When thinking about reaching your goals in life, it is not obvious why habits beat willpower.
In fact, perseverance, grit, and sheer willpower rank high on the list of success factors.
We admire willpower, which we see as a hero’s positive attitude forcing fate to his will.
While willpower is undoubtedly a desirable personal quality with multiple boons for one’s life, it has limits.
And these limits suggest that good habits may beat willpower in the long run to reach your life goals.
Here is how the story goes.
Having Strong Willpower Makes You Better off in Life
So why is willpower important in the first place?
As Kelly McGonigal details out in her highly instructive book, ‘The Willpower Instinct,’ stronger willpower improves almost every aspect of life.
Indeed, research has shown that people with stronger willpower enjoy better health and higher levels of happiness.
Also, people with more willpower have longer-lasting and more satisfying relationships.
And if that wasn’t incentive enough to delve into one’s self-control, better willpower will make you more successful, earn you more money, and will let you live longer.
In a nutshell, if you want to transform your life for the better, developing your self-control should be at the top of your personal improvement tools.
As McGonigal further elaborates, willpower is actually an instinct to keep us safe from long-term harm.
As opposed to the fight-and-flight response, the willpower instinct goes by the name pause-and-plan response. And by making us pause it shifts our attention to the internal conflict between the rational and impulsive self.
As a result, the pause-and-plan response increases the space between impulse and reaction. Thus, our self-control and sense of agency strengthen.
The good news is that we can develop our willpower like a muscle. But since it operates similarly to a muscle, self-control also has its limits.
The Limits of Willpower and What You Can Do Alternatively
So far, I have used the terms willpower and self-control interchangeably, and in effect, they are.
But one could argue that they represent the two sides of staying in control.
Willpower, then, is the ability to make yourself do something you naturally resist. Like, for example, speaking in front of a large crowd. Or go running in the cold when it is so cozy on the sofa.
And self-control is the capacity to resists distractions and temptations. Think of not watching funny videos on Youtube for hours each day. Or cutting out sweat and fatty foods from the diet.
Willpower as the Energy Required to Break through Resistance
But what both sides of staying in control have in common is that they are limited.
First, willpower as the energy of pushing through an obstacle is like a muscle that can be trained and overused.
The psychologist Roy Baumeister refers to the exhaustion of willpower as ‘ego depletion.’ Our mental resources are limited. They can be strengthened through increased consciousness and routines.
But self-control will always remain limited. And it is subject to physical constraints such as lack of glucose and exhaustion.
Here then the question is as to how best to use the limited resource of mental power.
Self-Control as the Energy to Resist Distractions
Second, self-control is the ability to resist desires and distractions in the environment. And because the world is changing fast and overwhelming to most, our self-control is under ever more pressure.
Additionally, willpower appears to have a self-defeating aspect in that attempts to discard unwanted desires make them stronger.
The Russian author and philosopher Fyodor Dostoevsky described in 1863 what is now known as the Ironic process theory.
Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.
When you exert willpower and control your behavior, you are thinking about what you don’t want to do. Hence, you give it energy.
Here, the concern is how to focus on the actions we want to pursue and not give any energy to what we seek to avoid.
Two Key Questions about Energy and the Environment
As a result, an approach to reaching your goals in life needs to focus on two key questions.
First, how can we make the use of willpower as energy-efficient as possible, or is there a more effective approach altogether?
Second, how can we mitigate the influence of the environment to nudge us towards our goals?
Two recent publications by renowned researchers constructively tackle these key questions:
Psychologist and behavior change expert Wendy Wood describes in ‘Good Habits, Bad Habits – The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick’ a willpower free strategy to change our behavior for the better. And this strategy is called habit formation.
And Organizational Psychologist Benjamin Hardy argues in ‘Willpower Doesn’t Work – Discover the Hidden Keys to Success’ that willpower is less important than the environment we live in.
So let’s look at how to create habits that save our willpower but lead to success. And how to structure our environment to support our goals and doesn’t deplete our self-control that much.
Creating Habits that Stick to Understand Why Habits Beat Willpower
Wendy Wood describes a willpower-free strategy to change our behavior for the better. This alternative strategy is called habit formation.
Rather than wasting excessive energy, building routines are the way to change behavior.
And here is the rationale why habits beat willpower: According to Wood’s research, about 43% of our day is lived on autopilot.
Yes, almost half of our waking time is made up of habits. Or, properly defined, by behaviors that we perform with little or no thought, practically automatic,
Hence, the natural path of least resistance to reach our goals would be to create habits that help us reach our life goals.
Further, Wood lays out 3 critical parts of habit formation:
First – Link Your Habits to Rewards
When you set out to create new habits, you have to like what you’re doing. And when you carry out what you like, you create a positive feedback loop.
For example, let’s say you want to feel fitter and have a more athletic-looking body, which gives you additional confidence.
So the fitter and better looking you is your reward. To move towards this goal, you will need habits for regular workouts and a wholesome diet.
By linking your daily exercise and diet to the more athletic you’s vision, you will feel well every time you carry out your routines.
And this feeling well is the brain’s reward mechanism, which releases the neurochemical dopamine. This positive chemical feedback helps to create habits that stick.
Hence, the key here is to have goals that you are keen to achieve and that you also believe you can achieve.
Second – Define Routines as Specific Sequences of Actions
Then, repeat those sequences. And repeat. Again and again. When you are repeating a task in its particular sequence, you start relying on the sensory-motor system.
In contrast, a new task will rely more on the frontal lobe, responsible for active thinking in your brain.
Using the frontal lobe is much more tiring, hence the wearing down of willpower. And that is why habits are so effective. Through the sensory-motor system, they create muscle memory. So once your actions have become habits, they don’t require any more work.
Smile, and enjoy the virtuous cycle!
Third – Enhance Stability by Controlling Your Environment
Habits usually begin with a cue or a trigger. And then a sequence of actions sets of.
For good habits, this can be the alarm clock, the running shoes we leave in front of the bed, or the glass of mineral water on our writing desk.
In the same vein, we all also have triggers for habits that we’d rather avoid but quite literally get sucked into. When we see the wine bottles in a restaurant, the cookie jar in the cupboard, or a friend lighting up a cigarette.
However, we have some control over when our habits get triggered to the degree we can influence our environment. But this context of our habit triggers can be everything around us. Or it could even be our mood and state of mind.
Benjamin Hardy goes as far as saying that our environment is more important than our willpower.
And he, therefore, refers to Darwin’s distinction between natural evolution and domesticated evolution. In a natural evolution, any organism will adapt to whatever situation it finds itself in.
In contrast, in domesticated evolution, humans have evolved, unlike animals and plants, by controlling their environment.
Enhancing the Adaptation of Good Habits and Getting Rid of Bad Ones
It is now up to us to design an environment that leaves us no choice but to ‘adapt’ to our ideal self that will achieve our life goals.
Start by making small changes in your environment that provide good cues, making following good habits easier.
Equally, to avoid bad habits easier, get rid of behavioral cues to lead you to the inevitable. Do you feel that you need to eat less and improve your diet? Hide or even get rid of unhealthy food in your home. And only display healthy ones like, for example, fruit on a table.
Additionally, increase resisting forces that go by the term ‘friction.’
For example, many governments have increased friction for smokers by increasing pricing and printing deterring images of smoke-related diseases on cigarette packages.
And here are two more strategies to make good habits stick more easily:
Use implementation intentions and forcing functions.
Implementation intentions make use of anticipating what can go wrong in your habits and creating an ‘If-then-scenario’ when it does.
Let’s say you want to stop eating Donuts as they only provide fat and sugar instead of nutritional value. Why not create the implementation intention that, every time you want to eat a Donut, you eat a banana instead?
Working with such ‘If-then-scenarios’ is a fun way to automate your resolutions.
And forcing functions are another way to drive yourself to achieve your life goals. Let’s say you want to cut your use of social media when with your partner or family. Make it a rule never to bring your phone when you have a meal together. Now, this is a cool way to rediscover the wonder of face-to-face sociability.
Or another forcing function I very much like using myself: Have a task you want to finish quickly? Go to a cafe with your laptop, and do not take the adapter. You will have to tap away before your laptop runs out of battery.
So, let’s wrap it up why habits beat willpower. Or do they then?
Efficient Use of Personal Energy is Why Habits Beat Willpower
To play off habits against willpower only makes sense to understand the strengths of each.
When eminent psychologist Roy Baumeister titles ‘Why Self-Control is the Secret of Success’ he has a strong point. Without being able to focus on your goals, you won’t go places.
But it is noteworthy that Baumeister, of course, also talks about habits. In his view, when our willpower will fail, which unavoidably happens at one point, we need alternative strategies. And an alternative strategy, Yabba Dabba Doo, is habits.
In fact, there is an inverse relationship between willpower and habits. Or put differently: Building good habits for your goals mitigates the limitations that come with willpower.
You will need willpower when first creating a new habit. And you continuously require willpower to repeat the new routine often enough, so it sticks and becomes automatic. And before this happens, you will need to exert active self-control to stick to your implementation intentions and play by forcing functions.
But when a habit has become automatic, you free up enormous amounts of willpower. You will experience enhanced productivity with less effort. It is quite magical when that happens, and it feels fulfilling.
But this is not where the story ends. The world we live in changes fast. So we need to keep changing too. And that is easier when a lot of your automated habits move you in the right direction and have a lot of willpower available as a result of that.
So that is why habits beat willpower in the long run. But make no mistake, willpower will always remain an indispensable ingredient to your success and wellbeing.
References mentioned in the article and recommended for further study:
McGonigal, Kelly – The Willpower Instinct – How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters and What You Can Do to Get More of It
Baumeister, Roy F., and Tierney, John – Willpower – Why Self-Control is the Secret of Success
Wood, Wendy – Good Habits, Bad Habits – The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick
Hardy, Benjamin – Willpower Doesn’t Work – Discover the Hidden Keys to Success.