In the past decade, there has been a lot of fascinating academic research conducted around habit formation and willpower. By examining things like how smokers quit, why student perform well, and how New Year's resolvers stay on track, researchers are starting to piece together the answers to how we can build lasting habits and improve our ability to resist temptation. One surprising result is this: to improve your overall well-being, start a new regular habit.
For details on how this really worked, I have always been extremely curious. I've dug deep into the research and to find out more:
Willpower as a muscle for habit formation
At the turn of the 21st century, a landmark meta-study was conducted that looked at the question "Does Self Control Resemble a Muscle?" After reviewing hundreds of studies over the past few decades, the authors concluded that the answer was "Yes, it does."
Social scientists all over the world started to examine willpower and self-regulation from this "muscle" metaphor. For instance, if willpower is like a muscle, and muscles can get stronger over time with training, could willpower similarly be trained and strengthened?
What happens when you make people develop habits?
In the mid 2000s, Australian researchers Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng conducted a series of experiments to see if willpower can be increased or strengthened over time. In their first study, published in 2006, they put a group of people through a customised two month exercise program, where they hit the gym three times a week to do weight training and aerobic workouts.
At the end of the two months, participants, most of whom were rather sedentary, strengthened their muscles and cardiovascular system. But what about their self-control?
Recovery of willpower was enhanced
To test their willpower, all participants had track a bunch of moving dots across a screen (a digital version of "which cup is covering the ball?" game). People usually do a good job on this task but when done immediately after being asked to suppress thoughts on a certain topic (which sapped their willpower), people make more mistakes.
Oaten and Cheng observed how people did on this visual tracking task before, during and after the two months of exercise.
The conclusion: forming a habit around exercise can boost your ability to resist willpower sapping tasks and do well on activities that require high willpower.
But then things got really interesting.
Increases in variety of well-being enhancing behaviours
Participants were also asked to report what they were up to in a wide range of activities, including the number of times they smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol, ate junk food, spent money impulsively, lost their temper, did homework instead of watching TV or socialised, and missed appointments.
In all these categories, there was a massive self-reported decrease in "bad" behaviour and a huge boost in "good" behaviour. People went from smoking 14 cigarettes a day to around three, from missing at least one appointment every day to less than once per week and so on.
In charts 2 and 3, the frequency of behaviour legend is 0= never; 1= once per week; 2= 2–3 times per week; 3 = daily; 4= more than once per day.
The act of developing this exercise helped spur these people to make all sorts of changes in their lives, while the group that didn't start any habits didn't see their habits change much at all. (Full text: Oaten, Cheng "Longitudinal gains in self-regulation from regular physical exercise" 2006)
Developing different habits triggers similar effects
Like good academics, Oaten and Cheng questioned their results. Maybe it was just something special about exercise. Would other habits trigger a similar effect on people's lives? They conducted more studies using other types of habits: some people were forced to track all their spending and avoid making unnecessary purchases; another group of students were taught study skills.
In both cases, the groups improved their willpower as tested via the visual tracking test, and they also improved on the main program focus (savings for the spending group and grades for the study group). But more importantly, these groups also saw improvements in (among other things) cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, healthy eating, exercise and household chores. These were of course only the activities that were measured — it seems possible and likely that other behaviours were also positively affected, though not measured. (Full text: Baumeister, et al "Self-Regulation and Personality." 2006)
Like throwing a pebble into a lake, the act of establishing one habit triggered a ripple effect that improved people's lives in a variety of ways.
Applying the research to your life
So what can we learn from these findings?
Your willpower can be depleted, making it harder for you do things that require self-control
In all initial studies, people were worse at the visual tracking task after having their willpower depleted by the thought suppression task. When you're at the end of a long day where you've had to exert a lot of self-control, you may struggle with decisions or tasks that require willpower to do correctly.
Try to move tasks, that require a lot of your strength and willpower to earlier in the day. This is a great way to avoid disappointment and build up your muscle of willpower gradually.
Your willpower can grow over time
It is possible to strengthen your ability to exert self-control and habit formation. In all the studies, participants that worked on developing new habits, whether going to the gym, controlling spending or studying better, saw improvements in their ability to "recover" willpower and perform well on tasks that required self-control.
One of the struggles here is that, like any muscle, growth of willpower happens slowly. Accommodate for the gradual growth in your strength. Cutting out ALL lollies from tomorrow, or flossing your teeth every day from now on. Leo Babauta put it best when he developed his flossing habit:
Floss just one tooth. This is an old idea, but it works well. Start your habit by just flossing one tooth. It's so remarkably easy that you won't be able to say it's too hard, or you don't have the time.
Fostering a new positive habit reaps many benefits
By developing a new positive habit, such as regular exercise, a meditation practice or making your bed in the morning, you will immediately reap the direct benefits of the new habit. On top of this, you will also increase your willpower and naturally implement better behaviours across many aspects of your life, including health and social activities.
To put more crisp through the example of developing your exercise habit Charles Duhigg writes:
"Typically, people who exercise, start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. Exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change."
Over to you now. How do you go about building new habits and how have you seen your willpower increase or decrease over time? I'd love to hear your insights on this and see if there are any other new willpower techniques for all of us to try out.
Jason Shen is an entrepreneur, blogger and athlete. His blog, The Art of Ass-Kicking has been featured on Lifehacker, Hacker Monthly and Greatist.com. Want more? Jason is teaching an in-depth class focused on helping people implement behaviour change in their own lives. Check it out here.