Why Willpower Won’t Work

How often have you started off with a new habit or routine – I’m going to add this in to my daily routine – only to find yourself, three weeks later, having already “failed”.  In week one, you managed to do it five times, in week two you were down to twice and then in week three you only did it once. Now admittedly, in week three your schedule got thrown out the window because you were stressed with the delivery of a project at work – but you failed to “hold it together” when the going got tough!

Why Willpower Won't Work, habits, brain, memory, basal ganglia, conserve, energy, neural pathways, neural networks, fire together, wire together, fail, repetitionThere are so many factors to consider – why breaking an old habit is hard and introducing a new habit difficult and exhausting.  But one of the biggest problems is that willpower won’t work!  And it especially doesn’t work when you are under stress!

Did you know that you brain is just naturally lazy?

It would like to expend the least amount of energy possible, relying on habits and known and regularly traveled neural pathways to perform routine tasks well within your comfort zone!

Saving energy

Habits are one of the extraordinary ways that our brain conserves energy – imagine if you have to consciously be aware of how to walk each time you went to stand up!  Or imagine trying to drive a car with the same attention to each detail and movement as when you were first learning to drive a car! Or think about the last time you stubbed your toe or hurt your foot – got a limp – and had to remember to step gingerly on that foot or leg until it healed.  But your “natural” movement, that you do without even thinking about it, can repeat the injury!

Our brains are amazing in their ability to map out and remember a repeated action until it simply becomes automatic & natural – something you don’t even have to think about!  Some forty percent of our actions run on autopilot – we effortlessly perform them without even being aware of what we are doing!  Those actions, movements – emotions even – are hot-wired in our brains.  Like riding a bicycle or a horse – you never forget them.

Did I say that this is because the brain is just lazy!

The brain simply wants the path of least resistance – to expend the least amount of energy possible.  The reality is that if we tried to live in total awareness of each movement & action that we undertake in a day – imagine how much energy we would burn!  Habits ensure that things take place unconsciously.  But where habits – unlearning & relearning – are concerned, self-awareness and becoming conscious is the key to success – not just having the willpower!


It’s when you decide – I am responsible for my actions & habitsI choose to change this one little thing in my life – that you start to experience change!  Willpower – like any muscle – needs to be exercised regularly in order to be strengthened.  Likewise, self-awareness needs to be practiced in order to be effective in identifying and changing your habits!  Consciously decide – “stop the auto-pilot”.

Ask yourself regularly: What am I doing? thinking? saying? feeling?  Turn your brain on – pay attention – in order to learn about yourself.  Feeling frustrated? What triggers this frustration? What could you feel instead of frustrated?  Going through the motions is not enough – you also need to introduce curiosity – why is this a trigger for me? What does it remind me of?

When you are faced with a triggering situation – what are the choices that you are then faced with?  How do I want to choose to respond to this stimulus, rather than simply reacting in the habitual way?

What habits would I like to foster?  What is it that motivates me to change in this one small area of my life?

Serving a purpose

One of the most important lessons about habits is that every habit serves a purpose.  Good habits or bad – they serve their purpose.  You didn’t adopt a bad habit because you knew it was bad. There was a positive payoff to that habit that rewarded you!  Perhaps the secondary effects are not very rewarding – but there was a reward at the time you adopted the habit!

So, the next time you find yourself before a triggering situation, ask yourself, how does reacting in this way benefit me?  What benefit am I getting from going down this pathway that is so well-trod?  What do I obtain when I repeat this action or thought pattern habitually?  What need does this response fulfill?

Take, for example, a person that simply responds frigidly to emotional situations.  It is quite possible that at one stage they were quite sensitive – perhaps were called a cry-baby.  And so, over time, their learned response was simply icy silence – to become indifferent and disconnected.  This saved them the shame of being regarded by others as overly emotional or a cry baby.  Of course – their new response may be equally unhelpful, as they find themselves unable to connect with themselves and others – and quite possibly they have forgotten the benefit that this action served – not being ashamed of being a cry-baby.  It’s only upon becoming self-aware that they can get in touch with those needs and respond differently.

It’s only when we have done this exercise in self-awareness, when we have identified the benefit we receive, that we really have a choice about a new way of acting or being!


Our brains are simply amazing – we now know that not only can we form new cells, we also can retrain our brains to form new connections and improve our capabilities, no matter how old we are!  Our brain is able to alter functions, circuits and chemistry in response to what we say and do!

But, in order to ingrain a new habit, we have to build a new relationship between the stimulus (cue or trigger) and our response to that stimulus.  It is through repeating consistently the new response that we build a habitual result.  The actual change that happens within the brain is that connections are now made between different neurons.  These connections are strengthened (a bigger superhighway, so to speak) each time you repeat the same exercise.

There are two other factors that we should keep in mind regarding habits and responses:

  1. Charged emotional responses – the more emotional response we have to a situation or a trigger, the deeper the memory is stored.  That’s why people get PTSD from a single traumatic situation – the event was so emotionally charged that it is forever etched in their memory!  Unfortunately this charged emotional response seems to be much more effective negatively than positively.
    • There is, however, an exception to this – appreciation. When we practice appreciation regularly – feeling gratitude and appreciation and expressing this – we can improve our relationship with a situation.  This is why it becomes very important to celebrate the small wins – when you achieve one week of consistently exercising – celebrate that win!  Give yourself appreciation & gratitude for it – remember the feeling – how good that felt!  Visualize it and practice it!
  2. Stress – the second factor to be aware of is the effect of stress.  When we are stressed the brain attempts to conserve energy by simply reverting back to habitual pathways – what it already knows best within its comfort zone.  That’s why when you get stressed at work you dump the exercise routine you just started!  It’s not because you don’t want to exercise – it is simply that willpower is not enough!  In order to conserve your energy, the brain will “switch off” and revert back to auto-pilot.
    • This is why meditation and mindfulness prove so effective for people who usually are in stressful situations – they simply allow their brains a moment to rest – to just be.
    • After being mindful or practicing meditation, it is easier to increase your awareness to your triggers and choose how you will respond!

Aristotle was right:

We are what we repeatedly do.  

Neuroplasticity recognises the brain’s ability to create new connections – and so with experience-dependent plasticity – the neurons that fire together, wire together.

Putting this all together

How can you use this to your benefit?

But focusing on your intentions.

What ONE habit would you like to rework and recreate?

What are you aware of regarding the triggers around that habit?

How could you choose to respond differently to the trigger or cue, to adopt a new behavioral pattern that gives you the reward that you were looking for?

Instead of focusing on the problem – how could you focus on the solution and the new behaviour that you want to adopt in your life?



Want more help with building new habits in your life – maybe what you need is a life-coach!





















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