Wish you had more willpower? No you don’t – three reasons why

“Willpower is for people who are still uncertain about what they want to do.” – Helia

Forget willpower. It’s elusive, ill-defined and hard to sustain. There’s an easier way. Years of scientific research confirms that the key to lasting change has to do with habits. So if you want to make lasting change – in your relationships, your career, your attitude, your self-image – you don’t need more willpower, you just need new habits.

Says Benjamin Hardy, writing for businessinsider.com: “Whether you want to get healthier, stop using social media so much, improve your relationships, be happier, write a book, or start a business — willpower won’t help you with any of these things.” In fact, says Hardy, “willpower is what’s holding you back.”

Adds Vanessa Bennington, in a piece for breakingmuscle.com: “. . . the superhuman willpower some people seem to possess might just be really awesome habits that make resisting less than healthy options and sticking with a fitness program effortless.”

Here’s why willpower is a fugacious solution:

1.It’s a depleting resource;

2.It’ll fail unless you change your environment; and

3.It’s not a long-term solution.


“According to psychological research,” says Hardy, “your willpower is like a muscle. It’s a finite resource that depletes with use. As a result, by the end of your strenuous days, your willpower muscles are exhausted and you’re left to your naked and defenseless self — with zero control to stop the night-time munchies and time wasters.”

Len Markidan, writing for homeofficehero.com, agrees: “Self-control works like a muscle. Your self-control ‘muscle’ has a finite amount of energy each day. As it gets depleted, your ability to make willpower-driven decisions goes down. . . . Wouldn’t you rather use your limited willpower for big, important decisions than routine, everyday ones like whether you’re going to floss or read for 30 minutes?”

Can willpower help us control our anger? Little chance, says Susan Heitler, in a piece for Psychology Today: “Because the mind ‘goes backbrain’ (into being controlled by the automatic pilot part of the brain instead of the thinking part) with elevated emotions, it's too late then, in the midst of a stressful moment, to depend on sheer willpower to manage yourself well. The better strategy is to build habits that will stand you in good stead when you need them.”


“No matter how much internal resolve you have,” insists Hardy, “you will fail to change your life if you don’t change your environment.” He goes on: “This is where the willpower approach fails. The willpower approach doesn’t focus on changing the environment, but instead, on increasing personal efforts to overcome the current environment. What ends up happening? Eventually you succumb to your environment despite your greatest efforts to resist.”

Hardy offers a quick example: “If you’re trying to stop drinking alcohol, you must stop being 1) around people that drink alcohol and 2) at places that serve alcohol. Your willpower will fail if you don’t . . . . If you want to become a professional rock-climber, you need to surround yourself with professional rock-climbers and orient your whole lifestyle to that goal.”


The message is clear: long-term change flows from strong habits, not strong willpower. But how do we acquire good habits?

“The ability to build habits isn’t innate,” Markidan reminds us, “it can be learned.” And how we talk to ourselves makes a difference. Instead of telling ourselves, “If I did [habit] every day, life would be amazing,” says Markidan, try saying: “I’m going to do [habit] every day so that I can achieve [result].”

Markidan shares his three-step formula, drawn from two experts in the field: BJ Fogg (Tiny Habits) and Charles Duhigg (The Power of Habit). His three steps: 1. Break down our goal (the smaller the better); 2. Attach it to an existing routine; and 3. Reward yourself. Bennington offers a similar formula: 1. Identify a cue; 2. Establish a reward; and 3. “Create a plan that enables us to enjoy our reward without derailing our goals.”

Rewards. Routines. Cues. Plans. Notes Markidan: “. . . when it comes to building habits, systems are infinitely more effective than willpower.”

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