I read a really fantastic book recently called Willpower Is Not Enough. Although the book was published by a religious press, it was written by two psychologists and teaches some fascinating principles.
The basic premise goes something like this:
If you're having to use "willpower" to do something, if you have to grit your teeth and make a fist and force yourself, you're not only likely to fail at it, but you're working harder than you need to.
Most often, willpower is a function of the mind. The mind intellectually understands something, and wants us to do it (or stop doing it) even if we don't want to. It's as if there's two people inside us, the one who understands what he should and should not do, and the one who doesn't want to be bothered with such restrictions.
The book identifies this other creature as your heart. Willpower issues, it says, come from times when your mind and your heart are in conflict. When you force yourself to do something, the opposition comes from your own feelings. Our culture devalues feelings, focusing instead on intellect and logic. Even most of our religions claim our passions are evil and must be suppressed. "Mind over matter," we say. "Put your mind to it."
Eastern philosophies are not so lopsided. They're all about balance. The real trick isn't so much finding a way to overpower your heart as it is to work with your heart. Involve your heart.
What do I mean by this? Well, you can take it a couple of ways.
First, let's say you want to begin a new behavior. Your brain knows it's a good behavior, but your heart doesn't want any part of it.
Your brain might know you should exercise more, but you can't get fired up about it. Stop and think about the things that do get you fired up. Maybe you're a social butterfly, and you love to be around people. If you make your exercise program into a group activity, your heart and your brain could get behind it.
The book tells of one young man who had terrible study habits. He'd study hard, cramming for a week, but then he'd burn out and ditch class for a week to hang with friends. Then, out of guilt, he'd go back to cramming and burn himself out again. As he started looking at this from a heart/mind perspective, he realized his heart wasn't in his major. By changing majors to something that excited his heart, studying was no longer a chore for him. No more real discipline was required.
Think about it. Does it take discipline for a kid to wake up on the day when she's going to Disneyland? Does it take discipline to call a radio station when they're offering those incredible tickets?
When the heart and the mind are behind things, they become far easier.
So what about the opposite? What if you want to stop a behavior?
First off, you stop assuming the desires of your heart are bad and need to be suppressed. While the means you may pursue to achieve those desires might be unhealthy, the desire itself is probably perfectly normal and important. It becomes a matter of fulfilling that need in a non-harmful way.
For instance, the next time you want to indulge in the behavior, stop and do a self assessment. Ask questions like: What am I feeling right now? What will indulging in this behavior accomplish? What need am I trying to satisfy? Is there another way I can fulfill that need?
It may sound like psychobabble, but you might be surprised to find that a tendency to overeat is actually because of a desire for affection (It's not called comfort food for nothing!). A drug problem might come from a desire to feel important.
You don't overcome those by gritting your teeth, trying to be tough, and forcing your way through it.
If I tell you for the next thirty seconds not to think of a pink elephant, pink elephants will flood your thoughts.
If instead, I tell you to try to picture a white tiger, nary a pink elephant will enter your brain.
You overcome a negative behavior by indulging those decent, honest feelings in more wholesome and positive ways.
That's not to say that there won't be times where you'll need to rely on willpower alone, nor that your heart can always be trusted.
But it is far less stressful (and more Zen) to try to bring the heart and mind together, rather than pitting them against each other.
Like a judo master can use his opponent's strength against him, by using his opponent's momentum to bring him down, so you can bring your heart into submission not through overpowering it, but through letting its powerful desires pull you into the behaviors that will bring you true joy.