One powerful application of self-control is managing mindless automatic habits. We must expend cognitive effort to either break down bad habits or build up good ones. Self-regulation can help us stop doing what we shouldn’t (like smoking or wolfing down junk food) and to start doing things we should (exercising regularly or responding calmly to our children’s undesirable behavior).
There is a limit to how much self-control we can allocate to form and disintegrate habits. While the limits of self-control is a topic of debate, we would regardless be wise to use our self-control economically.
So how can we use our self-control more efficiently to manage our habits?
For starters, we can develop a plan.
We expend self-control in every decision we make.
“Should I eat another piece of cake?”
“Why not. We had a great workout today. We earned it.”
“But if we eat extra cake, what benefits will we really see? We’re calorically breaking even.”
“But it’s delicious. I mean smell it. Mmmm…”
“But what price do we pay for that momentary pleasure. We can’t outwork a bad diet.”
As we rationalize and argue with ourselves during daily decisions, we exhaust our willpower reserves. As we tire ourselves out, our hot and hungry emotional side lunges for cake while our cool and collected rational side catches its breath.
Why do these arguments arise?
Many times, these kinds of internal arguments and fatiguing decisions sprout from cloudy seeds. Without clarity in our goals and decision-making, our present-self and our future-self slug it out (and the present-self often has the upper hand).
However, we can assist our future-selves by skipping the fight altogether.
First, our habits start with a wish. What is the end goal of our desired habit change?
“I want to quit smoking.”
Next, when you fulfill your wish, what does the outcome look like?
“I do not smoke any cigarettes, and my cravings diminish to a manageable level.”
This is a wonderful goal – a goal shared by millions of people. However, one reason quitting smoking is so difficult (besides the addictiveness of nicotine), is that few people prepare for situations in which smoking may be the most tempting.
For example, I tend to cave and smoke a cigarette or two when I drink – especially at a bar.
So next, a WOOP should identify a specific obstacle likely to undermine their effort.
“I often crave a cigarette when I have some beers with my friends during a night out.”
Once we can identify key obstacles to the realization of our proposed life change, we can brainstorm a plan – what actions can we take to eliminate, weaken, or overcome the obstacle before us.
“I will not go to bars anymore.”
“I will only drink at home.”
“I will throw away my lighters.”
“I will make new friends.”
These plans theoretically present the best chances for success. By eliminating the source of the craving (or the means to procure it), the obstacle disappears. If one still reaches for cigarettes on a regular basis, more obstacles beg for identification.
However, these plans are also a bit extreme. Should someone sacrifice friendships for the sake of quitting smoking? Perhaps not.
If one still wants to confront the obstacle head on in lieu of total elimination, then an implementation intention can help. An implementation intention is a conditional statement that proposes a certain action in a certain set of conditions.
“If I am out with my friends and I crave a cigarette…”
“…then I will chew a piece of gum.”
“…then I will take a deep breath and mindfully acknowledge my craving.”
“…then I will take a short walk.”
There are endless possibilities. In essence, implementation intentions aim to rewrite a habit loop. In other words, it identifies a habit trigger (drinking at a bar with friends) and substitutes in a new behavior (chewing gum, taking a walk, breathing) for a previously undesirable one (smoking).
This may take some trial and error. Habit triggers are not always easy to identify, and not all substitute behaviors are created equal. We must be willing to experiment until we find sustainable and acceptable alternatives.
However, while the possible substitutions are endless, the underlying principle is the same. We stand a much better chance of successfully changing our habits when we approach the process with a plan.
Relying on willpower alone is a bad bet.
Instead, by preparing for situations beforehand, we can give our cool, future-oriented self a fighting chance when the cards are down, our motivation is low, and the temptation is strong.
Sometimes the “devil in the details” is, in fact, our guardian angel.