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.


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