Five strategies to build better habits

I took a poetry workshop class in my senior year of college. Each week, two different students submitted a piece of work for the class to critique, and by the end of the semester, we submitted a collection of poetry for the final grade.*

This is what I look like when I've procrastinated. Yet again. 

This is what I look like when I've procrastinated. Yet again. 

The class cemented what had become my growing suspicion that I was terrible at poetry. One of my submissions for the class included these brilliant stanzas:

The sun is shining, the grass is green
Last time I checked I still had a spleen
I am happy.

I saw two lovers kiss on my way to class
A kid on school bus flashed me his ass
I am happy.

A fellow classmate suggested that this poem was exactly why people didn’t write about happiness. 

I grew so uncomfortable with the class that I put off the assignments at every opportunity. By the time my portfolio submission was due, I had little to work with, and no cover poem. So I opted for honesty and wrote the following piece:

Procrastinating Poet

Meant to write a poem. 
But the weather hasn’t been
for writing poetry. 

I thought it was witty and maybe a tad clever, but my professor saw it for what it really was. A shoddy last-minute effort at my portfolio. She was kind to give me a B. 

Willpower and procrastination

Over the last few weeks, I’ve spend a lot of time reading about willpower - about decision fatigue and ego depletion and how willpower is a finite resource. We know that making a ton of decisions and resisting urges throughout the day can directly impact our self-control by the end of the day. So what is the solution to making better and healthier decisions when your willpower is depleted?

Here is a quote from the book I've been referencing (Willpower):

“Successful people don’t use their willpower as a last ditch defense to stop themselves from disaster, at least not as a regular strategy.” 

The writers of the book suggest that folks who use their self-control to avoid a crisis as opposed to surviving a crisis, have more success (defining success is another matter altogether). Taking your car to the mechanic for regular maintenance before it breaks down, seeing the dentist before the toothache, giving yourself enough time to finish a project - are all examples of playing offense instead of defense. 

When I got to this part of the book, I laughed out loud. Mostly because I'm on defense so often it's almost absurd.  

I’m such a procrastinator that years ago when I wrote a weekly newspaper column for the local paper in Pennsylvania, I titled the column “At the Last Minute.”

The column was due every Monday and each week I’d start an idea on Thursday, only to leave it unfinished until Monday night when I'd bang my head against a wall wondering how I could possibly have put off my column until the last minute, yet again. 

My chronic procrastination is a constant source of stress and depletes much of my willpower throughout the day.

So what to do? Well, the authors of the book make these suggestions to help me, and you, play offense instead of defense. 

1. Know your limits

Willpower is a limited resource and it’s depleted and used in more ways than we realize throughout the day. Walking past your co-worker's candy dish 25 times throughout the day and never indulging - dealing with computer or technology issues- going to the gym when you don’t want to - getting out of bed when your body needs more sleep - these all affect your willpower. Recognizing that you are going to be out of willpower by the time you go out with friends for dinner that night might help you better prepare to make a nutrition choice that is on par with your goals. (One suggestion in these situations is to order first, so as not to be influenced by the decisions of those around you.)

2. Make a to-do-list

This is one habit I've always done, mostly in an effort to brain dump and clear my head. When I don't make a list to get things out of my mind and onto a piece of paper, you can find me pacing the gym and muttering things under my breath. The gym is a stimulating environment, and I use a lot of willpower to just focus. Making a list helps me to get my tasks on paper and out of my mind, freeing up my unconscious, at least a little bit. 

3. Don't forget the basics 

As it turns out, our unconscious is also affected by subtle cues such as a clean desk and a made bed.** Although we might not care about whether our bed is made or the desk is clean, these environmental cues subtly influence your brain and your behavior, making it less of a strain to maintain self-discipline. 

4. Pick your battles

We can't control or predict the stresses in our life - the loss of a job - a breakup - a sick family member, but we can use the calm periods to play offense. We can use the less crazy times in our lives to make new changes, to start a new exercise program or make some nutrition changes or learn how to macrame. Because macrame is fun. I think.

If you are dealing with a major job change, move, or other significant life event, now is not that time to make big changes. 

5. The nothing alternative

I've used this strategy quite a bit in recent weeks, especially with writing. When I commit an hour to writing, I don't allow myself to do anything else with that hour. I'm allowed to not write - I can pace the room, pet my dog, scream at him in horror for eating a cricket - but I'm not allowed to do anything else - like check social media or email or Amazon.

I love the authors' suggestion of playing offense, even though it's not something I always do very well. We often try to make a ton of changes at once - recently I was trying to train for a marathon, write a page per day, while we packed up and moved our house. 

Eventually, I had to acknowledge that packing up and moving the house was too much of a strain to add the other pieces, and so I let them go for a few weeks. Now that we're moved, I've got more space in my life to commit myself to writing one page a day.  

All of these above recommendations are habit-based. The focus is not on trying a new diet or new exercise program, but in making a habit change to nutrition or exercise. You focus on one habit per week or per month to help keep the process less overwhelming.  

As the authors suggest, the most lasting technique for conserving willpower is building a habit. 

Learning to plan ahead, whether that's stocking your refrigerator with healthy foods, removing the tempting food from your house, or putting your gym bag on your front seat in the morning on your way to work, can help you conserve willpower and make the changes you want to make.

And sometimes you're going to come up short. Be kind to yourself in those moments though, ok?

* It's also fair to admit that the only time I was drunk before noon was the day that my friend and I had our poems presented for criticism at the workshop. 

** Right now my partner Sheila is reading this and wondering whether or not I'll adopt these habits...stay tuned...

What a radish teaches us about willpower

“I know what I need to be doing. I’m just not doing it.”

Raise your hand if you’ve ever said this. 

Or if you’re sure. :-) 

I hear these words on an almost daily basis as a coach, and often say them myself. We utter the phrase out of ownership - a coach or teacher or therapist helped us figure out a plan, but we haven't executed it, and so we try to saddle up to the challenge. 

As a coach, I don't want anyone to believe I'm without struggle. Working out is a mainstay for me, but that doesn't mean that every behavior change is so straightforward. 

My behavior change is writing. I know I need to sit down every day and write if I want to be successful at the craft. I just don't do it. 


Hell I once tied myself to a chair with a pair of panty hose to force myself to write. To just sit down and do it. A half hour later, I literally had my panty hose in a knot and hadn't written a thing. 

Humans are wonderfully complex and intricate beings though, and so making lifestyle changes, while simple in concept, are much more challenging in reality. 

A few weeks ago I talked about willpower, and specifically decision fatigue. Another concept referenced in the book I've been reading (“Willpower” by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney) is ego depletion.

Some years ago in an effort to understand willpower, the co-author of the book Roy Baumeister, a research psychologist, performed a study between two groups of students. Both groups were invited into a room with a plate of warm, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, chocolate, and radishes. One group was invited to eat the chocolate or the cookies, and another group was instructed only to eat the radishes. (I'm sad in my heart for that second group..) 

Afterwards, the students were taken to another room and given insoluble geometry puzzles. The group that was allowed to eat the cookies or the chocolate typically worked on the puzzles for about 20 minutes. Those who were only allowed to eat radishes gave up on the puzzles in eight minutes. 

Eight minutes. 

The theory was that much like a muscle, willpower could be fatigued through use. The students who were denied the cookies and chocolate had used up so much willpower in resisting the treats that they had little left in the tank to work on a puzzle.

It is these concepts - of ego depletion and decision fatigue (among many other factors) that sometimes come between the original statements: 

I know what I need to be doing. I’m just not doing it. 

We assume that knowledge by itself is enough to make a behavior change. That once you’ve been armed with the right information and the plan for change, the next step is the epitome of Nike’s campaign.

You just do it. 

Not quite. 

Think about your day. Did you walk past that candy dish 17 times without taking one piece? Did you resist unleashing an epic rampage against the co-worker who condescendingly told you how to do your job? Did you avoid banging your head against the conference table when Judy went off on an un-related 20 minute tangent about her root canal at the weekly staff meeting? 

Then you come home and your husband left the toilet seat up, again, and you explode into an expletive-laced rant about sitting in toilet water in the middle of the night. (I grew up with a few brothers, so this was a familiar rant) 

Because you used up much of your willpower after a long day at work, you’ve got nothing left to put up with your spouse’s annoying little habits. And you sure as hell don't have much left to not have that bowl of ice cream. Or not eat fast food. Or force yourself to walk two miles after dinner. 

As I mentioned a few weeks ago - willpower is a limited resource. We only have so much of it for each day - one of the studies in the book referenced parole hearings and how judges were more likely to grant parole at the beginning of the day than the end - and when we've used it up, no amount of knowledge in the world will help us make a behavior change.

So what do we do?

Later this week I'll talk about strategies you can employ to help work with and around willpower to make the changes you want to make.

(Hint - avoiding procrastination is a big one.)

Be kind to yourself.