Sheer Willpower Won’t Work. Here’s Why.

Sheer willpower is not enough to be able to change any of the habits you've developed. If you want to change, you need to get to the root issue. Here's how.

Why Willpower is Not EnoughThere are plenty of reasons why people eat at restaurants:

It’s convenient. The food is delicious. We crave social interaction. We want a new environment. The atmosphere is fun. We like novelty. We can’t read the nutritional labels – out of sight, out of mind.

I dine out a lot. A few weeks ago, I decided to cut back. But that’s easier said than done.

I can’t just snap my fingers and force myself to stop eating out. Sheer willpower never works.

To make a sustainable, habit-forming change, I need to dig down to the root cause. WHY am I dining out in the first place? There are plenty of potential reasons. Which of those trigger me?

This is more than just a theoretical question. It strikes at the core of how habits are formed.

The Power of Habit

A few months ago, I read the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. When I reached the end, I immediately flipped back to the beginning and started re-reading it. Yeah, it’s that good.

Charles had a habit of buying a chocolate-chip cookie every afternoon. He gained eight pounds. His wife made pointed comments about his growing belly. He needed to stop.

So he put a Post-It note on his computer that said “NO MORE COOKIES.” Epic fail. The next afternoon, he was gnawing on a cookie.

“It feels good, and then it feels bad,” he wrote. “Tomorrow, you promise yourself, you’ll muster the willpower to resist. Tomorrow will be different.”

“But tomorrow the habit takes hold again.”

So he turned to psychology for the answers. Experiments show that there are five categories that serve as habitual “cues”:

  • Location
  • Time
  • Emotional State
  • Other People
  • Immediately Preceding Action

That makes sense:

Location — When we’re at our desks, we work (or check Facebook). When we’re in the driver’s seat, we drive. When we’re sitting on the toilet … well, you get the idea.

Time – We don’t think about changing our socks in the middle of the day. But in the morning and at night, it’s automatic.

Emotional State – Do you know anyone who scarfs down chocolate when they’re upset? Enough said.

Other People – You act differently around specific people. You adopt a demeanor, a tone. You discuss certain subjects. You develop a slang or vernacular. You order certain types of food or drinks. You divulge or withhold certain information. You feel relaxed, uptight, bored, happy — almost without realizing it.

Immediately Preceding Action – Back to the toilet example. At a certain moment, you reach for the toilet paper. You don’t consciously deliberate this decision. You don’t weigh the pro’s and con’s. It’s automatic. It’s almost a reflex.

Charles wanted to apply this psychology lesson to his own life. So every time he felt the urge to buy a cookie, he jotted down some notes:

Location: Sitting at desk
Time: 3:36 pm
Emotion: Bored
Other People: None
Preceding Action: Sending Email

He continued taking these notes daily, until he saw a pattern. Four out of five of these factors fluctuated. Only one stayed constant – the time of day.

“The reward I was seeking was a temporary distraction,” he wrote. “And the habit … triggered between 3:00 and 4:00.”

So he found a different way to grant himself the same distraction. Rather than buying a daily cookie, he started taking a 10-minute break to chat with a friend, everyday between 3 pm and 4 pm. He even set an alarm on his watch for 3:30, to remind himself to do this.

It worked.

How to Stop Eating at Restaurants

Back to the restaurant dilemma. There are plenty of potential reasons I might eat at restaurants: taste, socialization, convenience.

If I’m doing it for convenience, my alternative must contain that same convenience. I can’t replace a 30-minute activity with a 90-minute activity. The first day that work piles up, I’ll be back to my old routine.

If I’m dining out so I can socialize with friends, my alternative must also be social. The first day I feel lonely or bored, I’ll be back to my old routine.

It’s not enough to simply pledge to “eat out less.” I had to get to the root of why I’m doing it. I needed to identify the trigger.

So, like Charles, I began observing patterns. Every time the urge hit, I’d jot down notes.

The trigger, I discovered, was feeling cooped up in my house and needing a symbolic end to my work day.

I wake up at 8 a.m., get dressed, make coffee, plod into my home office, and start working. By 6 p.m., I still haven’t left the house – and I feel so stir-crazy that I call my boyfriend and say, “Let’s try that new Mexican place.”

Once I identified that trigger, I started finding alternatives that featured the same reward. I began working from Starbucks and other coffee shops around town. I started running mid-day errands.

At 6 p.m., the trigger time, I grab an energy bar and head to the gym. I get the same reward — a psychological “end” to my work day – without spending hundreds every month at restaurants.

Habits are Hard to Break

I could have written a simple blog post that says, “Top 10 Ways to Save Money. Number One – Eat at home more.”

But that would be intellectually lazy. (And it wouldn’t help anyone.)

I could have written a blog post that says, “Top 10 Ways to Save Money. Number Two – Drop your gym membership. Exercise at home.”

But that would be counterproductive. (For me. Maybe for you, too.)

We know hundreds of money-saving tactics. But we struggle to integrate these tactics into our lives. Doing so requires something far more demanding – a change in our daily habits.

We can’t change our habits with Post-It Notes, pep talks and Top 10 lists. We can only change them by understanding our human psychology – what drives us? We can only change our habits if learn how to manage our urges, rather than fight them.


  1. says

    I love trying to change my life for the better by studying g I. Analytically. I can’t believe I’ve never kept a habit journal like that before. Ill have to find this book at the library!

  2. says

    I will have to read this book!

    I used this habit forming technique to quit smoking. Less scientifically but all I did was identify the triggers (coffee, driving, alcohol) and then identified replacements (I settled on toothpicks for the oral fixation relief). Now I’m addicted to toothpicks… But that’s better than cigarettes!

    I also use associations to help form habits. I used to eat an apple while I took my preworkout everyday. I cut the preworkout and kept the apple, so I associated apples with a boost of energy to workout. Voila! An apple a day and I workout religiously (at home to save money :)).

    Maybe I’m unique but I feel like I can trick myself into doing what I really want.

  3. says

    Is the next post about the LATTE method?

    I know what you mean about being stir crazy. I’ve worked from home since 2005, and when my wife would get home (when she worked in an office), I’d be ready to go somewhere, do something when all she wanted to do was sit down, veg, and decompress. I found the same answer – if I occasionally have a day or two where I work from a coffee shop, then I’ve reset my internal cabin fever clock.

    Having a dog to walk helps too. When I get antsy, I take the hound for a hike. He never complains. Then, in the evenings, I have a hard workout; the gym sessions are my reward, and I actually see real, live humans too! Some of them even offer to help lift the weight up off of my chest too (sometimes I feel like Beavis in the gym – NSFW –

    • says

      @Jason — I know EXACTLY what you mean! My boyfriend talks to clients and contractors all day long. When he comes home, he’s tired of talking to people and just wants to zone out. I, on the other hand, am experiencing human contact for the first time all day, so I’m feeling social.

      The gym is a great solution. I make myself to go to a class at the gym that starts at 6:30 pm, a decision that forces me to leave my computer (otherwise I’d get stuck in front of the screen all night). And as a bonus, I get to see real human beings at the gym — and sometimes they actually talk to me!! :-)

  4. says

    Interesting… that one goes on the wish list. I’ve got a long trip coming up.
    I’m now re-reading Baumeister’s “Willpower” (I ganked a free Kindle, and was delighted to see previously purchased titles get synced on it).

    I for one would be highly disappointed to a post on “top 10 ways to save money” on AA.

  5. says

    Loved that book. I’ve been using Duhigg’s framework in experimenting with how I can turn working out into a habit, having always “hated exercise”.

    Right now I’m experimenting with putting on my gym clothes at a certain time of day. Right around 5 pm my focus starts to really go downhill, so I blast some music and change into my gym clothes.

    I just manage to get outside for a short walk most days, but I’m more excited about the habit that is (hopefully) being created of putting on my gym clothes every day because hey, you have to start somewhere.

  6. says

    I like this because I have been working on my food relationship for years now! You’re right ~ there is a definite time of day that triggers my need to eat, or to go to a restaurant. Right now however, I am working on my willpower. I need to just tell myself that I cant sit in front of the TV at night and binge eat even though I want to. I am in the process of forming the habit of not eating after 6pm and I am just at the point of telling myself that I just can’t do it. I’ve always failed in the past but I really do need to do something about increasing my willpower. I don’t want this food obsession to keep controlling my life. This is a great blog post though …. there are some tips here that I can certainly use. Thanks :)

    • says

      @Quest — One of my readers mentioned a theory that willpower is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the more it grows. But at the same time, like a muscle, you can only exercise it up to a certain amount per day — after that, you need to give it rest. (That’s why willpower so often fails at night, when the “muscle” is fatigued).

  7. says

    If it wasn’t for eating out, I would have much more money! Why do I eat out? Because I love food mmm. I’m also recently single and my gf no longer cooks for me lol. What did I do? I carry around a bag of almonds on me at all times. Kills the hunger in the moment.

  8. says

    I totally agree! I work with women who want to lose weight, and I always say, “it’s not so much what you eat, but how and why you eat!”

  9. says

    It’s so true. Most of the time we already have the info we need to make a change, say with money management or losing wait, but we need to actually stop thinking about doing it and do it. Even if it means breaking a hard to break habit.

  10. says

    Sometime last year I realized that when I was feeling financially stressed, I’d tell myself that I deserved a treat from Starbucks (now I used to go to Starbucks every morning and the “treat” would be Starbucks #2 for the day). I sort of felt that if I couldn’t afford the bigger expenses, I could at least afford a $3.00 drink. Then I realized that was silly. I really couldn’t afford another $3.00 drink and instead it would make more sense to not go. That’s when I started making my drinks at home and using Starbucks as a “treat” on weekends. That change has definitely helped and shaped other habits as well.

  11. says

    I’m buying the book….will be back for discussions.

    My husband and I got our spending under control and debt payed off by using a spending journal to track our spending. Having to write everything down forced us to either lie to each other or to stop wasteful impulse spending. We both (fortunately) chose the latter. We only kept the journal for about 5 months (which was a monumental pain in the fanny) but it was what it took to change our spending habits as a couple.

    I’m fascinated with addressing habits and have read various articles and research papers through the years, but nothing that truly helped me with a method to change all bad habits. I tried the spending journal idea with food and it did NOT work. :)

  12. says

    Great post — I LOVED The Power of Habit! It’s wonderful that you’ve been able to apply it to create positive change in your life already. I relate to your trigger of having felt cooped up all day, although mine is when I finally get to break out of the office. I’m trying to shift the habit away from getting home and putting on pajama pants to getting home and putting on gym clothes. It has been working okay, but on days when I get home later, I’m tempted to eat dinner right away instead. Thanks again!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *