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Willpower and Establishing Habits

“Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.” This is a quote from Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit. How often do you think about brushing your teeth in the morning? Or putting on socks and shoes before you leave the house? Chances are these routines have become so ingrained that you don’t. Habits require no willpower or conscious efforts to keep up, as if you’re running on “autopilot”, and create a steady foundation on which you build your lifestyle.

Positive and negative habits can have significant effects on your lifestyle. Activities like snacking after work everyday or binge-watching movies late into the night may seem inconsequential at first. If they become a habit, however, it can lead to a lack of sleep and nutrition. On the other hand, healthier routines can provide support for your physical and mental health. For example, jogging every morning would take a lot of work. But if you keep it up, you’ll see improvements in energy, cardiovascular health and muscle strength. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg discusses how habits work, why they’re important and how you can adapt them to your individual needs. In the next two weeks, we’ll discuss not only how to build positive habits, but how to break negative ones through the frame of Duhigg’s philosophies.

First, let’s look into what goes into building a positive habit. Duhigg’s book discusses three central areas that go into building a positive habit: the trigger, the action, and the reward.

The Cue/Trigger: The trigger or cue is a signal in your environment that reminds you to perform the habit. Let’s examine the example of filling up your water bottle every day before you leave the house. In this case, the trigger could be as simple as feeling the empty weight of your water bottle or seeing that it’s time to go to work. Eventually triggers can become ingrained, but as you begin to establish a new habit, you will most likely need to set up an external cue. Perhaps you would like to get a higher daily water intake. In order to remind yourself to drink more water, you decide to set up a cue. This could be like setting up a pitcher of water nearby, or setting a timer on your phone. As you continue this activity, the cue will become internalized and easier to remember.

The Action/Routine: As the name suggests, this part is the actual habit you would like to do. Habits, like goals, should challenge you enough to have significant change in your life, but not be too difficult as to be overwhelming or frustrating to keep up with. Remember that even small habits, like stretching for ten minutes in the morning, can snowball into powerful changes.

The Reward: Rewards can be tricky. Simply put, the reward is what you gain by successfully performing the habit. There are various types of rewards. You can motivate yourself extrinsically, meaning non-essential, by adding a reward yourself. Extrinsic rewards could look like eating a small treat after you exercise or watching your favorite show every time you wake up early. Sometimes, these rewards can be beneficial and motivate you to continue. However, there is a danger with extrinsic motivation. Some studies (such as Csikszentmihalyi, 1978) have suggested that extrinsic rewards may lead to lower motivation than the other way around. If you treat yourself to dessert after you exercise, you might think that you’re exercising for the treat itself and not because of the benefits you gain from the activity. This would lead to a lower of satisfaction and accomplishment, making you less likely to continue to the future.

Instead, it might be more productive to focus on the intrinsic rewards, which are based in more psychological and internal areas. Think of the satisfaction and pride you get after accomplishing a meaningful goal. That would be intrinsic motivation. It could also come in other forms, such as feeling more energetic after working out in the morning or gaining more time after choosing to wake up an hour early. Focusing on these rewards, which come from the habit itself, might better motivate you to continue the habit.

In the end, you know yourself best. Try experimenting with cues and rewards to see what works best for you. Habits, like goals, take time to fully establish.

Today we talked about adding positive habits to your lifestyle through Duhigg’s framework in The Power of Habit. As you consider what habits you’d like to add, think about its opposite. What habits would you like to get rid of? This can include sleeping in too late, watching too much TV, or anything that hurts your mental or physical well-being. Next Wednesday, we’ll discuss how to break these habits and more.

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