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Why Willpower Is Not Enough

Consider this very familiar scenario: someone makes a decision to start the New Year by putting a new healthy habit in place. A few weeks later, and it’s been forgotten. Perhaps you are one of those rare people that simply follows through with everything that they commit to?

So what goes wrong? Generally, when people decide to change their existing habits for ones that are healthier or better for them, it’s highly likely that they’ll be expecting to do it using willpower.

The trouble is, willpower doesn’t work like that. When we examine it closely willpower has more to do with your ability to make decisions, and in particular those decisions to not do the familiar but to do something different instead. So although you want to go out for a jog after work, still the familiar sofa, beer and TV call you. You have to decide to do something different, instead of going down the familiar route.

However, our capacity to make those decisions quickly evaporates through the day.

I once worked with a couple who were committed to each other and to their relationship. They were clearly in love with each other, and yet their evenings were spent having arguments. Both had highly-involved jobs with significant levels of responsibility that they were dedicated to doing to the best of their ability. What I saw happening was that by the time they got home in the evening they had already made all the decisions their brains could take for that day! So when the urge to say something stupid came up, instead of deciding not to say it, they no longer had the mental capacity to override the impulse.

How to get past the willpower problem

The strategy to avoid reliance on willpower alone is simple. If you want to develop a new habit, attach it to an existing one. This makes it far more likely to happen.

Here’s a very simple example. Say you make the decision to meditate for ten minutes every day. Instead of relying on your willpower to find the space to do it, to make yourself sit and stay focused for that time, how about attaching it to something you already do?

What about that morning cup of coffee when you’re still walking around half-asleep, and you put the radio on for background noise? Here’s an alternative. Decide the day before where you can sit to meditate, decide how you are going to time it, and make sure that whatever you need is nearby. Now when you get your coffee, still walking around like a zombie, go to the space you’ve created. Sit down and meditate for 10 minutes; I promise your cup of coffee will still be warm enough to drink afterwards!

This does not guarantee it’s going to happen, but by removing as many burdens as possible, you reduce the number of decisions you need to make, and so improve the chances of your new habit taking root.