Those who believe they can do something and those who believe they can’t, are both right.
– Henry Ford
Many authors including Achor in Happiness Advantage and Weisinger and Pawliw-Fry in Performing Under Pressure have discussed the challenge that simply using willpower presents in changing a behavior. Guise in Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results shares a meta-analysis of willpower which demonstrates that when we rely on willpower to make behavioral changes we may end up frustrated and failing in the endeavor. This is mainly due to the fact that willpower can be depleted throughout the day. Guise offers five main reasons why we cannot count on willpower to drive a change which include effort, perception of difficulty, negative affect, fatigue and blood glucose levels all of which lead to snuffing out the new behavior individuals may be trying to develop.
Let’s examine those reasons individually. First, the amount of effort that it takes to get started to do something can be a roadblock to making any change. Thinking that a new behavior will take too much effort, we tend to put it off to a later time when we have the time or desire to invest in the effort. Rubin in Better than Before shares another important point about effort. When we are trying to change a behavior that we have tried to change previously, the effort to change it becomes more difficult. This makes the case for setting yourself up for success from the very beginning of the change process.
Second, when we perceive that something may be too difficult to undertake we naturally avoid it. The challenge with that level of thinking is that it is a perception and not real. Our brains really don’t want us to change because it takes more effort to change and the preference of the brain is to remain the same. Think about a time when you undertook something new and when you completed it thought “that really wasn’t too hard”. Wayne Dyer in Excuses Be Gone shares that what actually has to change is the belief that something will be difficult in order for us to pursue the change. Thus, the rationale for “chunking it down” into smaller tasks so that we can believe something is achievable.
Next, negative effect plays a role in thwarting change efforts as we continually avoid unpleasant feelings while looking for activities and situations that result in pleasant ones. Once again, the brain becomes a major factor here as the pleasure centers of the brain release dopamine and other chemicals when we are experiencing things that bring us pleasure so we seek them out. However, our beliefs also play a role as we determine which aspect of the change we are going to focus on as we embark upon specific new behaviors. Take exercise for example. When we first start an exercise program that challenges us whether it is fast walking, running or weight lifting, we are typically sore the next couple of days. If we focus on the soreness and not the feelings of mastery and the beginnings of better health, we will be drawn to the unpleasant. But if we can move our focus to how good we feel after working out, we begin to associate pleasant feelings with the activity.
Guise discusses fatigue in relationship to “subjective fatigue” which is also a concept developed in our minds. When we think that something will be exhausting, we can actually make that idea become reality due to a self-fulfilling prophecy. We begin a story that continues to circulate through our minds about how tired we are when approaching a given activity. Have you ever noticed that when you are about to do something you really don’t want to do, you begin to think how tired you are but if you are about to do something you really want to do, you find yourself energized? When I was teaching at a university as adjunct faculty, my classes were always at the end of the day after a full day of work. On the days that I didn’t teach and had something to do after work, I would find myself putting it off because I was too tired. Yet on the days that I taught, I would find myself energized walking into the classroom despite eight hours of working prior to leaving for the university and an upcoming three hours of teaching.
Finally, the impact of blood glucose levels on behavior change efforts cannot be ignored. To accomplish anything, not just behavior changes, we need efficient fuel in our bodies. When the fuel we provide is inconsistent, erratic or non-existent, we will have difficulty focusing on and engaging in the activities that lead to success. The Human Performance Institute in Orlando Florida teaches the importance of maintaining blood glucose levels to accomplishing goals. The guidance they provide is that individuals need to take in enough fuel to be satisfied without overindulging through three meals and two or three snacks daily. When we do not maintain consistent fuel requirements we find ourselves in a negative balance which can cause fatigue, drowsiness, and agitation none of which are helpful to accomplishing our goals. As a former health educator, I often shared with clients the need to know what works best for fuel for their own bodies. I don’t personally prescribe to a certain dietetic regimen rather I encourage all of my clients to determine what works best for them. For example, the research about inflammation is important to determining how you will fuel your body. Knowing how your body reacts to what you put into it is key to establishing solid blood glucose levels.
When you are about to change an old habit into a new behavior, think about how these five components of mini-habits can make your behavior change easier and more successful and then plan accordingly!
To Your Success!