• Rob Orman

33. Understanding Willpower and Habits

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

Most of us have habits we'd like to change -- both getting rid of bad ones and adopting good ones. It's easier said than done! Habits by nature are hardwired and happen without much activation energy. In this episode, Christina Shenvi MD, PhD breaks down the nature of willpower, how knowing it's a limited resource can play to our advantage, strategies for getting out of bad habits, and how to adopt the ones you want.

Guest Bio: Christina Shenvi MD, PhD is an emergency physician at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill where she is the director of the UNC Office of Academic Excellence. A frequent guest on Stimulus, she has now started coaching and teaching more broadly on time management. Her goal is to help busy professionals find more peace with their schedules, feel less stressed, and use their time more effectively. Dr. Shenvi blogs at:, and offers workshops on time management.

Episode Sponsor: Panacea Financial is a financial services company created for doctors, by doctors -- aiming to improve the lives of physicians and physicians in training with products and services tailored to the medical community. Whether it's scheduling residency interviews, trying to buy a house during training, or looking for ways to fund your practice, Panacea Financial was created to remove the unique financial hurdles of physicians and allow you to better serve your communities. Panacea Financial is a Division of Sonabank, Member FDIC. You can follow them on the Insta, Twitter, Facebook, and everybody's well dressed favorite, Linkedin.

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We discuss:

Self-regulation and how it relates to willpower [06:00];

  • Self-regulation is our ability to do things that we don't want to do in the moment. When you have that motivational conflict (ie. you want to eat ice cream, but you also want to lose weight), self- regulation is how you resolve it in favor of long term goals.

  • Self-regulation has four components: standards (ie. goals that you want to act in alignment with), motivation, willpower, and monitoring (ie. how well are you achieving your goals).

How willpower is a limited resource [08:00];

  • Studies have shown that if you use up all of your willpower by resisting one desire, your willpower will be depleted and will be insufficient for other things.

  • Once your willpower is drained, you feel temptations more strongly and you'll have less reserves to say “no”.

  • Some people have more discipline and willpower than others.

“It's not just your intelligence that determines your success. So much more of it comes down to your self- regulation and your willpower.”

Tricks for building up your willpower muscle [14:45];

  • First, you have to be aware of the importance of willpower and intentional about not wasting it.

  • Select your situations. Don’t go into situations where you will needlessly drain your willpower.

  • Change your environment by getting rid of temptations.

  • Have selective attention and do specific things to take your mind off of temptations.

  • Cognitively reappraise things that might be tempting you, trying to convince yourself that it may ultimately be a disappointment.

  • Ask yourself what you expect a temptation to achieve. Many of those immediate gratifications undermine our long term goals; we're asking them to do things that they can never do.

“By practicing willpower on a daily basis, you can build up your willpower muscle. And once something becomes a habit, it requires a lot less willpower.”

The habit cycle, and why we need to understand how habits work before we can change them [20:25];

  • Up to 40%of what we do is based on habit.

  • Habits help us offload cognitive strain and overload so that we can do things automatically. But habits can become a bad thing if either we don't examine them or we form them unconsciously.

  • Habits occur because of the cycle of cue, craving, response and reward.

“Every single qualification for success is acquired through habit. People form habits and habits form futures.” Albert Gray

Breaking bad habits using mental contrasting with implementation intention [24:55];

  • The first step is to examine the habit, trying to understand each step in the cycle (cue, craving, response and reward). Then you create steps to disrupt the loop.

  • Identify the cue and come up with a way to control the cue or change your response to it. Suppose you want to stop looking at your cell phone every time you hear the “ding” indicating receipt of a text message. Perhaps you could change your notification settings or leave your phone in another room. Or you could change your response by standing up and stretching when you hear the notification instead of glancing at your phone..

  • Mental contrasting with implementation intention refers to the use of a specific action every time you have trouble resisting an urge. For example:: When I feel the urge to pick up my phone, then I will take a deep breath and stretch.

  • Once you create the habit around your new, desired response, then it doesn’t require so much willpower.

The process of strategic automatism, where you're strategically forming a habit so that you do it automatically [28:50];

  • Creating a plan and identifying exactly what you want to work on can help you make incremental changes in the long term.

Why it helps to think about the identity you want to have when you’re working on improving your habits [29:30];

  • Example: when you're trying to avoid the distraction your phone creates, focus not only on the negative action of trying to stop looking at it, but also on what you want to move towards -- being a person of discipline and focus. That's the identity that you want to create for yourself.

  • Reinforce that identity every time you choose the right option in your habit loop.

“At a certain point, the identity itself becomes the reinforcer. Behavior becomes automatic because it’s who you are. ” James Clear in Atomic Habits

Habit stacking [36:30];

  • Linking two habits is a good way to take some of the activation barrier out of creating a new habit.

And more.

Shownotes by Melissa Orman, MD

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