How to Overcome Willpower Weakness and Harness the Power of Habit

How to have willpower without the overwhelm.

A lack of willpower was the number 1 reason people gave me when I asked what their main barrier was to making healthy changes to their eating..

We’re surrounded by temptation. So when we’re trying to change what we eat or are trying to reduce the stubborn belly fat, we tend to rely on willpower to get us through. And often this is what quick fixes require, loads of willpower to follow the plan perfectly until the end when you can finally relax, let rip and have what you’ve been craving (and gain back any lost weight). But is there an easier way than relying on willpower?


What? ... No willpower?

Willpower is like a muscle so it gets tired with heavy use which is probably why late night snacking or overeating at night is so common place. We’re tired from exercising self-control during the day, such as being diplomatic with an angry customer or irritating colleague, forcing ourselves to get a stats report done rather than researching holidays online.

Willpower takes effort and brain power. We make around 200 food decisions a day each of which drains willpower if you’re having to use effort. If there are biscuits by the kettle or birthday cake in the office, your willpower takes another hit each time you resist it.

This is why your environment is key to supporting your behaviour. Putting things out of sight or not having snacks in the house is an obvious step because you’re not calling on your willpower to resist every time you see them and helps to prevent mindless eating. 

Willpower vs the power of habit

Habit puts things into automatic pilot and requires low brain effort, saving our willpower for more important stuff. Willpower might get you started, but it’s your habits that will see you nailing your eating behaviour consistently and for the long term.

Once a behaviour is an automatic habit, there’s no decision making needed and you won’t need your willpower to maintain the behaviour. Think of anything you do regularly, like cleaning your teeth or making your bed. By the time you’re a midlifer you probably don’t really think about these things, you just do them automatically and these are your habits in action. Someone probably took the time when you were younger to nag you to clean your teeth and make your bed until it became a habit.

The problem with habits we want to change is:

·       they’ve potentially been there for years (such as having a coffee as soon as you get up)

·       probably started in childhood (like clearing your plate) or

·       they might have a lot of emotional investment attached to them (such as sweet treats as a reward).

This means that to change any ingrained behaviours we have to consistently take small enough steps, that don’t cause us too much stress, and that we’re confident we can do.

 But, you need to take action, not just think about it!


How to get started

·       Small actions build the belief that you can do it.

·       Choose one add-in action rather than a stop-doing action to start with.

·       Why do you want to change this habit, what’s your motivation?

·       Make it so small that you’re confident you can do it – don’t say you’ll walk for 20 minutes, start with 5 minutes or 2 minutes.

·       Tie your new habit into something you already do automatically e.g. while boiling the kettle or cleaning your teeth. This can act as a cue for you to do your extra action.

·       Tell yourself it’s just for 2 weeks rather than forever as that mindset can stop you getting started. Review after 2 weeks and decide if you feel better and want to continue.

·       Put a reminder somewhere or set an alarm on your phone, otherwise life gets in the way and we forget.

·       Plan for difficulties - what might get in the way and how are you going to handle that? If this, then what? This reduces decision making in the moment which needs willpower.

·       Be accountable – ask someone to check on you or report into someone regularly, have a visible planner on the fridge (you might already do this, or have done this with your kids…why? Because it works!)

·       Review regularly – what worked? What didn’t? What could you do differently? Be kind to yourself, don’t beat yourself up if it didn’t go to plan. Try to learn from it and keep going rather than giving up because it wasn’t perfect…progress not perfection! This is real life, there will be stumbling blocks.

 ·       If you feel OK with your new habit, can you increase it (slightly!) or add in something else? If it feels too much, scale back to what feels comfortable.

·       Don’t try to change everything at once! If you’re having to use willpower in 1 area, it will deplete it for other behaviours, so just focus on 1 thing at a time.

If you're looking for other small steps you can take, why not check out this blog post where I cover 11 things you can do today to kickstart a healthier lifestyle

So, don’t despair if you think you’ve got no willpower. You can change. Build your habits slowly with small steps, one at a time, and before you know it, you’ll be doing it.

Start with the adding-in behaviours first e.g. a glass of water with each meal, rather than the removing ones. And don’t beat yourself up when something goes wrong, learn from it and move on. But most importantly, just start!


Struggling to find the willpower to kick your sugar habit? Sign up for the Ditch Sugar in 5 Days Challenge and get support and motivation everyday along with a meal plan and recipes.

Content Disclaimer

The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this blog are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this blog. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this blog. Midlife Menu Ltd disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this blog.