Build Lasting Healthy Habits – No Willpower Needed
March 06, 2022
The study of habits shows that 90 percent of what we do each day is driven by our habits. Habits are actions that we do unconsciously without willful intent. Imagine if we had to think about every little thing we do – we wouldn’t be able to function in our lives or our jobs.
The great news about this is that if you want to swap a bad habit for a good one, you can make it easy enough that it eventually becomes automatic. That means you won’t have to use willpower and can save your harder thinking for other matters.
Take Advantage of a ‘Clean Slate’
The clean slate theory holds that we are most likely to change our habits when something else is changing – for example, we are going back to school, moving to a new house, expecting a baby, changing jobs, or the start of a new season.
A great way to start is to explore just one habit you’d like to start. Maybe it’s walking a certain number of steps each day. Perhaps it’s adding a serving of vegetables and fruit each day. Or getting up 15 minutes earlier. No one knows better than you what to choose.
Strategies for Forming Habits that Stick
It is a myth that habits are driven by willpower. If we believe that they are, then we also see “failing” at a new habit as a moral failure. So even if you generally believe you don’t have a lot of willpower, it doesn’t matter. Don’t put this kind of pressure on yourself. Instead, use certain practical strategies to add a habit. (Many suggestions like these and others can be found in the book, “Better than Before,” by Gretchen Rubin.)
Make it convenient. For example, you don’t need a gym membership to get cardio, just walk or take a run outside. Or make a point of buying a few pieces of fruit or vegetables to add to meals for the week – some apples and baby carrots are a great place to start, and they’re portable. Or buy bags of frozen vegetables you can easily heat up. Lay out your exercise clothes and shoes the night before, so you don’t have to look for them in the morning.
Make bad habits inconvenient. You can use the strategy of inconvenience for habits you want to drop. If you love ice cream, don’t keep it in your freezer where it takes no thought at all to dish it up. When you have a craving, make a special trip to an ice cream shop and enjoy an individual serving.
Pairing. Perhaps you’d like to have your kitchen cleaner, but you don’t enjoy cleaning. So, pair cleaning with listening to your favorite podcasts or music and it will make the process more enjoyable, even something you might look forward to. If you have some “guilty pleasure” shows you like, watch them when you’re on a treadmill, or do some push-ups and squats while they’re on. You won’t miss any of the action.
Tackling Larger Projects
Willpower can still be an important part of getting things done, such as projects that take some time. For example, getting a paper finished for work or school, or cleaning out your garage to make room for new tools. And for such projects, the best way to do them is to divide them into small steps, and then just do the first step. Then the next. You’ll start feeling motivated very quickly because even one victory feels good.
Here’s another tip: Whatever you have a hard time starting, set a timer for 25 minutes. Tell yourself you’ll only do your task for 25 minutes, and when the timer goes off, you’ll stop. You may find you are well on your way at that point and won’t want to stop – but you can. It makes it much easier to start a “must-do”.
Be Flexible for Positive Results
If you add positive habits and they become automatic, they build on each other. The habit will trigger the behavior you want without effort, and then you can reward yourself in some way. What you will soon find, however, is that the new habit itself also becomes the reward because it makes you feel good, and because you’ve accomplished it. (It does help to write down what you want your new habit to be and how you’ll break it down to make it manageable.)
Finally, research has shown that it is better to be flexible than rigid. If you are rigid and say to yourself “I must walk every single day,” and then something interferes, such as illness or work, you might feel upset. And that does not bode well for your continuing the habit. Build in some flexibility – perhaps taking one or two days off from your regimen each week – and you’ll be far more likely to keep it going.
Peter J. Pronovost, MD, PhD, is Chief Clinical Transformation and Quality Officer at University Hospitals.