TheĀ Inside Out StrengthĀ Blog

Simple and practical strength training, nutrition, and mindset content for the busy dadĀ looking to build muscle and burn fat effectively

Why Willpower Won't Work - How To Build Good Habits (And Remove Bad Ones)

Feb 14, 2024

*Below is a section from one of the chapters in my upcoming book that I've adapted for this week's article*

Have you ever relied on willpower to accomplish a goal?

How long does that end up lasting before your willpower fades?

When I use the 'willpower' strategy, I'm typically good for a week or two.

Maybe one month tops.

I get real disciplined on nutrition only to fall off.

I start waking up early only to eventually snooze the alarm when I don't feel like getting up early.

If you're anything like me, I think it’s safe to say by now you understand that willpower alone won’t work.

You’ve played that game before without success.

You’ve tried digging into willpower reserves, and that’s brought you some success - but it was only short-term at best. 

Maybe you were able to stay on that diet and fight off your sweet tooth for a week, or even a month or two if you’re disciplined, but eventually something came up.

A change in your life situation.

A vacation, holiday, or event.

One moment of ‘this one time won’t be a big deal’ turned into days or weeks of going off the rails and forgetting why you started.

Maybe life simply got more stressful and you couldn’t juggle all the things you were trying to juggle at once.

You’re not alone.

This happens with diets, with workouts, and with any new habit you try to develop.

For me, my workouts are a habit. I haven’t worked out less than 3 days a week, aside from a week or two following a minor surgery, since probably middle school.

When I travel I still find ways to workout.

I worked out on my wedding morning with a group of guys.

When our daughter Elise was born I was still in the gym 3 days per week (which is more of a testament to Lindsey’s motherhood and supportive nature than anything else to allow me to be in a position where I had the space and freedom to do that).

But working out isn’t something I have to think twice about.

It has become a habit, a non-negotiable, within my schedule.

When you have a habit like this, it’s harder not to workout than it is to actually do it.

You feel uncomfortable or ‘off’ when you’re not working out, or when you miss a few days.

However, that doesn’t mean all of my own healthy habits are on autopilot.

Consistent sleep times is another positive health habit that comes easy to me.

Managing my stress is not.

I’ve tried countless things that I haven’t been able to stick to such as breath work, meditation, or other similar strategies.

Eating high quality foods, fruits, and vegetables are another habit for me - no problem at all.

Eating the proper quantities is something I haven’t been able to master yet and frequently fall back into eating too much if I’m not holding myself accountable through monitoring my food intake.

You can likely identify some habits that come easy to you, and some you haven’t been able to quite get to stick despite trying a handful of different strategies, systems, or methods which eventually fizzle out - AKA relying too much on your willpower and ‘hoping for the best’.

Today I want to talk about what's really needed to build healthy habits LONG-TERM (and get rid of negative ones that aren't serving you or your goals)

Hint: if you couldn't already tell, it's definitely not relying on willpower or trying harder.

Using willpower is trying to override something that is deeply ingrained in your brain.

If you were mountain biking down a brand new trail, and took the exact same path every day for months and years on end, eventually that trail would be pretty solidified.

It would be difficult at first, but eventually your bike tires would naturally find the groove of the trail making it easier and easier to go down the same trail, the same way, every time.

Now what would happen if you wanted to switch it up, even just a little bit?

You would have to fight pretty hard to avoid the tires falling back into the same grooves that have been developed over all the previous times doing it.

The same is true with habits.

Good intentions are not enough to erase patterns you’ve been following for longer than you can probably remember. 

All habits, both good and bad, serve a purpose when they’re created.

They’re meant to free up headspace and mental power.

We make tens of thousands of decisions every single day without realizing it (over 200 of these decisions are around food alone).

Imagine how draining it would be if you had to consciously think about exactly what to do when you first wake up (especially because you haven’t had your coffee yet).

You likely have some things you do fairly consistently every day when you first wake up, from showering, brushing your teeth, grabbing a glass of water, checking your phone, or any other routine you follow.

You also have a certain way you do each of these things. You’re probably not changing up the way you brush your teeth every single day.

Habits are a great thing when they are still serving you and bringing you positive results.

We don’t want to remove your habit of brushing your teeth or have to think each day about a new way to brush them.

But what if every time you wake up, you slide open your phone, click directly to email or social media, and spend the first 10-15 minutes reacting to whatever your phone or the social media algorithm is putting in front of you.

This can bring stress and take away from much more positive things that you can be doing to start your day off right.

Maybe every day when you get home from a long work day you head straight to the fridge to grab a drink or a snack.

This is not a bad thing on its own, but if it becomes mindless and you feel like you don’t have control or awareness over it, then it can become a negative thing for you and your health and fitness goals.

If you were to try to ‘override’ any of these habits through willpower, it will feel like effort for a period of time.

Sometimes willpower can get you through the period needed to remove an old habit or add a new habit - if it’s a habit that isn’t ingrained too deep.

But the bigger the habit is that you want to change, which is usually the most impactful, it will require more than just willpower.

So what causes so much difficulty to get a habit to ‘stick’?

To understand that, it's important that you first understand the cycle that all habits follow:

The Habit Cycle: Cue - Craving - Response - Reward

To explain how habits work, let’s use the example of someone looking to lose some weight, pack on some lean muscle, and get more confident.

Not someone trying to run a marathon or lift 500 lbs, but someone that is looking to lose 10 lbs of fat and replace it with 10 lbs of muscle so that they can have the energy and confidence to show up best for other important areas of life.

That’s where most of my clients fall.

Whether you are training for something like a 2x bodyweight squat or deadlift, or you’re looking to improve your overall health without a specific goal, the same small habits will end up leading to big results over time.

Before getting into some specific examples, let’s outline the key components to any habit.

This is adopted from the work of Charles Duhigg and James Clear, who are both experts as it relates to habits:

Cue: A cue is any type of event that leads to the next response - a craving. While craving is a strong word, it can be very tricky to spot if it’s already deeply ingrained in your subconscious.

A cue is commonly linked to: time, location, preceding event, emotional state, or other people.

Time could be 30 minutes after waking up that you begin to get hungry.

While for you, your hunger ‘cues’ might seem normal, often these cues can be more psychological than physical.

There is a big difference between craving food and real physiological hunger.

For most people their cues are driven more on psychological than physiological responses.

If everyday, like clockwork, you eat at 8, 12, 4, and 8 - there’s a good chance those are the times that you’ll find yourself hungry, even if you ate more or less food than usual at one of the other meals.

Location would be any physical area you are in that elicits a craving.

For example, maybe every time you walk or drive somewhere you pick up a coffee or donut.

If you do that for long enough, your body will begin to crave that every time you walk or drive that route, regardless of if you’re actually wanting it.

Preceding event is one event that can cause the next craving.

Maybe every time you open your phone, you ‘crave’ going to social media and seeing what’s new or how many likes your last post received.

Maybe every time you get home from work, you ‘crave’ that bag of chips or that drink.

Maybe every time you grab a coffee you also ‘crave’ a sweet treat to go with it (on top of good marketing having those sitting out and looking so good while you’re waiting in line).

With all of these examples, ‘craving’ is in quotes because you may notice a strong conscious craving for these things, but it’s actually operating primarily in your subconscious mind.

You don’t realize that you’re craving to watch Netflix or open up social media on your phone when it’s done every time without really thinking about it after a stressful day.

It just becomes second nature and happens on autopilot.

All of a sudden you’ve been scrolling on Instagram for 20 minutes or you’re halfway through an episode on Netflix without thinking twice about it.

This can be something that works against you, but this can also be harnessed for good when used wisely.

Emotional state is one that many people can relate to.

Especially when it comes to pursuing any health or fitness goal - and that’s emotional or stress eating.

This is for the person who’s sticking to their diet, doing everything right, until the moment that the stress of life piles on all at once.

The stress causes a craving for something sweet or salty (usually), and builds and builds until willpower is weakened and the craving is given into.

Finally other people can be a cue as well.

Maybe every time you hang out with certain people you crave going out for a drink and some apps.

Maybe when you hang around certain family members you crave their good home cooking. 

The most important part to changing a negative habit (or creating a positive one) involves knowing what common cues are for you.

While these are happening all around you at all times, there’s a chance you might become blind to them if they are something you’re repeatedly doing without thinking.

Craving: Craving is simple, and was already covered quite a bit as it relates to the cue. The craving is the ‘what’ you desire when the cue happens.

It’s the IF (cue) THEN (craving) formula. IF I’m stressed THEN I crave ____.

Once you’re aware of the source of these cravings (cues) then they become easier for you to change.

Cravings can develop because of habit, you’ve literally trained yourself into craving something.

This is easier to look at on the positive side of things.

You can train yourself to crave a protein smoothie after a hard workout.

If you workout, and then eat something healthy, and learn that your body feels great every time you do that, your body will literally crave to do that more often.

This is why people that work out regularly for long enough actually feel worse when they don’t do it.

However, certain cravings might be rooted in other psychological things that you aren’t aware of.

Things related to childhood, past experiences, or other things you might be completely unaware of.

In these instances, it’s definitely possible to see change, but you might have to be a little more in tune or require some professional help if you continue to run into the same negative or self-destructive habits.

Response: While cravings are deeply rooted in your subconscious mind, and at least partially out of your control, the response is what you choose to do when you get a craving.

And yes, it is a choice even when it seems to happen on autopilot.

The stronger the craving, the harder the response is to control, but that doesn’t mean it is out of your control.

Often it’s easy to focus on trying to control the response to the craving without being aware of the cue that is actually causing it.

For example, you might rely on willpower and beat yourself up for giving into a craving for a sweet treat, but trying to discipline yourself to not experience cravings will only result in failed efforts sooner or later.

That doesn’t mean that you’ve failed, that you’re weak minded, or you lack discipline.

Discipline is a skill, not a trait, and you have the discipline inside of you.

If you feel like you don’t have discipline, you might have been focusing on the wrong part of the habit loop which will set you up for failure from the start.

By focusing on the cue that is causing the craving, you can begin to replace it with an action that can rewrite your craving over time.

If you don’t realize the craving of a sweet treat is triggered by the cue of stress, the end of a work week, or turning on a movie - it’s going to be very challenging to make any long-term change.

Reward: Reward is what happens after your response, and like the other stages this can be both conscious or subconscious.

An example of a conscious reward would be something like rewarding yourself with a new workout outfit or pair of shoes if you consistently go to the gym 3+ days for 6 weeks in a row.

That’s a clear reward that positively reinforces you to continue with the habit. 

However, not all rewards are positive, and not all rewards are consciously chosen.

You may ask what reward there is to skipping a workout after work and choosing to eat those chips instead.

The reward in this case is a boost in neurotransmitters like dopamine (the reward center of your brain) and even possible rewards that include a perception of decreased stress

It’s important to note whether this is taking place in your conscious or subconscious mind, rewards are not always negative in the short-term.

For example, maybe skipping that workout one evening can allow for positive benefits of decreased stress and improved health by giving your body a needed rest.

However, in the long-term these same habits of skipping a workout, that might have served a purpose temporarily, can end up causing negative and potentially destructive habits that no longer help you reach your goals or desired level of health.

Hopefully you can begin to see how each step in the habit loop works together so closely, and it’s difficult to change a habit without first being aware of how all the parts work together.

If you want to change your response, it starts with addressing it at the level of cue and then craving.

Forgetting this order can make it exponentially more difficult to change your response - which is usually where people start.

Awareness, self-experimentation, and tracking are some of the keys to making this work.

It’s important to set goals for your habits if you want to change them.

Vague goals will produce vague results.

Tracking specific goals will help you ditch the habits holding you back as you decide to replace them with positive ones.

While all this sounds like a lot of work to change a habit, it’s essential to understand if you want to build new long-lasting habits and get rid of destructive habits that have been holding you back - and it’s going to require some new actions and efforts.

Habits are not good or bad in isolation, and they’re not only for disciplined people.

You rely on habits more often than you think to get you through the day whether you realize it or not. 

Your habits are either working for you or working against you.

While no one is perfect and has all ‘good’ habits, make sure you are taking the necessary steps to make your good habits more regular while making it harder to perform the negative habits.

If you enjoyed this, here's a few action items for today:

1) Pay attention to your habits. Identify the cues that are causing the positive and negative habits in your life

2) If you want to take a deep dive into habits, I'd recommend going to the expert himself, James Clear, and go get his book Atomic Habits

3) If you are ready to make permanent change to your health and your body - I'm weeks away from launching an all Dad's fitness group that will cover topics like this, full workout/nutrition programs, and help you lose fat/build muscle (and it's 100% free for the time being). If you're interested in being a part of it, simply reply 'community'

4) If you have any feedback on this section of my book, positive or negative, I'd be grateful if you send me a DM and tell it how it is. I've been dragging my feet on getting this book edited and launched for over a year now..

24 Page Free Guide (Includes Full Workout Program, Nutrition Recommendations, And More!)

The Ultimate Guide To Burning 10 (Or More) Pounds of Fat and Building 10 Pounds of Muscle

Fill out the form below and get instant access to this free 24 page guide we've put together to help you burn more fat and build more muscle to look and feel your best.

You're safe - I'll never spam you or sell your contact info. Unsubscribe at any time