Habit or Willpower: Which Is Stronger?

Health & Well-Being , On the Job Tips

Most of us think we’d be healthier if only we had the mental strength
to make the right choices.

New research suggests, however, that in the effort to change, habits may be more important than willpower.

“When we try to change our behavior, we strategize about our motivation and self-control. But what we should be thinking about instead is how to set up new habits. Habits persist even when we’re tired and don’t have the energy to exert self-control,” said Wendy Wood, PhD, provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, in a USC press release.

USC scientists conducted five experiments, published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2013; 104 [6], 959–75; doi:10.1037/a0032626). The studies examined whether habits could improve or undermine goal achievement, particularly when people lacked willpower (as might occur under stress). Results showed that people tended to default to a habit, whether “good” or “bad,” when they lacked the mental resources to make a choice (e.g., “Do I work out or not?”).

“Habits don’t require much willpower and thought and deliberation,” said Woods. “So, the central question for behavior change efforts should be, how can you form healthy, productive habits?”

The takeaway for fitness and wellness professionals? According to Wood, “What we know about habit formation is that you want to make the behav-ior easy to perform, so that people repeat it often and it becomes part of their daily routine.”

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