Build Willpower to Fuel Habits

Behaviour change is complicated. It starts with the motivation to want to make a change, and the values that support that end result. Then come goals, outcome goals to define your destination, and process goals to define the steps to get there. With a plan in place you have a create an environment coducive to change, and remove any barriers to the completion of your process goals. And then you have to start - overcome the resistance to change. Although 'starting' is what begins the process of forming habits, it's 'not stopping' that completes this process. And not stopping requires willpower.

Willpower is the strength of our ability to take an action that will maintain our habits. Willpower is what builds and maintains our chains of behaviour.

Motivation is a force that makes you want to take action. Willpower however is what forces you to take action. Motivation isn’t enough. You won't always be motivated. On those days, use willpower. Willpower, not motivation is the best tool for creating good habits. The downside of motivation is that it fluctuates with how we fell. In his book, 'Mini Habits', Stephen Guise tells us "Willpower, unlike motivation is dependable. You can build it up, and when you do, you can rely on it”. Motivation requires fuel every day (and some days we don’t have fuel), habits, built by willpower, are energy neutral once they’re built.

So how do we develop our willpower, the ability to make the choices that lead to habit formation? Willpower is a skill that can be learned. It is like a muscle. It can be trained and it can also be fatigued. Sticking to your commitments and habits increases your ‘willpower muscle’, making it easier to stick to them in the future.

So, just like training a muscle, you shouldn't begin training willpower by doing 1000 reps of an exercise, because you’ll overtrain and deplete it. In his book ‘Mini Habits’, Stephen Guise talks about how using mini habits allows you to gradually train the willpower ‘muscle’. Mini habits are very small ways to build willpower. 

These mini habits also allow you to experience success, which reinforces good habits.

Building willpower comes down to making the right choices. When faced with a decision, ask yourself which choice would take you closer to your outcome goal - more often than not this will be a process goal. As you’re training willpower, "easy short term choices lead to negative long term consequences, and difficult short term choices lead to positive long term consequences”. Once willpower has fueled habits, easy short term choices lead to positive long term consequences.

It takes willpower to develop a habit, but once it’s developed, it doesn't require willpower any more. This point flicks the switch. It’s where the effort of NOT completing a process goal becomes more than the effort of doing it. The action has entered the 45% of our behaviours that are habit. It’s easier to maintain that habit than not to, and there, we have long term behaviour change.

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Dan Williams

Dan Williams is the Founder and Director of Range of Motion. He is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist and Exercise Scientist with a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Exercise Rehabilitation Science. Dan is a CrossFit Coach (at CF Games Level) and four time CrossFit Regionals Athlete.