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Breaking habits: Willpower has nothing to do with lasting change

‘Tis the season . . . to swear that next year will be different.


Everywhere you look, people are taking stock of what held them back and resolving to break old habits. But for all the stock-taking and intention-setting that takes place this time of year, most people will have fallen far short of their goals by mid-January – not because they lacked discipline, motivation, or willpower. Most of the people I see in my coaching practice are incredibly motivated and would do anything to leave their old habits and addictions behind.


They just didn’t know they are going about it all wrong.


Popular belief tells us that if we want change, we need to focus on our unwanted behaviours. If you smoke, drink, worry, or spend hours on the internet, you should focus on doing things differently.


Although focusing on our unwanted behaviours – or even the thoughts and feelings that underlie them – has certain logic on the face of it, it misses the mark. It looks at the surface-level psychology of a person, but ignores the bigger psycho-spiritual truth about life. What we do, think, and feel is like the tip of an iceberg – while it looks huge, feels dangerous, and is in our way, the portion we can see is only a fraction of the bigger truth.


My personal iceberg was binge eating.


For eight years, I tried every behavioural technique I could, but nothing worked. I knew what to do – don’t give in to my urges to binge eat. But something stopped me from taking that common sense action. I had tons of discipline and wanted to quit more than anything. But I was too caught up in the discomfort of my urges, too flooded with fear, self-judgment, and hopelessness to not give in. Then I stumbled upon an insightful understanding of myself and my habit that changed everything.


In a nutshell, I saw that my brain was a machine that was conditioned to demand huge quantities of food, but I didn’t have to give that machine what it was demanding.


Once I saw better, I naturally, effortlessly did better.


When I saw that I didn’t have to believe everything my mind told me, and that those urges would fade on their own, not acting on them was quite simple. When I stopped obeying my urges, the urges stopped showing up and my habit was quickly a thing of the past.


Since my own radical recovery, I’ve devoted my career to helping others see these truths with results that blow those of traditional therapy and addiction programs out of the water. All people have the capacity for quick and effortless change when they see life differently.


The behaviour-based, motivation-oriented strategies that are so prevalent today are pointing us in the wrong direction. When we experience a shift in our understanding about how our minds work, longtime habits clear up on their own.


No one wants to start off the New Year struggling, trying to stay focused, only to find that their change was superficial and doesn’t last through the winter.


With less focus on fixing our behaviours, and more focus on gaining a deeper understanding of who we are and how our mind works, this can be the year when everything will be different – once and for all.


Amy Johnson is a master life coach and author of The Little Book of Big Change: The No-Willpower Approach to Breaking Any Habit published by New Harbinger Publications January 1, 2016.