Willpower: follow our guide on how to crack any 'bad' habit

Health correspondent / 02 January 2015

Learn techniques to improve your willpower and break bad habits.



Willpower or self control is simply your ability to make a decision and stick to it. But while it can seem so easy to decide to eat a healthier diet, do regular exercise or quit smoking, the actual doing of it can seem nearly impossible.

Thankfully it’s not impossible, you simply need to know some techniques to get you to the point where you’ve broken or created a habit and then it is easy.

Practise your willpower with something easy first

One of the main problems with relying on your willpower to break a bad habit is that you’re often aiming too high to begin with. 

Rather than trying to quit smoking or go to the gym every day of the week, try using your willpower on some other easier vice or virtue.

So if you want to get more exercise, try simply walking for five minutes extra a day to begin with. If you want to quit smoking, try sticking to only five or ten cigarettes per day to begin with. The success you’ll experience will give you the motivation to continue and improve.

Reward yourself for willpower

Dogs respond extremely well to reward, learning all kinds of new tricks based purely on whether or not they get a small morsel of meat by doing them. Humans aren’t that different, except that morsels of meat aren’t necessarily the reward we respond to best!

So think up some healthy rewards or treats, and use them to keep yourself on track. Whether you use gold star stickers, morsels of meat, or simply allow yourself an extra ten minutes in bed each morning, it doesn’t matter as long as it feels like a reward to you.

Willpower can crumble in the evening

Earlier in the day you’ll probably find your willpower is at its strongest. Later in the day, you’re tired and your resolve can begin to crumble. So avoid relapsing then by giving yourself rewards in the afternoon and evening, or by increasing distractions to take your mind off things.

Boost your willpower - get more sleep

Lack of sleep = no willpower. Research shows that when you get less than six hours sleep the prefrontal cortex, which helps control our behaviours, is less active.

Drug addicts, for example, have been shown to be more successful in quitting if they get eight hours or more sleep per night.

Willpower works best if you focus on the present

Rather than thinking about how strong you’ll be tomorrow or how long you’ve got to stick to your new regime for, focus only on the now, on today. For example, if you’re trying not to smoke, tell yourself to wait just another ten minutes. Then another ten minutes, and so on.

You’ll find that sometimes those ten minutes will accidentally become 20 and so on, and soon an hour is gone. Then it seems easier to go another hour etc.

Tailor your goal to maximise willpower

So you decide you’re going to cut 300 calories a day but somehow you can’t seem to cut any more than 150... great! Change your resolution to cutting 150 calories a day instead.

Once you’ve done that for a few weeks you may find it easier to cut the other 150 calories, or you may find that the new diet is working so well you’d like to stick to it. So choose your goal but be flexible too.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.