What You Actually Need To Change A Bad Habit (Hint: It's Not Willpower)

We've been taught that self-control helps you reach a goal. Experts say these methods are better.

Let’s say you’re working toward a goal. Maybe it’s to cut out junk food, budget better or stop looking at your phone so much. Chances are, the first thing you think to yourself is something along the lines of, “OK, I just really need to eat more vegetables/save $10,000/put down the damn phone after 8 p.m.”

In other words, you think willpower will help you to achieve the goal. A unwavering determination will get you to the finish line.

But what if willpower wasn’t all that you needed? In fact, what if you didn’t actually need willpower at all? As it turns out, willpower is far from positive panacea we often see it as. It doesn’t always work. And what’s more, we often run out of it sooner rather than later.

Often interchangeable with the term “self-control,” willpower can be thought of as “mental strength or energy,” explained Denise Cummins, a cognitive scientist who researches decision-making and thinking. Like physical strength or energy, willpower can be built up ― but it also can be depleted.

Trying to commit to a drastic change and relying on willpower alone won’t work out, Cummins said. (This helps explain why only 8% of people keep their New Year’s resolutions.) That’s because we often view it as something we don’t have much of in the first place, which sets us up for failure. One 2010 study found that working adults and college students who believed that willpower was a limited resource were more likely to give into temptation under stress.

On top of that, willpower only works well when your motivation is high, so basically when you’re just starting out, Cummins said. But as you come across more and more temptations that work against your goals as time goes on ― i.e., the free pizza at work, a new purse or the lure of Instagram ― your willpower rapidly starts to dissipate.

Plus, temptation is literally everywhere these days. “There’s no way around the fact that as humans in today’s world, we’re constantly swimming upstream against countless distractions,” explained Brad Stulberg, a researcher, wellness coach and author of ”The Passion Paradox.” “There’s an ongoing onslaught of junk food and junk content, and if you’re constantly flexing your willpower muscle against all those things, it’s going to constantly deplete.”

The bottom line: While willpower can certainly play a helpful role in reaching a goal ― at least when we’re highly motivated ― it’s just not enough on its own. “Self-control” isn’t the answer. Instead, there are a few ways to “hack” yourself so you can better achieve your goals, whatever they might be.

1. Adjust your environment.

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“What I suggest to my clients and do in my own life is to look to see which distractions and temptations you can eliminate completely,” Stulberg said. Ask yourself: Where can you automate good decisions? How can you eliminate the option to make a bad decision at all?

For instance, if you’re trying to eat healthier, it’s time to toss all the chips and candy from your kitchen. Instead stock it with healthy foods that you actually want to eat ― not just carrots and celery, Cummins noted.

Want to look at your phone less often? Turn it off, and place on the other side of the room. Or delete your most tempting apps from your phone altogether, as Stulberg has done with Twitter, his social media vice of choice.

Trying to save money? Set up an automatic transfer from your checking to your savings account every month so you don’t have to think about it. Want to work out in the morning? Sleep in your workout gear and sign up a class you’ll be charged for missing.

2. Take a break — a real break.

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If you don’t give yourself a chance to rest and recharge, you will run out of willpower.

“Just as your muscles need rest in order to recover and grow stronger, your willpower needs time to recover as well,” Stulberg explained. Especially in our world that’s so full of distractions, it’s essential to schedule in time away from it all, he said.

Take a real vacation where you can unplug and disconnect, or even just a daylong staycation somewhere peaceful. “Research shows that after spending a day in nature or doing something you enjoy, willpower tends to replenish,” Stulberg said.

This doesn’t just apply to taking a trip, either. You can take a break by taking it easy in another area of your life by easing up on ambitious goals. For example, if you’re trying to eat healthier or save money, it’s probably not the time to start training for a triathlon, Stulberg explained.

In other words, cut yourself some slack in areas of your life where you’re not trying to exert your willpower. “Pick one or two things to work on, but then give yourself some space ― don’t take on multiple challenges,” Stulberg said.

3. Revisit your “why.”

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If you feel like you’ve lost sight of your overarching goal, consider it a sign that it’s time to reset, Cummins said. If you can’t remember why you really want to save money or why working out is important to you, you won’t be nearly as motivated to do it.

Practicing visualization can help here. Essentially, you should imagine, in specific detail, those bigger goals. “This allows you to reinitialize your motivation and crystallize those goals again, so they become very clear and real again,” Cummins said. If you have an active imagination, you may be able to just conjure up those goals in a real, detailed way in your head.

If that doesn’t sound like you, Cummins suggests this technique: Google the things you have in mind ― a stronger deadlift, a fancy vacation, whatever it might be. “You can simply immerse yourself in those images that come up; you don’t have to generate them yourself,” she said.

4. Find a support team.

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You’ve probably heard tips like “set a due date,” “mark it in your calendar” or “share your goal with others.” But the real trick to staying accountable is to have people alongside you, supporting you along the way.

“Whatever your goal is, doing it with people who you can get vulnerable with and who you trust will hold you accountable can make a huge difference,” Stulberg said.

This can obviously be done with people you know IRL. But if you can’t rely on a support team in person, look online to find free support groups, and go from there, Stulberg suggested.

5. Be kind to yourself, especially when you slip up.

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The old adage “To err is human” holds true. You’re going to fail sometimes, and it’s important to be nice to yourself when you do.

“You’re still human, you’re still going to struggle,” Stulberg said. If you mess up or give into temptation, don’t beat yourself up about it ― just forgive yourself and move on. “Research shows that the more you judge yourself, the more likely you are to engage in that same behavior again, creating a vicious cycle,” he added.

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