Good habits are essential in being able to live the lives we desire. Still, we tend to approach willpower not as something we can build up and strengthen but, instead, as an innate characteristic that we either have or don't. We further perceive bad habits as reflective of our lack of willpower.
But, as many know, it's not so easy to break bad habits or to start new ones, like regular exercise or a daily meditation practice. Too often, attempts to change habits fail. Repeated failures can create the unintended pattern of failing, which leads to losing hope and believing we're incapable of change.
So, the first consideration in changing habits is to establish the habit of success! How can you get started?
Treat Willpower Like a Muscle
The will is like a muscle that needs training to be strengthened. Imagine if you began weightlifting by trying to press 200 pounds! You would certainly fail. But most people set self-improvement goals that are similarly much too ambitious. Be humble! Start with something easy and doable, requiring some but not unrealistic quantities of willpower.
Start with one habit goal and one small step towards that goal. With meditation, it could be five minutes a day when you first wake up. Only you can determine what's "easy and doable" for you (often by trial and error). Whatever you choose, the most important thing is being consistent over time. Even if you're late one day and can't meditate the full five minutes, try to do something - maybe set a timer for 10 seconds and sit quietly for the full 10 seconds.
Consistency will do several things for you:
- Strengthen your will.
- Start to etch the habit into your neural pathways, so that it becomes more automatic and requires less will.
- Develop a "habit of success."
- This "habit of success" will change your self-image from someone who can't change to someone who can.
- When the habit becomes automatic, requiring very little effort of will, you can use your "extra will" to set a somewhat more demanding goal as your next step.
You need less willpower when your motivation is strong. One way of strengthening motivation is to ask yourself questions like: What do I want out of life? What kind of person do I want to be?
Regarding current habits: Do they align with my values? Are they helping me achieve my goals? How do they affect other facets of my life, and other people? What does each habit do for me (the pay-off)? How happy (or unhappy) am I as a result of this habit?
Regarding potential new habits: What new habits would I like to cultivate? Regarding each one, what payoff do I anticipate? How would my life be better?
Of the habits you'd like to change, choose the one that inspires you the most, and work on it first. Keep notes on your answers in a journal that you can refer back to over time to strengthen your resolve and to prioritize habit goals.
Make Your Intention Crystal Clear
The clearer your intention, the better it will inform your unconscious mind, and the sooner the habit will become established, requiring less effort of will. Write out a clear intention in your journal and read it aloud from time to time. Use this formula devised by Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit:
"When (cue), I will (routine), because it provides me with (reward)."
For example: "When I feel overly stressed (cue), I will close my eyes, feel into my body and release excess tension (routine), because it provides me with relief and a grounded, calm feeling that guides me toward being my true self (reward)."
Plan for Obstacles and Challenges
In the above example, you might find that you feel self-conscious performing your new routine at work. The Develop Good Habits website advises, "Whenever you encounter a challenge, use this experience to create an 'If-Then' statement for how you'll respond next time." Your "If-Then" statement could be, "If I'm at work and there are others around, I'll leave my desk and find a place where I can be alone."
Record your "If-Then" statements in your journal.
Keep It Fun
Don't become fixated on a final goal and rigid timelines. Be kind and non-judgmental to yourself, willing to make adjustments as you learn. Be creative: Post notes of encouragement to yourself; put up inspiring pictures and quotes; report your progress to trusted friends; and find a habit-buddy. Make it an adventure. Making the process as interesting and enjoyable as possible means less willpower will be needed.
Habit expert Leo Babauta says to "savor the habit." Your new habit IS your new and better life. He advises, "If you want to eat healthier, learn to enjoy the taste of this delicious, fresh, healthy food. An apple can be just as delicious as any junk food snack if you pay attention and savor it. If you're exercising, pay close attention to and enjoy the moving of the body, the feeling of exertion, the flow of blood through your brain, the focus."
Reward yourself frequently by acknowledging your progress. Psychologist Abby Seixas recommends viewing each step you take toward a goal, no matter how small, as a victory, and keeping a Victory Journal where you record each one. With a goal of running each morning, a possible entry might be: "I was late and didn't have time to run, but I put on my running shoes, went outside and took a few deep breaths before going back in."
Writing down every little victory celebrates it, strengthens your resolve and reinforces the direction in which you want to move. And lots of small victories can add up to some very big ones!
- Mathers C. How long does it take to form a habit? 21 days? 66 days? developgoodhabits.com, October 22, 2021.
- Changing Habits. The Learning Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Accessed April 21, 2022.
- Haden J. Change Any Habit Painlessly: 6 Tips. inc.com. Accessed April 21, 2022.
- How to build new habits that stick: the ultimate guide. Developgoodhabits.com Accessed April 21, 2022.
- Babauta L. The four habits that form habits. Zen Habits. Accessed April 21, 2022.
- Seixas A. Finding the Deep River Within: A Woman’s Guide to Recovering Balance and Meaning in Everyday Life. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Boss, 2006), pp. 37-41, 45-46.