How to Change a Habit Without Willpower

After a season of indulgence, we resolve to shape up, dry out, spend less, and generally improve ourselves. But too often we rely on brute force and moment-by-moment resistance. Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers 7 ways to move beyond willpower and increase your chances of success.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
Episode #095

Tip #4: Take the resistance out of it. This is another variation on the theme of automate—with automation, you do something without having to think about it.  But also consider ways to keep yourself from doing something. After all, if it’s not an option, you don’t have to use willpower to resist.  For example, to eat more healthily, the decision point should come way before you’re standing in front of the fridge at midnight with a raging sweet tooth. Instead, the decision point should be at the grocery store. If you’re trying to stop eating cookie dough ice cream at midnight, don’t put it in your cart.  If you’re trying to stop getting distracted online, not that I know anything about that, use an app that keeps you from watching The Voice when you’re supposed to be working. 

Tip #5: Get out of the all-or-nothing mindset. Any habit change is not going to go perfectly. So when you slip up (and you will), think shrug, not face palm.  And then? Get right back on track.  Many individuals expect a habit change to stick immediately and never waver. But in reality, habit change ebbs and flows, but as long as you’ve got more flow than ebb over time, you’ve got this.

Tip #6: Chip away. Change a tiny bit at a time. Here’s how to tell if you’ve bitten off a small enough task. Think about what you’re trying to accomplish: let’s pretend you’re trying to lose some weight.  Close your eyes, sit still, and think about your goal.  Then pay attention to your reaction.  If you think “lose 25 pounds” and you feel a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, lower your goal.  If you think “okay, lose 15 pounds” and you immediately want onion dip, lower your goal.  If you think “lose 3 pounds” and your feel nothing—no resistance, no anticipatory deprivation, no sinking feeling of despair—you’ve found  it. On your personal Richter scale, you want your changes barely to register. But don’t stop there ... once you’ve achieved your tiny goal ...

Tip #7: Set another tiny goal.  And do it again. Think tortoise, not hare. Fulfilling lots of small goals gives you more opportunities to celebrate and feel accomplished—it’s good old-fashioned positive reinforcement. Reward yourself right after accomplishing your goal—a night out, a new sci-fi novel, or whatever tosses your salad.  

This New Year’s, make your changes tiny, automatic, and necessary, and you can leave willpower behind.  Far from having to white-knuckle it, you won’t even notice you’re making a change. Instead, you’ll look back and realize you did it. Even Grandma would be proud.

What habits are you trying to change? Let me know on the Savvy Psychologist Facebook page.


About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
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