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Why Will Power Isn't the Answer to Curing Bad Habits

Four tactics to keep you on the path to more productive behavior.
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Will power might sound like the super hero of resolve, but it's actually a fallible contender. "When you're trying to stick to a New Year’s Resolution, you can forget about relying on will power," says Alex Lickerman, assistant vice president for Student Health and Counseling Services at the University of Chicago, and author of (HCI, 2012). "Will power is a weak mental force. The more you use it, the more fatigued it becomes. That’s why it's easier to stick to a new diet earlier in the day versus later at night."

If you're making changes in your personal or professional life, Lickerman says there are stronger tools at your disposal. Here are four tactics he suggests to change unconstructive behavior with good habits.

Related: 5 Steps to Becoming a More Empowered You in the New Year

1. Start with realistic expectations. Lickerman says that knowledge is powerful tool when trying to change your behavior. "When you set a resolution, a lot of things are working against you," he says. "You can’t control how hard something is to do, but you can control your expectations."

Lickerman suggests asking others who've already changed the habit to share their experience. "Everybody's path is different, but you'll get a realistic template of how hard something will be and what obstacles might arise," he says. "With realistic expectations, you’ll be less likely to quit."

Related: Why Our Brains Like Short-Term Goals

2. Distract yourself. "Distraction is more effective than will power," Lickerman says.
"If you are trying to lose weight, for example, and walk into a meeting and find treats, the best thing to do is to think about another pleasure. The trick is that you have to be ready; if you struggle to think of something, resisting will be difficult."

3. Avoid temptation completely. Lickerman says avoidance is the other half of the strategy. "This is simply the best way to manage temptation," he says. "Whatever you're trying to eliminate, don't let it cross your path."

For example, if you spend too much time on social networking sites, download software that will curb this distraction, such as BlockSite or Freedom. Or if constant email monitoring is your bad habit, turn off automatic alerts or unplug your Wi-Fi.

4. Make good habits easier. To establish new habits, Lickerman says the trick is to adjust the activation energy. "If you want to start exercising and the treadmill is in your basement, you're probably not going to succeed," he says. "To effectively start a good habit, lower the energy required to initiate it and raise the energy required for competing behaviors." 

Whether you're getting rid of an old habit or starting a new one, Lickerman says you must know why you're doing it. "Resolutions require you to adopt behaviors diametrically opposed to the desires you have at moment," he says. "Be clear about why you're doing it, because the reason isn't always what you think. When you zero in on your true motivation, it's easier to push through obstacles that are going to get in your way."

Related: 5 Simple Daily Habits to Practice This New Year