Why willpower isn’t the best way to break bad habits

You have made your declaration…this is the year you will quit smoking, overcome mindless eating, give up sugar, etc! Good for you! You no doubt feel inspired, enthusiastic and unstoppable. Until about halfway through the day…

That’s because changing our behavior, whether breaking a habit or incorporating something new, is very difficult. And, hoping you will have the willpower to stick with it, almost ensures failure.

Yes, willpower is an instinct that we do have. And you should indeed include it in your arsenal to create change. But it is not the most effective tool in your mental tool kit. In fact, it’s the least effective way to create lasting change.

The reason willpower often lets us down is because change is exhausting.

Think back to when you were learning a new skill. For example, driving. When you first got behind the wheel, think of how much you had to pay attention to. The gas pedal, the break pedal (the clutch for some of us!), the gears, the mirrors, the lanes, pedestrians…there was a lot to think about!

Flash forward to today. Did you think about any of those things when you headed to work? Not consciously, you didn’t. You were on total “auto pilot”.

Here’s the obvious truth: Our brains are wired to create habits.

How long would it take you to type an email if you had to find every key? How tired would you be if you had to focus on holding your fork every time you ate? What if brushing your teeth required your 100% attention? You would be wiped out before noon.

Our brains are wired to create habits to save our energy. (Which is quite amazing and brilliant when you think about it.) But, it is also for that same reason that it is so hard to create lasting change. The problem with learning new habits is that the process takes a ton of energy! And by the time we are tapping into our willpower, we’re too tired to utilize it.

This is where mindfulness (being present and curious) can be your most powerful tool to create change.

Let’s say you’re cutting out sugar but at the moment you are having a major sugar craving. Rather than fighting your urge, lean into it. How does this craving feel? Where does it feel in your body? What are you thinking? What are you telling yourself right now? Get super curious and focus on what is actually going on in this moment.

Then, “ride the wave”. This is a mindfulness technique which has you ask yourself the above questions, and feel what you’re feeling as if riding a wave. You can even say, on a scale of 1-10…the size of this ‘craving wave’ is…And again, how does that feel?

Once you are present and mindful of what’s going on, remind yourself of why you really want to create this change in the first place. If you declared this to be the year you gave up sugar…why? You had great reasons for wanting to make this change. What are they? Remind yourself why.

Lastly, take action. If you’re craving sugar, maybe have a glass of water or a Kombucha. (you are still giving your mouth something to do!) Maybe the temptation is in your eyesight…the waiting room candy jar! Can you move to a different seat where you can’t so easily see the candy? Can you give your hands something to do like playing sudoku on your phone? If you are driving home and you know your favorite bakery is on the next block, take a different street home!

I’ve had clients addicted to Netflix and their first step in breaking that addiction was to move their computer to another part of the house. “Out of sight out of mind” so to speak. Believe me, it works!

Remember, your brain wants to conserve energy and it wants to feel good.
If you stay present and acknowledge how good you feel to have dodged the candy jar bullet, your brain will instinctively “memorize” that new behavior and how good it feels. Then, your brain will begin making a new habit.

If you are changing any behavior (breaking a bad habit or creating a new one) your willpower will be challenged at some point. So, getting curious and present…feeling your true desires…and then acting on them…will give you the energy to make your new habits stick.

This is a huge topic and one of the most common challenges we all face. If you are struggling with this, please get in touch (brigittadau@yahoo.com) and we’ll tackle this together.