The Ultimate Guide to Building Willpower [Part 2]

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Welcome back to our discussion on willpower.

In the first part of this series we talked about how even successful people (like Oprah Winfrey) often succumb to temptation.  Plus we went over three experiments that showed “why” you can’t rely on willpower alone to stick to a new habit.  And we finished off with a simple exercise for building up your mental strength.

Today we’ll discuss how to cheat your way past those moments of temptation and then we’ll cover a simple four-step plan for overcoming those random triggers to follow a bad habit you’d like to quit.

Let’s get to it.

Recap: Why Willpower is a Muscle

If you remember from last time, we talked about how “willpower is a muscle,” which is an idea that originated in Baumister and Teirney's book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. (Read this post for more great books on willpower.) The authors found a number of reasons why willpower can behave like any muscle in your body:

  • Your muscles get weak when you don’t use them—the same can be said about willpower.
  • To increase your overall strength, you must engage in regular exercise—the same can be said about willpower.
  • There is a limit as to what your muscles can do before they completely fail—the same can be said about willpower.
  • When you tire your muscles on exercise A, then proceed to exercise B, you will have less reserves to draw on before your muscles fatigue—the same can be said about willpower.
  • Your muscles need time between workouts to recover and gain the benefits of your previous workout—the same can be said about willpower.

Okay, you get the point.  Whenever you draw from your pool of “willpower resources,” you’re less capable of exerting mental strength on that next task or temptation.  The more tired you get, the harder everything becomes.

Why All Willpower Temptations Aren’t Created Equal

Willpower temptations aren’t the same for everybody.  We all have strengths and weaknesses.  There are things that you have trouble resisting and others that require zero mental effort to avoid.

For instance, I don’t have that much of a sweet-tooth. So it’s not hard (for me) to avoid desserts and chocolates.  But when it comes to minimizing carbs (specifically highly processed carbs), I have trouble giving them up for more than a day or so.

Avoiding both types of foods requires some level of willpower.  But for me the carbs would require a higher level of exertion than the sweets.  You might be different.  Perhaps it’s easy for you to eat veggies and skip the carbs, but you struggle to resist that piece of chocolate cake.

The question is:

How can you consistently exert willpower where you can successfully resist all types of temptation?

You cheat.

2 Ways to Resist Temptations

1. Create habits where responding to the temptation doesn’t even cross your mind.

On a site called “Develop Good Habits” you probably guess I’d say that. When you follow a new habit every single day it takes only minimal willpower to overcome temptation. And if this behavior becomes automatic, it takes no willpower at all.

There are a few reasons why this strategy works:

  1. Small habits are easier to keep going.
  2. You get the best results by developing one habit at a time.
  3. By sticking to habit (for a minimum of 30 days) you’ll find it’s easier to build a whole new routine.  This is why I am a fan of 30 day habit challenges.
  4. When something becomes a habit, it doesn’t match your identity to cave into temptation.

2. Discover your triggers and learn to avoid them.

We all have triggers. They can be sights, sounds, smells, time of the day and even specific people. These triggers can cause habits to fail and they can cause your willpower to strain and even break.

Triggers are often habits—they just happen to be bad ones.  You may watch TV a certain time every day. If it reaches that time, and you are not lazing in front of the boob tube, then you may get anxious, like Dustin Hoffman from the movie Rain Man: “Wapner! Time for Wapner!”

You habit may be a late night snack. It may even be getting angry at other vehicles when you’re driving.  (Okay, maybe this one just applies to me.)

Habits are powerful.  When you build them, they can have an amazing impact on your life, but when they are bad—well, they can take serious effort to overcome. On the bright side, it takes just as much effort to replace a bad habit with a good one as it does to just get rid of a bad habit.

That’s why it’s important to take a methodical approach to improving your willpower and overcoming those bad habit triggers.

4 Steps to Overcoming Your Willpower Triggers

Triggers lead to a strong desire to do bad habits. The more ingrained a habit is, the harder it is to overcome.  At best, a habit trigger can deplete your willpower. At worst, it can cause willpower failure where the “what the hell effect” kicks in, which causes you to cave into a temptation and binge on the very habit you’re trying to eliminate.

So what’s the best way to handle those negative triggers?

Here are four step process for dealing with those willpower temptations:

Step #1: Identify the Habit

Simple enough. What habit are you trying to avoid or eliminate?  For instance, let’s say you are tempted to indulge in processed carbs.

Step #2: Identify the Triggers

At this stage you don’t have to do anything about the bad habit. Instead it’s your job to collect data and identify the triggers to follow a bad habit.  Record when you break down and fail.  In fact, record those moments when you are tempted and managed to overcome this impulse.  (For more on this, check out my post where I talk about tracking habit triggers.)

Step #3: Identify the Obstacles

Once you have the data collected, look for detectible patterns.


Every morning you stop at Starbucks and get a coffee on the way to work.  You are always tempted by a Danish, but usually resist. On two days of the month, you fail.

At 2 PM you often get hunger pangs and are tempted to get a snack from the candy machine. Often you succeed in avoiding this temptation, but two times in the last week you failed.

On the drive home, you’re hungry and want immediate satisfaction.  Sometimes this leads you to pull into McDonald’s and eat a greasy cheeseburger, even though you know you shouldn’t.

These are just three examples of food triggers.  The key here is to write them all down.

Step #4: Create “If-Then Plans”

Once you have some data collected, create “if-then plans” for those times when you’re often tempted, which is nothing more than a list of actions of how you’ll respond to specific triggers.

For example, having two Danishes a month isn’t too bad. But every single morning you are using your willpower to avoid this snack. That is a steady drain on your willpower reserves, and even when successful, it may cause later, unrelated failures.  Since you know that Starbucks is a trigger, you can work to avoid this. There are two ways I would go about it.

First eat a breakfast before heading out the door.  You may crave a Danish simply because you have an empty stomach.  In this case making a habit out of eating a healthy and sensible breakfast could be in order.  (You can make it part of your morning routine.)

Second, maybe that Danish is just too tempting—even when you’ve had a full breakfast.  If that’s the case, then you should completely avoid the temptation.  Buy a quality coffee maker, get the “Starbucks Blend” from Amazon and make your own every morning.

Sometimes your if-then plan might involve creating a simple habit (like eating a filling breakfast every morning) and sometimes it may be just avoiding the person, location, sight, smell, or sound.

If-Then Plans: a list of actions of how you’ll respond to specific triggers.Click to Tweet

Final Thoughts…

The less you “tax” your willpower, the easier it’ll be to train yourself to develop good habits.  That’s because your willpower will have more energy to handle the tasks that you ask it to complete on a daily basis.

This is the cool thing is the more you work on your willpower, the stronger it gets.  The results are not additive, they are multiplicative.

Hopefully this willpower guidehas given you some good ideas on how to find, avoid and conquer some of the crushing triggers that often stress, strain and break even the most disciplined people in the world.

In the next part of this series, I’ll reveal more cheats that can help you to conserve willpower and make it stronger.

Stay tuned…

5 thoughts on “The Ultimate Guide to Building Willpower [Part 2]”

  1. As usual you provided a very detailed plan of actions SJ.
    I think in building willpower the self-appreciation is very important. When we fail we easily become the victims of What the Hell Effect, but we forgot to celebrate our victories. Especially those small, at the beginning.
    Tracking is helpful in that. Each time your cross off the point of your habits list, you have the chance to celebrate!

    • Thanks Michal,

      I think you are right. Self appreciation is absolutely important, but it is a slippery slope too. Studies have shown that too much positive feedback can actually harm habit change, The idea being that people begin to think (subconsciously) “OK, I am done” and start to slide back into bad habits. I would think that TOO MUCH self appreciation could do the same. So as with everything, in moderation it is awesome. If it gets overdone, it can be a problem.

  2. I have a terrible sleeping pattern that I’m trying to break. Even when I successfully make it to bed early, I suffer from insomnia due to the habit being so ingrained in me. Then I would think to myself, shit, since I can’t sleep I better get up and do stuff and stop wasting time tossing and turning in bed.

    It’s totally crazy I tell you. Sometimes I don’t sleep for the entire night just so I can “reset” my pattern. Then by about 9pm or so, I will start to get sleepy and fall asleep, but I wake up like past 3 or 4pm. Sometimes 5, no kidding. And then things will repeat! Grr…

    I’m determined this time and I’ve decided to put in effort in kicking this habit starting today. It’s about 12am as I type this, and I’m going to sleep by 1am and see what happens.

    • Jeremy,

      It sounds like a pretty nasty cycle. Hopefully, you can break it and bring some sanity to your sleeping patterns. I have a few simple Ideas that MIGHT help in this article. Specifically one that helps a lot of people is quitting watching TV/Being on a computer for over an hour before you sleep. The backlight from modern appliances has shown to interrupt sleep patterns. I hope you get it under control. Good luck to you!


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