Willpower doesn’t work. Here’s what does.

Matthew Arnold Stern
3 min readJan 3, 2022
Strategy, not strength will help you make changes.

Have you already broken your New Year’s resolution yet? If not, you will soon. And when you do, don’t blame yourself. The problem isn’t with you, but with New Year’s resolutions themselves. Resolutions don’t work for several reasons. One of them is they are based on willpower.

Willpower sounds great on the surface. We are the result of our choices, and making better choices leads to better results. There are two problems with willpower. The first is that it doesn’t address what happens when the choices aren’t easy to make. You may have committed to going to the gym three times a week. But it means putting on workout clothes and driving to the gym, and that’s before you even start the workout. And once you do, you have to shower, change, and drive to your job. That’s a lot of work just to work out, and there are days when it just doesn’t seem worth the effort. Eventually, you won’t bother with it at all.

And when you don’t stick with the resolution, it leads to the second problem with willpower. That’s the moral judgement we attach to it. You can make the bold (and unrealistic) declaration, “I will give up on all sugar!” When you stick to this plan, you feel virtuous—especially because your virtue is tied to deprivation. And what happens when you have a piece of candy? You feel like a moral failure for backsliding on your resolution. That’s when you polish off the box of candy because you don’t feel worthy of healthy eating.

If willpower doesn’t work, what does? It’s what psychologists call using friction. Make it easier to change to a desired behavior and harder to stick with an undesired behavior.

Here are some examples from my own journey to better health.

I used to drive to a gym to work out. This became impossible once gyms closed during the pandemic. I also started working from home, so there was even less incentive to drive somewhere to exercise. I got a Cubii elliptical machine I can keep under my desk and do workouts while I’m working. Instead of driving to a gym three times a week to spend 30 minutes on a treadmill, I work out daily for 45–60 minutes from home. By eliminating the friction for working out, I made this behavior a part of my regular routine.

I also used to be big on eating out, especially cheap (and unhealthy) fast-food meals. I now eat lunch before going out on errands. What also helps is to prepare meals ahead of time so they just need to be heated. I save time, money, and calories by doing this, and I’m not tempted by the samples at Costco.

So, if you find that you’ve already broken your New Year’s resolution, plan a new goal with realistic steps to make the changes you want in your life. Then, find ways to reduce the friction for you to make the behavioral changes you want. You don’t have to depend on willpower and its moral judgements to make improvements in your life. Instead, use goal-setting and psychology to make growth easier for you.

Matthew Arnold Stern

A novelist and award-winning public speaker and technical writer. My novels Amiga and The Remainders are available now.