Dr. Amantha Imber23 August 2019

Why Willpower Is Overrated When Trying To Change Your Behaviour

Have you tried to change your behaviour lately? You might be trying to change your weight, your social media habits, or even change your job or relationship. When we fail to create the change we desired, we often blame ourselves. We tell ourselves that we didn’t have the self-discipline or willpower to stick to the change we were trying to create.

But what psychologists have discovered is that by manipulating our environment or context or even the words we use, we can start to effortlessly create change. No willpower needed.

Here are some ways that you can start to easily create change in yourself or in others.

  1. Remove the temptation

We have all had experience with trying to eliminate or reduce a behaviour. For example, most people have had experience with being on a diet. Indeed, 49 per cent of American adults reported that they had tried to lose weight in the last 12 months. Likewise, many people are now trying to reduce the time spent on social media. Market Intelligence firm SimilarWeb reports that time spent on Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram is decreasing across Australia, the US and UK.

But saying to ourselves that we want to reduce or stop a behaviour requires us to use willpower whenever we are presented with the temptation to engage in the behaviour. If we are on a diet, every time we see chocolate we need to use our willpower muscle to stay on track.

Rather than relying on willpower, the simplest way to create change is to simply remove the temptation. For example, if you are trying to reduce social media usage, delete all social media apps from your phone. This simple hack will significantly reduce your time spent on social media without you having to even think about it. Likewise, common advice for dieters involves clearing out your cupboard of treats and temptations before starting.

  1. Change your environment

Changing your physical environment can have a huge impact on your behaviour. Yet few people think to make changes to their home or office when thinking about ways to make behaviour change stick.

In “Work Rules”, ex-head of People Operations, Laszlo Bock, explained an experiment they ran at Google to encourage healthy eating at work. Given Google offers all staff free meals and snacks throughout the day, Bock recognised that the company was in an ideal position to influence healthy behaviours.

In Google offices around the world, many different snack options exist in the staff cafes located around the office. The People Operations team hypothesised that if they could make it easier for people to eat healthy snacks and slightly more difficult for people to access unhealthy snacks, they could change behaviour.

After getting baseline data on snacking behaviour in the company’s Colorado office, some very simple changes were made to the way snacks were displayed. Healthy snacks were placed at eye level in transparent and appealing containers. Unhealthy snacks were placed lower down and in opaque containers. Almost immediately, behaviour began to change and the proportion of total calories consumed from lollies decreased by 30 per cent and the consumption of fat consumed dropped by 40 per cent.

The experiment was such a success that it was expanded to the New York office and after just seven weeks, Googlers had eaten 3.1 million fewer calories — enough to avoid gaining a cumulative 885 pounds.

  1. Change your language

Sometimes, change can be as simple as using different language.

Marketing Professor Vanessa Patrick investigated the impact of the word “can’t” versus “don’t”. She suspected that the way we talk to ourselves and others actually impacts our ability to say no to temptation.

In one of Patrick’s experiments, 120 university students were taught about a strategy for managing unhealthy food temptations. One group was taught to say “I can’t eat X” whenever presented with an unhealthy snack. The other group was taught to say “I don’t eat X”.

Participants were then asked to turn their attention to a completely different (and irrelevant) task, but then when they got up to leave the room, the crux of the experiment happened: they were offered a choice of two snacks — one was a chocolate bar, and the other was a healthy granola bar. The experimenters quietly noted which participants picked which bar.

Thirty-nine percent of those who were taught to say “I can’t eat X” when presented with a temptation chose the healthy granola bar. In contrast, 64 per cent of those in the “I don’t eat X” group picked the granola bar.

In other words, changing one simple word increased the chance of selecting the healthy snack by over 50%. Saying you don’t do something sounds like you are the one in control of your choices, whereas saying you can’t do something sounds like someone else is calling the shots.

So if you are trying to break a habit or change something about your own behaviour, use the word “don’t” to improve your chances of a successful change by 50 per cent.

If you are trying to change your behaviour, rather than burning out your willpower muscle, try one of these simple strategies to make change easy.