If you watch the updates from your favourite fitness influencers, it’s easy to think they’ve got insane levels of willpower to get up at 5am or work out six days a week.
But willpower actually plays a very minor role in committing to health – you really only need it to get started. After that, it’s all about habits to make your health choices a no-brainer.
“Willpower is short-term, whereas habits are long-term,” accredited practising dietitian Melanie McGrice, tells 9Honey Coach.
“Sometimes we need willpower to create the initial change of routine or habits – it’s what motivates us to go and see a dietitian or put those new practices in place. But we can’t rely on willpower.”
Executive coach Lyndall Mitchell tells 9Honey Coach that the easiest shortcut to the life you want is setting up habits that take the thinking out of doing.
“Our brains love habits as they are automated and take little effort,” says Mitchell, author of Restore: 20 Self Care Rituals To Reclaim Your Energy.
“The key to creating good habits is to do them often so you start a consistent routine – then you are relying on the habit forming, as opposed to the limited resources of willpower that we all have.”
Mitchell says that most super-healthy people have simple, repeatable, maintainable habits that they do each day/week/month without much thought, let alone willpower.
“It can help to write a ‘habit list’ of your positive and your negative habits, then start working through how you can build a habit to replace your negative habits,” she says.
“Great habits are created by doing simple, easy things every day – it’s those 1 percenters that add up over time.”
So if you are a sucker for some chocolate in front of the TV each night, McGrice says a helpful new habit might be to go for a walk after dinner to short-circuit the unhelpful habit.
“It will get you out of the house and out of the environment,” she says.
Within a couple of weeks, you might notice that the chocolate cravings have disappeared.
“When you’ve done an activity more than 10 times, that’s when the new neural pathway starts to form,” McGrice explains.
“The more times you repeat a series of activities, the deeper and deeper the connection or ‘pathway’ becomes.”
Mitchell says our self-regulation is strongest in the morning so if you are struggling to make lasting health changes, try think of simple things you could add to the first part of your day.
“If you find it difficult to exercise, doing your exercise at the start of the day will be easier for you, because your self-regulation lessens as the day progresses,” she explains.
“That’s why we don’t eat chocolate for breakfast. However at 3pm when your energy is lagging, the chocolate may be much harder to resist.”
If you want to set up lasting habits, Mitchell suggests setting up cues that prompt the habit – it might be putting your gym clothes out the night before, or buying the ingredients needed for some delicious wholesome meals.
Then you need to set up a routine – it could be your alarm going off to prompt you to get up to go for a walk, or it could be starting meal prep and cooking as soon as you walk in the door after work.
The final step is the reward, something Mitchell says most people mistakenly omit.
“If the habit doesn’t have a reward, the habit is harder to build – our brains need an intentional reward in order to want to remember the habit,” she says.
“It may be the coffee you get after you have exercised, or getting to walk two blocks [after a run]. The reward is the step most people forget and then it becomes harder to build the habit.”
It’s best to start with the smallest habit changes then slowly build from there, rather than overhauling your whole life overnight and expecting willpower to help you maintain the change — because there’s a good chance you’ll be back to your old ways before you know it.
“We really need to set ourselves up for great habits that will create long-term change,” McGrice says.
“We have to automate most of our decision-making process to create long-term change.”