How To Follow Through With Behavior Change When You Lack Willpower

When you've thought about changing a behavior--say around diet or exercise--how many times have you stopped yourself becasue you've doubted your motivation or willpower to follow through?   And how many times have you abandoned your efforts once you started, believing it was from a lack of willpower to stick with it?  

One of the most common misconceptions regarding behavior change is believing that it rests on a person’s innate willpower.  Believing that willpower is required to change behavior is a trap because perceived lack of it can be used as an excuse not to get started at all--or to quit once we start.  Hopefully this post will give you some insight into how willpower works and how you can commit to behavior change regardless of how much willpower you think you have or don't have.

Willpower can be helpful, but it can’t be counted upon. 

It’s like a tank.  The more stresses that show up in your life and the more decisions you make in a day, the more depleted your willpower becomes.  When life stressors show up (and you know they will) and when you are deluged by non-stop daily decisions (leading to “decision fatigue”), willpower becomes depleted.  Even with the best intentions, it’s easy to get sucked back into the temptation of old, unwanted habits.

Let’s use exercise as an example.  Let’s face it, exercise requires effort and can be uncomfortable.  It’s so much easier not to do it--and to continue to do what we’ve been doing (TV? Surfing the net? Eating chips on the couch?).


What if you could bypass willpower when implementing new behaviors?

What if your new healthy behaviors didn’t depend on this ever elusive source of motivation? They don’t--and you can – once you understand how.  As humans we naturally fall back into the path of least resistance.  Willpower becomes less of an issue when you make the desirable behavior easier to do--when you create a path of least resistance toward it. How do you do this? By making behaviors you want to do more accessible and behaviors you don’t want to do less accessible.

Even if you are not completely motivated to start a new habit, you can do little things to create an environment suitable to your new behavior.  People can be greatly influenced by small changes in their environment.  Seemingly insignificant details can have a major impact on what you choose to do or not do.  You can design your environment to lead you to the desired behavior.

For example, let’s suppose you want to lose start running every day after work. If all things stay the same, you’re unlikely to resist the temptation of falling back into an old habit like watching television because it’s easier. It’s the path of least resistance. But... 

What if you were to change things around a little?

If you removed the batteries from your remote control and placed them in another room and unplugged your television, you’re making it slightly harder to watch.  You’re creating a hurdle, even if a small one.

Simultaneously you could leave your running clothes out and place your running shoes by the front door.  To make your getting started more likely, give yourself an easy, doable goal--say running only one mile or just walking-- the first few days.  Setting up a planned meeting time to run with a friend could seal the deal.

Doing all these things is like forging a new path of least resistance. You’re lowering the bar, yes, but in service of your new habit.  In other words, you’re designing the environment to make the TV watching less accessible and running more accessible.  Of course, you may still have the urge to watch TV – and if you really wanted to, you could – but because you have made it less convenient, you’re less likely to.

Similarly, if you’re trying to change your diet, here are 3 tips for creating a healthier path of least resistance and reducing willpower dependence:

3 tips for creating a healthier path of least resistance:

  • Plan your meals in advance, preferably at least the night before.
  • Remove any ingredients from your cupboards that aren’t on your new plan. If you live with someone who still eats them, put them in a separate, less accessible place.
  • During mealtimes, fill your plate in the kitchen and only bring individual plates of food to the table. Keeping food in a separate space discourages continuing to eat after you’ve had enough. since going to get seconds requires thinking about it and getting up from the table.  

You want to get in the habit of practicing an instrument? The simple act of placing your instrument out of its case in your living room can vastly increase the likelihood of practicing.

Wanting to go to bed earlier? Set an alarm to trigger you to get ready, put your laptop and mobile phone in another room; and leave a book on your bedside table. In other words, make sleep an easier option than checking emails and social media.

Remember, when you make a behavior the path of least resistance, it becomes your default behavior.  That’s why habits trump willpower--once a behavior becomes a habit, it becomes automatized and you become less dependent on willpower to keep going.  Once you have a default behavior--an automated habit that you don’t have to think about, willpower becomes a moot point. What other behaviors do you want to change?

Design your environment, set them up to become automatic and the sky’s the limit.