How to Change a Habit Without Willpower

After a season of indulgence, we resolve to shape up, dry out, spend less, and generally improve ourselves. But too often we rely on brute force and moment-by-moment resistance. Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers 7 ways to move beyond willpower and increase your chances of success.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #95

Willpower goes by many aliases. In the technical language of psychological research, it’s called self-control, but your grandma probably just called it discipline. Regardless, it’s a trait that helps us resist temptation and distraction in the moment. It helps us get out of our cozy bed to go to the gym, resist buying those awesome shoes we want but don’t need, or turn down that Kahlua chocolate cheesecake. 

But many of us find ourselves helpless in the face of temptation. So many, in fact, that corporations and advertisers try to take advantage of us—why else are checkout stands lined with impulse purchases? Why do commercials urge us to go ahead, indulge—you deserve it?  In fact, in a 2011 survey from the American Psychological Association, 27% of Americans claimed their lack of willpower was the biggest barrier to healthier habit and lifestyle changes.

Now, while willpower can be strengthened, much like a muscle, an alternative is to circumvent it altogether, or at least to conserve it for when it’s most needed.  So no matter the habit you’re trying to change,  rather than saying no whenever the devil on your shoulder whispers temptations in your ear, here are 7 tips to keep him from perching there in the first place.

See also: 8 Tips to Improve Your Self Control

Tip #1: Choose your habit wisely. Tackle a habit that you genuinely want to change, not one you just think you “should.” In other words, pick a habit you’d change even if no one was watching and you’ll be more likely to succeed. For example, if you ask people how they finally quit smoking or kept off a substantial weight loss, they’ll often say “I had to.” You don’t often hear “Oh, I wanted a beach body,” or “I had nothing better to do.” With habit change that sticks, there isn’t a choice about it. Instead, there is urgency.  

Tip #2: Use intrinsic motivation. Forcing yourself to do something inherently means you don’t want to do it. So instead, do something because you enjoy the activity itself. This tactic works best when you start a new habit for its own sake that also happens to be good for you. For example, join a kickball league because it’s fun but reap better fitness along the way. Learn Spanish because you enjoy the challenge but then put it on your resume. Learn to cook because it’s satisfying and end up losing weight since you’re skipping all that takeout.

Tip #3: Automate. Find every way possible to set it and forget it. For example, for saving money, direct deposit a portion of your paycheck into a retirement or other untouchable account.  For exercising, build it into your schedule—make an appointment to do it, or better yet, make an appointment with a friend or trainer to keep you accountable. Set an alarm to signal bedtime to  get more sleep. In a nutshell, invest the time to make things convenient, brainless, and easy, and you’ll be more likely to carry through.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.