Will power or habits, which is stronger?
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Will power or habits, which is stronger?

With slogans like “Just Do It” (Nike) and “Declare Your Path” (New Balance), marketers encourage us to apply our sense of urgency, but, while there may be a lot of value in this kind of attitude to life, one can’t help but wonder if there is an alternative to using plain will power in order to gain self-control.

Psychology today promotes a belief in self-control, but emotional self-regulation is a complex function, and as we’ve long known in psychotherapy, trying to willfully manage your emotional states through brute force of will alone often fails. Just try committing yourself to not spending so much time on your cell phone, for instance. This is a good example of how difficult it is to maintain a commitment to a decision. The good news is that there is an easier way.

Habits have absorbed philosophers, politicians and people from all walks of life, for centuries. Cicero called habit “second nature”. Aristotle offered this precis: “Some thinkers hold that it is by nature that people become good, others that it is by habit, and others that it is by instruction”. He concurred with the second idea – that it is through habits that people become ‘good’. The truth is that it is much easier to learn to cultivate new habits than to attempt to change one’s behavior through pure will power.

Change gear: from manual to automatic

In Walter Mischel’s famous Stanford marshmallow experiment in the nineteen-sixties, children were seated alone in front of a marshmallow and were assessed on the basis of the degree to which they could resist the temptation to eat it . Those who were able to resist the temptation were predicted to be winners in life, while those who succumbed to the allure of the sweet treats, were seen as likely to be losers. Michel tracked the children’s success over years and found a stunning correlation: The longer kids were able to hold off on eating a marshmallow, the more likely they were to have higher SAT scores and fewer behavioral problems. So how does this correlate with people being creatures of habit?

In Walter Mischel’s famous Stanford marshmallow experiment in the nineteen-sixties, children were seated alone in front of a marshmallow and were assessed on the basis of the degree to which they could resist the temptation to eat it . Those who were able to resist the temptation were predicted to be winners in life, while those who succumbed to the allure of the sweet treats, were seen as likely to be losers. Michel tracked the children’s success over years and found a stunning correlation:

The longer kids were able to hold off on eating a marshmallow, the more likely they were to have higher SAT scores and fewer behavioral problems. So how does this correlate with people being creatures of habit?

Social psychologist Wendy Wood drew on three decades of original research and published her findings in 2019 in the book “Good Habits, Bad Habits”.  She refutes deterministic ideas about being proactive and gives the reader more realistic suggestions for how to break habits. Drawing on her own work in the field, she sees the task of sustaining positive behaviors and quelling negative ones as involving an interplay of decisions and unconscious factors.

Our minds, Wood explains, have “multiple separate but interconnected mechanisms that guide behavior.” But we are aware only of our decision-making ability – a phenomenon known as the “introspection illusion” – and that may be why we overestimate its power. The executive functions that make will power possible give us, she writes, “the sense of agency that we recognize as ‘me’.” But that comes at a cost in terms of effort. To go about our lives, we need to make some behaviors automatic.

Cultivate the habit through self-discipline

Jim Rohn had a wonderful saying: “Success is a few good habits repeated every day. Failure is a few bad decisions repeated every day.” Jim Rohn was an American businessman, a self-made millionaire before he turned 31, author, motivational speaker and mentor. Rohn spent much of his life advocating for the power of self-discipline and habit, and he delivered his seminars for more than 40 years. He died in 2009 with a net worth of more than $500 million dollars. He once said, “We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.”

Situation control makes good habits easy

According to Wood, the central force for eliminating bad habits, is “friction”: if we can make bad habits more inconvenient, then inertia can carry us in the direction of virtue, without ever requiring us to be strong.  She cites the ways in which increased friction has produced a decline in smoking: laws that ban it in restaurants, bars, airplanes, and trains.

She also asks us to dig deep and not simply to resist our habit but rather to analyse it, which she believes may help to better formulate a strategy for reform. For example, if one is hostage to the cell phone, she offers a stepwise strategy. First, recognize your dependency, and acknowledge how the habit disrupts work, social interactions, and safe driving. Next, “control the context cues,” meaning identify what triggers you to grab the phone. There were other ways of generating friction and making the habit harder to indulge. For instance, turning the phone off completely is more effective than silencing it, because turning it back on is an annoyance.

Seth Godin’s Streaks

Seth W. Godin, an American author and former dot com business executive shares his wisdom in his blogpost ‘Streaks’ where he has been blogging every day for 11 years. That’s nearly 5,000,000 words since his first post twenty years ago, and he hasn’t missed a day.  Godin says “I’m pretty sure that the blog would still have an impact if I missed a day here or there, but once a commitment is made to a streak, the question shifts from, “should I blog tomorrow,” to, “what will tomorrow’s blog say?” and a habit is cultivated, growing its roots.

He refers to applying an inner pressure to get going as a streak. He agrees that streaks require commitment at first, but then the commitment turns into a practice, and the practice into a habit and that habits are much easier to maintain than commitments.

Just do it, often

Just do it. Don’t procrastinate, take action. Become disciplined even about the little things because all the areas of your life affect one another. Discipline enables you to get focused, to have a strong sense of direction, and become more self-reliant. Daily discipline will result in habits which will lead to success, perhaps not immediately, but definitely after a while.