Productivity Uncategorized

How To Automate Your Habits And Maximise Your Willpower

Written by Amy

Did you know that it has been shown that 95% of people who made a New Year's Resolution have broken it by January 15th? I'm publishing this post on January 23rd, so how are you getting on with your goals for the year? Have you given up already or are you one of the 5% who are still going strong and making them into life-long habits?

The Limited Power of Willpower

Start Again From Now Forming Habits Quote

One of the main reasons that people fail to make good intentions into habits is that they make the resolutions, then rely purely on their willpower to make them happen. It just doesn't work like that. Willpower is a finite resource, it's like a muscle; if you over-use it, it gets tired and then doesn't work so well. And we don't have different reserves of willpower for different things. We can't use willpower to get up early then still have a separate bucket for not eating biscuits on our tea break, we have to chose; one or the other.

We also don't just use willpower for the things we are actively aware of. You'll use up willpower with EVERY decision we make and we use the same amount of willpower whether we are deciding which socks to wear today or whether to buy a new car.

Decision Fatigue

I read a study recently about decisions made by a parole panel. Criminals were asking for either an early release on parole or changes to their parole terms. At the start of the day, 65% of cases received a favourable result, but as the morning wore on this this chance dropped over time until it hit zero! This happened regardless of the crime or terms being proposed. However, once the judge had taken lunch, the chance of a favourable outcome jumped back up to 65%. The same trend repeated until the end of the day, when it had dropped to zero again. This was true for over 1,100 cases.

This is an example of decision fatigue. When your willpower runs out, it's easier to just say no than to debate all sided of the decision and form a conclusion. This happens to us every day. How often have you slept a little later in the morning and thought, "I'll work out in the evening today, I have free time then" but when you get home, you just can't face it?

So Should I Just Give Up Now?

Now, before you go deciding that your willpower bucket is just too small to make the changes you want and you give up, there is good news. Firstly, willpower is like a muscle. This means it can be exercised like a muscle and become stronger. But the best way to get around decision fatigue, is to not use willpower at all. You do this by creating habits. By making the things you want to achieve happen automatically without having to use your willpower to stick to them. This does take some effort at the start to put the systems in place, but once you do, it conserves energy in the long run.

Each time we make the same decision or perform a behaviour, it takes less energy to make that decision again. Once a system is in place and an action is happening by habit, it leaves the willpower needed for that action free to be put to good use elsewhere.

How to From a Habit.

According to Charles Duhigg, who wrote "The Power Of Habit", habits are made up of 3 components;

  1. A cue or trigger that starts a behaviour, e.g. an alarm going off means that you get out of bed.
  2. A routine, which is the behaviour itself
  3. A reward, which is the benefit received by taking that action, e.g. getting up early results in getting more done in a day.

The reward part is what trains your brain to want a particular behaviour to happen again. People form both good and bad habits by linking the cue and the routine to a reward. Once we understand this, it becomes much easier to take a behaviour we want and make it a habit. What most people do is try to change the routine. They decide on a behaviour they want to add or remove and try and do it through sheer willpower. This fails because they're now fighting against existing cues and rewards. Whereas, if we change the cues and rewards, the behaviour will change automatically.

In an interview with Ramit Sethi, Charles Duhigg talked about a study where people ate chocolate after a workout. After finishing a workout, they would have some chocolate, which stimulated the pleasure centre in the brain. The brain then associates exercise with pleasure and wants more of it in the future. The interesting thing is that chocolate and exercise stimulate the same parts of the brain. Over time the brain learned this and stopped needing the chocolate. Just one month, 60% of the participants had voluntarily stopped eating chocolate after their workouts, but continued to exercise habitually. The chocolate just kick-started the process.

Using Triggers and Rewards to Form Lasting Habits

If you want to permanently change your habits, you need to find a trigger and give yourself a reward. The reward doesn't even have to be linked to the habit, like chocolate and exercise. It can be anything that makes you want to repeat the experience. Rewards are very important if the reason you want to form this habit doesn't have a strong emotional link to keep you motivated. Personally, I find that triggers also work just as well. Two habits I formed in the last year with drinking more water consistently and flossing.

To get more water, I've started filling my water flask up first thing in the morning and making sure I carry it with me everywhere in my hand. Not in my bag, because taking it out of the bag if I'm out or walking or busy creates an extra step and barrier to actually drinking it. So I carry it in my hand and every time I cross I road, I take a drink from it. Doing this, I generally get through one flask on the way to work and one on the way home, if I walk both ways. I've drank 2/3 of my target easily and 1/3 before I even start my day! The only drawback is that I usually need to pee by the time I'm half way there...

With flossing, I again use a trigger, but to find it I used an exercise I learned from James Clear. First write down all the things that happen every day regularly and in order. This actually didn't produce very many things. In the morning I get up, go to the bathroom, clean my teeth. Then before I go to bed, I go to the bathroom and clean my teeth. These were the only things that happen exactly like this ever day without fail. So one of these has to be my trigger. I picked the morning teeth. So every morning when I clean my teeth, I now also floss! Then rinse with mouthwash. I've made it really easy by buying a packet of floss on sticks and sitting it, open, next to my toothbrush.

I did run into a snag recently when we ran out of mouthwash. This broke my system and I haven't flossed for as long as we haven't had mouthwash, but when I realised that this was part of the trigger I went onto Amazon and have subscribed to get mouthwash delivered to me once a month so that this doesn't happen again. The trick is to find systems that make it automatic. I've taken out the human error of forgetting to buy mouthwash at the shop and now the behaviour is an automated habit. From this day forth, I shall floss every morning!

Replace a Bad Habit Rather than Erasing it; Just Quitting Doesn't Work.

Now we can form new, good habits, but what about those of us who want to break a bad one? Well, it's much easier to replace a habit than to go cold turkey on it. If you think about the cue, behaviour, reward system, then to remove a bad habit we also have to remove the thing that triggers it and the reward that we get from doing it. This is hard. Instead, find a different, more positive behaviour to do when that trigger occurs. Something that will give you a similar reward. For example, if you decide to give up coffee, instead of spending your coffee breaks staring miserably at everyone else drinking their lattes, switch to decaf or try a herbal tea instead. This way you're cutting out the caffeine, but you still get to enjoy a warm drink and you don't feel deprived.

Keystone Habits

Another way to change a habit is by changing a Keystone Habit. These are the most powerful habits and they lead to the formation of others around them. Exercise is a keystone habit. It changes a person's image of themselves. Someone who exercises starts to see themselves as a fit person, a healthy person, someone to takes pride in their physical health, abilities and appearance. If you are this kind of person, you can't then eat fish suppers 3 times a week. This behaviour clashes with your self-image. A person who starts exercising will instinctively start drinking more water and eating better foods in order to get the most out of their body and its performance.

How to Get Started.

Pick ONE Thing

Now that you know the magic trick to making or breaking habits, it can be tempting to decide to revamp your entire life, starting now. But hold on a second. Remember that you only have a finite amount of willpower. If you spread it over trying to now quit smoking, give up fizzy drink, work out 5 days a week and drinking 2 litres of water a day then your willpower is going to be pretty stretched. It'll fizzle out quickly as each decision gets harder to resist or keep up with. You have to start with one and start small. Keep it simple.

Track Your Progress

In order to continue with creating a habit, you need to see progress. You need to know that your efforts are making a difference. Keep track of your habit forming. You may be getting better incrementally and just don't notice it, so you have to focus on seeing your improvement.

Keep Going With The Momentum

The other thing you need is momentum. The first few weeks will be hard. You need to see that it's getting better over time. So let's take working out 5 times a week as an example. If you've spent the last 5, 10, 30 years not moving very much, you can't expect to suddenly spend an hour in the gym every day cranking out pull-ups, running 10km and squatting your body weight. Just go 5 days for 5 minutes. Walk on the treadmill or use the stationary bikes. Do just one set of bench press. Keep track of how far you get or how much you lift and see it improve, even just by 10 meters or 1.25kg. After a week, do 10 minutes every day. Then 15, then half an hour, and so on.

When you see this improvement and get your reward, you'll realised that it's not so hard because you haven't made any drastic changes to your life. It gives you the momentum to keep going. Soon, working out will be habitual and enjoyable and it won't take any willpower to do (ok, sometimes it does still take some willpower to get there at 6:30am in the dark and cold, but it definitely takes less!). Then you can move on to your next habit goal and do the same again.

Keeping a Habit Once It's Formed.

Sometimes, we can drop even the best of habits, especially if there's a change in our routine. It's easy to floss when I have everything set up, but what about when I go on holiday or stay away from home? I can exercise every day when I'm at home, I have a routine and my gym is across the road. However, if I'm out of town for a while or I go on holiday and there's no gym, it's very easy to come home and just sleep in the mornings again. But never fear! If your habit slips away, it's not lost forever.


Often, if we get back into our regular routine, that's enough for our actions to become habits again. If you're finding this isn't the case, then you need to revisit your habit cycle. Look at your trigger and reward, look at your system, find where the whole thing is breaking down. It might be that the trigger isn't there any more or maybe that the reward doesn't motivate you in the same way. In this case, you need to find another one that works and switch it in. If it's part of the system that needs fixed, like auto-renewing your mouthwash, find how to make this work. The key is to remove barriers to taking the action in the future.

Start Small

Again, start small as if you're starting something new. When I've not exercised in a while and I'm out of the habit of it, like following Christmas or a holiday away, I start with "Just go to the gym today". What I do that day is irrelevant. I might run for just 5 minutes, maybe it's just stretching. I might get there with 15 minutes before I leave, but the point is that I went to the gym today. Tomorrow I'll do it again and it'll be easier. Then the next day and the next until getting there on time and doing a full workout is not debatable any more, it just happens.

So now that you have the system to form good habits or break old ones, do you feel more confident with your New Year's resolutions? If you gave up on them already, are you going to give them one more try with this new information? Let me know in the comments which habits you plan on adding or changing in your daily life this year and share any tips you have to help us stick to more than just a few weeks of good intentions for 2071.


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