Do Not Fail - The Case For Knowing Your Willpower Limits

“I’m going to start working out. I’ll start by going to the gym every Wednesday.”

A friend of mine told me those words 2 years ago. He didn’t go to the gym on a regular basis, and was trying to make it a habit. My first inclination when he told me that was probably pretty typical.

Really? You’re only going to go on Wednesday? Come on, you can at least go 3 times a week!

But that friend knew something that I didn’t. He knew that no matter what he was going to be able to make it to the gym every Wednesday without fail. If he went more than that, great, but when trying to build the habit, he had to start somewhere.


Today that friend is in the best shape of his life. That exercise became a keystone habit – a habit that changes other habits along with it – and now he eats extremely well, works out 4 times a week and is healthier and happier than I have ever seen him. All by starting a habit that he knew he would not fail. 

How often do you hear a story like this? My guess is not as often as you hear a story about a friend who sets a goal to work out every day of the week. This friend then goes to the gym for 5, 8, maybe 12 days before he or she inevitably crashes. Then 2 years later, this friend is in the exact same shape as they were before (and is probably setting another plan to work out every day of the week.)


Our willpower is like a muscle, and in Western society, it gets exhausted easily.

Think about a typical day. You use your willpower to get out of bed when the alarm goes off. Then you have to expend even more as you weigh the options between a healthy breakfast or just grabbing a muffin or fast-food on the way to work. You then have to deal with the traffic on the commute and use your willpower to keep from getting mad at the guy who just cut you off. Then at work you force yourself to take the first steps on that new project, while also trying to hold your tongue about a coworker who isn’t pulling their weight. And we haven’t even made it to lunch yet!

You then have to choose a healthy lunch, push through the 2:30 feeling, clear your emails, deal with traffic on the commute home, and then somehow summon the willpower to put your running shoes on! Is it any wonder that we can’t sustain this every day? [1]


The worst part about this phenomenon is that many of us don’t realize why we can’t summon the willpower to exercise at the end of the day. We see others who are able to exercise after work on a regular basis, and feel like there must be something wrong with us. And when we decide that we just don’t have the energy to make it to the gym tonight, we feel like a failure - which can lead to giving up the new habit entirely. [2]

The reason that my friend was able to escape this fate is because he created a habit that he knew he would not fail. He had to deal with the same willpower depleting activities that were listed above, but just one time a week! Because it was just one day, he was able to summon the willpower he needed to make it to the gym. And every Wednesday that he made it to the gym became a small win - giving him the confidence that he would be able to make it next Wednesday as well. Eventually he no longer needed to summon any willpower, as going to the gym became a habit!


As humans, we have a desire for quick results and are unbelievably optimistic about our ability to get them. This sets us up to plan for complete habit overhauls [3]. We decide we’re going to go from not exercising at all, to exercising every day; from not watching what we eat, to denying ourselves every temptation there is. Ultimately, this strategy never works and leaves us right where we started.

A much better idea is to add habits into our lives that we know we will not fail. Every week my friend made progress in the right direction until it eventually became a habit. Before long, that habit turned into the big results that we're all striving for!


  1. Gailliot, Matthew T., Roy F. Baumeister, C. Nathan Dewall, Jon K. Maner, E. Ashby Plant, Dianne M. Tice, Lauren E. Brewer, and Brandon J. Schmeichel. "Self-control Relies on Glucose as a Limited Energy Source: Willpower Is More than a Metaphor." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92.2 (2007): 325-36
  2. Polivy, Janet, C. Peter Herman, and Rajbir Deo. "Getting a Bigger Slice of the Pie. Effects on Eating and Emotion in Restrained and Unrestrained Eaters." Appetite 55.3 (2010): 426-30.
  3. Buehler, Roger, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross. "Exploring the "planning Fallacy": Why People Underestimate Their Task Completion Times." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 67.3 (1994): 366-81.