Gretchen Rubin

“Why is it Easy to Make That Initial Decision to Change, and Even to Start, But Difficult to Persist?”

“Why is it Easy to Make That Initial Decision to Change, and Even to Start, But Difficult to Persist?”

Interview: Wendy Wood.

From my time researching and writing Better Than Before, my book about habit change, I know the fascinating work of Wendy Wood.

Wendy Wood is a social psychologist whose research addresses the ways that habits guide behavior—and why they are so difficult to break—as well as evolutionary accounts of gender differences in behavior. She is Provost Professor of Psychology and Business at the University of Southern California, where she also served as Vice Dean of Social Sciences.

Now Wendy Wood has a new book about habits, one of my very favorite subjects: Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes that Stick.

Of course, I couldn't wait to talk to Wendy about happiness, habits, and productivity.

Gretchen: In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?

Wendy: Most of us think we understand habits. We have all seen books, blog posts, and personal recollections on the topic. In a recent survey, I found that over 80% of people believe they know how to form new habits and change old ones.

But it’s not helping us. In the same survey, most people said they were unable to maintain behavior change. They could make a decision to, for example, save money, spend more time with their kids, or stop procrastinating. And they followed through for a short time. After a while, however, they found themselves back to repeating old, unwanted patterns. What are we getting wrong?

One answer is that we mistake willpower for habit. In my survey, most people said it takes willpower to form a new habit. Consider obesity. When Americans reported the biggest barrier to weight loss for the obese, lack of willpower was cited most often. Three-quarters of us believe that obesity results from lack of control over eating. Even obese people reported that their own lack of willpower was the biggest obstacle to losing weight. Eighty-one percent said that lack of self-control was their undoing. Not surprisingly, almost all of these respondents in the survey had tried to change. They had dieted and exercised, but to no avail. Some had tried to lose weight more than twenty times! Yet they still believed that they were deficient in willpower.

I bet that every single one of us has had a similar experience. Every single one of us has failed to evidence willpower. Yet we continue to believe in it. The problem is that our motivation and willpower are not up to the challenge of persisting in the long run—sticking to a diet, an exercise program, a spending budget, or not procrastinating.

This is the puzzle that initially attracted me to the study of behavior change: Why is it easy to make that initial decision to change, and even to start to do some of the right things, but then difficult to persist in the longer term? It seems to me that the willpower hypothesis comes from an initial error. When you decide to be more productive or lose weight, it feels like the most important component has been accomplished. Most of us avoid making those decisions until we have to. So when we do, it feels like a triumph. We stop surfing the web, lose a few pounds…but then things slow down. Willpower isn’t the issue.

Science is showing that, regardless of Nike ads (Just Do It!) and conventional wisdom, we are not one single unified whole. In psychological terms, we do not have a single mind. Instead, our minds of composed of multiple separate-but-interconnected mechanisms that guide behavior. Some of these, it turns out, are suited to handle change. These are the features we know—our decision-making ability and willpower. These are familiar because we consciously experience them. When we make decisions, we consciously attend to information and generate solutions. When we exert willpower, we actively engage mental effort and energy. Decisions and willpower form our subjective reality, or the sense of agency that we recognize as “me.” Much as we experience the stress of exerting physical strength, we are aware of the heavy lift of exerting mental strength.

Executive control must be paid its due. Many of life’s challenges require nothing more than this. A decision to ask for a raise at work starts with setting an appointment with your boss. You carefully phrase your request and outline your reasons. Or, you decide to add some romance to your life by asking that attractive person at the gym to meet for coffee. After some deliberation, you find an appropriately casual way to do so. Decisiveness works in these one-off events. We make our decisions, steel our resolve, and muster our strength to follow through.

Other parts of our lives, however, are stubbornly resistant to such control. And thinking every time we act would, in any case, be a highly inefficient way of conducting our lives. Can you imagine trying to “make the decision” to go to the gym every time you went? You’d be condemning yourself to rekindling the ardor of “Day One” every single day. You’d be forcing your mind to go through that exhausting process of engaging with all of the reasons why you felt you should be going to the gym in the first place—and because our minds are wonderfully, rationally adversarial, you’d have to run through the reasons not to go, too, Each time. Everyday. You would be constantly in the throes of heavy mental lifting, with little time to think about anything else.

What I wanted to show in my new book, Good Habits, Bad Habits, is that there are other parts of our mind, parts that are specifically suited to establishing repeated patterns of behavior. These are our habits—better suited to working automatically than to engaging in the noise, combative work of the debate chamber that usually accompanies our decision-making. A whole lot of your life is already contained in those automatic parts—the simple, assiduous parts of yourself that you can set to a task.

Our conscious minds have little contact with all kinds of things we do—especially habitual things. The self we know is concerned with raises and romance. Our nonconscious selves are forming habits that enable us to easily repeat what we have done in the past. We do not control our habits in the same way as we do our conscious decisions. We have little conscious experience of forming a habit or acting out of habit. This is the under-the-surface, hidden nature of habit. It explains how our casual conversation is marked by an odd sense of submission: “Ah, well, it’s just my habit’”—as though habits almost exist separately from ourselves or run in parallel to the selves we know.

To test your understanding of habit, you can go to goodhabitsbadhabits.org and complete the surveys. To find out more about how to form new, beneficial habits that help you to meet your goals, I hope that you will read my book to gain insights from the recent science on habit formation and change. It might just make your life a whole lot happier.

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