Perhaps you tried to save money by following a budget. Or you attempted to learn a new language through an online class. Maybe your goal was to get out more and meet new people. At the start, your intentions were strong, passionate, resolute. Over time, you couldn’t maintain that commitment. And the outcome you wanted just hasn’t happened.
This is a common enough human experience: we want to make a change, and we form strong intentions. Supposedly that’s all it takes. Just think about how univocal common wisdom is on this subject, from “She just didn’t want it enough” to “Are you giving it your best shot?” This facile reasoning begins in early childhood (“Reach for the stars!”) and doesn’t let up until the very end, that stage of life when many of us will (unfortunately) have to “fight” against diseases such as cancer. The ethos is that your willpower is everything. Self-change, therefore, becomes a kind of test of our personhood—or at least our conscious part. Nike’s famous slogan may have begun with some irony, but the resolute quality of the message—and our receptiveness—has instead made it into the secular commandment that it is today: Just Do It. The corollary is this: if we aren’t (just doing it, that is), then we must be just choosing not to.
Unfortunately, under these conditions, failure is especially disheartening. Comparison with more successful people becomes painful. It’s hard not to contrast our own failures to change with people who are highly successful at persisting in their commitments: professional athletes who train for hours every day; musicians who spend months preparing for a performance; successful writers who continually turn out page after page until they complete a project. We see these super-performers and can interpret their mysterious and enviable success only through the lens of willpower: they must be Just Doing It. But why, then, can’t we? Why do our life achievements look puny next to theirs?
We end up feeling small. It’s easy for each of us to conclude that we just don’t measure up, that if we just made a strong enough commitment to change, we, too, could be thriving. But we didn’t have that willpower. We couldn’t Just Do It.
This has become a national phenomenon. When Americans are surveyed about the biggest barrier to weight loss for the obese, lack of willpower is cited most often. Three-quarters of us believe that obesity results from a lack of control over eating. Even obese people themselves report that their own lack of willpower is the biggest obstacle to losing weight. Eighty-one percent said that lack of self-control was their undoing. Not surprisingly, almost all of these respondents in the survey had tried to change. They had dieted and exercised but to no avail. Some had tried to lose weight more than twenty times! Yet they still believed that they were deficient in willpower.
Three-quarters is a big majority. About three-quarters of Americans presently understand that the earth revolves around the sun. In other words, it’s an established fact. Willpower deficiency is the problem.
Every single one of us has failed to evidence willpower. Yet we continue to believe in it. We assign it astronomical authority when it delivers astrological results. What’s the missing ingredient that makes real, lasting change possible?
This is the puzzle that initially attracted me to the study of behavior change: Why is it easy to make that initial decision to change, and even to start to do some of the right things—but difficult to persist in the longer term?
Most of us avoid making those decisions until we have to. So when we do, it feels like a triumph. We lose a few pounds, we make the job switch . . . but then things slow down. Willpower isn’t the issue.
Science is showing that, regardless of Nike ads and conventional wisdom, we are not one single unified whole. In psychological terms, we do not have a single mind. Instead, our minds are composed of multiple separate but interconnected mechanisms that guide behavior.
Some of these mechanisms, it turns out, are suited to handle change. These are the features we know—our decision-making ability and willpower. These are familiar because we consciously experience them. When we make decisions, we consciously attend to relevant information and generate solutions. When we exert willpower, we actively engage in mental effort and energy. Decisions and willpower draw on what we call executive-control functions in the mind and brain, which are thoughtful cognitive processes, to select and monitor actions. We are mostly aware of these processes. They are our subjective reality or the sense of agency that we recognize as “me.” Much as we experience the stress of exerting physical strength, we are aware of the heavy lift of exerting mental strength.
Executive control must be paid its due. Many of life’s challenges require nothing more than this. A decision to ask for a raise at work starts with setting an appointment with your boss. You carefully phrase your request and outline your reasons. Or, you decide to add some romance to your life by asking that attractive person at the gym to meet for coffee. After some deliberation, you find an appropriately casual way to do so. Decisiveness works in these one-off events. We make our decision, steel our resolve, and muster our strength to follow through.
Other parts of our lives, however, are stubbornly resistant to executive control. And thinking every time we act would, in any case, be a highly inefficient way of conducting our lives. I’ll return to this later, but can you imagine trying to “make the decision” to go to the gym every single time you went? You’d be condemning yourself to rekindle the ardor of Day One every single day. You’d be forcing your mind to go through that exhausting process of engaging with all the reasons that you felt you should be going to the gym in the first place— and, because our minds are wonderfully, irrationally adversarial, you’d have to run through the reasons not to go, too. Each time. Every day. That’s how our minds work if we let them. You would constantly be in the throes of heavy mental lifting, with little time to think about anything else.
These are our habits—better suited to working automatically than to engage in the noisy, combative work of the debating chamber that usually accompanies our decision-making. What we’ll also see is that a whole lot of life is already contained in those automatic parts—the simple, assiduous parts of yourself that you can set to a task. What could be better than that for accomplishing important and long-term goals? Skip the debating chamber and get to work. That’s exactly what habits are for.
Science and our own experience have shown that our minds naturally form habits, both innocuous and consequential. I bet the first fifteen minutes you’re awake goes about exactly the same each morning. That’s natural. But it’s easy to conclude that our minds must be constantly creating and re-creating active, deliberate tendencies to persist. It’s easy to believe that persistence comes from our repeated, conscious efforts to shape our actions to meet our goals. If our patterns of behavior were the result of Just Doing It, as too many of us believe, then our conscious minds must be choosing to keep doing the things that it does every day . . . right?
They might if we forced them. But our conscious minds have little contact with all kinds of things we do—especially habitual things. Instead, a vast, semi-hidden nonconscious apparatus is at work, one that we can steer with signals and cues from our conscious mind, but one that ultimately runs on its own, without all that much meddling from executive control. These parts of us are vastly different from the conscious selves we know and can be utilized in hugely different ways.
The self we know is concerned with raises and romance. Our non- conscious selves are forming habits that enable us to easily repeat what we have done in the past. We have little conscious experience of forming a habit of acting out of habit. We do not control our habits in the same way as we do our conscious decisions. This is the under-the-surface, hidden nature of habit. It explains how our casual conversation on the subject is marked by an odd sense of submission: “Ah, well, that’s just my habit”—as though habits almost exist separately from us, or run in parallel to the selves that we experience. And it’s true, habits have been a mystery, stuck for decades in the idea that breaking bad habits or forming beneficial new ones is simply about intentions and willpower.
It’s also important to highlight that the same learning mechanisms are responsible for our good habits, meaning ones that are aligned with our goals, and for our bad habits, the ones that conflict with goals. Good or bad, habits have the same origins. They result in very different experiences, of course, but don’t let that color how you think of them. In this regard, going to the gym regularly and smoking a couple of cigarettes a day is the same. The exact same mechanisms are at work.
But for our health goals, exercising and smoking are polar opposites. In my new book, Good Habit, Bad Habits, I show how we can use our conscious understanding of our goals to orient our habitual selves. We can set the agenda; we can direct. If we know how habits work, then we can create points of contact between them and our goals so that they sync in astonishingly advantageous ways. They already do in some cases.
Our lives could be very different if we took advantage of the emerging science on how, when, and why habits work. For something so integral to the human condition, our habits are paradoxically counterintuitive. This unknowability is a defining feature of habits that help make them successful at what they do: persist despite our conscious intentions to do otherwise. Our conscious, aware self—the part of us we experience moment by moment when we make decisions, express emotions, and exert willpower—is the part we encounter every day.
Adapted from an excerpt of Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes that Stick. Copyright © 2019 by Wendy Wood. Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.— Published on October 1, 2019