Why Habits Eat Willpower for Breakfast – Sidi Tushar Imdad
One of the most common excuses I hear for not completing big goals is ‘I just don’t have the willpower’ or the common variant: ‘I need to have more discipline.’
Even if people don’t verbalise these beliefs aloud, their actions speak for them: they are waiting until they feel motivated or are hoping that, somehow, they can summon up willpower later. Then they’ll get onto fulfilling their dreams.
A surprising find of modern research is that willpower is overrated. As James Clear, in Atomic Habits, has noted:
“When scientists analyze people who appear to have tremendous self-control, it turns out those individuals aren’t all that different from those who are struggling. Instead, “disciplined” people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control. In other words, they spend less time in tempting situations.”
So that sister you see going on a jog every morning, or the brother who consistently makes Fajr, probably are no more ‘disciplined’ than you. They’ve managed to establish a habit – which requires hardly any willpower to maintain.
If you think about your own life, I guarantee there is at least one habit which you do regularly that others find extremely hard.
Don’t believe me? Try driving. I have relatives – both male and female – who are in their thirties and still can’t drive. For them, the thought of paying for and taking dozens of lessons, preparing for the theory and practical exam, etc., is like a mountain of willpower they need to overcome.
But if you are one of the thousands of drivers reading this, it’s no sweat at all. Driving – which is an incredibly complex skill if you think about it – is completely second nature for us.
Much more important than willpower in breaking or making habits, is environment.
Here’s a powerful proof of this assertion.
During the Vietnam War the American public were shocked to find that up to a whopping 20% of soldiers and service users were addicted to heroin. This caused consternation and immediate government intervention, with the setting up of organisations and research initiatives. One of the startling findings was that 90% of these addicts managed to eliminate their habits overnight.
But how? They came home.
Conventional wisdom preached that these soldiers must have been morally corrupt or undisciplined.
But the truth was that the constant stress of war and the particular friendships made on the battlefield all created triggers for heroin use.
Once the soldiers returned to the USA they were removed from the environment. Remove the cues/triggers and you remove the habit.
What was supposed to be a permanent, irreversible condition got treated in one day.
Islamically, we can call this the power of our suhba – which is both the company we keep and environment.
Think of the famous hadith of the man who murdered 100 people (if you don’t know it, or need a reminder, you can read it here: https://sunnah.com/bukhari/60/137) before finding a monk who wisely advised him to travel to a certain village. He passed away before reaching his destination, but Allah, in His mercy, accepted this serial murderer’s repentance and forgave him!
SubhanAllah, let’s think about this hadith in the context of our discussion on habits. This man was saved due to the advice to change his environment, change his suhba. He wasn’t advised to spend time in isolation, work on himself or to do this deed or that deed.
He was directed to completely change his environment, as that is one of the most powerful ways to uproot your habits and replace bad deeds with good ones.
The Qur’an itself encourages one to seek a positive environment in the strongest terms. In Surah Nisa (4:97) we read a powerful dialogue between the angels and the sinners whose souls they are taking (Allah, cause us to die in a goodly state! Amin!). The sinners complain, ‘We were too weak and oppressed on earth.’ But the angels reply:
‘Was God’s earth not vast enough for you to migrate to some other place?’
In my own life, and with many of my friends, I’ve seen this principle played out through witnessing countless sincere Muslims making ‘hijra’ (emigration for Allah’s sake). Many moved to the Middle East to be in a Muslim country where they could hear the azan resounding and reminding five times a day; others moved to live with their shaykh and his community of students. Even my beloved city, Leicester Sharif, is fondly known as ‘The Medina of England’ and attracts many practising Muslims who move here for the quality of Hifz and Islamic education, abundant masajid and active scholarly community.
Another surpassing wisdom of our Deen is the encouragement – and with men, the near obligation – of praying our salahs in the masjid. Allah knew in His infinite wisdom – before science caught up to confirm – that we need to be constantly buffeted by an environment of Dhikr (remembrance) and that’s why places, like the masjid, or Makkah Sharif, or houses of remembrance, are one of the most sanctified places in our life.
In today’s article I’ve scratched the surface on the power of habits to transform our lives. We’ve explored how one’s environment and suhba can easily overpower willpower. Building up to Ramadan, my series of articles termed the ‘Pre-Ramadan Runway’ will explore other aspects of habit forming that we can utilise in the holy month, and in life generally.
For now, if you ever start thinking that you’re not disciplined enough or are short on willpower, ask a different question. How can you improve your environment or suhba?