- Reading your Bible every day, and
- Practicing the piano every day, and
- Exercising every day.
Suppose you want to break the habits of. . .
- Smoking, and
- Watching so much TV, and
- Eating so much junk food.
In the first chapter, we talked about the idea that you do well to work on one thing at a time. We fail to achieve New Year’s resolutions because of the letter “s.” We work on multiple resolutions and fail at all of them. Developing the habit is hard work— so hard that you do well to work on one habit at a time.
Here’s the question I want to address in this chapter: does it matter in which order we work on the habits? Does it matter if you start with practicing piano or exercising?
In one sense, it does not. Scientists have learned an amazing thing about willpower. It is like a muscle. Willpower is one central muscle that affects all of our habits. If you strengthen the willpower muscle, it will help you to read your Bible, play the piano, and do anything else you set your mind to do. Charles Duhigg reports:
Take, for instance, studies from the past decade examining the impacts of exercise on daily routines.4.10 When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why. But for many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change. “Exercise spills over,” said James Prochaska, a University of Rhode Island researcher. “There’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.”
Researchers found that willpower is like a muscle in another way. If we exhaust the willpower muscle, we are less likely to exercise willpower in any domain. Smokers who go without cigarettes are more likely to binge on ice cream. Drinkers who resist their favorite drink become physically weaker in a test of endurance. People who are on a diet are more likely to cheat on their spouses. There’s only so much willpower to go around.
Researchers have found that self-control is highest in the morning and steadily deteriorates over the course of the day. By the time you get to the stuff that really matters to you, like going to the gym after work, tackling the big project, keeping your cool when your kids turn the couch into a finger paint masterpiece , or staying away from the emergency pack of cigarettes stashed in your drawer, you may find yourself out of willpower. And if you try to control or change too many things at once, you may exhaust yourself completely.