Habits Are Not Enough—You Also Need Willpower

There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.

—Beverly Sills

Do we still need self-discipline if we can build habits effortlessly by “hacking” our environment? 

It is trendy these days to write articles titled “willpower is dead” and “the self-discipline myth”. These ideas, although well-meaning, are misleading and can be harmful. Habits are essential, but not enough.

It’s true that willpower and self-discipline take effort. And it’s true that habits, once established, are almost effortless. But you can’t replace the need for willpower and self-discipline just by building habits. Research shows that willpower is the greatest single factor for success in life. So you will always need it. 

There are two main reasons why habits can’t replace willpower.

First, developing good habits requires willpower at the beginning. You can, and should, make it as easy as possible to build that habit—starting small and growing gradually, tweaking the environment, and using reminders. But remember that tweaks and reminders are like training wheels; if you can only ride with them on, you limit yourself, and your whole life.

Habit can take you to the gym; willpower pulls the weights beyond when you are tired. Habit takes me to my cold shower every morning; willpower turns on the tap.

Second, life is dynamic and unpredictable. You can’t make sure that you will always act in harmony with your values and goals by trying to make a habit out of everything. Life will throw curveballs at you. It will catch you unprepared. It will require you to control your impulses and make difficult decisions when you least expect. 

Habit can keep you in a relationship; willpower enables you to change deep patterns in yourself, so you can thrive in a relationship—and grow it. Habit can stop you from buying chocolate cake at the grocery store; willpower says no when a delicious dessert is right under your nose. 

When you need to go to work but don’t feel like it… when you’re driven to respond aggressively but shouldn’t… when you desperately need sleep but your baby is crying… it is willpower that comes to the rescue—not habit.

We all have moments like these, sometimes on a daily basis. Self-discipline—the ability to act in accordance with your highest goals and values—will come to your rescue, provided that you have developed it. If you haven’t, you’ll be carried away by the strongest impulse in the moment.

Habits are essential, but not enough. They are the result of practicing self-discipline and willpower, not a replacement for it. Mindful Self-Discipline is both about building habits and about growing willpower. 

Do you want to grow beyond your current limits? Then please make use of Mindful Self-Discipline to create habits in the easiest possible way, but don’t shy away from exercising your willpower. 

Habits make you show up; willpower makes you excel.


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