The myth of willpower and why just do it is a great slogan but terrible advice.

Wouldn’t it be nice to make our lives automatic?

You’d never have to think about anything. It would all just come naturally to you. Sort of like tying your shoe, the route you take to work, or how to make your bed. I doubt you have to think about those things anymore. They just come naturally to you. You just react.

What if you could create that ease in other areas of your life-like exercise, healthy eating, or quitting smoking?

Well, it’s totally possible to do it. It’s all about learning how to create habits for yourself.

All our life is a mass of habits. It might feel like decision-making but it’s not. -William James

The best part about habit creation is once you learn how to reprogram one, it makes creating other habits relatively easy to tackle.

The myth of willpower: Understanding habits

the myth of willpower and habit creation
Credit: Charles Duhigg

I just read Charles Duhiggs book “The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do.” One of the best books I have read to date. In the book, a habit is defined by a three-step process.

  • Step 1 – Cue or trigger: This tells your brain to go into automatic mode and allows for a certain behavior to kick in. This might be something like when you put on a running shoe.
  • Step 2 – Routine: This is the actual behavior that takes place. So the actual tying of the shoe. However, it can be physical, emotional, or mental.
  • Step 3 – Reward: Something very particular that your brain loves. It makes the routine worth remembering. It could be a number of things. Maybe the comfort of the shoe you put on or the endorphins that are released as you go on a run. Hell, maybe the cup of coffee you have post-run.

After a while, this routine becomes so natural and automatic that the brain actually goes into cruise control and has to work less and less each time to perform the routine. The benefit to this is that it allows you to focus on other things because this particular task is now so easy. It’s what makes even difficult tasks so simple.

An example is given with regard to parallel parking. When you first learned it was extremely difficult. Might have even felt draining. Another example would be learning a new skill at work or a new sport. When you don’t know how to perform, it can be physically and mentally exhausting.

But once it becomes automatic you can probably do multiple things all while performing that particular task. In the parallel parking example, you could talk to a friend, listen to the radio, avoid using the mirrors. The task becomes automatic for you.

This can often be confused for will power. You might have a friend that seems to have their exercise and nutrition dialed in. They seem to easily be able to turn down cheesecake, never miss a workout, and seem to never have an excuse for not making healthy choices.

However, this has nothing to do with willpower. It’s that these folks have created healthy habits that are now automatic for them. They don’t even have to think about it.

So how can you create similar habits whether they are health and fitness-related or lifestyle?

All habits can be created while others can be changed if you understand how they work. And damn-it! If this post doesn’t help you with that you can slap me silly. Bazinga!

The myth of willpower and our brain

A brain looking like a maze

Our brains have multiple layers. The outer layer is where all the complex thinking goes down. It’s primarily where we make new decisions. Waaaaaaaay back there close to the spinal column is our old school brain. This is where all the automatic behaviors are taking place, eating, breathing, swallowing, and jumping for example.

Our goal is to get those new things on the back burner as quickly and easily as possible so that they become automatic and we can move on to the next new thing. When too many new things come in at once or are not moving on back and becoming automatic we can easily feel overwhelmed, disoriented, confused, and frustrated. It almost feels like we can’t remember how to do the simplest tasks.

The reason this happens has to deal with the way our brains deal with uncertainty. It spends a ton of time, energy, and effort looking for a cue or trigger that can suggest a method for it to use when faced with a problem, task, decision, or really anything for that matter.

Think of it like this. It’s your brain’s way of asking you to flick on a light switch, even if just for a second so that it can get a quick look at a dark hallway. Once it sees a path it will know where to go.

The good news is your brain wants to help you out. It wants to save effort – it wants to build habits and make things automatic. It prefers to be lazy rather than work. It’s almost begging you to help it create habits. But that’s the key, it needs your help.

But there’s some bad news to (cue the evil theme music). Habits never go away. You will always have them. So if you’re a smoker that quit five years ago the smoking habit is still ingrained in you somewhere. Once a bad habit has been learned the only day to change it is with a new routine. So for example, if you are a smoker, puffing a cigarette during your lunch break is your routine. The only way to reprogram this is to start doing something new on your lunch break.

Yeah, I know. Easier said than done. But I’m getting to it. Keep your pants on 🙂

The key to changing any habit

To change or start a new habit it’s important to find a specific cue and reward that propel that routine.

Here’s how developing the exercise habit might work.

  • Cue: Your alarm goes off to wake you up
  • Reward: A cup of coffee right as you get back or maybe your favorite paleo omelet. The reward can really be anything. But it’s important that it is something that really makes you happy so that you almost crave it. This way when temptations come around you can focus on your reward.

After you have established a cue – routine – reward system it’s then important to practice it. Be consistent with it for a significant period of time in order to make it automatic.

But what if I want to kick a bad habit?

The first step in kicking a bad habit is to actually believe you can change it. I know that seems obvious but often we want to change a habit but don’t actually believe we are strong enough to do so. We say all the right things, and we really do want to change, we just don’t believe we are actually capable of doing so.

The next step to changing a bad habit is to remember that we can not ever extinguish it. The habit will always be there on the back burner of our brain. The best we can do is try to replace it. This is a very important concept to grasp.

Now comes the hard part. Figuring out why the hell you do what you do. Charles gives an example in the book of a cookie-eating habit he had while at work. Every afternoon he seemed to sneak away from his desk and grab a cookie at the cafeteria. If you have a similar habit, a smoking habit or some other habit you are looking to kick here is how to kick that beast.

Step 1: Identify the cue 

What triggers your habit? The time of day? Fatigue? Stress? Bored? Lunch break at work? The smell of Cinnabon?

This is very important. If you find that you eat completely healthy all day long only to get home after work looking for something quick and find yourself with a hand in a bag of chips and spoon in a tub of ice cream you can start preparing a meal ahead of time so that it is ready for you when you get home.

Step 2: What’s your reward 

What do you get for performing the routine?

  • More energy?
  • De-stress?
  • A break from work?

For example, what’s the reward from smoking a cigarette? Do you love nicotine or does it provide a stimulant effect? Do you love the taste of a rum and coke after work or is it really a way to de-stress? The idea is to find out why and replace it with something that provides a similar reward. If you drink to de-stress maybe a hot bath or message.

Step 3: You already know the routine

Now, how can you replace it? What is a new positive routine that you can replace your bad habit with? The cue and the reward don’t necessarily change. Those are already in place and you know they can create a habit. Use them to fuel your new positive one.

For example, if you’re a smoker and your cue is a lunch break at the office. Your routine is to go outside and smoke. The reward lets say is the socializing that you do outside with co-workers. The way you would replace this is to still use the lunch break as your cue but instead of going outside to socialize and smoke you instead go out to lunch with a group of co-workers that don’t smoke at your favorite Mediterranean place down the street. The reward is still socializing with buddies while getting some solid grub.

The myth of willpower: To sum it all up

Don’t try to change everything at once. Pick one habit you are trying to establish or change and work on that before moving on to another.

In order to figure out your cue, routine, and reward system I suggest picking up a notebook and writing the following things down with regards to a habit you are trying to change.

  • Location/where specifically you are
  • The time of day.
  • Emotions, thoughts, feelings
  • People around you
  • The preceding action after you partake in the routine

Taking notice of these five things will easily help you to identify cues, routines, and rewards.

Awareness is key but once you’ve figured it out the next step is to plan. Without a plan, this all goes for not. So once you’ve figured out the cues and rewards that fuel your routine what will you do about it and how can you make sure you do it consistently?



Photo by Morgan Housel on Unsplash