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Nate’s Notes 21: Willpower Versus Habits

By January 13, 2022June 8th, 2023No Comments

One of the most famous psychology experiments ever conducted was the Stanford Marshmallow experiment. In the study, children were offered a choice between a small immediate reward or a larger reward if they waited 15 minutes. Children who exercised their willpower to delay gratification were believed to have better outcomes as adults, such as higher education levels and better overall health.

While some of the results of the marshmallow study have recently been called into question, along with many of the psychological findings of the last several decades, one aspect of the study that remains uncontroversial is that willpower does matter. The degree to which people can exercise willpower to persist when they are fatigued, and stay focused when they are bored, is hard to overstate.

For example, developing willpower is one of the primary aims of enrolling kids in activities like piano and sports. Children who can force themselves to practice the piano for 30 minutes a day, or track a soccer ball for 20 minutes straight, will hopefully become adults who can force themselves to work for 8 hours a day.

However, one of the problems with relying exclusively on willpower to reach our goals is that willpower appears to work like a muscle. While we can strengthen it through exercise, we can also deplete it through overuse.

If willpower is a limited resource, it’s worth thinking about other strategies we can use to help us achieve our goals. And the best way I know of to conserve willpower and still achieve goals is to rely on habits rather than willpower.

In the early 1990s, researchers at MIT conducted a fascinating study on the habits of rats. The rats were placed at the bottom of a T-shaped maze, and a piece of chocolate was placed in the top left corner of the T. The rats would wander up and down the center aisle, sniffing and scratching along the way. When the rats eventually reached the top of the T, they often turned to the right, away from the chocolate. It appeared that the rats were just wandering through the maze randomly. However, the probes connected to the rats’ brains told a different story. Every time the rats sniffed the air or scratched a wall, their brains exploded with activity.

The researchers repeated the experiment hundreds of times, and the rats gradually stopped sniffing corners and stopped taking wrong turns. Nothing unexpected there. The probes connected to the rat’s brains, however, told a surprising story. As the rats learned to quickly find the chocolate, their mental activity decreased. As the route became automatic, the rats were thinking less and less. In other words, the rats developed habits which hardly required any thought at all.

I first learned about this study while reading the book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I was struck by how relevant the rat experiment was to my own life. For example, I still remember the first time I drove a manual car in drivers ed. Constantly checking the mirrors, shifting my feet between the clutch, brake, and gas, all while steering, watching out for pedestrians, and trying to observe traffic signs and signals was almost more than I could handle. However, over time, all of these behaviors turn into habits that require virtually no conscious thought, or willpower for that matter, allowing us to use our willpower in other places.

What Duhigg’s book demonstrates over and again is that creating good habits is one of the most powerful tools we have for achieving our goals. And given that habits are so powerful, it’s worth thinking about how to create habits.

Duhigg argues that habits can be created through a three step loop called cue-routine-reward. The cue is the trigger that tells us to go into automatic mode; the routine is the behavior we carry out, and the reward reminds us that the behavior is worth carrying out. Using the example of the rats, the cue was getting dropped into the maze, the routine was the route they took, and the reward was the chocolate at the end.

When I started my postdoc at the University of Notre Dame I found the perfect way to exercise…a basketball group, led by Mike Morin, that played 4-5 days per week. I lost 20 pounds and got into the best shape of my post-football life. But then COVID hit. I was suddenly unable to play basketball and quickly put all of the weight back on. Knowing that I needed to do something to get in shape, and with limited options due to the pandemic, I decided to start running. The problem, however, was that I hated running. So I turned to the cue-routine-reward framework.

Each night before going to bed I laid out my exercise clothes for the morning. This was especially helpful on the cold mornings when it was 10 degrees outside. It was ever so slightly easier to get out of bed each morning when I already knew exactly what I was going to wear. Those exercise clothes then became the cue for me…the cue that triggered a craving to be healthy. The routine was my jogging routes. I started by running 1 mile per day, and slowly increased it to 5 miles per day, with most of the routes centered around the scenic Saint Joseph River. But the biggest factor, by an order of magnitude, was the reward. Several years earlier my brother Ryan had told me that he’d lost weight by listening to audiobooks while biking, so I decided to try the same. I bought headphones designed for exercise, and spent hours finding entertaining audiobooks and podcasts. Stepping away from work to listen to audiobooks and podcasts became my reward each day.

In my prior 39 years, I had gone running on my own for maybe 10 miles total. But in just the last half of 2020, I ended up running nearly 700 miles…virtually every single mile of it while listening to science fiction audiobooks and college football podcasts. I also added one more minor reward of tracking my behavior each day, watching the miles rack up and the weight fall off.

By using the cue-routine-reward framework I developed an exercise habit that I still use today. Spending 30 minutes finding a great audiobook, and thus improving my reward, is infinitely more effective for me than trying to drum up willpower.

But so what. Why does this matter?

In the words of Charles Duhigg, “When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, and can divert focus to other tasks.” By developing good habits, we can simply put our brains on autopilot and reap the rewards. For example, developing good habits around exercise, sleep, and diet will literally lengthen our lives.

But the other area of our life where I think it is crucial to develop a habit of, is daily self-improvement. For some people self-improvement will take the form of daily religious study and worship. For others it will be meditation, mindfulness, or professional education. But the value of improving ourselves each day is easy to underestimate. If we can develop the habit of daily self-improvement, the results will be astounding because they can compound. For example, simply improving ourselves 1% a day leads to a 37 X improvement in just one year.

In summary kids, develop your willpower to help you achieve your goals. But also rely on habits. Figure out how to design cue-routine-reward strategies for habits that both lengthen your life and improve it.

It’s a simple idea, please take it seriously.

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