How Strong Habits Can Help You Benefit from Weak Self-Control

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When you think of “willpower,” you’re usually bummed that you don’t seem to have more.

In most cases, it’s after you’ve done something that you wish you hadn’t. You eat too much and you wish you could have made yourself eat less. You don’t go to the gym and you wish you could have motivated yourself to go.

We tend to make more bad decisions when we’re low on self-control. However, if you learn to put your behaviors on autopilot, you can actually benefit from having low-self control.

In this podcast, you’ll learn about a series of new studies that seem to show how developing strong habits can help you avoid the negative effects of low self-control.

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### Show Notes

[Why Your Brain Can’t Multitask](

[Your Scientific Guide to Multitasking](

*[Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength](* by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney

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### Transcript

**Armi Legge:** When you think of willpower, you’re usually bummed that you don’t seem to have more. In most cases, it’s after you’ve done something that you wish you hadn’t. You eat too much and you wish you could have made yourself eat less. You don’t go to the gym and you wish you could have motivated yourself to go.

In most cases, we think that next time we’ll just have to try harder. That’s often true. However, you can make your life easier by doing something else.

In this podcast, you will learn why having weak self-control isn’t always as destructive as you might think. What you’re going to learn takes some work and willpower at first, but over time, it will set you up for a more productive, low-stress lifestyle, where small lapses in self-control don’t completely derail your efforts to lose fat, get fit, go to bed on time, or do just about anything else.

This method isn’t fool-proof but it’s one of the best things you can do to counteract the negative effects of losing your self-control. You’re going to learn about habits. More specifically, you’re going to learn about how creating strong habits can help you avoid the negative effects of losing your self-control.

My name is Armi Legge and you are listening to Impruvism Radio, a podcast that gives you simple, science-based tips to improve your health, fitness, and productivity. If you like what you hear on today’s show, go to, enter your email address in the box on the right side of the page and click the button below. After you do, you’ll get free updates from the Impruvism blog when they are published.

Let’s get started by defining exactly what a habit is. According to a 2013 paper, which we’ll cover in a moment, habits occur when “cognitive associations form between contexts and responses such that perception of the context automatically activities the response in memory.” Basically, when something happens, you respond.

When you say you’re going to go to the gym at 5pm and it’s 5pm, you respond by going to the gym. If you repeat this cycle enough times, your brain gets used to it and associates 5pm on Mondays with leg day or whatever workout you’re doing. When you act on this association enough times, it becomes a habit.

Willpower is your ability to exert control over your actions. Your body has a limited ability to exert willpower and over the course of the day or days, your self-control can become depleted. We’ll talk more about why this occurs in later podcasts.

When your self-control is low, you generally are more likely to revert to bad habits. When you have a long day at work, you’re less likely to make yourself go to the gym and more likely to stay at home and watch TV. That’s not surprising. However, the cool thing is that when your willpower becomes depleted, you’re also more likely to rely on strong good habits.

If you have made going to the gym a strong habit, you’re more likely to follow through with that habit when your willpower is low. Here’s why. When your willpower is high, your brain can take several different courses of action. You can rely on a habit, which forces you to use very little conscious control. You can actively suppress a habit, which causes you to use more of your willpower. You can decide to do something completely new and you can decide not to do something new.

However, your willpower becomes depleted, your ability to exert control over your actions decreases. At this point, you have fewer options for how to control your actions. You end up relying more on automatic thinking, AKA habits.

The problem is that most of the habits in people’s lives are not congruent with their goals. They make a habit of overeating, drinking too much alcohol, smoking, overspending, etc. When most people’s willpower becomes depleted, they have more negative habits than positive habits to rely on and thus often end up screwing themselves.

Let’s take a look at a series of studies that support this idea.

In June earlier this year, researchers published a series of five studies in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The title of the paper was “How do People Adhere to Goals When Willpower is Low? The Profits and Pitfalls of Strong Habits.” In each study, the researchers looked at how people act on their habits based on their levels of self-control.

In the first study, the researchers looked at business students from UCLA who were taking their exams. Other studies have shown that demanding tasks, like exams, deplete people’s willpower. The study lasted 10 weeks, 2 of which were undertaken during exams. The researchers wanted to see how taking exams would affect the students’ eating and reading habits. They recorded the kind of breakfast most of the students normally ate and the section of the newspapers they normally read throughout the study.

They found that during the two weeks that the students were taking exams, they were much more likely to rely on strong habits they had formed previously. They found that about half of the desirable habits: eating cold cereal, eating hot cereal, and eating local news, and four of the undesirable behaviors: eating pastries, putting sugar in coffee, using half and half in coffee, and reading advice columns in the newspaper, also increased during exams.

They found that even though the students’ free time was lower during the exams, those who habitually read the newspaper- either the local news or other sections- spent more time reading. Because they had made reading a habit, they acted on that habit more often during exams, when their willpower was low.

What this means is when the students’ self-control was depleted, they were far more likely to rely on strong habits, both good and bad- and we’re not going to get into a discussion right now about whether or not eating pastries at breakfast is bad or not. It’s not, but whatever. It’s generally considered an unhealthy behavior, at least by the researchers.

So if the students had not developed these habits before their exams, they were no more or less likely to act on them. There are a lot of problems with this study, but overall it was pretty well done. Luckily, the researchers did four more studies to support their point. Let’s quickly review them.

In the second study, Duke students selected two goals that they were trying to achieve. They thought of two or three behaviors they were doing to achieve those goals and two or three habits they were doing that were hindering their goals. The most common goal-supporting behaviors were reading for class and going to the gym. The most common behaviors that were at odds with the students’ goals were watching TV, talking with friends online or via phone, and staying in bed.

The researchers divided the students into two groups. One group would use their non-dominant hand to complete daily tasks and the other group would get to use their dominant hand. This technique forced the first group to purposely not use their main hand, which depleted their willpower. Once again, the students were more likely to perform strong habits when they had their willpower depleted. Once again, this was true of both good and bad habits.

Weak habits were not significantly affected, whether they were positive or negative. This might make it sound like having low levels of willpower is always a good thing, but that’s not necessarily the case. The ratio of good and bad habits the students acted on stayed about the same because they were performing more of both. In fact, they had almost a perfect 50/50 split of good and bad habits. We’ll talk more about that in a moment.

In the third study, researchers found that willpower depleted students were more likely to choose a snack they were used to than something new. If they habitually ate what the researchers considered “healthy” snacks like yogurt and fruit, they were 21% more likely to choose these items when they were willpower depleted. If the students habitually ate what the researchers considered “unhealthy” snacks, they were 28% more likely to consume these snacks when their self-control was low. The researchers also adjusted for the students’ hunger levels and found the same thing.

When the students were low on self-control, they were more likely to eat the foods they were used to, regardless of whether or not they were considered unhealthy or healthy.

The fourth study was conducted over the internet. First, the researchers asked people what kind of snacks they normally ate. Then they depleted the people’s willpower by having them solve a puzzle and then asking them questions about what they would like to eat at that specific moment. They found that people who were willpower depleted from completing the puzzle were 32% more likely to choose unhealthy snacks they habitually ate and 31% more likely to choose healthy snacks that they were used to eating.

So basically, if Jane over here is used to eating apples as a snack, she becomes more likely to eat apples as a snack when she’s willpower depleted versus something else. If John on the other end of the room habitually eats cookies for snacks, he is far more likely to eat those when he is willpower depleted. The likelihood they would choose a habitual snacks was also increased more more often they ate the snack. So there was a near perfect relationship between how often they habitually ate something and how likely they were to eat that when they were willpower depleted versus other foods.

In the fifth and final study, researchers found that students with lower starting levels of self-control generally relied more on strong habits than those with higher levels of self-control. For you, this might mean if you’re somebody who generally doesn’t have great self-control, you have to be even more careful about forming good habits because you’re going to rely on them more than people who have high levels of self-control.

In general, these studies show that when you are willpower depleted, you are more likely to revert to strong habits, both good and bad. Basically, your strong habits get amplified when you’re low on self-control. The stronger your habit, the more likely you are to act on it when you’re worn out or tired. While much of this research is preliminary, it’s still good enough that we can draw some practical conclusions. Here are several ways to use this knowledge to your advantage.

One: Practice as many good habits as possible.

Good habits are basically like insurance policies against weak self-control. If you have many positive habits in place when you feel worn out or your willpower is depleted, you’re more likely to act on some of these good habits. If you can develop a large range of positive habits and minimize the negative ones, you might be able to tilt the ratio in your favor when you are willpower depleted.

Even if you’re someone who considered themselves to have a lot of self-control, it’s still a good idea to put this kind of safety net in place with habits. I intentionally use the word “practice” here because that is exactly what you need to do. This isn’t something that will happen overnight. You need to keep training these habits over time to make them strong enough for this to work. You need to be consistent.

Two: Keep yourself distracted with good habits.

There is only so much time you have in a day. Let’s say you’ve developed the habits of checking facebook and going to the gym. In this case, you’ve got two habits you can turn to. There’s nothing wrong with checking facebook, but it’s not going to bring you closer to your goal of getting fitter. In this case, keep yourself from engaging in bad habits by engaging in good ones… going to the gym.

There’s obviously a lot of overlap between these two concepts. For instance, not going to the gym could be a bad habit and going the gym could be a good habit and you can accomplish both with one action: going to the gym. In some cases, this route will require a little more willpower but over time, when you’re less in control over your actions, you will probably find it easier to engage in the positive habits you’ve built over time.

Three: Limit your ability to perform bad habits when you are willpower depleted.

If you know you’re going to be exhausted after a long day, don’t leave out a tray of brownies. If you know you’ve got to finish a paper after a long day of classes, don’t open a browser on your computer to read blogs– except mine. Make it harder to engage in bad habits and easier to engage in good ones. This is also one of the reasons it’s important not to multitask. It makes it too easy to lose focus on what you’re doing and engage in a bad habit that isn’t relevant to your goals.

Four: Make it easier to implement good habits.

Make it convenient to work out by keeping some running shoes at your workplace or finding a gym that is closer to your place of work. Prepare healthy meals ahead of time in large amounts so it’s easier to warm up leftovers than it is to order a pizza. Make it easier to implement good habits.

Five: Perform things that are demanding first and perform less demanding things later.

This is exactly like what we discussed in the two podcasts on multitasking. Do things that deplete your willpower first, knowing that you can fall back on habits later in the day.

If you’ve developed good habits, you will be able to stay productive for a longer period of time. You spend the first part of your day actively using your willpower to get things done and the second half of your day relying on habits to guide you through the rest of your tasks.

I used this technique the day I wrote the notes for this podcast. I spent the first part of the day writing an article on flexible dieting, which is mentally demanding for me. Then I went swimming, came home, got something to eat, and finished making the podcast notes. Then I went for a bike ride and run.

After my workouts and work was done, I let myself respond to facebook notifications, emails, and other things that were already well trained habits. Granted, writing and workout are well-trained habits for me at this point, but they still require a good bit of willpower, so I do those first.

Six: Increase your willpower.

If you have more willpower to start with, you can go a lot longer without having to rely on habits. Your willpower is basically like a muscle. You can train it by pushing it a little past your current comfort zone, taking a break, and then pushing it a little farther. The cool thing is that you can increase your willpower in one aspect of your life and it can transfer to another part of your life. If you can develop good habits, it often becomes easier to develop more of them. You’ll learn more about how to increase your self-control in later podcasts.

In the meantime, I’ve got a little challenge for you to help you use this information. Today, think about the times when you are most tired, worn out, and unmotivated. Think of the three most common things you do during these times.

Now ask yourself this: “Are these three habits helping me reach my long-term goals?” If not, then pick the habit that you engage in most often and figure something else you can do instead that will help you reach your goals. For the next week, engage in your new positive habit whenever you find yourself in a situation with low self-control.

Here’s what I’m doing. At the end of the day, when I’m completely worn out, I’ve been staying up too late and watching TV. Even when I’m tired, I keep staying up longer than I should. Instead, I’m going to set a time to go to bed every night and, as an incentive to stick to my schedule, a time to wake up every morning. I’ve definitely slipped a few times in the past week or two, but the important thing is that I’m aware that I need to change and I’m doing something about it.

So what are you going to change?

To find links to everything we talked about in today’s show, you can go to If you enjoyed this podcast, the best way to show your appreciation is to leave a review and ranking on iTunes. To do so, navigate to and you’ll be redirected to where you can leave your comments. You can also search Google for “Impruvism Radio” and find the same page.

Thank you for listening and I will see you next week. And now I need to go gewichtheben, which is German for “weight lifting,” which I just learned today.

### References

1. Neal DT, Wood W, Drolet A. How do people adhere to goals when willpower is low? The profits (and pitfalls) of strong habits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2013;104(6):959–975.

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