Who Needs Willpower When You Can Have Some Good Habits?

Close up of legs walking in narrow walkwayDo you ever feel frustrated because you can’t seem to follow through despite the best of intentions? At the start of a new year, new week, or when the school year dawns, do you make plans to improve your grades, your fitness, or your job performance, only to find that “life” gets in your way?

Relying more on better habits—and less on willpower—can help you get unstuck.

As a therapist, I help people incorporate habits into their lives that help them take meaningful steps toward their goals. When you have solid habits in place to keep you on track, you’re less likely to find yourself in a wishy-washy state of knowing what you need to do but struggling to accomplish it.

Most people who come to my office have already made several attempts to reach their goals. They find themselves stuck because they haven’t found a solution to free them from anxiety, depression, a crummy job, stale relationships, and other situations. In my experience, most attempts at resolving such issues fail because habits are not clearly defined and properly established.

A person might want to improve a relationship with a partner, for example, including making more time to connect and enjoy one another. The person knows what he or she should do—set up more date nights, leave work earlier, plan vacations or down time—but can’t seem to make it happen. He or she is then left feeling frustrated about being unable to prioritize the relationship.

This situation calls for better habits and more automation (which might not sound romantic, but really works). For instance, the person could make it a habit to schedule a coffee date with his or her partner on a work calendar, set a phone reminder, and practice keeping this commitment as one would a doctor’s appointment or work meeting. The person could also decide that, in order to leave the office earlier, he or she needs to examine the end of his or her work day and establish some habits that will better get him/her out the door on time.

There is freedom in making rules for yourself. This is a common principle when trying to reduce overeating, overuse of technology, overwhelm, or over-anything. Some families establish habits of having no phones or iPads at the dinner table; some people make it a habit to exercise immediately after breakfast; and some students resolve to attend class regardless of whether they’ve done the homework. These habits are simple and effective. Having decided in advance that he or she will have a technology-free dinner, work out, or show up to class, a person is not left in a wishy-washy place of having to will himself or herself to do it. The person just does it. It is not an option.

There is freedom in making rules for yourself. This is a common principle when trying to reduce overeating, overuse of technology, overwhelm, or over-anything.

Perhaps you doubt your ability to just “decide” on a new habit and follow through with it. When we think of our behavior in terms of choice, we are less likely to follow through. The more we automate our healthy habits, the more energy we free up for creative thinking, problem solving, and overall effort toward our day. We don’t spend our energy going back and forth over whether we should work out now or later, spinning our wheels and negotiating with the little procrastinator in our heads.

If you’re interested in establishing some new habits so that you don’t drain yourself pursuing the same goals over and over again, try these three steps:

  1. Identify a lifestyle goal that has you feeling stuck.
  2. Choose three simple habits you think would help you move toward this goal. If your goal is to make more time to read, three habits you establish to help you get there might include getting in bed earlier, reading during your commute, and scheduling a lunch or work break to read.
  3. Take these habits and anchor them with something you already do. Professor B.J. Fogg at Stanford University has a wonderful, free program that teaches these principles of “tiny habits” and cheerleads along the way. His format: “After I _____, I will then _____.” Applying this to the habit of reading on your commute, you might say, “After I sit down, I will pull out my book” (not my phone!).

No matter how you go about making habits for yourself, notice how much simpler it is to have a plan that doesn’t require willpower. I hope you are rewarded with progress.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lindsey Antin, MA, MFT, therapist in Berkeley, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 6 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • Cynthia

    Cynthia

    October 6th, 2015 at 7:54 AM

    You are so right. I need to change the way that I think about things in so many aspects of my life. I have gone through several months and years even feeling like I can’t do this because I am weak, but really I need to switch my priorities and make new things my habits so that I can show myself how strong I can be.

  • Heather

    Heather

    October 6th, 2015 at 1:30 PM

    I really appreciate you writing this article. The distinction between the use of will power versus habitual action is profound. This comes up for me with clients from time to time, and just the words will power versus habit will come in handy in those moments. One is force and the other is an invitation, eventually becoming organic. The idea isn’t to be at war with yourself, but to make something your new normal. To boot, when you force something, you miss out on so much rich exploration and understanding of what’s happening underneath.

    Thank you, Lindsey!

  • Travis

    Travis

    October 7th, 2015 at 8:57 AM

    Wonderful post, Lindsey.
    Setting goals for ourselves is easy. Accomplishing them is hard. Breaking the goals down into small habits is the way to stay on track and exceed your goals.

    I like to use Coach.me to help track my goals and build habits. It has helped me create a morning meditation habit and write 750+ words a day.

  • frank

    frank

    October 7th, 2015 at 10:46 AM

    Now how long do you have to do something before it becomes a true habit for you?

  • Jeannie

    Jeannie

    October 12th, 2015 at 9:20 AM

    For me the lines have to be very definitive, nothing blurry, because I will find a way to cross those lines if I can. I know that about myself. I have to be very strict and restrictive if I want to see any real progress. I’m talking like lock the kitchen at 7pm strict.

  • Kelly

    Kelly

    October 16th, 2015 at 6:36 PM

    This is one of the best things I’ve read all year, and I read a LOT of articles like this!

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.