Two important brain properties affect how we do things: habit and willpower.

Habits are defined as the usual way of behaving; something a person does often in a repeated or regular way. Habits are recurrent, often unconscious patterns of behavior acquired through frequent repetition.

At first our brains have to work at establishing a habit, which may involve personal willpower to keep going until the habit is internalized. The brain tries to make any routine part of a habit, seeking efficiency of operation.

Looking for a cue to start the habit, the brain does not know the difference between a good habit (brushing your teeth and putting on deodorant in the morning) and a not-so-good habit (heading for the popcorn whenever you go to the movies).

Usually it takes at least three weeks of consistent practice to develop a new habit and even longer for the habit to become internalized as a routine.

Surprisingly, willpower operates like a muscle. It can be strengthened with practice and fatigued by overuse. Eating and sleeping are especially important, and failing to eat or sleep properly can have dramatic effects on self-control.

Did you ever notice that if you are overly tired or hungry you find it harder to resist temptation?

Therefore, you must not only build willpower, but also be conscious about conserving your willpower for future crucial moments when you really need your willpower muscle to be at its best.

For example, if you want to exercise after work, it is helpful to have your workout clothes and sneakers in the car. This action provides a visual cue to your brain.

If you are also conserving your willpower, you might say to yourself, “I am planning to exercise after work today. I need to leave some energy for that.”

Steps for using willpower to create a desired habit are:

  1. Identify a habit you’d like to develop, like regular exercise.
  2. Develop a plan for cultivating that habit, like going to the gym after work three times a week.
  3. Even if unsuccessful in past efforts, think positively. Release yourself from emotions of guilt and shame.
  4. Get support from others, and recognize your own progress.
  5. Conserve willpower for times it is most needed, like co-workers tempting you with happy hour rather than exercise.
  6. Then, just do it! Implement the plan. Each time you go to the gym after work, it becomes easier and more habitual.

Janet Meyer, MSW, LISW-CP is an associate with Psychological & Counseling Associates of the Lowcounty, LLC in Bluffton.