Beyond Willpower

Veganism is often framed as a matter of willpower. “I could never do that. I just love cheese so much!” or “I admire what you’re doing; I just don’t have the fortitude to do it myself.” I once got this reaction from a woman who had earlier told me that she was going for a 12 mile run over the weekend. When I marveled at the distance, she put this in perspective by telling me that there are people who run well over a hundred miles each week as part of their training routines. I was struck by how the definition of “possible” expands and contracts in proportion to how much we care about the topic at hand. One response to the “I can’t” excuse is that motivation is a more relevant factor than willpower. My knee-jerk reaction to the prospect of running 12 miles is to say that I could never do it, when in reality, I simply don’t care to devote the energy to that goal. Conversely, it might be more accurate to say that the woman I spoke to doesn’t have the motivation to go vegan, more than she “can’t.” We summon up the strength to do difficult things all the time. However, motivation only matters if you believe that you can accomplish it. Veganism is no more scary than a change in dietary habits. Habits are stubborn thingsoften impossible to break if we rely solely on willpower (see statistics on news years resolutions for confirmation of this), but there are good methods available to change them. We need to cultivate a broader sense of imagination that allows non-vegans to realize that the dietary habits governing their lives need not be static. We also need to foster understanding of how habits work and promote effective ways to change them.

Difficult things are a major part of life and they are often the things that make life worth living. I think this shows up especially obviously now that we have the ability to work in front of a computer screen and spend all our off time on the couch watching Netflix. If you’ve ever tried this, you’ll likely find that it’s not very fulfilling. At a time in history when life is easier than ever before, we flock to Crossfit gyms and other workout programs. People climb mountains, run marathons and play sports that are physically and mentally demanding. People get up every day to go to jobs they hate or work grueling hours. The motivations vary, but the point is that many people surprise themselves by the range of difficult things they can do. How did they get from saying “I could never do that,” to actually doing it? In many cases, the answer is habits.

If you want to compete in a marathon, you incorporate running into your daily routine. If you want to work 80 hour weeks (although, why would you?!), you embrace behaviors, like checking email constantly or taking on extra responsibilities, that force you to devote more and more time to the job. Although, changing habits may seem daunting, a full understanding of how habits work is actually incredibly empowering. The first step is believing that you can change those habits¹. Realize that habits are malleable. People quit smoking, drinking or biting their nails every day. I don’t mean to imply that meat and dairy consumption is comparable to those behaviors, but the power of belief is a necessary ingredient to changing any of those behaviors.

In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg illustrates the need for belief through the story of Tony Dungy. The football coach had eschewed elaborate playbooks in favor of training his players to react to simple cues. Over and over, each player learned to read the opposition based on small factors like the direction of the opposing players shoulders, the distribution of weight, the direction of their back foot. Over and over, Dungy created a winning team that relied on these habits, only to see them crumble in the playoffs when the pressure was on and the players returned to their old habits. This happened with both the Buccaneers and the Colts. A traumatic event in Dungy’s own life, the death of his son, caused the Colts to rally around their coach, inspiring a deeper belief in his methods than ever before. In 2006, the year after Dungy lost his son, the Indianapolis Colts won the Super Bowl, perhaps a consequence of fully embracing their habits. Non-vegans need to believe that veganism is a viable lifestyle before embracing it, just as the players needed to believe that Dungy’s methods worked.

So, what are the constituent components of habit? According to Duhigg, there are three: cue, routine and reward. Each habit is framed by a thing that prompts you to start the routine, then you perform the habit and, lastly, you are rewarded. Suppose you make a cup of coffee the moment you enter your workplace each day. The cue is getting into work, the routine is making and drinking the coffee, and the reward is the taste of the coffee and the energy boost it gives you. Here’s the dirty little secret to habit change: you can’t simply obliterate a habit by sheer force of will. Change works most effectively when you leave the cue and the reward intact, but change the routine. For instance, this is why ex-smokers often use chewing gum or bite on toothpicks as a means of curbing their cravings. The cue in either case might be the desire for stimulation, the routine changes from smoking to chewing gum, and the reward is satisfying that oral fixation. For going vegan, the cue may be hunger on your commute home from work, the routine may change from a burger at Wendy’s to a Sofritas burrito at Chipotle, and the reward remains the taste of the food.

There has been a great deal of research on how we can change habits and behaviors. This topic will be a continuing series, because I truly believe that understanding how habits change is particularly important to allow veganism to spread. One of the many unfortunate perceptions of vegans is that we are particularly disciplined or ascetic. Vegans are just regular people who changed their eating habits. If you’re not vegan, then most likely you can too.



¹Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit. Random House, 2012. E-book. (Ironically, this is the exact inverse to the first step in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Their first step involves admitting your own powerlessness and embracing God’s will. It’s easy to lampoon AA as unscientific and needlessly based on religion, but they actually do a fine job working with the science of habit replacement. AA meetings cleverly function the same way that bars function for former drinkers. However, I do think that it is needless to invoke God in pursuit of changing habits.)



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