Posted by admin 26.07.18

Willpower is a myth: Reward effort if you want a habit to grow

At 6 feet 4 inches tall, and a physique that appears made for the water, Michael Phelps exemplifies Olympic success.  After all, he has won more medals than anyone in history – 28.  Habits play a key factor.

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Here are five habits Phelps relies on for his success:

  1. He writes down goals. Set goals and revisits them frequently to keeps focus.
  2. He has banished the word “can’t” from his vocabulary. Use words wisely.
  3. He makes sacrifices. Phelps swims a lot – every day to be exact.  Make tradeoffs.
  4. He uses others’ words to his advantage. Don’t let others get you down.
  5. He is control of himself. As in life, compete against yourself.

In leadership, habits are powerful ways to promote performance. Often, we try willpower to pull us out of a poor habit, but its effect is short-term.

Willpower is unreliable.  It has a shelf-life and when it is exhausted old habits reappear.

During any given day, habits play a key factor and people typically repeat (about 40% of the time) what they did in the past (Wood, Quinn and Kashy, 2002).  Habits are also shown to be a default response when stressed (Schawabe and Wolf, 2012), or when willpower is low (Neal, Wood, and Drolet, 2013).

It takes 10-to-12 weeks, 70-to-82 days to form a new habit – repetition, reward for the effort, and reinforcement stimulate desired change.

What I found in working with leaders in high pressure roles is that it takes 10-to-12 weeks to form a new habit.  This might seem counter-intuitive to what we hear in the popular press “you too can have life-changing transformation in 30-days!”  Maybe this is true for some habits like choosing tea over coffee, but, deeply ingrained habits like listening without judging are not so easy.

Leaders who are able to exhibit self-control rarely white-knuckle behavior change.  Structure your day in such a way to break bad habits.

Here is the good news.  Individuals who make daily and repeatable commitments with coaching support achieve results.  In my study, one of the daily practices was to simply observe one’s breath in terms of rate and flow, and how it manifested in their interaction with others.  Simple enough you might conclude.  Yet the results were positive.  Distraction decreased.  Focus improved.  And there was a tendency to be less reactive.  All good qualities that promote effective leadership.



Here are three strategies to develop healthy habits for leaders in roles that involve daily turbulence, uncertainty, and unpredictability.


  1. Disrupt old habits. If a habit is to interrupt others with your better idea, disrupt the pattern.  Snap your fingers.  Wiggle your toes.  Get in your body and reduce rumination and counter-productive thoughts.


  1. Monitor and reward habit forming behaviors. Habits require time and repeatable behavior.  Reward effort and time, not performance.


  1. Ensure the environment supports new habits. If the stack of papers in your office creates anxious feelings, move to a different setting.  Clear the papers.  Notice the bigger picture and realize that you may need to organize yourself before starting your work.  Create perspective and notice patterns.


Willpower is unreliable.  Reward yourself for the effort rather than the result.  If you are able to hold back judgment toward a colleague you normally go toe-to-toe with, acknowledge your tendency to do this.  Celebrate your change of behavior with a trusted colleague.  Repeat.  Positive reinforcement facilitates good outcomes.



Here is my final suggestion.

Start small.  Take on a habit that you are ready to change.  Find a colleague who can support the desired behavior.  Reward yourself for the effort (and be careful not to replace it with an undesirable habit such as an unhealthy snack). Be patient and intentional.  Set yourself up for success and don’t get down if things aren’t always going as planned.

Don’t give up.