Changing Habits Beats Reliance on Willpower

From Psychology Today

Habits help us. Effective practice can enable you to upgrade your habits.


“Go where you wanna go, do what you wanna do…” (from a song by the Mamas and the Papas)

Self-control is the ability to act the way you want to act when you find yourself in challenging situations. Take for instance a policeman who is being shouted at by a provocative demonstrator or attacked by an angry drunk. The normal human response to either verbal or physical behavior would be to become angry and strike back. When policemen have been trained in staying calm, they have the “self-control” to do their job professionally with virtually no return of anger. The same applies to couples who have learned skills to prevent arguing (link is external).

Because the mind “goes backbrain” (into being controlled by the automatic pilot part of the brain instead of the thinking part) with elevated emotions, it’s too late then, in the midst of a stressful moment, to depend on sheer willpower to manage yourself well. The better strategy is to build habits that will stand you in good stead when you need them.

That’s why children who behave, the word we often use for chidren with admirable self-control, are kids whose parents have taught them good habits. Self-control instead of angry shouting or hitting for instance can be facilitated by training children to take a time-out in their “quiet chair” when they are upset, and then to return to talk over their problem after they have soothed themselves back into a calm zone.

When the Mamas and the Papas sang the lines above (at the top of this posting) some decades ago, did they realize how hard it can be to change habits to improve your “self-control” in situations that could tempt you to do something counter-produtive? There’s many things I ‘wanna do’ that I can’t seem to get myself to take action on.

Charles Duhigg, author of the new book called The Power of Habit, shares smart and practical wisdom that can make building new habits far more feasible. Last week I read his article in the New York Times (he’s a journalist there covering a business beat) on habit change and I’ve already reaped benefits from his clear-headed explanations.

The Power of Habit book focuses primarily on how business organizations apply what I think of as “Charlie’s rules for habit change” to upgrade their effectiveness. As a psychologist who works with individuals, couples and families, I look to applying these understandings of habit change in the realms of personal and family functioning.

The problem with habit change is mental pre-programming, which I’ll illustrate first with a short visualization exercise.

Think for a moment about driving a car. How do you start the car and move forward? Close your eyes and see if you can visualize each of the actions you take.

If you are like most people, that exercise will feel stressful. It’s hard to think of every micro-action you need to do before the car will start rolling. Yet getting into a car and driving off each morning probably feels simple when you do it, evoking virtually no stress whatsoever.

That’s because most of what each of us does most of the time procedes on automatic pilot. If we had to think about each action we’d go bananas. As Duhigg points out, citing research with rats conducted by MIT’s Ann Graybiel, habits allow our minds to conserve mental effort.

Take typing. No way can you think about each finger movement before you hit the keyboard. Take throwing a football. No way can you think out each step if you want to pass it—where to put your left foot, your right, how to curl your fingers around the ball, how to draw your arm back or loosen it to project the ball forward.

Overall, automatic pilot offers a low brain-strain way of living. The dilemma comes when you need to reprogram. Here’s where Charlie’s three steps come in handy.

Charlie’s three elements of habits that provide the key to habit change are 1) cue, 2) routine (a habitual sequence of actions), and then 3) reward.

Say you have realized that you are inconsistent in putting on your seatbelt.

1) Using Charlie’s rules you would first find a cue to which you can link seat-belting.

Let’s make the cue turning the key in the ignition. Picture yourself putting the key in the ignition and turning it so the car’s motor turns on.

2) Now it’s time for the action routine. See yourself then immediately reaching your hand (the one that’s no longer holding the key) to your seatbelt. Grab onto the seat belt, pull it around your body and click it in.


3) What reward concludes this sequence? Just the word “Good” may be enough. You might enjoy the satisfaction of knowing you have taken action to keep safe when you drive. You might think about how glad you are that you won’t be stopped and arrested for not wearing a seatbelt. Or the reward could be feeling ready now to step on the gas and go on your way.

Of course, practice makes perfect. Visualizing this new sequence several times will increase the odds you will actually do it. Doing it multiple times in a row, just for practice, also will consolidate the new habit.

To what other situations might you use Charlie’s rules for building new habits?

I tried Charlie’s out habit-change paradigm on upgrading my tennis forehand. Here’s how it worked—and it really did work!

I’ve had the information in my head for some time that good tennis players exhale when they stroke the ball. In professional matches you can hear players’ grunting sounds accompanying every powerful forehand and backhand as they add a guttural with their exhaled breath. I’ve always loved that primitive powerful sound, but when I try to do it I just get out of breath.

Today in my practice session it occurred to me that I run out of breath because I don’t inhale enough during points. I exhale when I swing and then I have no air left to exhale again with the next shot. I need to build a habit of breathing in.

Ok, what could I use for a cue? What if I were to link inhaling to my split step, the bounce on the toes of my feet that launches movement toward the ball. My split step is timed to land at the same time that the ball hits my opponent’s racket (ah! another cue-action connection!). Maybe I could use my new split-step habit as a cue for breathing in.

I tried it. Wow.Using the split step to cue start the action routine of inhalation really worked.

The reward was clear right away. I had air in my chest that I could then release as an exhalation as I hit the ball. Instead of running out of breath, I felt like I could keep hitting forehands foreever.

I couldn’t believe how easy it quickly became to take a big inhale now that I’d linked breathing in a fresh supply of air to my split-step.

One success has a way of breeding another.

I’ve known for some time that I need to stretch my arm further forward when I strike the ball. A longer stroke gives both more power and better placement. That information, along with tidbits of many other subskills that could improve my forehand and backhand, has long rattled about as information in my head that never made it into the habit department.

So this time I thought cue. To what existing habit could I link the lengthening out of my stroke? Aha! I could use exhaling, which I like to do as if I’m blowing out a candle, as a cue to which I could link the action routine of stretching out my arm as I hit the ball.

I loved the idea in theory. A long exhalation would cue a long outstretched forehand stroke. Would it work in practice?

It did! Now here I was, in the course of ten minutes practice time, hitting the ball time and time again without getting breathless because I was breathing in with my split step so I could breathe out when I hit the ball. I was hitting more powerfully because of the extra oxygen, and hitting the very back of the court at just the spot I was aiming for because my stroke was reaching out and guiding the ball so much further.

So much progress so fast—that was my reward!

Could these same three habit-change steps help me to end my late-night snacking?

One cue that leads to my eating is feeling emptiness in the pit of my stomach. I always tell myself, “I’ll just eat one small thing ‘so I won’t be hungry at night.'”

What would happen if, when I feel the hunger growling in my abdomen, I linked that feeling to a new thought? Hmm… Maybe I can say to myself “That hungry feeling means I’m going to be losing weight while I sleep!”

That would help, but what if I wake up hungry? I know. If I really do wake up hungry, I’ll eat then. A small yogurt in the middle of the night doesn’t seem to lead to snacking on and on like my before-bed cookie hunts. It just helps me go back to sleep.

Last night, sure enough, I felt the impulse to stack before bedtime. My stomach felt empty, so I told myself, “That’s great! I’ll lose weight while I sleep, and if hunger wakes me up I’ll get a bite of yogurt them.” It worked!

Are there other cues to my nighttime nibbles that have been triggering the habit? For sure. For instance, when I see the cereal box on the counter top, I immediately reach in to nap a few morsels. These in turn lead to getting a bowl, some milk, and maybe even adding a helping of fruit. NO MORE! That’s a cue series that I can head off at the pass by keeping all cereal boxes in the cupboard. No food visible on countertops should help a lot.

Charlie Duhigg ends his article with reassuring reports of his own success using the building of new cue-action-reward patterns.

He claims to have lost a hefty chunk of excessive weight with them. I believe him.

I believe him in part because the ideas identifying a cue to link a new behavior to an old one, and of rewards leading to learning, have been in psychological thinking for a long time. Triggers, maybe we called them instead of cues. Or in the ABD’s of cognitive-behavioral paradigms, Activating events.

I call the cue-action routine-reward sequence for changing habits “Charlie’s rules” though because there’s something about his phrasing, and also his engaging descriptions of case examples from the business world, that motivated me to use these psychological paradigms on myself.

With Charlie’s rules I decide what new habit I want to create, attach it to an existing cue, and boom, enjoy the reward. Sure, practice is still important. And at the same time, practicing a new cue-action pattern is surely more effective that just pure repitiion. It’s a great example of the kind of “deliberate practice” that I write about in my post on More Perfect Practice.

Thanks Charlie! And may your new Power of Habit book be as inspiring to others as even reading just the article about the forthcoming book was to me!