Starting A Healthy Habit Without Willpower

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As you probably know, we all have a limited supply of willpower available to us – unfortunately, there seems to be an unlimited number of decisions to make each day. What should I eat for lunch? Should I go to bed now, or binge watch the rest of Supernatural? Should I work on my project or scroll through Facebook? And on and on…

As you probably know, we all have a limited supply of willpower available to us – unfortunately, there seems to be an unlimited number of decisions to make each day. What should I eat for lunch? Should I go to bed now, or binge watch the rest of Supernatural? Should I work on my project or scroll through Facebook? And on and on…

How can we stop this avalanche of decisions from crushing us and conserve our existing willpower at the same time? Easy- pre-make some choices using implementation intentions.

Implementation intentions are simple instructions you write for yourself on what to do in a given situation. They are backed by tons of studies, including a few that show that their use leads to a more than 2X success rate!

They are usually written in an “If/Then” (or “When ____ happens/I will ____”) format, as in “If I want to sit down and watch TV when I get home in the evening, then I will wait 10 minutes before I do”. Then, you just read your intention at a strategic time (in the previous example, right before you leave work to go home would be a good time).

While you can use implementation intentions for specific, one-time events (“if I make a toast at the wedding, then I’ll make no mention of that wild trip to Vegas the groom and I went on”), they work extremely well for establishing healthy habits.

You can also strengthen an implementation intention by creating a second, interrelated one (see the alarm clock example below).

Waiting for 10 minutes between impulse (I want to watch TV) and gratification (Yay! I’m watching TV!) is a great way to increase the size of your willpower reservoir.

Implementation intentions are similar to affirmations, but only superficially. For example, affirmations are usually visionary in nature providing direction. However, they also usually have no concrete plan in place for making it happen. Implementation intentions are more tactical and should be very specific and clear with what you should do when a situation arises. Personally, I use both: affirmations for the goal and direction and implementation intentions for the specific methods and strategies.

The method for turning a regular goal into a much more effective implementation intention is very simple. Just figure out some concrete way you can work towards or achieve your goal and when and where you can do it. Here’s an example:

Goal: Exercise at least twice a week.

So, let’s say you have a gym membership and know you will have time in the evening on Mondays and Wednesdays to work out. In that case, you could structure your implementation intention like this: “If it is Monday or Wednesday at 8 p.m., then I will go to the gym and exercise for at least 20 minutes”.

Here’re a few examples of how you can use implementation intentions to achieve or work towards several common goals. Each includes the if/then statement to write and when to read the statement each day. Feel free to use these yourself, just modify it as necessary to fit your unique situation.

Eating less

If/Then statement: “When I want to eat something, I will first put it on a plate and take a picture of it”.

When to read: First thing in the morning or before your first meal or snack.

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This establishes the habit of taking note of everything you eat. Even if you never share your pics with anyone or look at them yourself, this practice has been shown to decrease the amount you consume and improve the quality of what you do eat. Present state awareness is a powerful thing.

Get up the first time your alarm clock sounds

If/Then statement: “If my alarm clock goes off in the morning, then I immediately get out of bed!” plus the related “If I want to hit the snooze button, then I will get out of bed immediately anyway!”

When to read: In the late evening or right before you go to sleep at night.

I use these on a daily basis myself. Since I started, I have yet to fail at getting up on time!

Meditation

If/Then statement: “When I wake up each morning, I will sit still and meditate for at least five minutes”.

When to read: In the late evening or right before you go to sleep at night.

Meditation is one of those things that everyone knows is good for them, but few people stick to it over the long term. A lot of people might find it difficult to meditate even with implementation intentions. In that case, I would suggest looking into binaural beats, a type of sound that is proven (by numerous studies) to modify your brainwaves in a way that supports meditation.

Exercise

If/Then statement: “When I arrive at work in the morning, I will take the stairs instead of the elevator.”

When to read: In the morning before work.

Of course, this one only applies if you work in an office building (and not on the first floor). If you work too high up to feasibly take the stairs all the way up, get off several floors below yours and hoof it the rest of the way.

These are just a few examples. Implementation intentions can be used for pretty much anything, where you can specify when, where and how. Just make sure that any implementation intentions you make are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. The ones you really want to focus on here are specific and achievable. The rest of them usually fall into place by themselves due to the nature of implementation intentions.

Finally, a word of caution: if you suffer from socially prescribed perfectionism (you believe others have unrealistically high expectations for you), implementation intentions might not be good for you. A recent study found that this tool had a significant negative psychological impact on people in this group.

For everyone else, though, implementation intentions have been shown to increase goal attainment very significantly.

So, write your first implementation intention now, and save your willpower for the difficult, unexpected decisions that life throws at you! As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will”.

Featured photo credit: www.strengthoverego.com via strengthoverego.com

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