Why is it so hard to change our behaviour even when our motivation to do so is genuine?

Regardless of whether our goals are work related (‘delegate more’ ‘give more feedback’ ‘prioritise better’) – or personal (’stay calm’ ‘leave work by 6’ ‘go to bed earlier’ ‘exercise every morning’) it can be frustrating and disappointing when we continually fall short of the goals we set ourselves. Not only don’t we achieve our goals, but feeling frustrated and disappointed takes an extra toll on our wellbeing.

Why is changing our behaviour so hard?

In the coaching room, the difficulties senior leaders experience in becoming their best selves are seldom a question of motivation – their desire to change is invariably sincere – elevated drive, even passion, is typical of high achievers.

Many think passion alone should be enough to achieve our goals. But it’s not.

Why?  Because there’s good, healthy (harmonious) passion and there’s bad, crazy (obsessive) passion.

From a wellbeing perspective, here’s the difference between the two:

Harmonious passion is associated with the sort of satisfaction that comes from voluntarily committing to something that is meaningful, where we experience:

  • Higher levels of positive emotion
  • Increased flow and intrinsic interest
  • Heightened and sustained concentration
  • A sense of mastery
  • A feeling that we are on the right path towards achieving our full potential.

In contrast, an obsessive passion is that uncontrollable urge to do something even where it’s poorly integrated with what we want to achieve and how it will affect our self-esteem. For example, binge watching all 7 seasons of Madmen (ahem) would be a hedonistic obsessive passion that, whilst pleasurable in the moment, ultimately:

  • Clouds our sense of purpose
  • Diminishes our productivity and achievements
  • Compromises a healthy self-identity
  • Increases rumination
  • Increases feelings of guilt
  • Detracts from self-esteem

The essential ingredient for achievement

Whilst harmonious passion is an essential prerequisite for bringing about higher levels of wellbeing and lasting changes in our behaviour – by itself, it won’t be enough to sustain embedded new habits.

We also need self-control.   Or – as your parents may have lectured – some good old fashioned ‘discipline’ and ‘willpower’.

The jury is still out on what ‘self-control’ represents (more on this below), but there is no debate that it’s a strong predictor of adjusting well to challenges, lower pathology in mental health and greater interpersonal success.

Remember those kids and the marshmallows? (https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/willpower-gratification.pdf)

Resisting temptation, controlling our urges, overcoming our impulses, delaying gratification and actively self-prioritising long-term over short-term goals are all behaviours associated with faring better in life.  This is true on all fronts – socially, emotionally, economically and physically.

In short, self-control is strongly and positively associated with increased wellbeing.

Therefore, when feelings of ‘harmonious passion’ and the consistent exertion of ‘self-control’ are combined it’s a winning formula for fast-tracking your goals, resulting in improved behaviours, better performance and higher wellbeing.

So, what is this thing called ‘self-control?’

Back to the less clear-cut notion of what scientists mean by the term ‘self-control’.

Self-control is a way of:

  • managing conflicting desires
  • embracing and prioritising the most self-relevant goals
  • eschewing self-irrelevant goals
  • facilitating task and goal completion by
    • autonomously initiating desired behaviours
    • autonomously inhibiting undesired behaviours.

The key concepts here are the importance of autonomous functioning for:

  1. regulating and optimising goal directed activity
  2. promoting task completion and facilitative strategies, and
  3. overriding goal-disruptive impulses.

10 ways to strengthen your self-control

In recent years and after hot debate, neuroscientists have debunked the notion that willpower is a fixed personality trait that can’t be developed. The prevailing wisdom today is that willpower is neither finite in its supply, nor does it ever get fully used up.

Using the muscle analogy – willpower can be depleted when we’re fatigued from making a big effort to do the right thing, but over the long term, the more regularly we exercise self-control the stronger the muscle becomes and the easier it is to be consistently disciplined in our endeavours.

Psychologists now strongly believe if we learn why we’re sometimes vulnerable to losing our self-control then we can establish practices that help us develop greater willpower.

So, the big question becomes – how do we strengthen our self-control? Just like a muscle, self-control can be built up with the right types of mental exercises. Here are some science backed tips and strategies to help build your self-discipline and willpower:

  1. Tackle one aspect of your behaviour at a time – a New Year’s resolution list with more than one goal is a BAD idea!
  2. Make your goal for your new behaviour as specific and descriptive as possible, and set a timeline for review.  Yes, the old SMART objectives still hold true.
  3. Use the ‘carrot and the stick method’ in accordance with the 80/20 rule. Rewards and punishments (or ‘consequence management’ as psychologists prefer to say, it sounds much nicer!) are powerful drivers of behaviour in the pursuit of goals important to us and this is true even when self-imposed.
  4. Avoid temptation by deploying the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ technique. For example, don’t keep chocolate in the house, don’t have your phone in the meeting or don’t go into the shop with the handbags.  Unfortunately, research shows most of us have a tendency to significantly overestimate our ability to resist temptation, so best to avoid it in the first place.
  5. Stay in close proximity to the people and things that are aligned to your goals. Alongside avoiding temptation – this is a powerful combo.
  6. Make ‘pre-commitments’ rather than leaving your options open. Book into the exercise class rather than seeing if you have time after work or schedule in the strategic thinking time with your team, rather than having it gnaw at you until the ‘right time’ presents itself.
  7. Make contingencies  – or what psychologists call ‘implementation intentions’ – for the scenarios which are most likely to foil your resolve. Have a game plan to mitigate the challenges you anticipate, it will help keep you on the right path during times of stress or anticipated weakness.  We recommend using “If…then…” statements. For example, “If my boss is unreasonable again, then I’ll wait until the next day to raise my concerns after we’ve both calmed down.” ‘If I choose dessert, then it will be a sorbet/I will do an extra work-out.’
  8. Adopting a regular exercise regime leads to more self-control across other aspects of your life. A logical conclusion therefore is that the best starting point for exercising self-control is getting started with your exercise regime.
  9. Regularly eat healthy food to keep glucose levels up. Glucose is the fuel we need to power our pre-frontal cortex (the executive brain that regulates impulsivity). When we use lots of willpower, we use up lots of glucose, so it’s vital to eat well during times when our self-control is being tested. (BTW – the word glucose is not code for ‘eat lollies’.)
  10. Self-affirmations – sometimes exercising self-control requires us to remind ourselves about our values and why we want to do what we are trying to do. Thinking at a values level, with optimism and in abstract form has been shown to help perseverance and persistence in the face of temptation. It’s as important to know why we are doing something, as it is to know how we are going to do it. The WIFM is the crux. Start with ‘why?’

Harmonious Passion + Self-Control = The twin engines for increased goal attainment and wellbeing

Through a winning combination of harmonious passion and self-control, you’ll find yourself more and more on the pathway to achieving your goals.

Imagine reaching for the apple rather than the chocolate, getting your gym gear on rather than rolling-over in bed and providing feedback to your direct report rather than rewriting their work yourself.

Now that would feel pretty good wouldn’t it?