It’s sometimes possible to create new habits through sheer force of will, even though more often than not our stronger internal urges override any will-powered behaviours we attempt to set ourselves.
Have you considered what willpower is?
Conscious control of our impulses, urges and compulsions.
The problem with exerting our will or conscious control is that our unconscious mind, the main game in town, will always find a way to achieve whatever it requires.
As an example, John may give up smoking for health reasons, only to find that he now eats junk food in its place. In part because smoking and junk food trigger similar reward sensations, and in part because smoking was providing a positive experience of… Only the smoker can answer this, but when we develop any regular pattern of activity, it is to experience a dependable, predictable response in our neurology.
Maybe smoking for john provides a few minutes to gather his thoughts. For another person it is a gateway for socializing. Yet another person may use it for breaking up boredom.
Rarely is any ‘bad’ (if you’re foolish enough to accept such subjective terms) habit purely sustained for its biochemical stimulation. Driving the behaviour of drinking, smoking, overeating, under eating, drug use, gambling or -name your poison- is an unconscious need to achieve a form of positively intended experience.
Which is why forcing control on our urges is a difficult way to create new habits, often leading to the development of more tension and discomfort than the original problem.
However if we respect the positive intention of our behaviours and artfully find more productive and resourceful ways to achieve that intention, change can often arise effortlessly.
You may be asking, ‘What positive intentions?’
Let’s consider two examples:
Lucy overeats and while doing so achieves a positive intention to experience a feeling of comfort.
Diego works more than he needs to and in doing so he fulfills an overwhelming need to feel secure. The intentions of both people are positive: to feel comfort and security.
The problem is the undesirable consequences of the behaviours.
Lucy’s overeating has led to obesity and self-loathing.
Diego’s over-working has affected his family relations and his health.
Something inspires both Lucy and Diego to change, and they now impose their willpower upon unwanted behaviours. Lucy starts to diet and restrict her favorite foods. Diego leaves the office at 6pm to be home for 7pm.
Respectively, cutting back on calories and working fewer hours has an initial positive effect for both people. Lucy begins to lose weight and Diego gets to share more dinners with his family; for a month, in Lucy’s case, and barely two weeks for Diego.
The challenge is that during her self-imposed calorie restriction period, Lucy’s unconscious requirements haven’t changed. She still feels a deep compulsion to find comfort. Dieting and running on a treadmill come nowhere close to fulfilling her sense of need and she starts drinking considerably more alcohol than when she ate, as this achieves the feeling she has lost from food.
Diego is home, but not really. He spends as much time checking his emails, making calls and opening his laptop as he did in the office. Worse still, when his two kids attempt to engage with him he flares up in frustration. His drive to create a sense of security is not met by being home early. In fact, being home has the opposite affect; a feeling of anxiety about the work he isn’t completing.
For both people, imposing a consciously selected behaviour, ‘dieting’ and ‘leaving the office at a set time’ has created an even bigger mess.
My work with many drug addicts has confirmed that their addictions (though the addictions may be destroying their lives) always have a positive intention. I therefore rarely request an addict to cease the drug of their choice until they’ve identified activities to fulfill the same positive unconscious intentions. One client used heroine to achieve a feeling of numbness (his actual description) and so I spent two weeks living by his side in a cottage on the Pembrokeshire sea cliffs next to the Atlantic Ocean. It was January and the water was beyond cold. During his clucking period (the name given to heroin withdraw symptoms) I less than gently encouraged him to swim everyday until he was numb. We also rock climbed most days, to the point where he was unable to lift his arms. Many drug free years later he still climbs, though I doubt he misses the cold swims.
You can start with your own habits by asking, what is this for? And what do I want to experience from doing this?
I just looked at the bottle of rosé wine in my fridge and asked myself the same question. The answer: To give me a break from a very long day of work, and to provide some taste stimulation.
I have coconut water in the fridge that will achieve the same result and (unlike the wine) won’t add stress to my liver.
Once you have questioned your behaviours with, ‘What is this for, and what positive feelings am I getting from it?’ Now make a list of other experiences and activities where you can achieve the same set of feelings.
As an example, if you’re someone who likes to shoot animals in your spare time for ‘sport’, and you have a splinter of regret, doubt, shame each time you do so, ask, ‘ what is this for / what do I get from it?
Maybe it gives you a feeling of power?
So assuming you decide you’d rather not take part in anything as inelegant as death for fun, you can find other ways of feeling powerful. Maybe weightlifting could do it or martial arts, or success in your business, or pretending you’re a Gorilla… The point is to match the intention with a new, more desirable activity other than killing, overeating, smoking, or whatever.
If you then engage in these new activities with regularity, you likely find that they take over from the previous compulsions you wanted and attempted to change with pure will-power.
The aforementioned Lucy and Diego were real clients of mine. Lucy ended up putting on more weight after her short diet, followed by effortlessly restarting an excess drinking habit, which she had originally learned during her days as a student.
Diego and his wife came to see me for relationship coaching.
Among a number of tasks, I suggested that Lucy go on an impossible number of fun dates with the intention to purely be herself and drop any façade with the man in front of her. She was to keep going on such dates, starring ‘as herself’ until she met someone she felt 100% comfortable with.
Diego was cajoled into a deal by his wife and I to start weekly lessons of a hardcore Israeli martial art system called Krav- Maga.
I assumed that the consequences of those tasks could provide a feeling of comfort for Lucy and a sense of security for Diego.
After countless dates, Lucy eventually met her man and doesn’t seem to care so much about food anymore. She’s not skinny, but she is more content than ever before.
Diego takes his two daughters with him to Krav-Maga lessons and tells me he thinks about training when he should be a little more focused upon work.
In my case, I left the Rose’ in the bottle and drank the coconut water instead. This unlikely to be the case at the weekend.