New aims, new habits
Do you think you can control everything through willpower? Think again. Habits shape our conduct. They help us get through crises like Covid-19 when they are pertinent. But if they are not, they restrict our ability to react. The good news: the post-crisis world offers a chance to press the reset button.
Willpower is always overestimated. The result is that when you miss a goal, you feel guilty. You think you are weak, incompetent, or a failure. Stop beating yourself up! According to author Wendy Wood1, you are not a Homo economicus, John Stuart Mill’s perfect and infallible rational beings. The “just do it” mantra doesn’t work. This is especially the case in times of uncertainty and stress like the one we are currently experiencing. Energy focused on survival leaves us little room to maneuver.
You will not reach your goals through superhuman, aggressive, 24/7 self-control over your actions, but through your ability to create good, long-lasting, and unbreakable habits, especially in times of crisis. This also implies knowing how to change them when needed, during periods of disruption, which create a new context, perfect for adopting new behavior patterns. A window of opportunity may thus present itself in the wake of the current health crisis.
Your habits guide you more than your willpower
Efficiency has more to do with how well your habits are suited to your goals than with willpower. According to a study carried out by Wood,1 43 percent of our actions are habitual and devoid of conscious thought. A cognitive bias, known as the “introspection illusion,” makes us overestimate our ability to control our actions and decision-making. By way of proof, awareness of something rarely leads to a change in behavior. Although the “5 a Day” campaign made Americans aware of the virtues of eating five servings of fruit and vegetables a day (8 percent had heard of the slogan in 1991, compared to 39 percent in 1997), the percentage of people who followed the recommendation remained stable at 11 percent. Willpower only has an effect on easy or occasional actions. When it comes to repetitive actions, or those requiring an effort, the human brain switches to “habitual” mode.
Repeating an experience has the power to make it more agreeable, even if it wasn’t to start with. So make sure you choose carefully, to avoid making a dubious — or even harmful — experience enjoyable simply through habit.
But you do have the power to shape them
1. “Habits in Everyday Life : Thought, Emotion and Action”, Wendy Wood, Jeffrey M. Quinn and Deborah A. Kashy, (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology n° 83, 2002)
Excerpt from Business Digest N°307, Juin 2020