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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 economicusJohn Stuart Mill’s perfect and infallible rational beings. The just do it mantra doesnt 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,143 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 wasnt 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  

1Habits 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

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Françoise Tollet
Published by Françoise Tollet
She spent 12 years in industry, working for Bolloré Technologies, among others. She co-founded Business Digest in 1992 and has been running the company since 1998. And she took the Internet plunge in 1996, even before coming on board as part of the BD team.