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How to Change Our Habits Without Relying on Willpower
Man standing on rock looking at sunset

How to Change Our Habits Without Relying on Willpower

Michael Glover is a Mindset & Performance Coach and a regular writer for Goalcast


Willpower is often a pretty glorified concept.

Being able to ‘grind through’ something, not give up and come out the other end a winner is a story many of us like to meet with applause. In fact, it’s frequently seen as a cornerstone of a ‘strong mindset’ and sometimes even as a necessary attribute for anyone wanting to achieve something with their life.

Of course, there are times in each of our lives where we will have to do things we don’t really want to do. Where we’re required to take a deep breath and just ‘get it done’. And willpower is a very useful thing to call upon in these situations.

The problem, though, is when we start pulling that magical bottle of willpower off the shelf over and over again in an attempt to change our long-term thinking, habits and behaviors.

Because, like a bottle of anything, willpower is a finite resource. We will run out at some point. And it’s not so easy to run down to the store and stock up every week like it is with the ketchup.

Change vs Transformation

Changing our habits in any area of life typically follows a very similar outline. Take losing weight, for example. We find a ‘plan’, will ourselves to keep doing it, maybe get some kind of result before, more often than not, falling off the wagon and it all ending up back at square one again.

It’s a similar story time and time again when it comes to businesses, careers, self-improvement, relationships and many other aspects. We start, will ourselves to stick to habits, fall out of the habit and then swiftly move on to the next thing.

Essentially, we continually call on willpower in an attempt to force ourselves to do stuff we don’t really want to do. We use willpower to temporarily change our habits and see temporary change in our lives, without ever really achieving true transformation.

Because change, by its very definition, is…changeable.

We can change a habit quite easily, hold on by our fingertips for a period of time, get a result, be hugely grateful when it’s over and then change back to what we were doing in the first place. It’s like holding your breath and hoping you can just will yourself through life without having to exhale.

Transformation, on the other hand, is much more permanent. We don’t go back on transformation. By definition, we have transformed, and going back would require another transformation back into the old again.

How to Transform

These are subtle, yet very powerful differences. But it all begs the question of how we actually transform. How do we make sure that we have actually transformed, and are not just clinging to change hoping it will stick?

A huge player in doing this is a part of the brain called the basal ganglia. This is, to put it simply, what could be referred to as the ‘home of habit’. It’s where we store actions and behaviors that the brain sees as beneficial to store and be available on autopilot.

Unfortunately, accessing the basal ganglia isn’t as simple as willing yourself to do something for 21 days, 60 days, 90 days or however long many ‘experts’ suggest it takes to form a habit. Because calling on willpower, regardless of how long we manage to do it, is, in fact, counter-productive to habit creation.

The brain is always listening. And repeatedly doing something while thinking how much you can’t wait for it to end is a big, fat red flag. Not only will the brain decline to store this behavior as a habit, it will also send you every impulse, craving and signal it can to get you to stop doing it as soon as possible.

Work with the Brain

So we are literally fighting our own brain when using willpower in an attempt to store long term habits. Unsurprisingly, it’s much more effective to work with our brain.

The brain is much more willing to input an action or behaviour into the basal ganglia when we’re repeating something we want to do. Not just that we want the outcome of a repeated action, but that the action itself is something we genuinely want to do and enjoy doing.

Finding ways to enjoy, or even love, what you’re doing is a much quicker and more effective path to getting those habits on autopilot and achieving long-term transformation. In fact, it simply becomes a matter of discipline, not willpower, in order to repeat something enough times to input it into the basal ganglia.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a long winded “just do what you love and everything will be ok” speech. I’m still advocating the relevancy of moving towards specific aspirations, goals or visions for the future in various desired areas of life. And I’m certainly not saying that everything should always be amazing and be full of sunshine and rainbows without any signs of resistance showing up at any time.

But when the path to getting to wherever it is we want to go isn’t filled with so much resistance and struggle, it becomes monumentally easier to take consistent, repetitive action that soon becomes habit.

The Most Optimal Way?

At this point, many people start wondering about whether doing this is the most optimal way of achieving a goal or vision for the future. Surely, if we want to achieve something, the best advice is to copy or learn from someone who’s already achieved it.

But we can look at this both objectively and subjectively.

Objectively, the best and most optimal way forward to a goal, whether it be in business, health or anything else, is to find a specific, exact and definitive path to achieving it in the shortest time possible. You take the step-by-step actions over and over and you get the desired result.

In reality, however, if that ‘optimal’ way forward isn’t suited to us, as individuals, then it’s not going to work. Or at least, it’s not going to work long term. And if the fruits of our labor don’t last particularly long, is that really the most optimal way?

Following these paths that we can’t stick to, no matter how ‘optimal’ they seem to be, end up becoming not so optimal because results take longer to achieve and aren’t long lasting anyway. And perhaps the path that maybe seems slower at the outset and gets criticized by others is, in fact, the most optimal because it’s our own path. The one we want to take and enjoy doing.

So simply using discipline to repeat the actions and behaviors we enjoy taking in order to store them as habits is the most optimal way to achieving our goals.

Because we will never achieve a life we love by repeatedly doing things we loathe. And isn’t loving life what it’s all about?

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