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Mindset & Motivation, Productivity Strategies, Podcast Articles   |   Dec 4, 2016

Habits are stronger than willpower: why change is easier than you think

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Habits are stronger than willpower: why change is easier than you think

By Angela Watson

We’re about to head into the time of year when everyone’s thinking about resolutions, new habits, getting healthier, and making better choices. It’s the same thing we say we’re going to do every year.

And most of this just turns out to be wishful thinking. We don’t stick with it. We return right back to these bad habits, these tendencies to waste time, procrastinate, be lazier than we want to be, and do things that we know are destroying our bodies or our relationships.

One reason why we don’t maintain the change is because we think it’s a battle of willpower. We think: It’s too hard to stop. I can’t say no. I just don’t want to do that right now.

We’re relying too much on willpower, and not enough on habits and changing our environment. Once you understand the power of habits,  I think you’ll find that creating change is easier than you think.

Download the audio and listen to this post on the go!

This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 115 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. 

It does not take 21 days to form a new habit

Let’s start with the mistaken idea that it takes 21 days to form a habit. That’s completely untrue in most cases and has been debunked by many, many studies. The truth is that you can form new habits in just a day or two.

I’ll give you an example. My husband loves the Haagen Dazs caramel cone ice cream. I very rarely buy it, because in Brooklyn, it’s $5.99 for a tiny little pint and that just seems ridiculous to me. However, the grocery store had them on sale 2 for 5 over the summer, so I got two, one for him and one for me. I dug into the pint of Haagan Dazs that night after dinner, and it was so, so good. I ate close to half of it and put the rest back in the freezer.

And then a funny thing happened: the next night after dinner, I got this insane craving for Haagan Dazs. Back to the freezer I went and polished off the rest of the pint.

I probably don’t need to tell you that the next day, I was already thinking about that Haagan Dazs in the afternoon, and knew I was out of it. Back to the store I went before the sale ended and got two more pints. After dinner, more Haagan Dazs.

By the fourth night in a row of this, I knew I should probably take a look at the nutritional label since eating ice cream after dinner had clearly become a daily habit. I knew it would be bad, but I didn’t know it would be that bad. I did not want to continue eating HaagenDazs every night after dinner for the rest of my life, but that had become my routine.

So here’s what I did, or rather, what I didn’t do.

There are limits to our willpower, and it decreases throughout the day

I didn’t try to overcome the urge to eat ice cream after dinner through sheer willpower. I find willpower to be highly overrated. We only have a set amount of it as human being, and it deteriorates throughout the day the more we use it.

That’s why so many of us completely fall off our diets in the evenings or slip back into bad social media habits, or don’t go to bed on time, or snap at our students or family members at the end of the day after being so patient for so long. We’ve been exercising self control in so many areas of our lives all day long, and frankly, we get tired of it. We’re out of willpower. We give in to whatever behavior provides a release or lets us just relax and feel good.

So, I wasn’t going to depend on willpower to keep me from craving Haagan Dazs. I was going to focus on habits. Habits are MUCH easier to change, and much more effective. I really like the taste of Greek yogurt, and it has sort of the same mouthfeel and satisfying texture as ice cream.

Obviously if you really want ice cream, Greek yogurt will not be the same thing, and you should probably just have the ice cream. But remember–I didn’t really want the ice cream. It had just become a habit. Ice cream was something I had conditioned my body to expect in the evenings.

So I went to the store and checked out my options. It turns out there’s this new kind that has a ton of protein and fiber in it and not a lot of sugar, so it’s actually pretty healthy. (It’s called Triple Zero by Oikos if you’re wondering. And also if you’re wondering if any of these brands I’m mentioning are sponsors of this blog or podcast, the answer is no, I’m not being compensated in any way to mention them! I’m just being very specific in order to help the examples stick in your mind).

When I looked at the Greek Yogurt’s nutritional label, I realized that creating a daily habit of eating this would be a good thing. I bought 5 of them. That night after dinner I was thinking NOT about Haagan Dazs, but about Greek yogurt. And that’s because I’d spent time thinking about this new habit, and how much better I would feel when I changed it, and I was actually looking forward to the yogurt.

Turns out it was good. Really good. The next night, Greek yogurt again. Loved it. The night after that? I’m not gonna lie, the ice cream crossed my mind. The novelty of my new habit had worn off. But I’d already done that new habit two days in a row, so it wasn’t a huge struggle to reach for the yogurt instead.

And that’s what I kept doing, night after night. If I didn’t feel like having yogurt, I’d make myself a cup of herbal tea, the really good kind from Teavana that feels like a luxury in a similar way that ice cream does. That’s what I do now in the evenings, almost every evening. I have Greek yogurt or I have tea. And I really don’t think about the ice cream anymore. I buy it for my husband when it’s on sale, but I’ve been practicing this new habit for a few months now and really haven’t wanted the ice cream at all during that time even when it’s in our house.

Changing your habits shifts the body and mind’s default reaction

At the end of the day when I’m tired and out of willpower, I don’t have to make a decision about what to eat or not eat, or restrain myself from having something I want. My body craves yogurt or tea. That’s all it’s thinking about, because that’s all I’ve given it. If I go out to dinner with friends or switch up my routine, I might have dessert.

But that doesn’t make me want dessert when I’m at home, because this is about routines and habitual responses. My body knows: at home, after dinner, it’s the couch, TV or Netflix, and a mug of tea. That’s what it wants.

I’ve done this intentional habit-changing in all sorts of aspects of my life. I found myself sitting down at the computer too much, so I bought a little folding stand on Amazon that goes on a desk and converts it into a makeshift standing desk. After one day of using it, I found my body wanting to stand there the second day. And the third. Now that’s my habit. I’m standing up and working as I write this.

I’ve changed my habits around social media, too. Remember the Intentional Connectivity Challenge I ran back in May? It’s just 3 simple habit changes that can keep you from feeling controlled by your phone and the compulsive need to check social media anytime you feel bored for three seconds. I no longer reach for a device when I’m sitting at a stoplight or waiting in the doctor’s office. I’ve conditioned my mind to want to be present in the moment instead of looking for a distraction or constant stimulation.

The inability to consistently make good choices doesn’t mean you lack willpower

So why am I sharing this, and what does this have to do with teaching? Well, teachers in general tend to struggle with feeling tired and overwhelmed, and a lot of those negative experiences can be changed through simple habit shifting.

If you know you need to get more rest, eat better, exercise more, get fresh air on a daily basis, stop working after a certain point in the day, or disconnect from your phone on a regular basis…but you’re not doing those things…it’s not necessarily because you lack willpower.

Attributing your daily lifestyle to willpower or lack thereof is pretty unempowering–you’re already not doing what you know you should be, and now you feel like a failure because you don’t have the mental or physical strength to make yourself stop those bad habits.

So don’t make yourself stop.

Don’t rely on willpower when you’ve already exhausted all it while trying to hold a classroom together for 7 hours. Instead, change your habits. Look for ways to make your default reaction a healthy, productive choice so you gravitate toward it naturally.

That’s my hope for every person reading this: that you would pick one aspect of your life that’s not really working as well as you want it to, but haven’t been able to change simply because you’re tired and you don’t have the time or energy to figure out a better way and stick with it.

I encourage you to create ONE new habit related to that aspect of your life. Just one. I’m betting that after just a few days of that new habit, you will find it comes naturally.

How to make your new habits stick when you feel like going back to the old ones

Now here’s a secret to making your new habit stick: every time you are tempted to go back to your old way of doing things, remind yourself that this is NOT about what you eat, or how much you sleep, or how you manage your time. This is about creating HABITS.

Each time you go back to the old habit, you are strengthening those neural pathways in the brain and muscle memory in the body that will make you want to default to that habit again in the future. So breaking the habit “just this once” won’t hurt you in the sense that it will wreck havoc in that area of your life. Breaking the habit just this once will wreak havoc on your HABITS. That’s what you want to protect at all costs.

I didn’t avoid the Haagan Dazs for those first two weeks or so because eating it one night would cause me to gain weight or harm my health. I avoided it because it would derail my new positive habit. That’s what I cared about. I knew if I went back to ice cream just one night, then the next night my body would be confused: Are we going for the ice cream or the yogurt? And THEN I’d have to exercise willpower if I wanted to make the right choice.

I hate exercising willpower. It’s really hard and not very fun. I want to reserve most of my self-control for spiritual discipline, treating my loved ones how they deserve to be treated, and putting in really focused work time so I can create stuff that supports teachers. Just those 3 things require a lot of willpower and self-control, and of course, they’re not the only elements of my life that are important. So it’s hard.

I can’t afford to waste precious willpower on some stupid ice cream, I wanted to default naturally to the best option. And that’s how I avoided slipping back into old habits.

This the mentality you want to have when you’re tempted to do something that doesn’t move your life in the direction you want: don’t analyze whether it will hurt to do that thing just this once, analyze how it will impact your habits. Recognize how altering your habits for even just a day or two can have longterm consequences that will require willpower to overcome.

No time to finish reading now? Download the audio and listen on the go!

Knowing WHAT to do is not the same as knowing HOW to do it, and having the systems in place to succeed

The power of habit is part of the reason why the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club has been so successful for so many teachers. If you haven’t heard of it before, the club is essentially professional development on productivity. It’s a one year program that helps you streamline your work and focus on what really matters.

Let me tell you briefly how the club can be helpful if you want support with choosing better habits and maintaining them over time. I created the club to help teachers create new productivity habits and default behaviors, from planning out their weeks ahead of time, to prioritizing tasks, to always looking for ways to streamline their workload and eliminate, automate, and delegate.

The idea is to stop having to make these choices every day, because teaching is filled with enough choices. It’s draining. And it requires self-control to make the right choices.

You want to create new lifelong habits so that productive ways of being are the natural and default.

What we’ve found is that managing your TIME is a lot like managing your WEIGHT: just because you know vaguely what to do doesn’t mean you’ll actually follow through.

So, I’ve set up the club to help you make permanent lifestyle changes by creating new habits for productivity. It gives you structure, support, and accountability. There are 2 types of people the club is designed to help:

  1. Those who are overwhelmed by the complex job of teaching and have no idea where to start organizing and prioritizing.
  2. Those who know basically what to do, but keep slipping into bad habits, getting bogged down by district demands, and feel like they never really get ahead.

If this were a weight loss program, people in the first group would have 50+ pounds to lose, and those in the second group would be struggling to shed those last 15 pounds they’ve been gaining and losing for years.  Both groups could simply do the things they know to do, figuring out a system on their own and holding themselves accountable to it.

But some of you are tired of trying to figure out a workable system and reinvent the wheel.   That’s because knowing WHAT to do is only half the battle. You have to know HOW to do it. And, the HOW has to make sense and be realistic for your lifestyle—something that you can maintain for years to come. It has to be about developing a new mindset, a new perspective on teaching and life, and new habits.

That’s what the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club is designed to do.

How to get support in creating and maintaining healthier habits

If you would like a community of educators you can talk to about your new habits and bounce ideas off of each other–and if you’d like a step-by-step program that teaches you how to create more productive, healthier habits at home and in the classroom, you may want to think about joining us.

Every single week, you get ideas, encouragement, and strategies in both PDF form and audio podcast form. So if you’re already in the habit of listening to Truth for Teachers each week, it will be super easy for you to keep up with the material and learn new ways to simplify and streamline.

There’s also hundreds of dollars worth of printable forms and resources included to make things easier for you. You can even get a PD certificate at the end of the year which you can submit to your district and see if they’ll accept for continuing education credits.

We’re going to be opening the club to new members again from June 28th-July 7th and then that’s it until next winter. It’s only open to members twice a year. You can learn all about the club AND by going to 40htw.com. So, my challenge to you in the weeks to come is to create ONE new habit related to an aspect of your life where you’re currently trying to rely on willpower to make the healthiest, most productive decisions.

Replace that bad habit with a better habit–just that one thing–and watch how quickly that new habit becomes your default. And then you can just stack another good habit right on top of it. Keep doing that, trusting that small changes add up to big results. It’s about baby steps, small changes, and little habits that you make a regular part of daily life…and before you know it, you’ve created the big changes you’ve been wanting.

Small changes in your habits add up to big results. You've got this. Click To Tweet

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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  1. Thanks for sharing. I hadn’t thought about using up my willpower at school; I just thought I didn’t have much. I have noticed with experience with Weight Watchers that changing my habits with alternatives helped me lose weight better than just rejecting food.

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