Oct 09, 2018
This Is How To Quit Bad Habits Without Willpower: 3 Secrets From Research
Hint: It has absolutely nothing to do with grit.
by Eric Barker, Writer and blogger
You want to be good. But then you get that craving. That emotional pull toward something you said you weren’t going to do. You feel yourself headed toward that bad habit….
But you valiantly fight back with willpower. Restraint. White-knuckling it. You floor the emotional brake pedal….
Annnnnnd that rarely works for very long, now does it?
On any given day, most people fail to stick with their daily goals about 20 percent of the time -- a percentage that climbs quickly if they’re busy, tired, or stressed…. Only 8 percent of New Years resolutions are kept throughout the year, while 25 percent fail in the first week.
Bite-the-bullet willpower and resistance are often ineffective over the long haul. Recently there have been some heated scientific debates about the nature of good ol’ willpower but one thing is certain -- the way most people use it, it’s far from limitless, very taxing and often fails.
We’re not sure exactly how it works but nobody disputes that over the long run, it often doesn’t. But that’s not the only problem….
Those same strategies -- even if they succeed -- have a litany of negative side effects that nobody ever talks about.
Work by Stanford psychologist James Gross has shown that using executive control to suppress feelings and desires harms memory…. In a series of experiments conducted by Gale Lucas and colleagues at the University of Southern California, people high in grit were more likely to persist in using failing strategies to complete a task…. They found that people who were highly self-disciplined in their pursuits and who tended to rely on logical analysis and willpower-related self-control to achieve their goals were also the ones who suffered the most when facing failure….
And depending on your background, “toughing it out” methods may even be bad for your health and lead to premature aging.
A team led by Northwestern University psychologist Gregory Miller found that although higher levels of executive-function-based self-control among young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds were associated with greater upward mobility and superior social outcomes, they were also associated with premature aging and its associated maladies.
It’s those annoying emotions, right? Those cravings that push you back to bad habits. You’re on a diet but you want a little something. Or you need to work but you just don’t feel like it and procrastinate.
If you could just follow instructions like a rational computer you’d be fine but these feelings and emotions are always getting in the way. It’d be better if we could ignore them or get rid of them….
What if I said the solution to fighting these impulsive emotions wasn’t logical, fist-clenching restraint -- but more emotions?
Different emotions. And they’re actually a better solution. They’re not tiring or bad for your health. They keep you focused on the long-term, and can make accomplishing your goals almost effortless. They make you happier and improve your relationships. And instead of getting weaker with time like willpower, what if they actually got more effective? Sound good?
We’re going to turn everything you know about willpower and discipline on its head with some insight from David DeSteno. He’s a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, and head of its Social Emotions Group. His new book is "Emotional Success."
So forget cool, steely-eyed grit. We’re going to fight emotional fire with fire. Let’s get to it.
Gratitude isn’t just the warm, fuzzy teddy bear of emotions. It’s also a self-control and perseverance-amplifying badass.
Now it’s no surprise that feeling grateful can make you go out of your way for other people, exerting effort you otherwise wouldn’t. But numerous studies also show that feeling it can increase discipline when it comes to taking good care of that often neglected person: “future you.”
You know who I mean. The person that never gets the fun of drinking too much but inevitably gets stuck with the hangover. The one who has to work like crazy last minute because “present you” procrastinated and binge watched another mediocre show on Netflix.
“Future you” loves when “present you” feels grateful because gratitude improves self-control.
Differences in daily levels of gratitude were strongly associated with self-control. To get a sense of how much gratitude mattered, people who experienced about 33 percent more gratitude than their average peer during the three weeks evidenced double the financial self-control compared with those who experienced about 33 percent less than the average peer (that is, annual discount factors of .33 versus .21).
And that self-control poured over into improving other areas of life like relationships, school grades and happiness.
He surveyed more than one thousand students, collecting data on their GPAs, levels of gratitude, depression, materialism, life satisfaction, focus, and social integration. He found exactly what you’d suspect if gratitude supported self-control. On the social side, gratitude was an exceedingly strong predictor of the teens’ social bonds and their life satisfaction.
Other studies showed that gratitude-inspired diligence produced health benefits like less tobacco and alcohol use, better eating and more exercise.
But the real differentiator was how effortless it was. The self-control produced by gratitude was easy. How? The standard impulse-resisting model of willpower is stressful. But that’s not how gratitude inspires discipline. Gratitude doesn’t increase restraint -- it actually makes the rewards of doing the right thing more tantalizing.
… Recent findings by University of Toronto psychologist Michael Inzlicht, which showed that gratitude doesn’t work by modifying executive function or conflict monitoring. That is, it doesn’t work by strengthening willpower or related cognitive techniques meant to override or distract us from present temptations. Instead, it makes future goals more attractive, thereby easing the way to decisions favoring the future.
So how do we do it? Scheduling someone to do things that you’re thankful for every day isn’t terribly realistic. So we’re not going to change what happens -- we’re going to change how we interpret and appraise what is already occurring.
Whenever anything good happens you can see it as a blessing or take it for granted. Whenever something bad happens you can say, “This sucks,” or, “Could have been worse.” You can say you earned everything you got, or acknowledge how much the support of others -- or just good fortune -- made life better.
So start keeping track. Keep a gratitude journal. Two or three times a week write down what you’re thankful for. Writing it down helps solidify it and allows you to process it better. And don’t ignore the odd little good things that happen. They can actually be more valuable than the big things, which can be rare or repetitive.
And here’s where everybody nods that that’s a good idea and nobody follows through on actually doing it. Which is dumb, because the benefits are much, much bigger than you think.
Unlike willpower, which weakens with extended use, neuroscience research shows gratitude compounds like interest. It can produce an upward spiral where the more you feel it, the more rewarding it gets.
While everyone’s reward centers became proportionally more active in response to how much gratitude they reported feeling, this effect was magnified among those who had previously completed the gratitude-inducing exercise. Not only did these people feel more grateful when playing the game, but their brains found it more rewarding. To put it bluntly, gratitude reinforces gratitude.
Aren’t you grateful that I shared this information with you?
Good. Now write that down.
Okay, so you knew gratitude was good for helping others but now you know it’s good for helping poor, ignored “future you.” And there’s another emotion that can help you beat bad habits. And it’s the flip side of gratitude....
Compassion inspires us to do more to help others, even when they haven’t done anything for us. We go out of our way merely because we see their need. And, once again, that energy and discipline can be applied toward “future you.”
When students were encouraged to be compassionate with themselves after performing poorly on a test, they subsequently worked 30 percent harder. And another study showed big benefits against the bad habit heavyweight champion: procrastination.
The students who were encouraged to treat their initial subpar performance with understanding and forgiveness subsequently increased the time they spent studying by 30 percent, compared with students in the other two groups…. A study involving more than two hundred college students revealed a strong link between compassion toward oneself and progress toward academic goals. Students who typically had lower levels of self-compassion procrastinated more and, as one might expect, had poorer academic outcomes.
So how do we become more compassionate? No, you don’t have to look at pictures of starving children and abandoned puppies.
Meditation really helps -- but I’m well aware that it can have a big learning curve and that if I recommend it one more time on this blog there is a contingent of readers who will band together to rise up and slay me.
So, just like with gratitude, we’re going to focus on a little bit of writing, mainly because:
It’s something that’s very easy to do.
I can therefore make you feel very guilty if you don’t.
You’re going to write a letter to that red-headed stepchild of mental time travel: “future you.”
Yes, this sounds crazy. But, honestly, you talk to yourself all the time and that’s kind of crazy. Might as well go pro and get some actual benefit out of it. Because when you write to “future you,” you have to think about how they (umm, you) are going to feel after the bag of cookies is empty and they (you) have to accept that the diet is blown. And that will make you compassionate.
With that information in mind, it can be useful to take a half hour every so often to write a letter to, or at least have an imagined discussion with, our future selves…. Doing so, or even regularly imagining what we’d say, will force us to consider the well-being of our future selves -- to feel for them -- and thus to explain the choices that we’re making in the present.
The more you’re feeling for “future you” the more accountable you’ll be and the better you’ll behave. It’s not crazy; it’s self-compassionate.
However, if “future you” writes a letter back, then, yeah, you are crazy.
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Nobody would say gratitude and compassion are bad. Some would argue you can never have enough of either. But there’s another emotion that can help us that a lot of people are not very fond of….
I haven’t said word one and I’m sure some people are already skeptical. Yes, it’s one of the seven deadly sins. Duly noted. Psychologists call the pride you’re thinking of “hubristic pride” and, agreed, it’s no good.
But there’s also “authentic pride.” How you feel when you graduate from school. How you feel when you manage to drop ten pounds. The look on a child’s face when they say, “I did it all by myself, mommy!”
Pride can be good. Studies show when it’s the right kind, it can increase motivation and diligence. And far from making you a jerk, research shows it can turn you into the most likable person in the room.
When we asked them how much they liked the other people in their groups, the proud people always came out on top. This confirms not only that the proud people tried harder to solve the difficult puzzle, they did it in a way that stoked admiration and made others willing to work with them, to accept their advice, and, of most import, to want to do so again. Pride was a magnet, not a repellent.
Authentic pride also boosts self-control in scientific studies. (I seriously doubt lust and wrath could pull that one off.)
… Hofmann’s results showed that pride increased self-control. The instances in which people reported feeling more pride directly corresponded to the ones in which they resisted tempting and pleasurable behaviors that might have otherwise distracted them from their goals.
And it doesn’t just happen in university labs with surly students reluctantly participating to get course credit. When you put chocolate cake in front of people and tell them to focus on either the pride they’ll feel from pushing it away or the shame they’ll feel from stuffing their face, guess which one improves self-control more?
Pride takes the cake. (Or, uh, in this case it doesn’t.) And even when that deadly sin failed and people scarfed down the dessert, it still produced better results: focusing on pride made people eat less.
A full 40 percent of those focused on feeling future pride resisted taking even a single bite of cake, whereas only 19 percent of those in the control condition (that is, those not told to anticipate any emotion) and 11 percent of those in the shame condition did the same. Even if we look at those who did eat some cake, the benefits of pride are apparent. Where those anticipating pride consumed only 1.2 ounces of cake on average, those in the control and shame conditions ate more than double that amount.
So how do you get more authentically prideful? Well, we’re going to lump how to increase all three of these beneficial emotions together for two reasons:
Yes, you’re gonna keep a journal. Start noting the times you achieve something impressive in order to boost pride. And when you screw up, write a little about self-compassion. Note your gratitude when others help or fortune throws you a bone. And anticipate future pride for new goals you’ve set; this boosts self-control as well.
So how do you make sure you don’t morph into a bragging jerk with your newfound pride? The difference between “hubristic pride” and “authentic pride” comes down to a pinch of humility.
Stay cognizant of the hard work and support that went into your achievements, not just the contributions of your innate awesomeness.
For pride to work, it must be paired with humility -- a humility to know that no matter our skill set, each of us depends on what others have to offer. When we’re admired for our expertise, it’s usually because we’re willing to share it, not because we lord it over those around us. And since none of us can be an expert in all areas, we must be humble enough to recognize that we cannot be great at everything; there will be times when we need to rely on others.
(To learn the secret to never being frustrated again, click here.)
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it all up and learn the final (and arguably most important) reason that emotions can be a better way to overcome bad habits than traditional willpower…
Here’s how to quit bad habits without willpower:
Gratitude: The same feeling that energizes us to do good for others can help us do good for ourselves. See positive things as blessings; don’t take them for granted. And then write them down.
Compassion: The emotion that drives us to help others can also benefit “future you.” Crazy as it sounds, write a letter to “future you.” Feel some compassion for the difficult situations you often put him/her in and you’ll boost self-control.
Pride: Combined with an appreciation for the hard work and support that goes into any achievement, this deadly sin can be a virtue. Keep track of your accomplishments and you’ll end up more disciplined and more likable.
When we lean on traditional impulse-denying willpower to get ahead in life, it has some ironic secondary effects. Since it doesn’t leverage emotions or affect other people, when overused it can isolate you, resulting in loneliness. And that saps the very resilience you’re trying to produce.
In reviewing survey data from more than 100,000 Americans, psychologists Emily Bianchi and Kathleen Vohs found that as people climbed the ladder of success -- here defined by household income -- they spent less time socializing with friends and family…. Those who were lonely showed not only less attention and effort at work but also poorer interactions with their team members and decreased achievement on tasks. In short, being lonely severely limited people’s ability to focus, persevere, and collaborate. It sapped their grit.
Meanwhile, the above three positive emotions increase the amount of social support you get from others which can create a feedback loop, helping you to achieve your goals. And you’re not the only one who benefits....
If you’re compassionate, you help your friends. They feel gratitude and help others. And that produces “reciprocal contagion.” Willpower doesn’t spread its positive effects, but emotions do. You can “pay it forward” and everyone can come out better.
So share this post with someone who needs it. That’s compassion. Or send it to someone who has helped you be better. That’s gratitude. Spread the feelings -- and the benefits.
Be the Patient Zero of the most noble virus you can imagine.