How to Improve Willpower: Brain Hacks to Achieve Your Goals
At the end of this post, you will have built a failure-proof system to make one new habit stick.
Maneesh Sethi, founder of Pavlok and chief editor at Hack The System, spoke at the Bulletproof Biohacking Conference about brain hacks to develop new habits. He dove deeper into the topic during a 2-day CreativeLive workshop shortly after.
Below are my notes on how to improve willpower and make forming new habits bulletproof. This means, no matter your goal, you can apply these techniques to give yourself unstoppable willpower.
You have to participate though. What is one habit you want to adopt?
Exercise more? Meditate? Eat cleaner?
Pick one and we’ll walk through the techniques together.
** Write it down on a piece of paper.
The Secret To Permanent Success
You will read the techniques below and think “Wow. That’s cool, but do I have to keep using these forever?”
The answer is no. The goal of these techniques is to make a habit stick until it becomes part of your identity.
The techniques described below help you take your goal and make it a habit. Eventually, by maintaining the habit for a period of time, you actually become the type of person who does that habit. At that point, these techniques aren’t needed anymore. You are inherently motivated to do the habit.
To reiterate: the habit, if done consistently, eventually becomes part of who you are. According to Maneesh, it averages 66 days for this to happen.
For example: Running.
I have a friend who runs every day, rain or shine. Even after a long night of jager bombs, he wakes at 8am the next morning, fumbles around for his running shoes, and then hits the pavement for a quick 5 mile run.
He tells me he just wouldn’t feel right if he didn’t run. Running is part of his identity.
The Secret To Initial Success
Instead of aiming for the 300lb squat, aim to squat 3 times a week. Instead of becoming a zen master, decide to meditate each day. Instead of eating super healthy, focus on drinking a green smoothie each morning.
Let’s do it together.
Turn your desired habit into a daily, measurable action.
Write it down.
Got it? Okay, let’s continue.
Willpower – available for a limited time only!
You already know willpower can’t reliably sustain a habit.
How many New Year’s resolutions have you started and then quickly given up? If you are like me, then uh… all of them.
Willpower is our ability to “push through” a mental obstacle. With every decision we’re forced to make, we use willpower. As we make more decisions each day, we deplete our willpower reserves. We become fatigued and eventually default decision-making to a less rational part of our brain.
If I offered you $100 right now or $150 in one month, what would you take?
The rational answer is $150. You are unlikely to find a 50% return by putting that money anywhere else. However, a study showed that when participants were asked lots of tedious questions to intentionally deplete their willpower, most chose the $100 option.
If your willpower reserves are depleted, you are likely to make poor decisions.
Some daily willpower depleters include:
- deciding what to wear
- deciding what to eat
- deciding what you should be doing right now
- deciding how to respond to a constant influx of emails, fb messages, tweets, etc
- deciding how you should spend your time in the future
- and a whole bunch more…
Rather than relying on willpower to make the right decision “in the moment,” let’s use our willpower preemptively to create systems that ensure our habits can’t fail.
Making Habits Inevitable
Aka, effort to do it < effort to not do it.
BJ Fogg, Stanford behavior specialist, has a formula for this.
You doing the BEHAVIOR = your MOTIVATION X your ABILITY to do it X the TRIGGER to prompt you to do it.
To increase your likelihood of adopting a behavior, you can make it easier to do or increase your motivation to do it.
You can make a habit easier by:
- Committing to microhabits.
- Designing your environment for success.
- Anchoring it to an established habit.
You can increase motivation by:
- Adding negative reinforcement for not doing the habit.
- Rewarding yourself for doing the habit.
- Adding social support.
- Visualizing progress.
- Keeping motivational material close at hand.
- Pre-committing to the habit.
Flossing all your teeth sounds miserable. But flossing just one tooth sounds way easier.
Going for a 30 minute run is UGGHHHHHH… But putting on running shoes and just stepping outside is simple.
This is the idea of a microhabit. A microhabit is a very tiny habit that is so easy to do it’d be silly not to do it.
It probably seems goofy to floss just one tooth or just go outside when your desired habit is to floss ALL your teeth or actually go for a run, but there’s real psychology behind this suggestion.
The hardest part in doing any action is starting. We don’t start because it’s so much easier NOT to start. If we make it SO easy to start, we’re much more likely to actually do it.
And once we start, momentum often keeps us going. Who really flosses just one tooth? If you are already outside, might as well run a little bit, right?
Chances are you’ll do more than just your microhabit, but you don’t have to.
After a week of putting on shoes and stepping outside, you can step the microhabit up a notch by also running for 3 minutes. You’re already good at going outside, so running for just 3 minutes is still easy, right?
** What’s the microhabit for your desired habit? Break it down to the smallest possible action that gets you started and write it down.
Design your environment to make the action as easy as possible to do.
- If the habit requires you to attend a gym, then choose a gym that is on your way to work.
- If you are trying to reduce sugar, then throw out everything in your home that contains sugar.
- If you want to read before going to sleep, then put the book on your pillow each morning.
Once again, the goal is to make the action easier to do than not to do.
If the desired habit is to read before bed, and you have to lift the book off your pillow at night anyway, and the microhabit is to read just one sentence, then you might as well do it. You’ll feel bad if you don’t.
Setting up your environment for success is often the most important step. Even a small change (like moving that guitar you want to practice from the closet to the middle of your bedroom) can make a massive difference.
Ask yourself – what would trigger you to do the action?
** Take a moment now to write 1 way you can create an environment that supports your goal.
Most of us respond strongly to the fear of loss.
For example, if you don’t write down one habit right now, then you have to pay me $10.
Did you write down a habit? I’m guessing yes, but if not, then I’m serious. Pay me $10 by clicking the link above.
Maneesh used negative reinforcement to increase his productivity, which averaged an abysmal 38% according to RescueTime. He hired a girl from Craigslist to slap him in the face if he went to Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit.
Guess what happened? He got slapped in the face! But only once. His productivity that day increased to 98%.
Negative reinforcement can happen in a few forms:
- Financial Loss – make bets, like paying $50 if you don’t do your action
- Social Embarrassment – like posting to your Facebook wall
- Pain – like a slap in the face, a snap of a rubberband on your skin, or a shock (Maneesh created Pavlok for this exact purpose)
Are you already thinking of excuses why this won’t work for you? Just try it, Maneesh said, and notice how the conversation in your head changes. It’s remarkable.
** Write down 1 negative reinforcement for your habit.
“If I don’t take my daily action, then I will ______.” Commit to it for 14 days. Pick a friend to keep you accountable. Don’t have friends? Email me and I’ll do it.
According to Maneesh, negative reinforcement gets you started. Positive reinforcement keeps you going.
If you do the daily action every day for the 14 days, then reward yourself. Treat yourself to a massage, buy a new pair of shoes, or schedule a day at the beach.
Choose whatever will be a reward to you.
** Write down a reward that will act as your positive reinforcement.
Anticipating Pattern Interruptors
Travel always kills my habits. So does 2am drinking and pizza parties.
Most of us fall prey to the All-or-Nothing fallacy. If we break a habit once, we give up. Or worse, we binge. Once I eat some ice cream, I eat ALL the ice cream.
To combat this, Maneesh recommends creating IF… THEN… rules.
If I eat ice cream, then I’ll do 25 pushups.
If I’m stuck in an airport without my guitar, then I’ll watch 2 online guitar videos.
If I must visit Facebook, then I’ll think of 3 things I’m grateful for.
Set rules to keep you moving forward, even if circumstance forces you to take a step back.
For travel specifically, it’s important to do your daily action immediately when arriving. What you do on your first day in a new city, is who you become in that city.
** Plan ahead for your pattern interruptors. Write 1 “IF… THEN…” rule to keep you on track.
Putting It All Together
Here’s what I’m actually doing:
- Goal: I want to write more articles and eventually write a book.
- Microhabit: I will write one sentence in my Evernote “daily writing” notebook each morning.
- Environment: I will leave my laptop with Evernote open on the counter where I make breakfast.
- Trigger: I will write after making coffee.
- Negative Reinforcement: I will pay my friend Tim (a writer) $50 each time I don’t do the microhabit for the next 14 days. I am using Zapier to automatically text him after I create a new entry in Evernote.
- Positive Reinforcement: I also automatically text myself a positive message each time I write.
- Pattern Interruptor: IF I can’t write in Evernote, THEN I will text Tim one thing I’m grateful for.
Can you imagine NOT keeping that habit? It’s a system that is nearly impossible to fail.
The laptop is easy to access, Evernote is already open, and writing one sentence is simple. If I don’t write once, I’ll lose $50. It’s much easier to write the sentence than to lose $50.
Now your turn.
On a piece of paper, write your responses to the following:
- Write ONE habit goal you wish to develop.
- Turn it into a daily, measurable action.
- Make it a microhabit.
- List one change to your environment to make the action super easy to do.
- Determine the trigger.
- Add a negative reinforcement (penalty) if you DON’T do the action. Include who will keep you accountable.
- Add a positive reinforcement (reward) if you DO the action for the time period you listed.
- Set one IF… THEN… rule to anticipate pattern interruptors
- Sign it! It is now a contract you have committed yourself to follow.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your responses and I’ll follow up to keep you accountable. I might ask for your help to keep me accountable to my goals as well.
By the way, here’s another great reference for changing an existing habit: follow the flowchart here.
Want to learn more about biohacking? Got you covered right here.