EOT Blog

Making New Habits and Building Willpower- It’s Not Just for Dieting

Dr. Caren Baruch-Feldman | July 3, 2012

 As a psychologist, I am often struck by how both children and adults desire to change, but when faced with the obstacle they want to tackle, they fall back onto old habits. I recently read a number of books on willpower and habit formation* and realized that these books hold the key to making the changes people really want to implement. So if you are interested in changing your waistline, or the tone you use when speaking to your child, the following ideas will help you to better achieve your goals:

It is important to recognize that many of the bad behaviors (overeating, yelling, procrastinating, etc.) we engage in are “habits”. When a habit occurs, the brain goes on automatic pilot. Your brain acts lazy so unless you deliberately fight a habit by finding a new routine, the pattern will be followed automatically. The good news is that even though it is hard to change a habit, if you are diligent and consistent in creating new routines, the new routines will become as automatic as your old habits.

All habits exist because there is a cue, a routine, and a reward. For example, when your child starts to whine, that is the cue. The routine is you screaming, “Stop!” The reward is the end of the whining. This cycle creates a habit loop. What we know about changing habits is that the cue stays the same and the reward results naturally, so what we can control and change is the routine. If your child starts to whine, you can establish a new routine of walking away. The cue is still the whining and the new reward is that 1) you are proud of how you acted and 2) your child learns eventually that whining doesn’t lead her/him to get what he/she wants.

Some habits are considered gateway habits or “keystone habits”. Once you start changing them, other habits start to change as well. For example, people who habitually exercise become more productive at work. If you focus on changing keystone habits, you can cause widespread shifts.

According to C. Duhigg who wrote the book, “The Power of Habit”, “Willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success”. Willpower is a real form of mental energy, powered by glucose in the bloodstream, which is used up as you exert self-control. This is why dieting is so challenging — because you need willpower to diet and the only way to get willpower is through sugar (ugh). A study, led by Wilhelm Hofmann of the University of Chicago, showed that the people with the best self-control are the ones who use their willpower less often. Instead of fending off one urge after another, these people set up their lives to minimize temptations. They are proactive instead of defensive, using their willpower in advance so that they avoid crises and conserve their willpower reserves.

Since willpower is a limited resource, it is best to transform those activities that require willpower into habits. Once the activity is a habit, it is automatic and no longer needs to draw upon the limited resource of willpower. For example, brushing my teeth in the morning is a habit for me. It doesn’t take willpower for me to do it. However, my son, who has not made tooth brushing into a habit, has to use willpower. The good news is that with my continued encouragement, tooth brushing will also turn into a habit for my son and will eventually be effortless and automatic for him as well.

Willpower is like a muscle. It gets tired as it works harder. So, the more willpower you use throughout the day, the less you will have later on (now I understand why I am so tempted by late night snacks). So what can you do? Here are some suggestions that will help you to best utilize your willpower in order to effect change in your life:

  • Change one habit at a time. With a finite supply of willpower, it’s tough enough to reach one goal, so take on only one goal at a time. For example, don’t take on exercising, being nicer to your spouse, and being earlier for carpool all at the same time. Take on one.
  • Write it down and be specific. Write down what you want to take on– the more specific, the better. For example writing, “I will walk at 7:00 AM each day for 25 minutes” or “I will have patience with my daughter during math homework” is better than just thinking “I will exercise” and “I will have patience”. Writing down what you want to accomplish and being specific increases success.
  • Get social support. Let others know that you are working on a goal and try to work on the goal together. By letting people know what you are doing, you pre-commit and have a better chance of changing your ways (this is one of the secrets of Weight Watchers).
  • It takes three weeks. Changing a habit takes three weeks. Have patience and give it some time.
  • Practice meditation. Practicing mindfulness meditation for a few minutes each day can actually boost willpower by building up gray matter in areas of the brain that regulate emotions and govern decision making. Paying attention to what’s happening in the moment, what’s going on in your body, your mind, and all around you, can make it easier to pay attention to choices you make throughout the day.
  • Reward often. Rewards are necessary to change and sustain habits. If you want your willpower to last, reward yourself often.
  • Don’t overreact when you mess up. For example, one reason dieters fail is a phenomenon known informally as the “what the hell effect.” Once people lapse, they figure the day’s diet is blown anyway, so they go on to finish the whole carton of ice cream, thereby doing far more damage than the original lapse.

I hope these ideas inspire you. If you do decide to change a habit– remember to pick one habit at a time, write it down, tell your friends, meditate, reward yourself, and don’t overreact if you mess up. Soon the new habit will become as automatic as some of your old bad ones.
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The ideas for this article come from the following books: Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” and Roy F. Baumeister’s “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.” I highly recommend reading these books in their entirety. Dr. Caren Baruch-Feldman works part-time in the Harrison schools and maintains a private practice in Scarsdale. She can be reached at (914) 646-9030. Other articles are available at drbaruchfedman.com.


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