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The UnCollege Blog

Willpower vs Habits: Why Habits Work

Learning to make effective habits instead of relying on willpower to help you give yourself a world-class, self-directed education is something that will set you ahead of the rest of the pack, and set you far ahead of your traditionally-educated peers. It will help you have a more manageable life and workload, as well as make self-educating much less stressful.

During the Gap Year program, our fellows learn about habit building and sharpen this skill in order to become better self-directed learners throughout the course of their lives. We have workshops dedicated to the skill of habit building, and, in addition, our coaches help each fellow on an individual basis to form habits that will benefit them the most. We see habit-building as a very integral part of being a self-directed learner and a more effective person. But before the fellows can start building habits, they have to understand the difference between operating on pure willpower and relying on strong habits. Then, they have to know the most effective way to build habits that will make them stick.

Let’s take a look at the difference between using willpower to accomplish our goals and relying on well-formed habits:

1. You only have a set amount of willpower

Every day, we have a set amount of willpower. We all know this because we’ve all gotten to that point in the day where we just can’t do it anymore. Something inside us says “no.” And it says it strongly, with such force that even if we try to go against it, we will feel miserable and stop partway through what we’re doing because the voice was right. We can only do so much in a day out of pure willpower. But, that’s where habits come in.

Think about brushing your teeth or showering. Those don’t take any effort, do they? They’re completely automatic. But think back to when you were a kid. Brushing your teeth every night felt like a chore. It made you squirm and you couldn’t wait to be done. You might’ve been mad at your parents for making you do such a miserable task. What changed?

You formed a habit. And you stuck to that habit for a really long time. Now, tonight, if you were to skip brushing your teeth, wouldn’t it feel weird? If you didn’t take a shower tomorrow morning, or whenever it is you take a shower, wouldn’t your day feel kinda thrown off? That’s because you’re breaking a habit. It would probably be way harder for you to not brush your teeth for a month than to brush your teeth for a month because that habit is ingrained in your mind.

2. Using willpower is exhausting

I recently started working out because I know that I need more exercise in my day to stay healthy. Working out isn’t so hard in and of itself, it’s getting to that point that is exhausting. Saying in my mind “I’m gonna do this.” and motivating myself to go do the routine is harder than the actual routine. A million excuses pop up in my mind as to why I shouldn’t work out, or what else I could do instead. It’s hard to silence those voices.

In contrast to that, I have a daily writing habit. I sit down at the same time every day and write for the same amount of hours until it’s time to stop. This is easy, and I even look forward to it, because it’s just a natural, enjoyable part of my day. If I don’t write one day, I feel wrong. My day is off. But if I follow that habit I set, I feel great when I’m done. Starting that habit was hard. I had to figure out when I would start and end, where I would write and what my writing goals were. Then, I had to commit. I had to put myself in the mindset of “I’m gonna do this.” Which is a hard mindset to get into. But now that it’s a habit, it feels natural. I don’t use any willpower on it, and I have willpower leftover for dealing with other occurrences and forming more habits. I’m less exhausted when I use less willpower and rely on habits I’ve built instead. Who doesn’t want to be less exhausted?

3. Using willpower takes longer

Mustering up willpower calls upon your mental and emotional faculties, as well as taking time out of your day. Even if it’s just a few minutes of time - which it’s probably not - that’s still time you could be using more effectively. Whether you’re trying to educate yourself or work on something of your own,calling upon the willpower to read the books, practice the skills and send the emails isn’t practical.

When you use willpower to accomplish tasks, you will procrastinate. It’s a fact. Your mind will find ways to distract you from doing that right away - consciously or unconsciously - and you will lose time. A lot of time. Procrastination wins over willpower almost always, and always at first. This will make tasks take longer to get done than if you just form a habit and rely on that to carry you through your day.

Alright, so you’re convinced that habits are better than relying on your willpower reserves to accomplish your goals. But you’re wondering how to effectively make habits that will help you get shit done and keep your willpower for when you really need it.

So, how do we form habits?

1. Use another habit you already have to link this habit to

For years, I struggled with forgetting - or just avoiding - practicing piano. I loved playing piano, the feel of the keys, the satisfaction of finally getting something right, just getting to hear the sound of the music coming out. I loved it. I still love it. But it was hard as hell to get myself to practice.

Every night before bed I studied music theory and literature for a couple hours. It was my nightly routine. After this, I would brush my teeth. I had two habits that were linked to one another. After a couple hours of reading, my brain said “After this chapter, I should brush my teeth and go to bed.” Without realising it, I had effectively linked two habits together, making the formation of the reading habit much easier than it could have been.

But I still struggled with getting my piano practice in. So I decided that, between studying music theory and studying literature, I would practice piano. Suddenly, not as much willpower was needed to practice piano, because once I finished one habit, my brain fired off the message that I should practice piano. After a while (the standard 28 days to form a habit), it paid off and practicing piano was simple. I didn’t really think about it. And I was getting way better at piano by practicing daily.

If you link the habit you’re trying to form to another habit in your mind - either fitting it in before or after another habit - then, it will become easier to build that habit. They will become linked in your mind and you won’t be able to procrastinate. I think it’s especially helpful to put the habit you’re trying to form before a well-established habit, like showering or brushing your teeth. That way, since you want to get to the other thing - because you’ve hardwired your brain to do that at “x” time or before you do “y” thing - you power through the part that needs willpower to get to the easy stuff that is already a component of your day.

2. Use the clock to help you

If you want to do something, set aside a certain time for it. Be specific. Not “I’ll do this in the afternoon” or “I’ll do this sometime before 9am” but “I’m going to start this at 7:30 and end at 8:30.”

If you attach the thing you want to do to a specific time in your mind, it becomes easier to do. The more specific you can be, the better. Linking an activity and a time in your brain helps create a more solid habit and will be much better than having a vague idea that’s harder to set goals around.

3. Only form one habit at a time

Building up a habit takes willpower, which is inherently exhausting to use. Therefore, the beginning of habit making will be just as hard as it is to do things without habits. As time goes on, it will become easier, but in the beginning, it takes just as much willpower as you were using before you decided to build a habit. Because of this, you should not try to build multiple habits at a time.

If you do try to build multiple habits at a time, doing so many new things will leave you exhausted and you’ll end up right where you started: with no new habits and out of willpower. In order to avoid this, you have to strictly only create one habit at a time. After 28 days, you can go on to the next one, but until then, decide in your mind that you will not make any new habits other than this one. And focus your willpower into building this habit, so you can get onto the next one and have a host of good habits to fall back on to make your life easier. Don’t stretch yourself thin, only focus on one habit at a time.

Once you decide to build habits instead of wear yourself out trying to get through your day with willpower, remember to go slow. Take it one habit at a time and attach that habit to other habits and set times to make them easier to remember and to act upon. Keep on keeping on when it gets tough until suddenly, you notice it’s no longer tough. Then, you’ll know you’ve constructed a habit. After you do that, take a moment to be proud of yourself before you continue on to other habits. It’s good to take pride in an accomplishment. And it will give you motivation to start the next one.