Monday, July 2, 2012

Breaking Bad Habits (Part 2): Where's the POWER in My Willpower?

How strong is your willpower?

Let's start this post with a little test of your willpower.  For the next 30 seconds, no matter what you do, don't think about an ELEPHANT.  Okay start...

Why are you thinking about an elephant when I told you not to?  It is only 30 seconds.  Couldn't you go just 30 seconds?  Since you did opposite of what I told you to do, does that mean that you have a weak willpower?  Not really.  It was not a fair test of true willpower.

When I told you not to think about an elephant, the first thing you did was picture an elephant in your conscious working brain.  No matter how hard you try not to think about the elephant, you keep thinking about it.  Actually,  the harder you try, the worse it gets.

So, what was willpower designed for?

Willpower works well at helping us persevere if we are trying to accomplish a task.  As long as the thing we want to accomplish is in our conscious working memory, willpower helps us focus on the rewards and sees us through the hard work.  So, willpower works great to help us proactively achieve our goals.

What about eliminating bad habits?

The problem is, if we are trying to eliminate a bad habit, the last thing we need is that particular habit at the forefront of our brain. 

When we are trying to use our willpower to get rid of bad habits,  that bad habit is on our mind constantly.  If it isn't at the forefront of our mind, willpower doesn't work.  Placing the habit in your working memory incorporates it into your up-coming decisions. That is fine if all you are doing all day is avoiding the bad habit, but that's not reality. Throughout the day, we are constantly coming upon new decisions to make.  Consciously trying not to do something will usually increase the behavior rather than decrease it.

The second problem is that the brain functions involving willpower are just too slow.

Our working memory is extremely busy and easily overwhelmed.  This slow, multi-step brain function is usually no match for the quick, efficient function of  acting out on a habit stored in our basal ganglia.  The end result is that we act out on the bad habit before we remember not to.


If you have tried and tried to eliminate a bad habit using your willpower and have failed repeatedly, don't be too hard on yourself.  Willpower was never designed for that function.  If we approach the bad habit from a different angle, we have a much better chance of success.  The key is to work with your physiology not against it?

What about You?

Have you been really frustrated with yourself because you can't overcome bad habits using willpower?  Have you wondered if you had any willpower at all?

**If you read my blog last week, you were probably expecting some tips this week for eliminating bad habits.  Sorry about that.  I received such a large response from my first post on habits, I thought I would expand on the subject a bit further.  I promise that  I will provide you with some tips in Part 3 and possiby 4 of Breaking Bad Habits.**

This post was based on a seminar sponsored by the Institute of Brain Potential called How the Brain Forms New Habits: Why Willpower is Not Enough: More information can be found at

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