Habit versus Willpower

Where do you get your Success?

We are in the midst of the holiday season and typically stress along with it. You have desires and goals you want to achieve and now is the time to implement that desire. Don’t wait for January; this moment is the moment for you. But, how do we reach and strive for our goals during this busy time? What do we implement and how do we implement it? Some say it is all about willpower, others say it is all about habit.  I think it involves a little bit of both.

According to dictionary.com a HABIT is an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary.

And Willpower is the ability to control oneself and determine one’s actions, a firmness of will.  Those with willpower demonstrate the unwavering ‘strength of will’ to carry out one’s decisions.

Do you have that, the ability to stick with an intention that you have set before you in order to attain that goal? I believe willpower is like a muscle, it must be used and strengthened for it to take hold within your very being.  With habits, it is a matter of repeating the same thing over and over and eventually you won’t even have to think about it anymore…it will just happen.  The brain is looking for ways to save effort and forming a habit is one of them.

According to a 2006 Duke University researcher, 40% of our actions each day are not the result of well-formed decisions but are the result of a habit.  How many habits have you implemented on autopilot today?  The brain likes to take sequence actions and formulate them into routines so we can do 2 things at once. For example, tying shoes and carrying on a conversation. These complicated motor skills along with the ability to develop deep emotions and memories are all stored in the basal ganglia of the brain. It is our auto-pilot mechanism.  Habits allow the brain to think less and take more action.

There are pros and cons to this. For instance, if you have a habit that is no longer benefiting you, you will find that it happens automatically without recall to do so. This can make it difficult when you would rather reach for a nourishing snack vs a candy bar. The habit is to have money in your pocket and get a snack from the vending machine when out and about. Whereas the new habit of carrying nourishing snacks wherever you go must be implemented over and over for it to override the old habit of just needing money in your pocket.

Willpower steps into this scenario when you have realized you do not have nourishing snacks with you, you only have money for the vending machine. Are you going to practice ‘unwavering strength of will’ to abstain from the vending machine or will you give in with the excuse that you don’t have anything else, so you have no choice but to swipe a candy bar?

There is a downside to willpower, it is great and serves us until stress hits, and if you don’t have wholesome habits to back it up then the ease to default to unwholesome habits is overwhelming. You can have a strong will power muscle but when you find yourself in a stressful time, the brain defaults to unwholesome habits…it is just easier. Remember, the brain loves to think less and act more. “Habits persists even when we are tired and don’t have the energy to exert self-control” – Wendy Wood, PhD, professor of psychology and business at USC

So, how do you develop the habit and willpower to begin this transition of carrying snacks vs money?


First and foremost, you need a trigger, a cue, a signal of sorts that reminds you of the new habit you wish to start.  Have it set for the same time every day.

Secondly, develop a routine to implement the new habit.  Remember that the brain loves patterns and sequences. Also make the routine simple to implement, let it flow into your day so that it is easy to pick up.

Thirdly, reward yourself; the brain uses this to determine if this “loop” is worth remembering for the future. For example, the feeling you get after any movement activity whether it is a hard core workout or dancing around your house, allow yourself the time to reflect on why you love this and the wonderful feeling it gives you. Enforce this reward every time you perform the new routine you want to adopt as a habit.

If you miss a day, don’t judge yourself

Simply breathe and pick it up in the next moment

There is no perfect amount of time that it takes to develop a habit; some say 21 days others say 365. It really depends on the habit and the person developing the habit.  Keep your focus on what you want to implement and let the brain do the rest.


First, discover what motivates you? Write this on your mirror so you see if every day or post it on your refrigerator…someplace where you will see it several times a day.

Second, set a clear goal – short and concise, do-able and measurable

Third, monitor your behavior toward that goal. If your behavior doesn’t match the desired end point, then shift, make a transition so that it does. This is where strength of will comes into play.

Fourth, apply a never quit attitude. This also takes practice, especially if you have “quit” something several times in your life.

Remember too, you never fail, you are always practicing

 And some days are better than others.

(simply pull yourself up by your bootstraps and keep going)

Practice unwavering strength of will and develop habits that benefit you and your health for long term sustainable action in living at your natural, healthy and fit weight this holiday season. Don’t let January regrets sneak up on you, master habits that empower you and willpower that drives you now!

Does this topic ring true for you?

Ashly Torian

Posted Under: Mindset Coach