You may have heard the saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It is attributed to Peter Drucker, but the best researchers have never found an original source. Regardless of who said it, the phrase is a compelling word picture for the dominance of organizational culture over strategic plans.
The same case can be made for habits over willpower.
Understanding the power of habit is critical, especially when focused on the Wellbeing Indicators that enable you to be at your best. A Wellbeing Indicator is a daily behavior, over which you have full control, that most directly impacts your wellbeing and quality of life physically, spiritually, relationally, and intellectually.
The difference between ordinary and extraordinary in every category of life that matters isn’t one shining moment of overachievement. It is a series of meaningful but modest actions over time. Willpower can get you started, initiating positive behavior change. Habits will enable you to follow through consistently.
The Willpower of Habit Formation
Lots of research has been done on the anatomy of a habit. While not all researchers use the same labels, there is general agreement that habits include a reward, a routine, and a context.
The reward can be as simple as the feeling of satisfaction you get from doing something that aligns with your goals, makes you feel good, or achieve a desired outcome.
Routines are a specific sequence of actions that produce the reward. But your brain connects all the individual action steps and bundles them for retrieval later. This is why you may find yourself driving a familiar route and have no recollection of the specific steps you took to get there.
Context is any part of the situation or environment that serves as a trigger for the routine. Context can include people, places, or both.
Too often willpower is misdirected by focusing on the desired activity alone instead of the creation of a habit. For example, I’m at my best spiritually when I get quality time in the morning for practices like reading, prayer and journaling. My goal isn’t to muster the willpower to do this once or even once in a while.
I want to engage in these practices consistently because the value is compounded over time. The same could be said for working out or eating healthy or investing in a friendship.
I’ve focused my willpower on building a habit, not completing a task. There is a difference. The context that triggers my routine is a sofa on my sunporch. I keep everything I need for my daily personal time in that spot. Every morning when I sit down on the sofa in my sun porch a set of routine behaviors are activated automatically. The reward is a daily recentering of life around my highest values.
Willpower helped me establish the context, and routine. The power of habit enables consistency and compounds the benefits over time.
Eat the Ugly Frog First
The best use of willpower is to create the habit and then get you into the context that triggers the routine. Research by psychologist Roy Baumeister linked willpower to energy levels, which helps explain why it diminishes throughout the day. Decisions drain energy and affect willpower along with lack of sleep and what Baumeister described as “ego-depletion.”
There is a reason it’s hard to resist the urge to snack in the evening, even if you aren’t truly hungry. If your mother warned you that “nothing good happens after midnight,” she had some solid research to back up the claim.
Willpower is a diminishing resource, which is why productivity gurus suggest you do the hardest work at the start of the day. In business speak, putting the hardest item on the top of your list is “eating the ugly frog first.”
I’ve learned it’s not just the hardest tasks that should be scheduled first. It’s the most important. That’s why I’ve made it a habit to accomplish sixty percent of the daily activities that flow from my Wellbeing Indicators in the first three hours of my day.
Habits enable me to eat the ugly frogs for breakfast. I suggest you give it a try.
If you’d like to go deeper on this topic, including a free Wellbeing Indicator Worksheet, check out this months’ episode of Learning @ the Speed of Life.