If you understand the core concepts of goal attainment, you can “work smarter, not harder.”  Here’s how to use Willpower, Habit, and Decision Making to reach your goals:

Willpower, Habit, & Decision Making

1.  Remember that goals need to be concrete.

I can’t emphasize this one enough!  “I want to be healthier” is a value rather than a goal (in terms of behavioral change).  “I want to lose 10 lbs” is a goal that needs to be broken down into concrete behavioral objectives that will help you reach your goal.

So define your goal, which should be concrete and measurable.  Then identify one specific behavior you are going to add (or subtract) for this week, and define exactly what that behavior looks like.

For example, if your goal is to lose 10 lbs, then specific behavioral objectives for this week might be:

I will eat dessert only on the weekend.

I won’t snack while I’m at work.

I will take 10 minutes in the middle of the day to exercise (in addition to my other activities).

You should reevaluate your behavioral objectives on a weekly basis.  Decide which behavioral objectives need to be modified, and if any should become habits.  See #5 below for more regarding behavioral objectives vs habits–but remember these distinctions:
  • A “behavioral objective” is a specific behavior you’re committing to for a week.  After the week is up, you can fine-tune or discard these.  Example:  “This week, I will exercise three times.”  Behavioral objectives are stepping stones toward reaching your goals.  
  • A “habit” is a behavior you build into the routine of your daily life.  It takes consistency and willpower to build a habit, but once the behavior becomes a habit, you do it with minimal thought or effort.  “I do 50 jumping jacks every morning right before I shower.”  Your habits should align with your goals and values.  
  • A “goal” is something specific you want to achieve, and it is concrete and measurable–“I want to run a 5K,” or “I want to lose 10 lbs.”
  • A “value” is a standard for living, such as “I want to live a healthy life.”  It is a concept, and it is not measurable.
Goals are achieved by setting specific behavioral objectives and creating habits.

2.  It takes willpower to reach a goal or establish a habit, but it’s easy to use up all your willpower on any given day.

In Dr. McGonigal’s book, The Willpower Instinct, she explains that willpower is like a muscle–it can become fatigued on any given day, but also builds stamina when exercised on a regular basis.

The trick is using your willpower strategically and for the right things!  Your willpower is strongest early in the day because:

3.  Decision making depletes willpower.

Have you ever experienced “decision fatigue,” where you feel like you just can’t make one more decision that day?

Hint–this is what’s happening when couples get into the “What do you want for dinner?”  “I don’t know, whatever you want” spiral.  “Decision making” and “willpower” are intertwined, so when you’ve been making decisions all day, you run out of steam–both for decision making and exerting willpower.  The end of the day is when you’re most likely to take the path of least resistance.

4.  So pace your “decision making” demands by engaging in “pre-decision making,” aka “proactive behavior.”

First of all, don’t use up your decision making/willpower energy on things that don’t really matter to you.

Psychological experiments show that even simple decisions tax your willpower reserves.   Steve Jobs famously wore his “uniform” of jeans, black mock neck sweater, and tennis shoes on a daily basis–he felt eliminating this daily decision freed up his mental energy.  Even U.S. President Barak Obama subscribes to this notion–as quoted in Vanity Fair:

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”

Secondly, if you’re trying to create a new habit, pare down the decision making related to that habit.

There are a few ways to do this:

  • Avoid mental negotiation.  

Example of mental negotiation:  “I promised myself I would exercise Monday morning, but I really want to get to work early today–maybe it would be better to exercise after work instead.”  Don’t do this!  Mental negotiation uses up your decision making & willpower energy!  Instead–“I committed to working out on Monday morning, period.”

When initially setting goals and creating habits, you may find that some of your behavioral objectives just don’t harmonize with your life (like working out on Monday mornings!) and in that case it’s okay to reevaluate–but do it systematically.  See #5 below.

  • Make decisions ahead of time so it will be easier to stick to your behavioral objectives.

If your behavioral objective is to work out Monday morning, take a few minutes on Sunday to set out your exercise clothes and decide what your workout will be.  Proactively taking care of a few seemingly simple “decisions” will contribute greatly to your chances of following through when faced with a task you’re not enthusiastic about.

5.  Established “habits” don’t require decision making, so habits don’t require much willpower.  Therefore, establish habits that will help you reach your goals!

What’s the best way to establish a new habit?  Start with setting weekly behavioral objectives–by committing for just a week, you can reevaluate and modify without “failing.”

Behavioral objectives strengthen your willpower because you persevere through the week, knowing it’s only a week until you reevaluate.  Quitting just because it’s tough undermines your willpower.  So “quitting” is bad, but “reevaluating” at defined intervals is smart & recommended!

As you accomplish weekly behavioral objectives, identify which ones you want to become habits.

Some behavioral objectives will have more payoff than others, or fit more harmoniously into your lifestyle.  These are good choices for habits.

To repeat–habits become a part of your daily life, things you do no matter what.  No mental negotiation, no weekly reevaluation.  The payoff is that once the habit is ingrained, it takes minimal willpower because there’s no decision making!

An example of establishing a habit is brushing your teeth.  When a client says, “It just doesn’t come naturally to me to exercise/be on time/keep my home organized, but I wish I could!”  I counter by explaining that none of us are born with a natural propensity to brush our teeth, either–but we all learn to do it, and we do it every day–even twice a day.  While there may be occasions when you think “I’m just too tired to brush my teeth,” chances are you do it anyway.  And if you do skip, you get back on track pretty soon.  That’s because you were taught this habit long ago and you do it without thinking–you don’t make a daily decision about whether you should brush your teeth, you just do it.

Now you know how to establish habits that align with your goals by removing the decision making and conserving your willpower!

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