According to Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter and author Charles Duhigg, the most important factor in determining your success is willpower. We know this trait by other names: self-discipline, determination, focus.
“Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success. Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than intellectual talent,” he says.
How do we strengthen our willpower? Duhigg says the answer is through your habits.
In a 2013 TED Talk called The Power of Habit, he talks about an experiment that took place in the sixties involving willpower.
A researcher used his four-year-old son and his son’s classmates as subjects. Each subject was seated in a room with a desk and a marshmallow. The researcher’s instructions to the child were, “I’m going to leave the room for ten minutes. You’re free to eat the marshmallow. But if, when I come back into the room, the marshmallow is still here, I will give you a second marshmallow.”
Only about 15% of the children were able to resist eating the marshmallow.
The kids who ate the marshmallow tended to focus on the marshmallow; they would touch it, smell it, stare at it and generally let it dominate their thoughts.
On the other hand, the children who didn’t eat the marshmallow blocked it out of their mind. Duhigg showed a video of one boy who told himself if he were successful, he would gobble down both marshmallows at once. In other words, he gave himself a reward.
Years later, the researcher asked his son how his classmates were doing. From his answers he noticed a trend (which he then decided to examine more fully.) The children who had been able to resist eating the marshmallow were doing better in both in school and in life. They showed up for class on time, always had their homework done, had better grades, got into better colleges and had higher paying jobs. Plus, they were more popular.
Duhigg then explains what’s known as a “Habit Loop.” It consists of three components:
2) routine (the behavior itself)
3) reward (which helps your brain remember the habit for the future)
He points out that every time habits are talked about, from Aristotle to Oprah, people have focused on the behavior. BUT, it’s actually the cue and the reward that influence how habits function.
So how do you get rid of bad habits and replace them with good habits? You pre-determine the cue and the reward.
For example, your cue could be that after or before work, three times a week you head to the gym. Your reward could be a night of guilt free TV-watching or your favorite dessert. Duhigg points out that eventually, when it comes to exercise, the neurotransmitters such as the endorphins and endocannabinoids that are generated (which make you feel great) serve as their own reward.
He adds that the key to making this work for you is that you must be very specific. Simply stating, “I want to get more exercise” or “I want to lose weight” won’t do it. Instead say something along the lines of “After work on Monday, I will head to the gym. Then I will reward myself by treating myself to a smoothie.”
Now let’s switch gears for a moment and take a look at another study Duhigg referenced in his TED Talk.
He described a study that involved placing rats into a very simple maze. In the maze, scientists placed some chocolate. To measure its brain waves, each rat’s cranium was hooked up to about 150 censors.
Upon being placed into the maze it took the rats an average of about 13 minutes to find the chocolate. Initially, the scientists concluded it took the rats that long because rats are pretty dumb.
The brain activity throughout the 13 minutes was pretty constant with a spike at the beginning (the cue) and at the end when they eventually found the chocolate (the reward).
They duplicated their maze experiment about 150 times with each rat. It gradually took the rats less and less time to find the chocolate. What they found was that while there was still a spike at the beginning and the end, during the middle part the rat’s brain showed limited activity – almost as if the rat was asleep.
What happened with the rats is remarkably similar to the marshmallow test.
In both cases, when success was achieved there was a cue (the rat was put in the maze, the child was given instructions) then there was a period in the middle (the behavior) where there was precious little focus on the dilemma at hand, followed by a reward.
By NOT focusing on the specific issue both rat and child didn’t allow themselves to consider alternatives to their task at hand.
Perhaps you can relate to what happens when you do focus on the issue or task. For instance, have you ever planned to go for a walk and then at the last second you talk yourself out of it? You convince yourself you’re too busy, the weather is not quite right, or you have something else better to do.
Like the examples noted, wouldn’t you agree that you’d be more successful if once you received your cue you eliminated any self-conversation that might make you change your mind and instead just focused on reaping the promised reward?
Or to sum it up in the three words of a well-known sports company slogan, instead of looking for reasons not to do something you…
Just do it.
So here’s to 2015. Predetermine your cues and reward beforehand. Break any annoying habits you may have that have been dragging you down. And make 2015 the year you “just do it.”