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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Why Habits Work When Discipline and Will Power Won’t

will power canstockphoto7292114 (2)“I need more discipline.”

“When it comes to my writing, I just don’t have the will power I need.”

When students in my Loft classes say something like this – and at least one or two always do – nearly every other student nods in agreement.

“I’m not big on discipline,” I tell them and a few look relieved.

“And frankly I don’t trust will power. It has failed me too many times, always just when I need it most.” Now everyone nods.

“That’s why I rely on writing habits; they’re easier and far more reliable.”

discipline canstockphoto3489327 (2)Why You Can’t Discipline Yourself Into Writing

The human brain remembers every little thing associated with a negative experience. Because any of the little details might have caused or contributed to the experience, it pays to remember those details so you can avoid them in the future.

So if I pinch you every time you touch your nose, you’ll stop touching your nose. Naturally, you’ll also want to avoid me, but you’ll also want to avoid other people who were present when you were punished, the place you were punished and all the things you saw, heard, smelled or felt when you were punished.

If you ever tried to “discipline” yourself around your writing, you actually made it harder to write. Because of the way your brain works, you probably started avoiding the people and things associated with your writing. Ultimately, you can end up avoiding your writing altogether.

Why Will Power Always Fails

willpowerIt took me years of frustration and unmet goals to realize that will power wasn’t going to give me what I wanted. For years, I thought there was something wrong with me; now I know that failure is built into the nature of will power.

“Will power” is what most people call the ability to make a decision to resist temptation or do something we’d rather not do. The problem is that we face so many temptations and difficult decisions that our will power is over-stretched and strained until, like an overused muscle, it fails.

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister defines the limits of will power as Decision Fatigue. Every time you make a decision, you use a tiny bit of a limited supply of cognitive ability to make decisions. Making a decision, it turns out, is like lifting a dumbbell. The first time, it seems like nothing; the fiftieth time, you feel the burn.

By the end of an average day, you’ve made at least 200 decisions just about food alone. You make thousands of decisions a day — e.g. what to wear, should I go to the gym or hope I’ll get a chance to walk at lunch, when will I open email and which of the hundreds of requests for my attention will I respond to, is that guy going to swerve into my lane, can we afford a big vacation this year…

No wonder you’re mentally exhausted by the end of the day!

Every time you make a decision, you deduct a tiny bit from the supply of decision-making capacity. Every time you call on your will power to resist a temptation, you weaken it.

Low blood sugar makes the situation even worse. Research shows that the brain’s supply of glucose remains constant despite dips in the body’s overall glucose levels. But when overall blood sugar dips, the brain uses glucose differently and activates very different areas of the brain.

As a result, your brain starts seeking immediate rewards like ice cream or walking away from a challenging task. The areas of the brain that would focus on more long-term goals like writing or being healthy are simply not driving the bus. Seeking an immediate reward is not due to lack of character, it’s how the brain works.

"To write or not to write?" was never the question for Shakespeare. It doesn't have to be a question for you either.

“To write or not to write?” was never the question for Shakespeare. It doesn’t have to be a question for you either.

Discipline, Will Power Or Commitment?

A student once commented that I must have a lot of will power and be really disciplined because I honor my commitments to my writing habits 99 percent of the time.

“That’s not will power or discipline,” I said, “it’s habit.”

“Yeah, but before it was a habit,” the student observed, “You had to be really disciplined to make it a habit.”

I never thought of it that way. I always saw it as 1) set an intention, 2) make a commitment, and3) honor my commitment. I see myself as a woman of integrity, not a woman who has will power or is self-disciplined.

Showing up for at least 15 minutes of Product Time 5 days a week is just what I do. It’s not a struggle or strain most of the time. When you get to this place where you do something just because it’s part of who you are and what you do, you have a solid habit.

But my student is right: before you have a habit, you’re doing something that takes mental focus and a willingness to be a little uncomfortable. Some people call that discipline or will power. I won’t argue with them. I just call it something different – honoring commitments – because that fits how I define myself.

Whether you call it discipline, will power or integrity, it’s a quality writers need. Unfortunately our capacity for this kind of mental focus and willingness is limited – as anyone who’s ever made great food choices all day and then fallen “off the wagon” in the evening out of sheer exhaustion can attest to. You have to use that mental energy wisely.

chocolate canstockphoto6773559 (2)Habits Are Easier Than Discipline

The smartest way I know to use that mental focus and willingness is to create habits.

Unlike discipline and will power, habits are strengthened every time you practice them. Every repetition insulates the neural pathway for that behavior, making that pathway more effective, which in turn makes it easier to repeat that behavior.

Habits don’t require decisions – you do something just because you do it. There’s no debate about whether you’ll write today, so you’re not relying on limited decision-making energy.

Even better, when you have a writing habit, you never ask yourself if you’ll write (just when you’ll write), so there’s no chance you’ll decide not to write at all.

Building Habits the Easy Way

  1. Do the behavior you want to become a habit first thing in the morning when your will power is strongest. Putting your writing first means you don’t have to keep making the decision to write all day long, with ever-decreasing cognitive ability to make a good decision.
  2. Set your intentions carefully: only give your word when you know you will keep it. Do what you say you will do every time you say will.
  3. Make small commitments you can keep and build on your success.
  4. Use all available tools — calendar, online reminders, support groups, tracking charts, check-ins with classmates, etc. — to remind you to bring your mental focus to bear on doing the behavior you want to become habitual.
  5. Enlist a partner. People who have workout buddies are far more likely to get to the gym than those who don’t. And writers who tell another writer what commitments they’re making to their writing are far more likely to honor those commitments.

Once you have a habit, you still need to honor your commitment every time, but you need much less mental focus and willingness to sustain the habit.

Discipline creates resistance (and it hurts), will power fades (and disappoints you), but habits endure (and they’re easy). Who wouldn’t want writing habits instead of discipline or will power!

If you want support, tools and tips to sustain you as you develop writing habits, please consider joining my Writing Habit class. I promise you don’t need a lot of will power and no one will try to discipline you, not even yourself. But you will gain integrity and really enjoy new writing habits!

Visit the Loft or call 612-379-8999 for more information or to register.

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3 Comments on “Why Habits Work When Discipline and Will Power Won’t”

  1. informacjetransportowe.pl May 25, 2013 at 3:13 am #

    Decrease by the room the place your ultimate character is,
    inside of the body your mind. It requires off you emphasize and make everyone taste the outcomes.


  2. Joel D Canfield March 11, 2013 at 11:52 pm #

    I’m pathologically incapable of lying. If I say I’m going to do something, I’ll defy gravity and time to make it so.

    Keeping my writing intention would make good use of that desire to be honest with myself.

    Have you read Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” ? (Have we already had this conversation?)


    • rosannebane March 12, 2013 at 10:33 am #

      I suspect that is a huge part of your success and satisfaction Joel! I just requested “The Power of Habit.”


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