Habit is stronger than will-power

Habit is stronger than will-power

Photography: Will van Wingerden

Photography: Will van Wingerden

Last week I wrote an article called “Doing Less” and I referred to a book called “Essentialism” which suggests that getting more of what matters done isn’t about DOING MORE, but is about DOING LESS.

So how to do this?

One way is to gain clarity, such as the process I went through when I went on a weekend-long retreat to begin culling my projects and life goals. I narrowed down the list and identified the top 5 most important areas of my life. I know they are important because I will later thank myself for putting most of my attention on these NOW.

But I quickly found out that there’s more to it. Identifying what is MOST important is vital. But after that, what often happens is we begin to lose track of it, it moves to the bottom of the inbox and soon we’re back to struggling with all of our to-do’s. 

In order to keep the important stuff at the top of our minds, regularly reviewing them is essential. What does it take to stay consistent with the review and not drop the ball on this most essential part of Essentialism (or One Thing-ism)?

Cultivating a habit

I used to think that only people with high levels of will-power could pull this off. I was skeptical that I would be able to maintain this kind of narrowed focus on one area of my life for a long period of time. I certainly knew from experience that I am not the most disciplined of people, and that the enthusiasm I have for doing an activity that provides clear rewards, doesn’t always mean that I’ll stick with it. 

I had begun learning about productivity by reading the books I mentioned in last week’s article as well as taking a few courses, and I kept coming back to the concept of a “habit.” 

In the book “The Power of Habit,” by Charles Duhigg, the biology of a habit is explained. By looking at people who have cultivated the discipline of doing an activity on a regular basis over a long period of time, it seems that “discipline” is not what we think it is. It’s not sheer will-power that keeps a habit in place. Instead, it’s a series of triggers and feelings. 

The first trigger is the reminder. It’s the physical or auditory thing that reminds you to do the habit in the first place. For example, you put your running shoes next to your bed and when you wake up in the morning, you see your running shoes, put them on and then go for a run. Duhigg calls the shoes by the bed the cue

The second is that by doing the activity (say you’re Michael Phelps and you’re swimming every day), you find yourself in what feels like a routine, or a sweet spot. You barely have to think about the activity in order to do it. It become automatic. It’s like driving a car. You no longer have to think “oh yeah, step on the gas,” you just automatically do it. Duhigg calls this the routine

The third is what comes as a result of the habit, which is the reward. This is the craving that motivates us to do the activity in the first place. For a runner, it might be the way he feels after the run. The body is filled with endorphins and the heart rate is elevated, creating a feeling of euphoria and energy. 

Why will-power doesn’t work

The reason why will-power is not how we create a habit is because of the way our brain works. Christine Carter uses this explanation in her book “The Sweet Spot:” 

The trigger tells your brain to go into automatic pilot mode. This is a mode when your brain needs very little energy or effort on your part to do the activity. Remember, because of the regularity of the action, you no longer need to “think” about the activity to do it. You just do it. This is because repeating an action creates a neural pathway in your brain, it’s actually physically changing the landscape of your brain. No will-power is needed to do something that has become automatic.


Think of will-power as an elephant rider and your habits (good and bad ones) as the elephant. The elephant rider is smaller and weaker than the elephant, yet assumes control over him. The rider is the adviser at best, the guide of the elephant. The elephant is much larger and stronger and is guided by his own desires. If the elephant wants to eat from the trees, no matter what the rider does, the elephant is going to do it. Will-power only works if the desires of the rider and the desires of the elephant are the same. Otherwise, our habits win out.

How it can play out

In the past few months (since being self-employed), I have experimented with creating habits that are new to me. One of them has been to sit in bed after the alarm goes off and meditate for 20 minutes. Then to shower, dress and get downstairs to eat then start work. 

Here’s what I notice happens. If I think about the routine, question the routine or try to go off-script, then I will more likely not keep to it and it falls apart. Thinking is detrimental to sticking with a habit.

Peter Voogd, a very successful entrepreneur, explains it like this: If you want to create a habit, like going to the gym every day, and you find yourself struggling or thinking about skipping it, just stop thinking. Put your gym shoes on. Then grab your keys. Then leave the house. Then get in the car. Then drive to the gym. You might not get out of the car and into the gym, but you’ve taken the steps you needed to take to create the routine of getting to the gym. Next time you might realize: Well, I’m here, I might as well go in.

Although I created a step-by-step action plan for my mornings, I have not been able to stick with it consistently. So my next move will be to review it in terms of feasibility. How likely will I do the action based on various scenarios: such as, I didn’t sleep very well and am tired, or, my husband stays sleeping longer so I don’t want to interrupt him with my meditation? Because clearly, if I have to think and figure out next steps, I'm less likely to fall into an automatic routine.

The key is that the chosen action steps WORK FOR YOU. If you find that you’re talking yourself out of the action steps, then they probably need to be modified to work with who you are and what your life is like NOW, not who you might be in some far-off idyllic time. 

Start somewhere

If you don’t have strong will-power or aren’t feeling motivated but want to establish a habit, the best place to start, according to Christine Carter, is with something very small. 

An example is taking a daily vitamin or flossing your teeth. Just begin with figuring out: what is the cue, what is the routine, and is the reward big enough to keep you doing it? 

A few weeks ago, I decided I wanted to go to an evening Zumba class at the Y. Actually, I had decided months ago to go to this class, but had yet to do it. Finally I realized that thinking about it would do nothing for me, so I began to set a reminder on my calendar for 30 minutes prior to the start of the class. This told me to get my gym clothes on and to make sure I had eaten by then so I wouldn’t be starving. I helped myself further by putting on my gym clothes even earlier so that I’d have no excuse at all to not go. This actually worked. I went to Zumba class. The next time class came around, I didn’t go. I felt discouraged because I hadn’t been able to keep up with any of the dance moves. A little set-back, but with the reminder that I’d only get better from consistent practice, I went back and found I had more fun. The time after that, I had even more fun, because now I was able to do a few of the moves on my own. I went 3 times the following week. 

All this is not to pat myself on the back, but to say, I gave myself a chance to experience what it takes to cultivate a habit. I gave myself the trigger, I created a routine so that I would end up at the gym without thinking too much about it, and although the exercise itself hasn’t yet become automatic, it’s beginning to feel more like it. Plus I feel better about myself each time I go. This experience and experiment will build up that habit-muscle over time and who knows what other habits I might take on? 

Want to cultivate a habit? Looking for someone to help you get there? I’d be happy to talk! 

Being genuine

Being genuine

Doing less

Doing less