PT on the Net Research

Tools for Behavior Change: Awareness to Willpower

You get up every morning and take a shower. Or do you pour a cup of coffee first? When you put your pants on, do you think about which leg you should stand on? It would have to be a deliberate decision to stand on the other one, wouldn’t it?! If we had to reconsider these patterns every second of our day, there would be even more noise in our heads than we currently have to deal with. When you think about it, each day is composed of one behavior or habit followed by another, with some new adventures sprinkled in throughout.  

So how do we reduce or stop one of those behaviors, or add a new, different one? If these questions sound overwhelming, they are! It’s really not that surprising then, that most of us are not successful with our New Year’s Resolutions each year. 

In this article, I will discuss how we can help our clients identify key tools they can use in their efforts to change behavior. It is also extremely helpful for us to think about this in terms of our own lives. Appreciating one’s own struggles will help empathize with what our clients are going through. After all, this insight is not only for exercise or fitness. We might find it easy to exercise regularly, but have a hard time staying neat at home. So, ask yourself: What behavior do you find difficult to change?

The concepts discussed here are: Awareness, Plans vs. Goals, and Practicing Willpower. A strong habit is automatic (Wood et al., 2007), i.e., you don’t even think about it anymore. This concept of automaticity is important in both stopping a behavior, and starting a new one.


First, bring awareness to the behavior’s role in your life. Are you trying to start/increase a habit, or stop/reduce one? There are different strategies that might help you depending on what your challenges are.

Stopping/Decreasing a Desired Behavior 
Stopping, or modifying a current habit could be made easier by distraction.

Let’s assume you want to drink less coffee.

Think about your habit in terms of how automatic it has become and what the triggers are for this habit, e.g. what happens before this action, and the behavior/reward after. You always get off the elevator and the break room is nearby, so you get a cup of coffee on the way to your desk. Now, think about what would happen if something occurred to break you of that pattern. What if someone saw you get off the elevator and asked if you could step over to their desk to look at something right then? Or what if a colleague tripped on the carpet and you helped them get medical attention? There is a good chance that the cup of coffee slips completely from your mind. Using this as an example, try to deliberately create that “glitch” - that distraction in your pattern. You can deliberately plan a different path. For example, perhaps walk up the stairs rather than take the elevator, which causes you to enter the floor at a different location (away from the coffee).  

One of my clients said she became acutely aware of how the action of putting the key into her front door triggered the thought pattern of pouring a glass of wine and cooking dinner. She decided to try taking a shower first, and broke an important pattern. For her, distraction/adding a "glitch" helped at least delay the first glass of wine. Over time, the first glass of wine became the only glass. 

Starting/Increasing a Desired Behavior
Depending on how complicated or time intensive the new action is, it can be more difficult to start or increase a desired behavior. Starting a new behavior might require you to evaluate your time management and determine exactly when during your day you can incorporate the new habit. This is where plans and willpower can help.

Plans vs. Goals

If you are trying to start, or increase a new behavior, think about how you describe your efforts, in terms of plans vs. goals. Even the best-laid goals are often unachieved because there are no plans. Behaviors are more successful at changing if you keep the plan in mind, even if you forget about the goals (Masicampo & Baumeister, 2011).

This point is painfully obvious every spring, when most people do not even think about their New Year’s Resolutions. A major contributor to this is the lack of a plan. A goal is to lose 10 lbs., and a plan is to go to the gym 3 days each week; run 5 miles; eat 500 calories less per day by focusing on nutrient dense food, etc.  Remember, you need to reinforce these new habits, and the habits are composed of little plans/actions. 

Incorporate an additional positive component to help reinforce the new desired habit. For example, if you want to eat better and your plan is to cook at home twice each week, perhaps it would be fun to take a knife skills class and plan simple dinner parties with friends. If you want to walk 30 minutes each day, you could plan to pick up some soup for lunch from a location 15 minutes away from the office. You can add another positive layer by asking a colleague to walk with you. Remember, the more automatic it becomes, the stronger the habit will be. 


Also thought of as self-control, this attribute can be a strong contributor to success in changing behavior. People with strong willpower tend to be able to delay gratification, override unwanted thoughts, stay cool under pressure and self regulate. This “willpower muscle” (Muraven et al., 1998) can be exercised, but is also subject to fatigue. Keep your mind on the plan to strengthen the precise actions you need to reinforce the habit, i.e. don’t worry about whether you are losing 10 lbs.  Focus instead on going to the gym 3 times that week and running 5 miles, etc.

On the other hand, your ability to practice self-control and stay strong can be diminished if fatigued. My clients report this often; they stay away from tempting snacks all day long, and then something stressful and unrelated happens at work. Before they know it, they are sitting at the bar eating French fries! 

When times get tough and you stumble in your efforts, it is important to stay focused on present and current actions, instead of dwelling on why you didn’t succeed (Rock, 2007).


A recent article in the New York Times presented some insight as to why nutrition is confusing, citing how many people are already failing at their attempts to lose weight just 6 weeks into the new year (Taubes, 2014). The author explained that one of the challenges with nutrition research is the fact that the “gold standard” -double blind studies - cannot be used to research various diets and eating habits. In double blind studies, participants and researchers do not know who is receiving the medication being tested or a placebo for example. With research on diets however, the participants would know whether they were eating a donut or an apple! 

Here’s the thing: our clients are not lab rats volunteering for double blind studies. They are complicated individuals, with layers of predisposing, and reinforcing contributing factors to their ingrained habits. Research has been trying for years to gain better insight into what factors can enhance the probability that someone will be successful at these efforts. 

We can function as a more effective coach if we put ourselves in their shoes, look at ourselves, and identify how we approach our own efforts. In doing so, we are better able to empathize with, and help someone else in his or her efforts. 


Baumeister, R., Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower. Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. The Penguin Press.

The Center for Neurobiology of Stress (CNS);

Masicampo, E., Baumeister, R. (2011). Consider it done! Plan making can eliminate the cognitive effects of unfulfilled goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 101 (4): 667-83.

Muraven, et al. (1998). Self-control as limited resource: Regulatory depletion patterns. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(3); 774-789.

Rock, D. (2007). Quiet Leadership. Harper Collins

Schwartz, J. (2002). The Mind and the Brain; Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force.  Regan Books

Taubes, G. (2014). NY Times; Why Nutrition Is So Confusing. Feb. 8

Williams, Ray. Wired for Success. Psychology Today. Feb. 17, 2010

Wood, W., Neal, D. (2007). A New Look at Habits and the Habit-Goal Interface. Psychological Review. 114(4); 843-63.