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Don’t assume willpower is the answer

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Don’t assume willpower is the answer

Scott Miker

Too often when we want to change something in our lives to get better, we assume that the answer is that we just have to be tougher.  We have to fight against the urges that we know lead us in the wrong direction.

We have to focus.  We have to be strong.  In short, we have to rely on our willpower in order to succeed and reach our goal.

In Change Anything by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, the authors explain this mindset.

They say, “When people believe that their ability to make good choices stems from nothing more than their willpower – and that willpower is a quality they’re either born with or there’re not – they eventually stop trying altogether.  The willpower trap keeps them in a depressing cycle that begins with heroic commitment to change, which is followed by eroding motivation and terminated inevitably by relapse into old habits.  Then, when the build-up pain of their bad habits becomes intolerable, they muster up another heroic but doomed attempt at change.  We feel as if we were ascending a summit when it fact we’re simply walking a treadmill: lot of effort, not progress.  That’s the willpower trap.”


Changing our focus to be on habits

First we have to stop turning to this idea that willpower is what it takes to succeed.  Yes willpower is a part of it but the reality is that we fail because habits are much stronger than willpower. 

If we can only harness the power of habit we can start to use it to help point us in the right direction instead of the wrong direction.  We need to have the choices in our lives be from positive habits that we deliberately created, instead of habits that formed by taking the easy road over and over again. 

We only have so much willpower and when we use all our willpower to fight against habit we will eventually lose.  Instead we have to use willpower to develop the right habits.  This way when we start to lose motivation, hopefully we have built up the right habit enough that it keeps us going forward, instead of causing us to fall back to old ways and ultimately fail. 


How do we create new habits or modify our current habits?

While it might seem simpler to just use willpower, the reality is that once we know how to use habit to get us to our idea of success, we can use the same techniques in almost any area of life.  This is referred to as the systems and habits approach to improvement. 

Using the power of habit to reach goals is actually much simpler than we might think.  It doesn’t involve advanced psychological insight.  In fact, it relies more on time-tested wisdom than it does on any new age methodology. 


Start slowly

Slow and steady win the race.  Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.  A journey of 10,000 miles begins with a single step. 

We have all heard the sayings and quotes around starting slowly with small steps.  But most of us don’t have time for that.  We don’t want to lose weight in two years; we want to lose it NOW.  But focusing on now means that we can’t start slowly.  We have to sacrifice slow for immediate.  But what actually gets sacrificed is our ability to be effective. 

Instead of expecting everything right away, start to shift your focus.  Instead work to develop new, small steps that you can do over and over again. 

Want to get rid of debt?  Start by building a small emergency fund so you don’t turn to credit cards whenever something comes up.  Or cut out the daily coffee from Starbucks and make some at home. 

Want to lose weight?  Try incorporating a vegetable at every meal.  Or start to exercise for 5 minutes a day.

The key isn’t to do anything extreme.  It is meant to be simple and easy - the easier, the better.  This way you can keep going for long enough for it to become a habit.  Then when this small step becomes a habit, create another small step, then another, then another.  Over time you will suddenly have all of these solid, positive habits that all add up to something incredible. 


Set the minimum

One technique that you could use to start building positive habits is called setting the minimum.  This means that you set a very small minimum that you will do regularly. 

It could be to exercise for 5 minutes each day, or invest $10 per paycheck to a retirement plan.  It could be to have at least a small portion of vegetables for dinner each day or to always look at a menu and find the healthy options first, then work your way towards the unhealthy foods if you don’t see anything that sounds enticing. 

It could be to smile and say hello to someone on the street.  It could be to read 1 chapter from a book every day.  It could be to practice the piano for 10 minutes every day.  It could be any small thing that you can start doing that can be done regularly (daily, weekly, every time you feel anxious etc). 

The minimum that you set has to be very small and you can’t just increase it whenever you do more.  If you decide to do more than the minimum one day, the next day’s minimum resets to the small goal that you set, it doesn’t increase.

What this does is it gives you a way to keep doing it.  You don’t have to outdo today’s workout you only have to do the minimum.  Then when you reach the minimum you can do more if you want or you can stop. 

Over time it start to become habit and you start to do it without even thinking about it.  It starts to become automatic.  Once it becomes automatic, that is when you start increasing the amount.  Then you have the power of habit on your side and can use willpower to simply increase the amount during each occurrence, instead of using it for everything. 


Do it over and over and over

The only way for this new habit to form is to do it over and over again.  This is the reason we set the minimum so low.  We have to keep doing it over and over and over again. 

The key is repetition.  The more we do it the more likely it will become a habit.  If we are sporadic and sometimes do a lot and sometimes do none, we aren’t doing anything towards forming a habit.  Eventually our old, bad habits will resurface and we won’t be able to fight them off since we exhausted our willpower on those few times we did a lot. 


Focus on progress not perfection

The final key to using the systems and habits approach to improvement is to stop focusing on being perfect.  None of us our perfect and nobody starts out perfect.  Mozart didn’t write a masterpiece the first time he sat at a piano.  Michael Jordan didn’t become an MVP the first time he played basketball (in fact he was actually cut from the team one year in high school). 

The point is that any person that succeeds started out by fumbling their way through.  They made mistakes and hit obstacles but kept going long enough to start to finally break through.  So don’t assume you will never make a mistake and that everything will be perfect.

Instead of perfection, look for progress.  Find examples of times that you make some small progress towards a goal.  Then allow yourself to keep working and keep making progress.  You will stumble and make mistakes along the way but as long as you keep making progress you will eventually get to where you want to go. 


Start today

Because we leverage time as a way to help us succeed, the best time to start is now.  If we start now we will be much further along in 1 year than if we convince our self to wait.  Waiting doesn’t do anything except push us further away from our goal.  Imagine 1 year from today.  If we start today we have a full year of work and progress and new habits being solidified.  If we don’t then in 1 year we will be the same as we are now or maybe even worse. 

So whatever it is you want to do, start to find the very small steps that you can take and then systematize them by forming into new habits.  It will amaze you what you can accomplish using this technique and how much easier it is than expecting willpower to drive us all the way to the finish line.