Why Habits Matter More Than Willpower for Good Health

“I’d love to lose weight, but I’m not motivated!”

“I start an exercise program but then I run out of willpower!”

Have you ever said something like this about your health goals? Perhaps you’ve wondered why you start strong with each new regimen, then lose interest and give up after a few days, weeks, or even months. If so, you’re not alone. 

In fact, most of us cannot maintain our health goals on willpower alone. Read on to learn why centering willpower is a mistake, why building sustainable habits matters much more, and how you can begin to do that. 

Habits Drive Our Actions

According to University Hospitals, around 90% of our actions each day are driven by our habits. In other words, actions become automatic and if you have done something many times before then you are more likely to do it again. 

This is good news for your health because it means that, with a little effort, you can remove or reduce bad habits and instill good ones instead.

Think about something you do every day. This could be something like making your cup of coffee in the morning, brushing your teeth, or locking the door when you leave for work. Chances are, you do these things “on autopilot”. By practicing good habits, you can make those health-promoting behaviors become automatic too.

According to Healthline, it takes an average of 66 days for a habit to become automatic. Therefore, why not commit to one healthy habit every day for the next three months? By the end, you will likely find yourself doing it without thinking about it.

Habits Are Convenient

As well as being creatures of habit, it’s also human nature to take the path of least resistance where possible. Decision fatigue is a real phenomenon, and can cause people to fall back onto old patterns even if they know those patterns are harming their health. 

The problem with many diets and fitness programs is that they require a significant amount of space in your brain just to keep up with all the rules and requirements. This inevitably leads to burnout and decision fatigue, causing most people to get discouraged and quit. By building healthy habits instead, you can 

Forward planning can build on this convenience and can make breaking bad habits and building good ones easier. Strategies such as laying out your gym clothes the night before a planned workout, having the fixings for a quick and healthy meal in the freezer, and 

Willpower is Temporary

By definition, willpower cannot be present at all times. Nobody is motivated all the time. We all have days when we feel tired, down, depressed, or just overcome with a sense of apathy. It is during these times that willpower is tested and is most likely to fall apart. 

Habits, however, are far easier than willpower to sustain during these times. Strong habits can help you to keep up with your progress towards your health goals even during challenging times, and prevent you from falling back into destructive patterns such as binge-eating, overly restricting food, or avoiding exercise. 

Focus on the Process

When we talk about willpower in relation to health, we tend to think of it as something we have to just maintain for long enough to reach our end goal. (For example, “I just need to be motivated long enough to lose 50lb, then everything will be fine.”) 

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Health is not a one-time-and-done goal but a lifelong journey that constantly ebbs, flows, and changes. That’s why a core set of healthy habits is far better news for your body and mind in the long run. 

Focusing exclusively on an end goal can also cause us to feel frustrated. Have you ever given up because you weren’t losing weight as quickly as you’d hoped or making progress in the gym as fast as you would have liked? Most people have. 

Habits, however, allow you to focus on the process and feel good about every little step you take on your journey to good health. They allow you to take your eyes off that end goal and instead consider how you feel and make adjustments accordingly. 

Healthy Habits Can Be Fun

When you think about willpower, it is likely associated with something you don’t particularly want to do (e.g. giving up foods you love) in service of an end goal you do want (e.g. losing weight.) But when you focus on habits, you get to think about the things you do want to do. 

For example, would you enjoy eating a wider variety of fruits and vegetables, walking for 30 minutes per day, or starting a regular yoga practice? Building these into your daily habits allows you to add more joyful and healthy things to your life, without feeling deprived or as though you are having to force yourself to do things you hate. 

Good luck with your habits and goals.

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