From Willpower to Skillpower

Habits are behaviors that play out without us needing to think much about them – things like brushing our teeth or putting on our seatbelt in the car. It’s surprising to think that nearly half of the things we do every day represent choices that we made deliberately at some point, then stopped thinking about and continued doing. 

There are three parts to the habit loop. A particular cue begins the routine, the behavior follows and then a reward helps your brain remember the pattern. Over time, we begin to crave the reward at the end, and that is what tells our brains that it’s worth it to keep doing what we are doing. 

This past weekend, we visited my brother-in-law and his family in New Mexico. When meals were served, my 5-year-old nephew quickly lined up the different parts of his meal in order from least delicious to most delicious. Satisfied with his ranking, he would then start eating the things he was not so excited about, stopping when he’d had enough of each and slowly making his way toward the food he had decided was most delicious. I watched with intrigue at each meal as he saved the very best for last, suppressing the impulse to dig into a bag of chips or a brownie before eating the vegetables or fruit.

Willpower is a finite resource. When we are faced with one choice that offers immediate gratification and another that takes longer to see the rewards, our default is to choose the option that offers immediate rewards. When we first look at the food in front of us, we prioritize tastiness over healthfulness. When children are presented with one marshmallow – and told they can have two if they wait a few minutes – they often stuff the marshmallow into their mouths after just a few agonizing seconds. The dilemma of self-control can be torture. 

So I was in awe of the way this little boy had taught himself willpower by deciding ahead of time how he would arrange and eat his food. I talked with my brother-in-law about the science of developing skills to resist temptation and delay pleasure – and how it was so impressive that his son had learned to rearrange the situation to create “skillpower” instead of relying on the limited resource of willpower. According to research, this ability is a sign of all sorts of good things to come in life. 

On Sunday, we sat down for the last meal together before we flew home. I happened to be sitting across from my nephew and decided to ask him more about his decision to eat in this way. “It’s easy,“ he shrugged. “Sometimes I accidentally burp after my meal – even though I’m not supposed to ‘cause it’s rude,” he said, cupping his hands as he whispered. “So if I’m going to burp, I want to get the taste of dessert or chips rather than something gross.” And there it was: the reward that was keeping the habit loop going. 

The habit formula he was following was: 
Cue: When I am given my balanced meal…
Routine: I will sort it so the last things I eat are the most delicious… 
Reward: Because it gives me a tasty burp.

What a wise little boy.

Author: Alyssa Forcehimes, PhD

An expert in behavior change, substance use disorders and empathic communication, Dr. Alyssa Forcehimes serves as President of The Change Companies® and Train for Change Inc.® She lives in Arizona with her husband and two daughters.