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Conserving Willpower is Not Easy

| June 5, 2023

by Lisa Cavallaro

Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Lisa Cavallaro, Leadership Coach at MOR Associates. Lisa may be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.

Every year someone inevitably asks me, what was your New Year’s Resolution?  As I sit here and it’s almost half way into the year, again I am struck by the fact that my follow-through is pretty inconsistent.  Every year I make a resolution, a commitment to change something (get healthy by losing weight, be more present with others, don’t be so impatient, etc.)  and while sometimes I am successful, often I seem to fail at fulfilling the promise I made to myself.  But why?… I like to think I am smart, successful, and have a great network of people who have served as mentors and guides for me through the years… so why can’t I commit to following through on a simple resolution?

Why is it so hard to keep a resolution (or, say, carry out a development plan)? A number of different researchers have demonstrated that the brain really has very limited resources. What we might call “willpower” is really in very short supply. Resisting temptation, learning new skills, and even making daily decisions can all deplete our limited cognitive resources, making it more likely we will give in to a future temptation. While our cognitive resources are limited, the good news is that we have more willpower than we often think.  For more on this ego depletion and considering short-term temptations and long-term goals, listen to this short video on self-control and willpower featuring Roy Baumeister, a leading researcher in this field.  Given these limited cognitive resources, how do we best use them?

Enter the power of habits. As Charles Duhigg explains in his book The Power of Habit, habits form because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Habits circumvent the “executive control” part of the brain altogether, so they don’t deplete those resources.  We conserve our willpower and more through habits.

Habits follow a predictable pattern. There is a cue – a trigger that reminds your brain it’s time to follow your routine, then the routine, and then a reward, which reinforces your desire to do the same routine the next time you are presented with the same cue.

Of course, that’s both good and not-so-good, because if your goal is to change an existing habit, you are really fighting a losing battle. You are trying to overcome a process that has become largely automatic in your brain precisely so that it is easy to do and requires few resources.  To overcome it you need to use “willpower,” that extremely limited resource described above. Good luck.

But don’t despair, there is hope for changing your habits.  Duhigg’s suggestion is that rather than try and get rid of a habit, you need to change the habit by replacing it with a new one.  This is one of the biggest keys to making the changes you desire through habits: what are the new habits that get you toward who you want to be?

To change a habit, keep the cue, keep the reward, but change the routine. Here’s a video of the author explaining this idea, and how he used the habit-cue-reward cycle to kick his afternoon cookie habit

For those who prefer visuals, here’s a simple (ha!) graphic of how to change a habit.

Of course, this brief take oversimplifies things a bit. If you want to know more, you can read the entire book. Hey! Maybe make a resolution about that and make a habit of reading a little bit each day?

Last week we asked which requires the most intentionality and focus as you journey toward your desired future state.

  • 25% said determining the next steps
  • 23% said finding support and being vulnerable
  • 21% said creating a framework of accountability
  • 17% said using reflection as a means of learning
  • 14% said not settling for small progress

Last week’s theme of “You 2.0” flows nicely with this week’s discussion of willpower and habits. As you consider the new habits you want to form as you evolve to “You 2.0,” we collectively identified that first we need to determine our next steps – the vision of what leadership attributes we want to grow. As with any change, this is not as successful when done alone. Instead, we benefit in this journey from finding support and being vulnerable in embracing that support. This then leads to accountability – both from ourselves and from others, reflecting, learning and growing along the way as our small steps of progress can ultimately lead to larger results.