I’ve often pictured a sudden mental transformation, fantasized that some particular idea would click into place and immediately, some behavior I’d been wanting to change for a long time would change without any further great effort required from me. Can willpower really work that way?
Generally speaking, the answer is no. Habits are ingrained over a long period of time: neural connections in our brains don’t change in large ways all of a sudden except in the case of brain damage. Habits reflect repeatedly strengthened neural connections–basically, we’ve done something over and over so much that it becomes hardly any effort to keep doing it.
There are exceptions, but they’re special cases. For instance, if I go to the doctor and find out that I will drop dead the next time I have a bite of ice cream (fortunately, not a very likely diagnosis), then I can pretty much guarantee you I will never have a bite of ice cream again. But these kinds of changes in behavior are fueled by drastic, unavoidable consequences based on clear-cut behaviors. Most goals don’t fit that description.
But even though we usually can’t experience immediate habit change, we can experience immediate behavior change. If we adopt tactics that help us be mindful of what we’re doing and that keep us in close touch with the consequences, we can see progress right away. While this isn’t the kind of dramatic change many of us would like, it does yield immediate benefits and lead to the end we have in mind, even as it gets easier and easier over time to repeat the good acts we’re learning.
Photo by Thomas Hawk