Willpower and Habits - What Will Truly Help You Achieve Your Goals?

When Charles Duhigg wrote his best-selling book, The Power of Habit, he made a bold claim.

“There’s nothing you can’t accomplish if you get the habits right.” [1]

Few of us would argue with the statement. After all, most of our lives are merely the accumulation of habits that we have built over the years. Some are positive, some are negative. But whether it’s lacing up your running shoes first thing in the morning, or keeping a fully stocked bowl of M&Ms by your desk, these habits have shaped who we are. 

But what if we want to make a change to this daily behavior? Is it possible to reshape our habits so that we can make it to the gym as effortlessly as we brush our teeth? Or to be able to resist a cookie as easily as we can resist radishes?

Duhigg talks about a process for accomplishing just such a behavior change which is deeply rooted in scientific evidence known as “the habit loop”. [1]


The habit loop starts with an external cue: a time of day, an environment that you enter, seeing or smelling something, etc. 

It is then followed with a routine: it’s the morning so I drink coffee, I just sat down at my desk so I check email, I see cookie so I eat cookie.

Then you receive a reward: the coffee wakes you up, an empty inbox gives you a sense of accomplishment and the cookie tastes delicious. 

You can see how we can easily translate this process to accomplish anything we want! Just follow this process:

Cue: Get home from work, see your running shoes.

Routine: Put them on, head outside and run.

Reward: Endorphin rush from running, sense of accomplishment in getting it done, or even treating yourself to a smoothie when you get home! 

Repeat this process until the habit becomes automatic.

Seems simple, right?

When I first came across Duhigg’s findings 3 years ago, this all made sense. I just need to design habits in my life and follow this process until they become automatic. This seemed like the easiest and most effective way for me to begin changing my behavior to accomplish my goals.

But what I found is that this process has downsides – plenty of them. It makes sense in theory and even in the laboratory, but fails in the real world with many of the behaviors that we try to change. [2] 

This article will explain why habit formation is not the best strategy for changing your behavior and achieving your goals. Then I will offer you practical takeaways to accomplish the type of behavior change you want that is rooted in real evidence. 


Before we get into that, though, let’s go over some of the benefits that habits have:

1. They conserve resources

Whenever we make a conscious decision about something, we use mental resources. Every time we have to decide whether or not to floss, we use our willpower. If the behavior is automatic, though, it doesn’t require any mental energy. We simply go through the motion, conserving mental energy for other, more complicated tasks. [3]

2. They are useful when we’re stressed or tired

If we are stressed or tired from a full day of working, then a good habit is extremely useful to fall back on. For example, if you have developed a habit of eating a healthy snack you enjoy when you get home rather than bag of Cheetos, you will be less likely to indulge even under stress. [2] 

3. They are useful when it’s mindless

As long as the activity is completely mindless, the habit loop will work flawlessly. This includes things like flossing, bringing your lunch to work, wearing a helmet when biking, etc. All of these habits can easily be added to your daily behavior using the habit loop.


Now let’s go over some of the downsides of habits that can actually end up hurting you more than helping:

1. They are formed in the primitive brain

You know the struggle. You just got home from work and know that you need to hit the gym, but you’re exhausted. Then comes the internal debate. Part of you is trying to say that you are exhausted and you need to rest, while the other part of you is saying that you have goals and aspirations of weight loss that are more important! 

It feels like we have two competing minds – and we do! One is the limbic system, which is responsible for emotions, desires and rewards (the primitive brain). It is the part of you that wants to rest. The other is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for thinking, communication and long-term goals (the evolved brain). It is the part of you that wants to hit the gym! [3]

Because habits require no thought, they are formed in the primitive brain. So we are essentially delegating the job of achieving our long-term goals through behavior change to our short-term minded brain, rather than the one responsible for the long-term! 

This is like choosing a repeated arsonist as the head of fire safety rather than the fire department chief! The primitive brain's deep-down motivations are completely opposite to what we’re trying to accomplish. Yet, we are giving it more authority than the evolved brain who is the most qualified!

2. Most habits that are developed are bad ones 

Thinking back to how habits are formed, it’s not difficult to see why most habits that we form are bad ones. 

Cue: See cookie

Routine: Eat cookie

Reward: Delicious taste of cookie!

Doesn’t that sound like a habit that is more likely to stick than this one:

Cue: See running shoes

Routine: Put on running shoes and run 5 miles

Reward: Drink smoothie that is admittedly not as tasty as cookie.

It isn't hard to see how bad habits form more easily, huh? In fact, in the pursuit of creating that good running habit, we may accidentally create a bad habit like this one:

Cue: See running shoes

Routine: Feel bad about self for skipping the last run I was supposed to do

Reward: Comfort self by delicious taste of cookie. Feel good about thinking that tomorrow will be different.

Not exactly a solid ground to create behavior change.

3. New habits don’t necessarily change old ones

Let’s say that you were finally able to create the running habit that we talked about above. Does that replace the habit of eating cookies? Not necessarily. One change in behavior doesn’t affect another. In fact, some research suggests that you are more likely to indulge in unhealthy food if you pick up an exercise habit. [4] 

So let’s assume that you’re trying to start running for the greater goal of health. Simply changing the one behavior of running is just a small part of achieving the overall goal. It’s not as simple as just adding running to your life, you have to make a lot of other changes that you would have to design specific habits for as well - eating healthy food, walking up stairs, etc.

4. Habits won’t work in every situation

Again, let’s assume that you were able to design all of those specific habit changes and you are well on your way to becoming a healthy person. Exercising, eating right, resisting empty calories, etc. 

But what happens when you get invited to a cocktail party after work? When do you go running? How will you deal with the unhealthy food at the party? Because there is no habit to fall back on, you are not only likely to skip your run and eat unhealthy food, but you’re actually more likely to go on a full-out binge due to the “what-the-hell effect”. [5]

5. Achieving the habit can make us forget about the goal 

The final problem with habits is that we can focus so much on creating the habit, that we lose sight of the goal entirely.

Let’s go back to our example of creating the running habit in order to achieve our higher goal of health. If we accomplish our running habit in the morning, our brains will "put a checkmark” next to health on our goal to-do list [2]. 

So later in the day, if we’re tempted to eat unhealthy food, we will credit ourselves for having “accomplished health” for the day and grant ourselves license to indulge [3]. This can lead to not making any progress towards our goal, or even leave us worse off than before. 


So if not by changing our habits, what is the best way to ultimately achieve our goals?

First we need to look at what we are really seeking. We're seeking be more consistent with in the behaviors that will help us achieve our long-term goals. When we set a plan to go to the gym, we want to achieve it. Not just tomorrow, but for the long-term. 

So we need to start by delegating this task to the long-term minded evolved brain, and this is why we want to strengthen our willpower. 


The evolved brain is our ultimate decision-maker. It has the capacity to choose the thing we really want to do even when that choice is hard. In the classic “angel & devil on our shoulders” situation, the evolved brain is the angel. And that angel is fueled by our willpower.

There are 3 separate types of willpower that this part of the brain uses to help us do what we really want [3]:


This is the power we use to do those tough things to accomplish our goals. This is what we use to workout, clean our homes and follow the dentist’s orders to floss.

You can learn more tactics to increase your I Will Power here.


This is the power we use to resist the various temptations in our lives. This is what we call upon to resist those cravings of chocolate, playing the next episode on Netflix, or holding back our true feelings from rude clients. 

You can learn more tactics to increase your I Won’t Power here.


This is the most important willpower we have. It’s the part of the brain that remembers our long-term goals, dreams and desires. What we really want. It helps us remember why we are resisting that donut or why we are on that treadmill in the first place.

Unlike the other two forms, this one can seemingly produce willpower out of nothing. If you’ve ever heard a motivational speech or read an inspirational story, you’ve felt this happening. You get a rush of energy and motivation to take on the world simply by believing in something bigger.

This is the part of the brain that we want to cultivate when we are trying to create behavior change.


To cultivate this part of the brain and strengthen our willpower, we can use 3 strategies:

 1. Automating Goal Pursuit

Instead of automating our behaviors, we want to automate our dedication to our goals.

Automating your goal dedication is about setting triggers and reminders of your overall goal. This could be following a plan to write down your goals everydaysend yourself goal reminders or increase your self-awareness.

What’s the difference? Let’s go back to the scenario where your goal is to become healthy and you get invited to a cocktail party.

When you’re focused on your habits, you have nothing to guide you when the environment changes – which can lead to indulging. However, if you are automating your goal pursuit, you would either create a plan to eat the healthiest things there, be more mindful of how much you are eating or keep track of everything you eat and drink in a food diary.

Whatever tactic you choose, it will benefit you more than a habit because you are not dependent on certain cues in order to make the correct decision.

2. Building the Muscle

One of the biggest problems we have by creating automatic habits is not practicing making the right decisions. It sounds strange, but our willpower is like a muscle. When we face temptations and make a conscious decision to say “no” we literally strengthen our willpower. [6]

Conversely, our willpower becomes weaker the more we try to automate our decisions. Just like someone who doesn't workout their muscles, if we don't workout our willpower, our resolve will be much weaker when the going gets tough.

3. Make Commitments

When you get into a relationship with someone, would you create a habit to stay faithful to him or her?

No, you would make a commitment. You would have a principle (hopefully) of being faithful to that person even if someone else may tempt you from time to time. It doesn’t require that you design a habit in order to stay faithful, it just requires that you believe in the greater purpose of the relationship. [3]

This same principle holds true for our goals as well. In many cases you don’t need to have a specific behavioral response to avoid a temptation, you just need a higher purpose. Whether that is your health, being a good role model for your kids, or a dream to believe in.

Making a commitment to your goal will help you deal with challenges that you could never foresee coming. Scientifically, this commitment calls your evolved brain into action when it gets challenged. This will give you motivation to act on your long-term aspirations. [7]


Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, changed my life. It gave me a framework to see how our habits are created and allowed me to believe that if I could change my daily behavior, my goals would eventually be accomplished. However, the real world is not black and white enough to simply set a cue, routine, reward, and then expect major life changes to happen. 

We are constantly given different scenarios that challenge our focus on our long-term goals. When this occurs, it is far better to be mindful of the situation, and think about how we can make the decision that is consistent with what we really want in life. No matter how perfectly we design habits into our lives, we will never be able to completely avoid the angel and devil on our shoulders scenario.

So the best thing we can do to change our behavior and give ourselves a chance at long-term success is to give as much power to our evolved, rational, “angel” mind as possible. In the end, it is this mind who determines our ultimate action. No matter how tired, how stressed, or how overwhelmed we are, we always have the willpower to do what is right.


  1. Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2012.

  2. McGonigal, Kelly. "Willpower vs. Habit Design." Habit Design® Workshop. San Francisco. Lecture.

  3. McGonigal, Kelly. The Willpower Instinct: How Self-control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. New York: Avery, 2012.

  4. Fishbach, Ayelet, and Ravi Dhar. "Goals as Excuses or Guides: The Liberating Effect of Perceived Goal Progress on Choice." Journal of Consumer Research 32.3 (2005): 370-77.

  5. Baumeister, Roy F., and John Tierney. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York: Penguin, 2011.

  6. Muraven, Mark, Roy F. Baumeister, and Dianne M. Tice. "Longitudinal Improvement of Self-Regulation Through Practice: Building Self-Control Strength Through Repeated Exercise." The Journal of Social Psychology 139.4 (1999): 446-57.

  7. Suchy, Yana. "Executive Functioning: Overview, Assessment, and Research Issues for Non-Neuropsychologists." Annals of Behavioral Medicine 37.2 (2009): 106-16