There’s No Such Thing as Willpower: How to Identify Triggers of Bad Habits

Do you feel envious of your friend who can skip the brownies or the pizza without flinching? She doesn’t have amazing “willpower” – she just has great habits, and you can too.

Do you find yourself feeling envious of your friend who can skip the brownies or the pizza without flinching? Or does it amaze you that your buddy can hit the gym every day like clockwork no matter how crazy the workday was? Do you think they have some gene or that they are just different from you and you’ll never be able to mount that kind of willpower?

It does seem like people with ironclad willpower are born with some kind of innate gift. They ignore tasty food and drink, never miss their workouts, and get great results in the gym, their career, and pretty much every aspect of their life. They are the people that most of us roll our eyes at and think, “It must be nice to be born with that kind of discipline.”

But what if I told you they weren’t born that way? That they have simply created good habits that enable them to seemingly sail through life untempted and undeterred from their goals? And what if I told you that all you have to do is change your bad habits to good habits and things can be just as “easy” for you? “Hogwash!” you say, but you may be wrong. There are studies and books that are exposing the truth about habits, and it turns out, with a little self-evaluation and practice, everyone can develop superhuman willpower.

First, I want to breakdown what really composes a habit and then explain how to identify bad habits in your life. According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, every habit consists of a cue, a behavior or routine, and a reward. We need habits and use many every day. In fact, 40-45% of the tasks we perform every day are just habits. If we had to think about every action, every thing we did every day, we would get little done and would more than likely feel a little nuts. Most habits are not an issue. They enable us to get to work, to take care of our families, and generally live life. However, there are some habits that may be keeping us from realizing some of our weight loss, fitness, and financial goals.

For example, you get a Starbucks coffee every day – every single day. As soon as you get in the car (your cue) you start anticipating the warm, maybe sweet, maybe creamy concoction and probably the energy buzz it gives you (your reward). You drive to your regular Starbucks, get out of the car, hustle through the front door, say “hi” to the barista, and order your standard drink without even thinking about what you’re doing. It’s an automatic behavior (also known as a habit) at this point. And if someone told you to give up your morning coffee it would be tough for you to do that because it’s become such a regular part of your day. You crave that reward so much that at times it might seem impossible to change. In reality, you are wasting money and probably consuming quite a bit of sugar and calories because of this coffee-drinking behavior.

willpower, will power, good habits, bad habits, creating habits, breaking habitsAnother example involves eating habits like snacking. You might go all day eating extremely well. Everything is perfectly portioned, all your Zone blocks are dialed in, and your calories are on point. But after dinner when you are cleaning the kitchen or watching TV (your cue), you crave something indulgent. You reach into the cabinet, pull out the almond butter, and measure yourself out a teaspoon (your routine). Okay, so maybe it’s more than a teaspoon, since it is kind of overflowing and you do scrape the sides of the jar to ‘even out’ the level of the almond butter. Can’t have an unsightly almond butter smudges on the side of the jar, right? (I may or may not be revealing to you my nightly habit.) Your reward is the tasty almond butter, the mouth feel, and the satisfying fullness it gives. And you can see how this habit could cause a weight loss plan to fail.

Many of you might identify with the habits listed above or you may have completely different bad habits. Others of you may know you are having difficulties reaching goals but you can’t really figure out what’s tripping you up. I’d say that’s the majority of us. We just say, “I’m lazy” or “I just crave junk food.” No, really you just have a habit of eating Cheetos instead of carrots or a habit of rushing home to sit on the couch rather than going to the gym. The first step to achieving your goal is to identify the cue, the behavior, and the reward that are preventing you from crossing the finish line.

Identify the Cue

First, you need to identify the cue that gets the whole bad habit started. Let’s use the goal of going to yoga at least three times a week as an example. Try to identify the cue that keeps derailing you from going. Think about the moments right before you decide not to go to yoga. What time is it? Where you are? Who else is around you? What you are doing? How you are feeling? Is it the end of the day, you’re about to leave work, your annoying coworker is riding in the elevator with you, and you feel stressed and drained? Do you feel pressured to spend time with your significant other or kids instead of going to yoga?

One of the aforementioned things is your cue. Identify which of these things are the same every time you have planned to go to yoga but do not go. That’s the cue that’s derailing you.

Identify the Reward

willpower, will power, good habits, bad habits, creating habits, breaking habitsThen, think about the reward you get from not going to yoga (or whatever behavior it is that’s getting in the way of your goals). Is your reward going straight home, getting in your pajamas, and watching TV or playing on Facebook? What craving is that behavior satisfying? Does that make you feel less stressed? Does it allow you to turn off your brain for a bit and relax? If your bad habit is nibbling on candies from your coworkers candy bowl throughout the day, think about what the candy offers as a reward. Does it offer relief from the boredom of work? Do you use it as an excuse to talk to your coworker instead of working on a spreadsheet?

Or maybe your habit is to go shopping every weekend when you really need to save money for a down payment on a house. What reward are you getting from the shopping? Think deeper than just “I’m getting a cute new pair of shoes.” How does shopping make you feel? Do you forget about other stresses or does it make you feel better about yourself when you are the best-dressed person in the room?

This might take some time, but it’s important to analyze how your habits benefit you so that you can create good habits that reward you in the same way. Once you’ve established the cue and the reward, you are well on your way to changing your bad habit to a good one.

So, take some time, think about what cues, rewards, and habits are interfering with your progress. In my next article we’ll learn how to go about making changes in how we respond to different situations. We’ll learn how to find better rewards so that we can meet our goals and maybe even make some new ones.


1. Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit. New York: Random House Publishing, 2012.

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