Why Willpower Doesn't Work
For over 20 years, I’ve been coaching patients and Chiropractors to make behavior changes that will create better habits, habits that will lead to happiness and success instead of shame and failure. I've come to learn one very powerful thing through the coaching process. Willpower doesn’t work at all! Let me give you an example, anyone who knows me knows I LOVE ice cream. If it has chocolate and peanut butter in it, all the better. I can tell you the key to me not eating ice cream is NOT about willpower, it’s about not being exposed to it. If ice cream happens to land in my freezer because in a moment of weakness a pint of Häagen-Dazs happens to jump into my grocery cart, it won’t last for more than a few days. I KNOW how many calories, cholesterol, sugar, dairy (should I keep going?) are in that pint of ice cream, but I eat it anyway. Before my son left last year for Life University in Atlanta this past year, he worked at Owowcow, a group of ice cream stores in our area. He delivered their freshly made ice cream from the factory to their 5 local stores. An employee benefit was that he got free ice cream that he frequently brought home and put in our freezer. Did he take this job to torment and torture his father? Maybe so. What I can tell you is that since he left for college a year ago, I have eaten about 5% of the amount of ice cream that I ate the year before when he worked for the ice cream company. Why? Exposure, not willpower. I know I shouldn’t eat it, but if it’s available and easy to get, my ice-cream-addicted brain takes over and I’m toast. During the Vietnam war, some interesting research came out on the power of addiction. In 1971, as many as 20% of the soldiers in Vietnam were addicted to cocaine. Lee Robins oversaw a special task force created by Richard Nixon to help promote the prevention and rehabilitation of soldiers when they returned home from Vietnam. What he learned from this research was that only 5% of soldiers became re-addicted within a year of returning home from the war. This compared to the traditional rehab experience for non-soldiers at the time, in which 90% of heroin users became addicted once they return home from rehab. What the research concluded was that people who are addicted aren’t really all that different. What determined the difference between those that can stop addictive behaviors, like heroin, and those that can’t? Their environment. The soldiers returning home from Vietnam radically changed their environment. Once they returned home, they weren’t exposed to the daily triggers, easy access, and reminders of heroin use that was present in Vietnam. What’s the lesson here? It’s easier to practice self-restraint when you don’t have to use it all the time. Once a habit (good or bad) is formed, it’s much harder to resist when the environment in which this habit was formed suddenly appears. The habit is an effect, and the environment is its cause. Ice cream in the freezer? We eat it. Stressed at work? We reach for a cigarette, alcohol, or junk food. Getting a little bored or we’re feeling low? We jump on your social media to take our minds off our problems.
You can’t break a bad habit if you don’t change the environment in which that habit was created. Change the environment and you’re more likely to change the habit. Want to work out? Schedule to meet a friend or personal trainer at the gym. Want to eat healthier? Change the food you put in your grocery cart or decide to stop eating out so much. Want to improve your mind and emotions? Pick up a book instead of your phone.
Self-control and willpower are NOT long-term strategies to stop bad habits, optimizing your environment for better behavior is. A behavior repeated often over time becomes our unconscious habit, and our habits determine the outcome of our lives. Best in Health, Dr. Dane