Monthly Archives: July 2016

Willpower the key to creating new habits

Every one of us has an inner desire to grow in knowledge and in character. We want to improve and be a better version of “me”. As we strive to be better in the intangible (knowledge, experience, skills etc), what is demonstrated to others around us is our actions or behaviours. We need to “act out” our intentions in order for something to happen. To perform any task, we need to be able to perform a serious of actions. Upon performing the same set of actions over and over, we are over time and repetition developing a habit.

Habit is a set of actions to complete a certain task that has become an automatic process. We don’t have to think hard in performing a certain task. For example, brushing your teeth. When you first learn this skill, it requires a lot of focus, energy and coordination to be able to maneuvers the toothbrush to brush each tooth without hurting yourself. After performing that same set of actions over time, it naturally becomes easier until a point where you don’t even have to think about it. You can now brush your teeth and probably do something else at the same time.

That is the power of habit. Once a series of actions have been repeated until it becomes automatic, it does not require much brain “power” to work at it, it makes it very efficient. There also lies the downside of habit. It is so powerful that it is hard to break or change a habit. Trying to break or change a habit is like pushing your car uphill with the handbrakes engaged. Our brains do not like the effort that it takes to make those changes because believe it or not, our brains are “lazy”.

How would you go about changing or creating a new habit? As mentioned, a habit is formed when we want to accomplish or achieve a certain goal. In order to achieve a certain goal, certain actions need to be taken. Upon reaching the goal, you will experience a reward. Therefore to create a habit, there are 3 areas:

  1. Goal: There needs to be a trigger to get the ball rolling.
  2. Series of actions or process: In order to achieve the specified goal, there must be a series of actions that needs to take place in order to make it a reality.
  3. Reward: What is the reward that you envision for achieving that goal.

As an example, to create a new sleep habit. The goal is to sleep for 7 hours every night. To achieve this goal, there needs to be a series of actions eg no technology an hour before bed, no sugary or caffeine drinks, do some yoga stretches to relax etc. The reward is a good night of 7 hours sleep. At the start, it will be hard and our “old” habit will basically be saying “no” to every attempt. That is where willpower comes in.

Willpower is the key to creating new habits. Willpower is basically your conscious mind saying “I am going to do this no matter what.” A decision or a choice that you are committed on doing regardless of what you feel. Willpower is also like a muscle, it grows stronger with use and time. Willpower has been described as self-control or self-disciple, all of which requires a conscious decision to be made and then the commitment to follow through. The beautiful aspect of it is that over time and continuous repetition any set of actions will become a habit. To get to the habit stage, the initial stage will be like pushing the car with the hand brakes engaged uphill until it starts to go down the hill with the hand brakes disengaged. Various studies have shown that the key attribute every successful person have is self-discipline. The willpower to decide and stay the course. Without willpower, we are not able to break through any habits.

To create or change a habit:

  1. Identify the goal or desired outcome.
    1. What is the desired outcome?
    2. Why do I want this outcome?
    3. Be specific.
    4. If it is a long term goal, then break it down to achievable mini-goals.
  2. Outline your strategy or series of actions that needs to take place.
    1. Write down the actions that need to take place.
    2. Break down “bigger” actions into “smaller” ones which does not look daunting. For example, if you want to exercise for 30 minutes as the big goal, break it down to 5 minutes every day for the 1st week and work your way up. By breaking it down to 5 minutes, it will not seem as daunting as 30 minutes.
    3. Be committed to executing the plan knowing that over time, it will be easier.
    4. Stick to it and repeat
  3. Reward. Set up a reward system for yourself. Mini-rewards for each mini-milestone. That will keep you going when you acknowledge your progress.  Our willpower needs to be rewarded as it is being strengthened.

In the next article, I will cover the barriers for willpower and how to overcome them.

Willpower vs. Motivation in creating change

In order to create changes in our habits, there needs to be starting point. The starting point is why do I need to change or create a new habit. What is the reason behind the change? Let’s assume that we have the reason for the desired change. How do we go about achieving this change?

There are basically 2 enablers of behaviour creation or modification and they are:

  1. Motivation: the reason or desire to do something
  2. Willpower: a combination of determination and self-discipline that enables someone to do something

What is the difference? The difference lies in “feeling” and “duration”.

Motivation is a feeling that comes up when we want to start something out of excitement but its duration to carry that “feeling” over a period of time is unreliable. For example, new year resolution, everyone who has ever created a new year resolution starts out extremely motivated. Each resolution is carried out with great excitement and anticipation and off they go. However, as time passes and when it gets hard or things get busy and distractions come along, the “feeling” of motivation subsides and passes away. There is no longevity with motivation.

Willpower on the other hand is about determination and self-discipline to not just start something but to complete it. In order to complete any difficult task or activity, there needs to be a determined decision to do it and the discipline to see it through. Without which nothing worthwhile will come out of it. Think of any successful person and the basic characteristic that they will have is sheer willpower to get something done.

For you and I, I think that we need both. We need motivation get us started and we need willpower to keep on going until the finish line. In order to change or create new habits, we need motivation (why we want to change) and then willpower (determination and self-discipline) to carry out the process of change over a period of time until it becomes automatic. In some cases it might take 30 days and with some changes even longer than that. The duration of change is all dependent on the degree of change that you are aiming for.

Motivation gets the ball rolling. When motivation is high, we require less willpower but when the motivation is low, we need more willpower to continue the process of change. It is therefore important to note the role that both motivation and willpower play and how to harness either one for the achievement of any change.

Think about:

  • What is your motivation for change?
  • What values is it aligned with?
  • What goals does it help you to accomplish?
  • What do you find hardest with previous endeavors to change?
  • What worked in the past in help you make behavioural changes?

Next, we will explore willpower as key to creating lasting change.

3 Basic Attributes of Habits


As a coach, the aim is to help my client to successfully implement change in order for him/her to achieve goals that are set out. The challenge of successfully navigating through change will boil down to how successful each are in implementing changes until it becomes a habit. Habits either need to be created, changed or broken.

What is a habit? According to the dictionary, a habit is a settled or regular tendency or practice that is hard to give up. More often than not, when we speak of habits, it is in the negative perspective. Let’s start by understanding the basic attributes of a habit. There are 3 basic attributes of a habit:

  1. Automatic: As set of actions that are automatic for us to perform. For example, brushing your teeth is a habit.       Most of us don’t think or concentrate on the series of actions that brushing of teeth consist it. We just pick up the toothbrush, squeeze some toothpaste and off we go. Some of us can even multitask during that process and read our emails.
  2. Process specific: There is a set of processes that each action will take. For example, driving your car. You will open the door, get in, wear your seat belt, start the engine, look at the rear view mirror and side mirror and so on.       There is a process that takes place in a very specific manner. If any of the steps is missed out or out of order, it will create an unsettle feeling.
  3. Hard to change or break: You will know when a behaviour is a habit, when it is hard to give it up or break it. For example, to change from a sedentary to an active lifestyle is hard. To create a new set of actions or behaviour to fit in 5 minutes of exercise is hard. It is hard to break the cycle of inactivity.

Our brains are designed to be efficient or lazy depending on which perspective you prefer. It wants to be able to perform at the most efficient level which means using as little energy as possible. In order for the brain to do so, it recognises and repeats patterns until it becomes efficient. At its most optimal, it is in an automatic mode.

Think about the time you had to learn a new skill or just watch a child learn how to eat using fork and spoon. There are 5 key characteristics that goes into learning something new:

  • Focus: you need to focus on every action that you take. Take the child learning how to eat with a fork. Picking up the fork, coordinating between your hand, the fork and stabbing at a piece of meat and after all that effort to coordinate the fork into your mouth without hitting your face.
  • Mistakes: the number of mistakes that you will make at the start of the process will be very high. For a child learning to use the fork, the mess on both the child and the surrounding environment is massive.
  • Repeat: the process has to be repeated time and time again until the skill is learned.  With each repetition, skills are improved which leads to less effort over time until you reach the point of auto-pilot or habit.
  • Perseverance: there must be perseverance to keep on trying. Just imagine if a child gives up learning how to eat using a fork, what would that be like as an adult.
  • Reward: there is always a reward at the end of the struggle. For the child, it is eating by himself without a mess and a pleasant dining experience for the parents.

Ask yourself:

  • What goals do I have that I want to accomplish?
  • What behaviour do I want to change in order to achieve new goals?
  • What structure do I need to put in place to help me change?
  • What triggers do I need to address?
  • What “bad” habits do I want to break?

The 3 basic attributes of habits will help you to identify the habits that needs to change or be modified. The 5 characteristics of learning new skills or behaviour will help you plan out how to go about changing. This challenge will require our brains to work and work hard at the start. Over time and repetition, each of us can learn new skills and develop new habits.

The next series of articles will aim to help you work through elements that you can put in place to help you journey through changing habits.