We use the notion of willpower to beat ourselves up, focusing on what we don't have, rather than what we do. And yet, willpower is just not worthy of this attention.
Trap #3: You convince yourself that willpower is the answer
Willpower. For many people, it's the holy grail: what we always feel we lack, and what we feel would fundamentally change our lives if we could get more of it. We use the notion of willpower to beat ourselves up, focusing on what we don't have, rather than what we do.
And yet, willpower is just not worthy of this attention. In fact, the study of behavior change and habit formation tells us that often, willpower doesn't really matter much at all. If we're not engaging in the positive behaviors we want to, it's typically because we're secretly telling ourselves that the consequences of those behaviors are scary ("If I quit drinking, my social life will suffer"). Or, we simply haven't set the stage right to encourage ourselves to adopt the habits we want ("I can't cook more at home, it takes too long.")
In its simplistic version, we know this already: a newly recovering alcoholic shouldn't hang out in a liquor store. We shouldn't join a gym that's really far away and never open when we can actually go. If we want to keep track of our keys, it won't happen through willpower — we need to buy a hook and build a practice of hanging it when we first walk in the door.
But this applies to all behavior change, and even our thoughts. Habits stick mainly because we've found sustainable, realistic ways to keep them going in our lives — not because we've tapped into some secret well of willpower. We must condition ourselves for a task by making it a little more comfortable and smooth to perform. We need to set up our lives to help the behavior happen most naturally, and perhaps reward ourselves for it every once in a while.
Try catching yourself in negative stories you're telling yourself about willpower (like "I'm so lazy," "I can't do it," or "I can't resist.") Now try reframing the message as "I will change the circumstances that were making it too hard for me to do this."
Identify a behavior change that you've been wanting to make for some time that aligns with the values you have for your life. (Can't think of anything? What about mindfulness practices from Trap #1 or better health habits from Trap #2?)
Now list four specific, concrete ways that it would be easier to make this change. These could include setting reminders on your phone for the behavior, removing an obstacle to the behavior, rewarding yourself for the behavior by pairing it with something fun, or deciding to have a friend join you in the challenge.
Up next: How all-or-nothing thinking traps us.
In the meantime, if you have questions or news about your progress in this challenge, I host a live weekly anonymous chat online on Tuesdays at 1 PM EST here. Feel free to drop in! You can also find me on Facebook. —Dr. Andrea Bonior
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