August 24


Why Willpower Won’t Change a Habit

Changing a habit is potentially one of the most difficult things to do in life. Have you ever thought about why this is?

There are two reasons:

1. A habit is a pattern or program that runs automatically when triggered.  For example, before you go to bed at night, you walk into your bathroom which triggers the habit of brushing your teeth. You don’t think about brushing your teeth when you walk into your bathroom during the day, and you don’t think about brushing your teeth when you are watching TV before going to bed.  The habit is only triggered when you walk into your bathroom at bedtime.

The trigger ignites the automatic thought which initiates the habit.

2. The habit is stored in the subconscious mind which is many times more powerful than the conscious mind. A simple way to visualize this is an elephant and a man. Once the elephant has decided to do something, the man is powerless to stop him. So it is with our conscious mind trying to stop our subconscious mind.

The habit is stored in the powerful subconscious mind and cannot be overcome with willpower alone.

Willpower is NOT the Answer

Trying to change a habit by willpower is like trying to stop a charging elephant. Once in motion, the elephant will do what the elephant wants to do. Similarly, the conscious mind cannot change the subconscious mind with sheer willpower. A more subtle approach is required.

Some experts say that we need to “trick ourselves” into doing something new. The word trick implies that the result is bad. Instead, I prefer the word train. Training is used get better or desired results.

While the man cannot stop the elephant from doing something, the man can train the elephant to do something new.

The elephant trainer never uses brute force to train new behavior. That would be useless with an elephant. Instead, the trainer uses a series of steps, rewards, and repetition to get the desired behavior. It’s the same process with training our subconscious mind.

A Simple, But Powerful Approach

You may have heard of Mel Robbins before. She’s the author and syndicated talk show host who created the 5 Second Rule. Check out her quick and effective method to train our subconscious mind to accept a new success habit:

Every habit has three parts:

1) A trigger

2) A behavior you repeat

3) A reward.

Now, use this knowledge to create a positive new habit.

For example, Here’s the habit loop I created for exercise.

I lay out my exercise clothes the night before to create a positive trigger.

When I see them in the morning, it’s the trigger to remind me that I said I would exercise.

The behavior I repeat is to get dressed and push myself out the door and go do it (that part sucks) and the reward is either a protein shake or an iced coffee when I am done.

After a few days of giving yourself the same trigger and reward, something cool happens.

When you see your clothes lying on the floor of your closet, you won’t think about exercising.

Your mind will jump to the end of the loop and think about the protein shake because it wants the reward that comes after the behavior.

That little mental trick will ease the resistance you have to exercising.


Habits are patterns that are stored deep in our subconscious mind, and cannot be changed by willpower alone. Using the simple technique of setting a new trigger, giving yourself a small reward, and forcing yourself to follow through for a few days, can start a brand new success habit!

Remember, success does not come from the big thing we do in a day. It comes from the little things we do every day.

Bruce Fleck, PhD

About the Bruce Fleck, PhD

I help professionals overcome a health, career, or relationship crisis and make it a turning point for building a better life.

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