For long term change, willpower is not your friend, habit is.
You woke up late on a new year’s day, still feeling last night. Dragged yourself out of bed and eventually out of listlessness with help of cold shower and cup of coffee.
Now, it’s time to think ahead, learn from last year and plan new year well, you say to yourself. You are really looking forward to put things right this year.
What resolutions to take? What goals to achieve? You are getting excited.
You have sudden realization, you had very similar new year day last year and year before and year before.
Why would things be different this year? You hear asking yourself.
You don’t have a good answer.
You are not the only one to have this feeling. And if you constantly beat yourself up for failing to stick to your resolutions, you again are not alone.
It’s not us, it’s our procedure that fails us.
Majority of us go all in for new goal and why not? afterall that’s being positive. That how it’s been taught to us. Like the Adidas ad “All in or Nothing”. Since we are so pumped up, we depend too much on willpower. With very little understanding of how willpower works, we end up using it ineffectively, spend it before making any significant stab on our goal. Soon we forget our resolutions.
“I can’t do it, it’s not for me” we resign.
Most of us overestimate our will power reserve. We just assume (while we imagine our success), that we will always be motivated and continue to stick to our plan.
Unfortunately, that’s not how it works and we all are familiar with it.
According to research, willpower works like muscle. It gets tired as we use it. Nobody has infinite resource of it to keep going. Everybody is at different willpower level, like everybody’s muscular strength.
Good news is, we can improve our willpower, just like we can increase our muscle strength by physical exercise. One effective exercise for increasing willpower is meditation.
Kelly McGonigal puts it very nicely in her book “The willpower instinct”. As we commit to sit for meditation for certain duration and do it, we go through many minor distractions (We may get bored and want to do something more stimulating. Back starts to hurt. Remember something important and worry forgetting it again if not noted immediately. What is that sound? Itchy nose. The list can be infinite). But we come back to being, come back to breath after each distraction. This practice improves our willpower. It’s mental gym.
The main point, I am trying to make is, willpower is limited. Use it wisely and work on increasing it in parallel because most of the goals that’s worth taking will take months even year to achieve. [Some goals will take longer, in such case it’s best to break it into smaller goals]
What if we could do it without worrying about running out of willpower. Better yet, what if we could reach a stage where we don’t need to spend willpower and still stick to our plan.
Good news again. It’s possible.
Enter Automation [AKA HABIT].
If something gets ingrained in us and becomes second nature or habitual we don’t spend willpower on it. It’s automatic.
So, we should be spending our willpower and initial excitement for new goal to form a habit that’s relevant to our goal.
You might want to learn new language or programming language or write a novel or learn music. We should pick a daily activity towards that goal. That daily activity should be pretty easy to achieve and hence shouldn’t need to spend a lot of willpower.
Again, one shouldn’t make a plan thinking best days when you feel like working hard. We should plan for days when we don’t want to do it at all. Those days are far too common.
It is far better to spend half hour for your goal everyday for next 20 days rather than spending 10 hour on a weekend and doing nothing for next 2 weeks. In fact you are likely to stick to your goal if you do it everyday even for short time because it helps to form a habit. Make sure to track your everyday activity. Print a calendar, write goal and daily activity on top and put a big cross on the day you met your daily goal.
It’s one of the best way to stick to your goal. You are motivated to put a check mark to calendar everyday and after few days you form a chain and you don’t want to break the chain. [It’s Jerry Sienfeld’s idea and it’s brilliant.]
Also, figure out what’s the best time to do your activity. It good to have a same time everyday. For most people doing it in morning works best because that’s when you are fresh, willpower is replenished after night’s rest rather than late in the day [When you have gone through many stresses of day and don’t have any willpower left to work on your goal.]
As you stick to daily activity and start making progress on your goal, you are more likely to do it even more. You have some mastery by now and it will motivate to keep going. Mastery is great motivator.
One thing to avoid will be not to pick too many goals at once. This will force you to spread limited willpower thinly across many goals and will not make good stab on any of the goal for long time. Hence, more likely to fall off the wagon.
Pick one or two most important goals and stick to it. Once you achieve them and they become part of daily routine then you can pick another.
The willpower instinct by Kelly McGonigal: It covers science of willpower and is a great read. Her TED talks are highly recommended too.
The power of habits by Charles Duhigg: Once you understand science of habits, it’s easier to form one. Author covers the idea with lots of real life examples.
Mini habits by Stephen Guise: Covers ideas from both books above and presents great idea to stick to daily activity to form a long lasting habit. Short and very effective book.
All the above books are great read.