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  • Writer's pictureToni Kenyon

The Contrary Nature of Willpower and Habits

Contrary is a word that was often used by my parents to describe me. Some days I think that it’s as relevant as ever.

Unsure of what it means?

“Opposite in nature, direction, or meaning” or more particularly in my case, “perversely inclined to disagree or to do the opposite of what is expected or desired”.

That last definition probably describes my life up until I decided to try and find a way to make things easier for myself! I am (still) a work in progress.

So why do I use the word ‘contrary’ in relation to willpower and habits?

I’m sure you’ve found a time in your life (as have I) when it’s hard to keep up willpower for any length of time. Yes, I could stick to a lettuce and carrot diet for a week and go hungry, but eventually my willpower faded. The same can be said for exercise. Pro tip: Get a dog! You always have to go walking, otherwise the dog will eat the furniture. But I digress.

In the above example, willpower soon became won’t power when I reached a certain pain point.

But what about all those things that I do on a daily basis? Getting up and taking the dog for a walk. Brushing my teeth. Going to work every day. Some of those may not be my favourite things to do either (except maybe for walking the dog...he’s won me over!), but I do them daily without the risk of running out of willpower.

The stunningly simple (and contrary!) reason is because they have become habits. They are so ingrained in what I do and who I am that I do them (mostly…) without it even entering my head that I should skip a day or a week. I don’t have to make a conscious decision each day to shower or eat breakfast, or walk the dog, it’s just what I do – it’s become an ingrained habit.

So you can see why I’ve used the word ‘contrary’ to describe the relationship between habits and willpower. I don’t know about you, but when I decide that I want to begin a new habit, it takes a freaking ton of willpower to get that new thing done every day--especially once the shiny new thing aura wears off. But the strange thing that I find happening is that as I continue to establish my new habit, it becomes easier and easier to do that new thing until (before I know it) I don’t even have to think about it anymore.

Just having an awareness of this process seems to help me stick out the early stages of forming a new habit. Eventually, there is no need to struggle to find willpower because the new habit is firmly entrenched in my daily (or weekly) routine.

Then, I begin to feel the benefit of the new habit and I’m even more motivated to continue.

The tricky part is the period of time when I’m in that transition period from willpower to habit--but I’ve discovered that there are a number of tools I can use to make this period easier on myself.

I can use a to-do list or set myself some kind of reminder to help me stay on track. Of course, if you get a dog to help with your exercise habit, I can assure you that there will be no need for any of these kinds of reminders. Your four-footed-friend will be more than happy to remind you to exercise!

Have you tried using an accountability partner? I found being accountable to someone else to meet my daily word count goal in the early days of my writing an excellent motivator. I didn’t want to let myself (or my partner) down. Having an accountability partner helped me immensely to set up the daily writing habit.

We bolstered each other’s willpower when our enthusiasm for daily word sprints began to falter.

With regard to diet, I find it easier not to indulge in eating sugary treats if I don’t buy any. I know! It’s a radical idea...if the stuff isn’t in the house then I can’t eat it.

Do what you need to do to help your willpower along until you have set in stone the new behavior and you will have formed a true habit. Before you know it, your new behaviour will be automatic and easy and you will have created a new (healthy and beneficial) lifetime habit.

And, as I always say, if you find that you miss a day and you’re struggling with your willpower--just start over. There’s never a wrong time to begin doing something healthy for yourself.

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