Willpower workout: Overcoming cognitve defaults and bad habits

Willpower Workout #12: Resisting Bad Habits

September 8, 2020

When you engage in a certain behavior repeatedly, it forms a neural pathway in your brain that makes it easier and more probable that you’ll do it again. This is why, in part, bad habits are hard to break. Your brain has made it easy for you to engage in an action or series of actions following a trigger.

To go against this default, your brain must work harder. And hard work requires willpower. As a result, if we can force our brains to go against their defaults and skip the neural pathways that have been formed and chart a new course, we will need to exercise our willpower. That is what we are going to do in this workout.

While we plan to go against our cognitive default in this workout and believe it is a good way to exercise your willpower, it is not the recommended way to do away with a bad habit. In fact, some would argue that you can never truly erase a bad habit’s cognitive footprints. Instead, you should replace bad habits with better ones. When the same trigger arises that usually prompts the bad habit, substitute in a better behavior that returns the same or similar reward. Charles Duhigg, author of the bestselling book, Power of Habit, illustrates this approach nicely in a personal story.

Day 12 Willpower Workout:

This workout will center around your completion of the Stroop Test. The Stroop Test forces your brain to go against its default. It flashes a color word in front of you: red, for example. But rather than display “red” in black or white, the word “red” has a unique font color. Sometimes the font color matches the word (i.e., red is in red) and sometimes it doesn’t (red is in yellow). Your goal is to indicate the color of the word rather than the meaning of the word as quickly as possible.

Most people take longer when the color does not match the meaning (this is what researchers call an ‘incongruent pair’) because the brain has to work harder. One way this is measured is to report the difference between your reaction time on incongruent pairs vs. congruent pairs. Your goal in this workout is to overcome this difference as much as possible.

  1. Go to this website offering a free Stroop Test (note: there are other sites offering a Stroop Test, but most do not compute your score for you)
  2. Take the test until the difference between your speed on correct incongruent trials and correct congruent trials is less than 50 ms.

If you’re partially color blind like me, do this anyway. In addition to overcoming the brain’s automatic reading, you’ll also have to overcome the frustration of not being able to tell the difference between the colors.

Evaluating Your Workout:

  1. What was the difference in incongruent and congruent trials the first time you took the test?
  2. How many times did it take you to complete the challenge above and shrink the difference to less than 50 ms?
  3. Did this feel like hard work?
  4. Did you get frustrated? Did you want to give up?
  5. What does this tell you about how you feel when you try to resist a bad habit?
  6. What did you do to maintain your focus in the midst of the cognitive challenge and frustration?

Willpower Workout in Action:

Stay tuned for a brief video of me getting under 50 ms despite guessing whether it’s yellow or green! Subscribe to our YouTube channel to be notified when it comes out.

This is day 12 of a 40-day journey to explore your limits. If you’d like to receive a daily email with the willpower workout of the day, you can sign up here to start at Day 1 with the first workout:

If you’d prefer to jump in where Matt is right now and then make up the other workouts on your own schedule, sign up here:

Past Workouts: