Do You Need An Iron Will To Change a Habit?

How trust, rather than forcefulness, can help us change our ways

When it comes to habit change, willpower is often touted as the Number One Key To Success. Have you got the discipline, the steel, the integrity, to push ahead towards a target? Have you lined up a series of ice buckets, ready to douse yourself in the name of #MondayMotivation?

But while sheer force may give us a boost out the gates - it turns out willpower is often not responsible, or even massively relevant, when it comes to changing our day-to-day behaviour.

Many of our routine decisions are the result of subliminal, instantaneous processes determined by - you guessed it - our previous habits. Because apparently, habits can actually change how our minds work.

And the trouble with forcefulness, when applied to this reality, is that it encourages us to feel acutely responsible for every wrong 'decision' - and to be incredibly hard on ourselves.

How many times, on falling to stick to a new target, have you found yourself flailing around in despair and then (with a mixture of self-flagellation and relief), abandoning the project completely?

Amongst the frenzy of January self help columns, a few wise voices have spoken out in favour of trust, over a steely will. Here are our highlights:

1. Start with something very, very small
Leo Babauta, Zen Habits
And he means small. For example - if you want to get to bed earlier, go to bed not two hours earlier, not half an hour earlier, but literally five minutes earlier than you normally would. The principle here is trust. In setting yourself firm, but incredibly achievable targets, you quickly build faith in your own ability to stick to them. Oh, and it might just give those weird little habit circuits in your brain a chance to catch up to the shift.

2. Craft an environment that supports you
Paul Dolan, Happiness By Design
Our habitual behaviours are often automatic - and triggered by cues in the world around us. If your laptop is stationed next to your pillow, you might have to be a Super Woman not to binge on Netflix before you go to sleep. Once we work out those cues, we can forgive ourselves for falling prey to them - and try to replace them with a positive alternative. For instance, lock the laptop in the cupboard when you get home and arrange for your flatmate to feed you cookies while you write your journal.

3. Habit change is identity change
Gretchen Rubin, Better Than Before
In her latest book, Better Than Before, Rubin outlines change as a willingness to step into a new identity. As we change what we do, we must embrace a new sense of who we are. She notes that hovering negative self talk - you can't, you shouldn't, it's not like you - is often the most powerful brake. To churn through the turnstile of change, we have to be willing to let go of whatever our old habits and self-talk were doing for us - protecting us from change, providing distraction, soothing anxiety - and gently acknowledge our own potential to be as we wish to be.