Removing willpower in habit change

We've all been there. Maybe it's the beginning of the year, maybe you've just hit rock bottom, and are swearing to change some habits. You resolve to make changes. You're gonna get fit, have a better family life, get rich, and take care of yourself better.

It's easy, because you're so passionate about change. You have the willpower to do amazing things. You know what happens next.

+ + +

I've crashed and burned trying to change habits more times than I can count. I always make grand schemes to use my willpower to change my life, and yet when push comes to shove, I can't even muster the ability to drink an extra glass of water.

What I got wrong about habit change

I thought my willpower was the key.

I thought that if I wanted to read an improving book every day, I would just have to tough it out, and read the book, no matter how much I hated it.

If I wanted to get fit, I would just have to force myself to exercise.

This isn't the way to form a habit: it's the recipe for burn-out and despair. 

A better way:

Now, with any new habit, my goal is to remove willpower from the equation as much as possible. Willpower is finite, and as Scott Adams writes in his remarkable book, "How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big":

"In the long run, any system that depends on your willpower will fail.'

So, what do we have, if not willpower?

• Remove temptation

Don't just use your willpower to resist social media – if you're not supposed to be using it, just turn the internet off. When it's not an option to do something, or if it's really difficult to access – think of credit cards frozen in ice, then it requires zero willpower to resist.

• Do just enough

Be active only as much as feels good. Read only as much as you enjoy. Write with low expectations. Do just enough that it feels good, and don't push it. You'll create a self-perpetuating cycle of doing the thing, feeling good about it, and doing more. Do five minutes. Write one sentence. Just start, don't set high expectations for yourself.

• Commitment devices

Commitment devices are how your present self can bully your future self. What this looks like: setting up consequences if you fail. In My Unemployment Job, I promised enough money to activate the pain receptors in my brain if I failed to make some pretty sweeping changes to my life. When there's pain coming, we tend to change habits pretty easily. No willpower required if it's more painful to not change!

That's it! Don't lean on your willpower to change, and you'll change.