Willpower NOT required to Break Nearly Any Bad Habit – Neuroscience (and a Tiny Dose of Emotional Intelligence)

This article is for me! I have proven to myself will power doesn’t work when it comes to getting my dopamine rush from carbs and sugar. I need WON’T Power. (judy)

Research shows that approximately 40 percent of the things we do on a daily basis aren’t decision-based.  They’re mostly habits.

This doesn’t, at first glance, make sense. “We find patterns of behavior that allow us to reach goals,” says Dr. Wendy Wood, the author of Good Habits, Bad Habits.  “We repeat what works, and when actions are repeated in a stable context, we form associations between cues and response.”

The way our brains are made often works against us. 

 “I’ll put ice cream on my breakfast oatmeal instead of milk”, I think, remembering the carton in the freezer.

  • My prefrontal cortex — the brain region responsible for planning, decision making, and supporting goal-oriented behaviors — answers, “Nope. Too much sugar, eat healthy – sprinkle walnuts on top of the oatmeal, they are healthy.” 
  • My orbitofrontal cortex — the brain region responsible for emotion and reward in decision-making, answers, “Forget oatmeal, sprinkle walnuts on the ice cream and eat it from the carton.”headless-girl1

My prefrontal cortex is a logical and rational, but she’s shy, quiet and subdued. My orbitofrontal cortex is decisive, persistent, insistent, and loves to get her way and doesn’t care if it’s a bad or good habit as long as it’s tasty.

In neuroscientific terms, “When our intentional mind is engaged, we act in ways that meet an outcome we desire – and typically we’re aware of our intentions. However, when the habitual mind is engaged, our habits function largely outside of awareness. We can’t easily explain how we do our habits or why we do them… our minds don’t always integrate in the best way possible,” Dr. Wood explains.

In other words, my orbitofrontal cortex can quickly establish bad habits. I’ll do things reflexively, almost without thinking.  Even if I do manage to think my orbitofrontal cortex and the force of habit will be louder

As Dr. Wood says, “Habits allow us to focus on other things. Willpower is a limited resource, and when it runs out, you fall back on habits.”  

How do you break that cycle?

Dr Wood says you have to force yourself to think: Not before, but during.

scan-6Just how good are these cookies????

I eat the ice cream — because that requires willpower I clearly don’t have — but while I’m  eating the ice cream.  (Dr Wood may have been a researcher too long and oblivious to real world.)  

The key is to reflect upon the actual benefits derived from a habit.  One upside, lots of downsides.

Repeat, repeat, repeat the process, because one period of reflection and introspection won’t be enough.

I’ll  have to do it several times  before my orbitofrontal cortex adopts the rewards and emotions involved in not feeling bad about eating ice cream.

Then those two voices will speak in unison. My prefrontal cortex will share all the long-term benefits of eating healthy. My orbitofrontal cortex will chime in with reasons why skipping the ice cream will make me feel better in the moment.  In emotional intelligence terms, emotions will work for me, not against me.

And that’s how, she says, the habit gets broken.

Willpower not required.

Dr. Wendy Wood, the author of Good Habits, Bad Habits

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