Bad habits. Tips on changing your routine and building willpower.

We all have the capacity for change at any moment. Yet New Year seems a good opportunity to ask if those small steps, your habits, are taking you in the direction you want to move to achieve your longer term goals. If the answer is “no” then consider what you could do about it. 

If you’re a leader, the last few weeks may have given you more time than usual to contemplate changes for the year ahead – in both your work and personal life.

I know it has for me. 

I thought I would share one of my personal challenges with you and some observations I’ve made around the habits that impact on it. Then some useful tips on how you (and I) might start altering or replacing your bad habits for better ones. 

Here’s where I’m at: 

I constantly struggle with staying at a healthy weight. I considered 2022 a “good year”. I lost a couple of stone and got quite a bit fitter – but I’ve noticed the weight is going back on after my half marathon in October. I suspect if I were to jump on the scales post Christmas I might already know which way the needle would move. 

So I’ve been reflecting on what worked during 2022 and why it might now have stopped working so well. These reflections are to do with my own specific example, but much of my awareness and trigger identification can easily be applied to almost all bad habits – at work and in our personal lives. 

Here’s what I noticed:

  1. I need a deadline, a goal or something concrete to work towards

Nb: I know this isn’t really true, because it’s outside-in thinking, but it certainly feels like it is. Since my October half marathon my running has more or less stopped, despite enjoying it when I do run.

  1. I eat less well when I am on the road. In fact, badly.

Will power alone (at the moment) won’t change this

  1. When I eat badly, that seems to let me off the hook for eating less well generally.

I use an awareness trick to become more present when my eating habits go awry. I look at: Stimulus; mood; environment and any thoughts I was having at the time, though this tends to drop when I’m busy or tired.

I suspect I need a new goal because I can more easily associate my awareness trick to an end target. I’m beginning to think this is another organised run because I enjoyed that last one so much. 

There’s no denying that my habits and willpower are controlling many of the challenges I’m having when it comes to maintaining my fitness. 

Here’s some practical tips I’m using to improve my fitness 

  • Identifying the cue, routine and reward through self-reflection and experimentation.
  • Experimenting with routines: is there a better one to bring myself the same reward?
  • When creating a new habit, I’m trying to connect the routine with a reward.
  • Making a plan – thinking long-term about how I can make performing the bad routine harder and good routine easier. Also, thinking what’s worked for me in the past.
  • Remembering that willpower is a muscle. Evidence suggests it acts much like a muscle: tires upon exertion, but can be improved through training.

I found these tips on building willpower and they seem helpful:

  • Viewing situations as possibilities to train the willpower muscle and start with small, e.g. the symbolic gesture of leaving the last sweet in the bag or hitting pause 5 minutes before the 1,000th Netflix episode ends.
  • Taking into account daily and seasonal variations in your willpower resources. Planing a support system to ease decision making when willpower is low. Being aware that my blood-glucose level may impact my ability to resist temptation. 
  • Seeing what happens if I replace “I should…” with “I can/want to…”. Sometimes it’s a simple shift in thought patterns that increases self-control through autonomy.
  • Investing in a firm foundation of sleep and nutrition. Being aware that blood-glucose level may impact my ability to resist temptation. 
  • Believing in my capability to exercise willpower. This seems to be a key ingredient to successful exertion of willpower. 

I’m not going to call this a new year’s resolution (research says 80% fail) – rather try to see that progress doesn’t need to be linear, as long as the gradient is positive. 

Let’s do this, and if you see me reaching for the last sweet – please do hold me to account!



Search the whole etc Playbook...

We have 100's of articles to help you with leadership, growth, talent and running a better business.

Agency Founders Surgery - free 1 to 1.

If you have something on your mind, a challenge you’re wrestling with or just want an alternative point of view, I’d be very happy to lend an ear and maybe help you start to unpick the issues.