Why Your New Habits Fail and How to Fix Them

What is a better predictor of overall life success – intelligence or willpower?

If we aren’t talking about taking math tests than willpower wins ten times out of ten. While someone might be hyper intelligent, they might not necessarily have the willpower to develop successful habits. It’s those people with the willpower to continue regardless of what they encounter that change the face of science, history and society.

So what would you choose?

If I were to give you a choice – unstoppable willpower or above average intelligence, what would you take?

Surprisingly, I’d take the intelligence.

Why? The reason is simple – intelligence is fixed and genetically dependent (for the most part).

You can’t dramatically alter your intelligence but you can increase your willpower.

Willpower, motivation, grit, determination, resolution, being hardcore and every other word you can think about are all describing the same idea: namely, the ability to maintain a steady path of action regardless of outcome.

Unless you believe in magic or statistically improbable outcomes, habits are the ONLY thing that will help you build a better life and business.  To keep a habit healthy and functional, we need self-control. However, our friend Mr. Self-control is very finicky. He’s like a three-year old child. He gets cranky, gets tired and is extremely unreliable. In a lot of ways, our adult sense of self-control doesn’t differ much from a child, we are just much better at justifying our failures to others.

When it comes to habits, Mr. S is boss. He runs the show and even intelligence is at his mercy.

What about productivity?

Productivity is usually sited as one of the top areas people want to improve on. When we talk about productivity we are really just talking about self-control – the ability to choose to do one thing over another.

Willpower is the biggest and most powerful predictor of that self-control. This isn’t my own idea. Psychologists throughout the last half a century have been constantly validating the importance of willpower.

Let me introduce the infamous marshmallow experiment.

In the late 60s, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel performed his iconic Marshmallow Test.  He wanted to test four-year olds’ ability to demonstrate “delayed gratification”.  Each child was brought into a room and sat down next to a delicious candy. It might have not been an actual marshmallow but something equally sugary like an entire pack of jellybeans. P

Point is, it was sweet… and delicious. 

Scientists told the kids that they could have the treat now or if they waited, like good boys and girls, they could have two treats. All the children wanted to wait, but not many of them did. After a while the temptation of that sweet sugary goodness was too much to bear and they gave in.

Mischel studied these children for the next 20 years and showed that those who could delay gratification were overall much more successful in life (as decided by job, income, health and marital status).  He showed that kids displayed what he called “strategic allocation of attention”; in other words, they could distract themselves.

The marshmallow experiment led to a host of other similar experiments.  In a study led by Stanford researcher Baba Shiv, he divided two sets of undergrads into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the secondary group was given a seven-digit number.  They were then told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of yummy chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.

You might think that just remembering a few numbers doesn’t affect your decision-making ability, but it does.  Students told to remember seven digits were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reasoning, according to Shiv, was that the extra numbers took space in the brain. This “cognitive load” made it harder to resist the sweet treat.

Shiv concluded that willpower is weak when we are engaged in any other task, our prefrontal cortex gets overtaxed and we give into the temptation of quick reward.

In most cases the quickest best reward for any carbohydrate-loving mammal is more carbohydrates, preferably in the sweetest format possible.

Willpower requires real actual energy, not just some mental magic energy that we can’t measure.  In a 2007 experiment, Professor Roy Baumeister and his colleagues found that students who fasted for three hours and then had to perform a variety of self-control tasks, such as focusing on a really boring video or suppressing negative stereotypes, had much lower glucose levels than students who didn’t have to exercise self-control. As Baumeister stated, “Willpower requires real energy”.[i]

To further this idea of willpower requiring real energy, Baumeister gave students an arduous attention task; they were asked to watch a video without looking at the subtitles on the bottom. Before participants started the task they were asked to drink a glass of lemonade. Half the students were given real lemonade while the other half were given a sugarless substitute.

On a series of follow-up tasks for self-control, students given fake sugar performed consistently worse. Baumeister argued that their lack of discipline was caused by a real lack of energy, which in turn affected their performance of the prefrontal cortex.[ii]

self control affected by lemonade

The findings make sense because it’s well understood that glucose fuels many brain functions. Eating a snack appears to help boost a person’s willpower, and it potentially explains why smokers trying to quit or students trying to focus on studying often turn to junk food to sustain themselves.

At this point you might be feeling a bit defeated, thinking that the most important faculty deciding if you are successful or not is easily affected by lemonade.  But your willpower isn’t the only thing dependent on carbohydrates, your muscles are too.

It turns out that willpower is like a muscle; actually, it’s exactly like a muscle. The more we use it, the more tired it becomes.  The more tired it becomes the crappier decisions we make.

However, if we use it the right way, we can train it just like a muscle.

Training your willpower doesn’t involve running over hot coals, sitting in ice-cold water or any other feats of self-immolation. Instead, it involves small commitments to daily actions that are unrelated to whatever habit you are trying to build.

  • Want to lose weight? Make your bed.
  • Want to do two hours of writing every day? Stretch first thing in the morning.
  • Want to be more productive? Clean your house first.

The reasoning behind this is simple and powerful – commitment to small acts of willpower in any domain, increase overall willpower. The important word here is ANY DOMAIN. A moment of self-control transfers over into control over all subsequent events throughout the day.

It might seem counterintuitive to think that being organized and exercising self-control in an unrelated area of your life might help you, but it does.

Without training our willpower like a muscle, it easily becomes tired and overused. If you were to do bicep curls all day, it wouldn’t be long before your arm felt like a long stringy piece of noodle.

The same goes with willpower. Think of how often we test it throughout the day.  Every decision we make wears down on our ability to use it well. Even simple tasks like remembering extra numbers can wear us down.

Our self-control is a limited resource.

So what is the best way to train your willpower?

When feeling particularly unmotivated you need not look further than boring daily activities. Willpower isn’t strengthened by avoiding eating your favorite food only to binge on it several days later. Instead, it’s made by little things like:

  • Drinking a glass of water as soon as you get up.
  • Making your bed when you leave.
  • Preparing your lunch/dinner the day before.
  • Scheduling a daily house tidying time.

If you are looking for a more formulaic version of willpower, let’s look at the latest research.

Researcher, BJ Fogg has been studying habit development for years, and consequently willpower as well. Throughout his lifetime of research he has found only ONE reliable method of habit transformation. He calls this “mini-habits” and has turned it into an online course.

Fogg pairs mandatory daily actions (waking up, brushing your teeth, walking out of a door) with new habits. He calls them mini-habits because the new actions don’t take longer than five minutes to accomplish.

This fits perfectly in line with what we know about willpower research, that small commitments train your willpower. By committing to actions that take no longer than five minutes daily, we are strengthening those willpower muscles.

To use Fogg’s Mini-habits program answer these questions:

When I wake up, I _____.

Before I sleep, I _______.

After breakfast, I ________.

The point is pairing something that you NEED to do every day with what you want to do. There it is, the secret of habit development. There is literally nothing else as effective as this, something which I’m sure that you already know.

However the point is, do you implement it?

Willpower or self-control or whatever else you want to call it is the biggest decider of life success. Without it you cannot build the habits that contribute to your growth and development.

Ironically the most important thing in the world is also the easiest to change.

When we transform our habits, we change our lives. We decide the habits we want to form and use willpower to get the process started; then – and perhaps the best part – the power of habit takes over.  Eventually we no longer have to decide, we can take our foot off the willpower pedal, and sit back and enjoy the cruise control.

That is the promise of habit.



[i] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17279852

[ii] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17279852