The Power of Habit

The Power of HabitIn his new book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes about the role of willpower to help us form habits that will support the kind of life we want to live.

We know the things that get in our way. We’re too tired, that food is tempting us and we’ve had a long day. We deserve some reward for being in pain and getting so much junk done – insurance papers filed, prescriptions renewed, all the daily stuff that fills our days. It becomes easy to skip or omit the healthful habits of body and mind that will help us feel better and get ourselves on the right track.

The formation of health –supporting habits seems daunting. We don’t have the willpower that it takes to eat healthy, or get better sleep, or move our tired achy bodies.

Duhigg looks at a great deal of contemporary research and gives some advice that may seem like common sense, but has some evidence to back it up.

Willpower, he writes, is a resource just like muscle power. You can build it up, and you can deplete it. If you want to create some good habits, you need the willpower to follow through.

If eating a healthier diet is your goal, but you keep reaching for processed or fast foods because they are quick and handy, make your healthy food choices handier. Don’t require yourself to chop fresh vegetables. Get them already prepared. Some of my clients load their vegetable bins with fresh fruit or greens, but then don’t have the willpower to make them into a tasty dish at the end of the day. Make it easier on yourself. Get them already cut up, or in ready-made salads.

He makes three very important observations.

  1. Willpower is a finite resource. This means if you use it up early in the day by doing difficult tasks, or requiring yourself to do things you don’t want to do, you will have less of it in the afternoon when you decide you really should take a walk, or resist a cookie break with your co-workers.
  2. Create a schedule that maximizes this reality. Do the difficult things you have to force yourself to do early in the day when you have more of it. Save easy tasks that you enjoy for later in the day. If exercise is an issue, get it out of the way. Call the insurance company, or finish that project when you are fresh.
  3. Work with your environment to create ease for following through. If eating a healthier diet is your goal, but you keep reaching for processed or fast foods because they are quick and handy, make your healthy food choices handier. Don’t require yourself to chop fresh vegetables. Get them already prepared. Some of my clients load their vegetable bins with fresh fruit or greens, but then don’t have the willpower to make them into a tasty dish at the end of the day. Make it easier on yourself. Get them already cut up, or in ready-made salads. Cook on the days when you have more time (and haven’t worn out your willpower!) – so your food is ready for you. Don’t keep things around that you have to resist.  Then you won’t use up your willpower saying no to yourself.

There are more observations and insights from the book that I will share in future columns. Today the thought I want to leave with you is, don’t beat yourself up when you have a hard time resisting temptation, or making yourself do something.  Remember that you may have used up your willpower for the day. Find ways to give yourself some more space and time to re-build your reserves and help yourself build habits that will support you feeling healthy and well.

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