months where you are tapped out. During these times, it will be almost impossible to keep up your habit. The worst part is that once you stop, it takes even more willpower to start again.
So, if you can’t rely on willpower, what can you do?
The solution is to design your habits to use as little willpower as possible. To do that, we need to remember what a habit is:
- The cue, or what tells our brain to activate this routine;
- The behaviour, or what we do in response to the cue;
- The reward, or what we get out of performing the behaviour.
The best habit needs the best of each of these. It’s only as strong as the weakest part.
A good cue needs to be strong, clear and unique. In the example of wanting to jog each morning, the cue is you wake up. You can build it into your morning routine, just like getting dressed and brushing your teeth (both are examples of habits). You want to be consistent – always after you brush, for example. But to make it even clearer, set aside clothes to be your jogging gear. If you only wear them while jogging, soon the act of putting them on will make you want to jog. Now you have two cues – the morning ritual and the clothes.
The behaviour, like the cue, should be strong and clear. This is where mindfulness comes in handy. Focus on the behaviour, especially while you are starting out. Make it vivid in your mind. Pay it your full attention. This will help link the activity to the trigger.
With the reward, you should do the same. Concentrate on the emotional rewards – the buzz from exercising, the satisfaction of following through on a commitment. Make it clear in your mind that the cue and behaviour led to this feeling. Your mind craves the reward – soon it will crave the behaviour.
[There’s a lot of cool research that backs this up. If an activity consistently leads to a reward, your brain starts to see the behaviour as rewarding. The thing is, if the rewards stop coming, the brain unlearns this connection. Habits need constant maintenance, which is why it’s so easy to give up jogging.]
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to supplement the reward with something tangible – a moment of peace or a frivolous purchase, for example – but you want the main reward to come from inside.
When these three elements are healthy, all you need is the cue to trigger the behaviour.
The Efficient Mind
This pattern is the real strength behind habits. They allow your brain to work faster and more efficiently. Instead of thinking about how to hold your toothbrush, you just do it. Instead of talking yourself into going for a run, your mind accepts it as the simplest option.
Habits bypass conscious thought, which makes them powerful and dangerous. At best, they lead to decisions quickly and without costing willpower; at worst, they leave you on autopilot, unthinkingly responding to the world. It pays to design them as you’d design any tool – with deliberate care and foresight.