Forget About Willpower: How to Install New Habits and Achieve Great Things

by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.

New habits. Self-control. Willpower.

As we learn new things, we often feel inspired to change.

We discover the possibility of achieving something greater and fall in love with that future idea.

So we devise the little things that will help us to get there, for example:

  • Maximum strength: Increase the weight load from 85% to 100% of my 1RM (1 repetition maximum).
  • Explosive power: Reduce the time but double the intensity of my sprint. Rest. Repeat.
  • Weight loss: Replace half of my usual portion of pasta with vegs so I don't feel deprived.
  • More coaching clients: Tell more people what I do and email studies/articles to prospects.

You'll agree with me in that doing things just once or twice won't do the trick, right?

To achieve the end result, you need to repeat the same positive action, over and over again, until at one point it becomes automatic. And then, you'll have a habit that you can't live without. It becomes part of your routine.

New habits can give your brain pleasure

Installing a new positive habit has the power to bring you closer to your ideal self. But this is just a small part of the story.

Most people tend to perceive the notion of new habits as a 'bore' or as a painful thing to do, and feel discouraged to even try. This is because nobody told them about the additional benefits of a habit that has been successfully installed:

  1. It feels effortless. You don’t have to think about it much. You just go on autopilot – like when you brush your teeth.
  2. You don't need willpower because your behaviour is automatically triggered by a contextual cue (rather than self-control).
  3. There's a promise of reward from completing the action. And your brain gets pleasure from a completed task.
  4. The automation of common actions frees mental resources for other tasks or thought processes.
  5. We perform thousands of actions a day, 95% of which are automatic: a new habit is part of this group.

This is how you can create freedom and space for other things in your life. Who doesn't want to create health habits that are sticky and that make us feel great?

Now you may think: "But don't we need to go through a phase of pure willpower in order to create a new health habit?"

Stay tuned, that's what we're here to explore – how to create a health habit that will stick, without having to employ pure willpower.

Can you rely solely on willpower to change?

If we're talking about long-term change, then the answer is no.

Willpower is the ability to 'mindfully' control oneself. Controlling oneself in order to change a behaviour isn't that easy. It's an effort.

In contrast, a habit is an almost 'mindless' behaviour pattern acquired by frequent repetition that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance. Unlike willpower, a habit feels easy.

Willpower alone will not get you to long-term success. It's the birthing of a new habit that will.

As Charles Duhigg explains in his book The Power of Habitwe create a habit through a cue which leads to a routine, that ends in a habit. It is the routine or habit that allows us to access a part of our brain that runs on relatively little gas.

How do you go from self-control to easy habit?

When you feel good internally after completing what you set out to do, you build into your own self accountability. You want to do more of it because you received positive feedback from the task and you felt good doing it.

You completed the new task and you added to your habit strength. It's almost as if you perpetuate the new behaviour through letting it build its own muscle, if you will.

What's more, installing a good action in your routine can trigger a positive ripple effect on many other health behaviours.

Australian researchers Oaten and Cheng conducted a study that concluded how one repeated action (in this case exercise) can trigger a variety of positive behaviours and faciliate the improvement of self-regulation.

Is habit automation all you really need to do?

Research led by USC Professor Wendy Wood shows that lack of control – or willpower – doesn’t automatically mean success or failure.

When you don't have self-control, what really matters is the underlying routine, or the habit groove you've already installed – good or bad.

Dr. Wood, who is a leading researcher on habits, goes on to tell us this:

Habits persist even when we’re tired and don’t have the energy to exert self-control.

Is this also true for your eating habits?


The same principle applies to our eating behaviours.

Willpower – or self-control – is a limited resource and can become depleted as the day goes by.

If you've been juggling difficult clients or stressful situations at work to the point of mental exhaustion, there will be none or very little willpower left at the end of your day. That means a reduced ability to change what and how you eat.

This is because when we're exhausted, our brain defaults to previously installed automatic behaviours – such as the late-night snacking habit.

So in the long run, developing a habit or an automatic reaction is more effective than self-control: you'll perform it anyway, even when your mental energy runs out.

Can automation be used for athletic performance?

Absolutely. Here's an example.

When an athlete is in 'the zone' and goes for the gold at the Olympics, it isn't about self-control; it's about automation. It's about relying on that 95% of their (subconscious) machinery that they worked so hard to optimise.

For this reason, most aspiring gold-medalists are already training for 2016. Because, when it comes to star performance on the competition day, relying on automatic actions and intuitive skills is more powerful than having a 'mental debate' on how to control an outcome.

So how do you set up a habit?

Start simple and start small.

When you choose an action to push yourself towards your goal, plan specifically when and where you will do this action. Be consistent; choose a time and place that you encounter every day of the week. This will help with the adherence, or stickiness.

Surround yourself with new habit-forming contextual cues. These are the subconscious triggers for your new action, which can be, for instance, a time of the day, a certain place, a sound, a particular smell, foods that you keep in the kitchen, or a pre-installed behaviour – typically small things.

The less overwhelming the cues, the better your chances of grooving a habit. Here are some examples:

  • Supermarket: As I walk in, I'll go directly to the fruits and vegetables isle.
  • Stretching: As I finish my run, I'll stretch my hamstrings and quads.
  • Cravings: I won't keep sweets in the house (here you remove the cue to disrupt a habit).
  • Muscle building: I'll set the alarm to have my protein mix within 90 minutes of my workout.
  • Dental care: When I finish brushing my teeth, I'll floss.
  • Endurance: Play my favourite song and run 5 minutes longer.

Your goal here is to pay attention to the cues (or to plant new cues) around you, which act as reminders. As your brain reacts to the cue, completing the subsequent action feels like a reward.

It's this feeling of accomplishment or reward that will cause your brain to want to do it again. When it comes to perpetuating the behaviour, repetition is king!

Let's work on your own habit creations

Pause for a second and ask yourself:

  1. Which new behaviour can I install, so it becomes automatic and effortless?
  2. When does this new behaviour need to take place?
  3. Where?
  4. What cues or triggers will make it happen?
  5. How can I adapt the environmental cues to make it easier to perform?

Even better, write your answers on paper.

You may have noticed in my previous newsletters how I tend to elaborate on specific 'cues' to set up new healthy patterns – for you or for those you help – such as:

You can come up with your own cues too. Think about what triggers each desired action and look towards setting up a new cue for success. Be very clear about those triggers.

The bottom line

Remember, it's about automation. This means that we remove any debates inside your head about whether to perform the action or not. Even when you don't have the energy to exert self-control (willpower), a habit can keep you on track and in line.

Now it's over to you! Join in the conversation and tell us in the comments below:

  1. Which new habit can you install this week?
  2. What triggers do you need to plant or remove to make this happen?

This is a supportive and safe place to share and learn from each other!

Every other Thursday we share our research and actionable advice to help you and those you care about. If you enjoyed this, join our FREE updates.


  • Andrea

    Reply Reply September 1, 2014

    I keep a tall water glass near the coffeemaker to reinforce the habit of drinking water before anything else when I wake up. While the coffee brews I drink the water in a happy frame of mind.

    • Alex

      Reply Reply September 1, 2014

      Andrea, nice cue! The beauty of a habit is that there’s always a reward at the end, in your case seeing that glass empty :-)

  • Diane Corriette

    Reply Reply September 1, 2014

    I have just started introducing vegetable juicing into my life and I have to agree here – the more I do it the better I feel and the better I feel the more I want to do it. Seeing the results – weight loss – helps also.

    One habit I needed to change involved watching TV at 10pm. I instantly craved a peanut butter and jam sandwich with a cup of tea. Whether I was hungry or not doesn’t matter. My 10pm ritual was to make it. Once I had identified that I had to make sure at 10pm I was upstairs reading or on my computer. Now the habit is broken I can happily sit and watch TV no matter what time. Don’t recall how long it took but it wasn’t long. A couple of months at the most.

    Sometimes the desire for my old habit will hit, especially when I am watching a film, and I tell myself I’ll do it in a minute and just never do.

  • Ryan

    Reply Reply September 1, 2014

    I’ve trained myself to set my any alarms after pulling back bed sheets. As a college student, it is especially helpful after nights of partying that may lead to forgetfulness

  • Kate Latham

    Reply Reply September 2, 2014

    I leave a small glass next to the kitchen sink so it cues me into having a glass of water every time I enter the kitchen. I now easily have 2 litres a day and because I am not so thirsty the reward has been my coffee intake has automatically cut down to only 2 cups a day and I sleep better!

  • Christopher

    Reply Reply September 2, 2014

    Habits are also formed by accountability from others. The triggers I have found successful are my phone, my protein powder all over the house. My pre workout and samples from shows, my workout journal and binder, and also the multiple bags of fish and chicken in my frig. My phone has apps… body building bodyspace myfitnesspal my s health etc… I also have a fb group for fitness.

  • bri

    Reply Reply January 16, 2015

    I need to curb my “must have dessert no matter how full I am” craving. It happens every night no matter how many great choices I make elsewhere throughout the day and into the evening.

    I want to make a sign on my fridge or cabinet “Do you really want that?” or “Is it worth it?”, purchase and make less of those dessert items, and keep a full stock of berries and dark chocolate, maybe a little creme fraiche is okay too? :)

  • Lydia

    Reply Reply May 26, 2015

    My bad habit is forgetting to drink water until the end of the day. I have found that by placing water in various places has indeed helped. I put it next to my chair where I watch TV and on the desk where I sit doing paperwork. I even put one in the kitchen and next to the bed. This way I increase my water intake because everywhere I look, there it is!

  • Rachel

    Reply Reply December 16, 2015

    I am going to try to introduce a new habit of doing a one mile indoor walk on youtube after watching the evening news on TV.

    • Maurice

      Reply Reply December 16, 2015

      Great idea Rachel! Make sure to track it, with a fitness tracker. I use the Band 2 myself (Microsoft).

      • Rachel

        Reply Reply December 16, 2015

        Thanks for the suggestion to track it – i haven’t heard of Band 2. I will google it to see what it is about.

  • Celia

    Reply Reply May 28, 2016

    I am going to drink a glass of water half an hour before each meal, and to remember this, I will use an alarm set on my phone

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