Having more information on how to live a healthier life is always good. That is why I read so much, study so hard, and ask so many questions. However, information without action results in nothing changing.
I believe we know enough to make better choices and act in ways that would lead to better health. So why don’t we do the things we should? I used to think it was a matter of willpower. So, every time I failed to stick to a new resolution, I thought it was because I was too weak and lacked willpower.
Well, after studying willpower, I can tell you that willpower alone is not enough. Actually, willpower works in doses, which means it runs out. Studies have shown that if you exert willpower on one activity, you will be less likely to exert it on a following activity. Much like a muscle that fatigues over extended use.
For example, if I put you in a room with a plate of freshly baked cookies, but tell you not to eat any of them, then, after a while, have you try to complete a difficult puzzle, you will give up much faster on the puzzle than if I had allowed you to eat the cookies. Researcher Roy Baumeister ran studies like this and proved that if you used willpower on one task, then you had less available to succeed in a subsequent task.
So, no matter how hard you try to will yourself into performing, or continuing, a lifestyle change, such as getting up early to workout, avoid sweets, or reduce your amount of shopping and spending, you will often fail over time if you simply rely on willpower.
In Shawn Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage, he points out why we revert to our old behaviors and fail at continuing on with new ones. He calls it “the path of least resistance.” Basically, we are drawn to the things that “are easy, convenient, and habitual.” You would likely get enjoyment from going out for a bike ride, but that would require putting on the appropriate clothing and shoes, pulling the bike out of the garage, possibly putting air in the tires, and deciding what route to take. Plopping down on the couch with the remote in hand is so much easier and convenient, that instead of going for that ride, you end up on the couch.
Shawn has a proven solution, which he calls the 20-Second Rule. This essentially states that if you make something twenty seconds easier, or more accessible, your success rate skyrockets. For example, if you want to eat more fruit and less junk, try having the fruit washed and ready to eat, and leave it out on the counter, in plain sight and easy to just grab. That increased ease and accessibility will make a huge difference.
It also works in reverse. By making the things you wish to avoid twenty seconds more difficult to do, you will do those things less. In the example of eating more fruit and less junk, making the fruit much more accessible is critical, but making the junk less accessible works too. Studies have shown that a candy dish on your desk is much more likely to get eaten quicker than if it is out of sight in a drawer. And the ability to eat less of that candy gets stronger the further away it gets. So, in the drawer is better than on the desk, but across the room in a cabinet is even better.
Try it. Whatever healthier, more positive habit you would like to create, try making it easier to accomplish with the 20-Second Rule. Limit your excessive email checking by turning off the alerts and eliminating the automatic sign-in feature. Stop wasting so much time reading news headlines online by making your computer’s home page one that does not contain news stories. Reduce your shopping obsession and spending by unsubscribing to all those retailers sending you sales announcements and new product alerts.
You fail not because you are weak, but because you are set up to fail. Start stacking the deck in your favor and make little twenty-second tweaks here and there, and your self-control and success will go up.