The Role of Willpower and Motivation in Habit Formation

Willpower and motivation aren’t everything, but they are an important part of making and breaking habits.

Defining Willpower and Motivation

Willpower and motivation are two closely related concepts, but there are important differences. Willpower is the ability to resist temptation or overcome obstacles to achieve a goal. It is often thought of as an internal strength that can be developed with practice and discipline.

Motivation, on the other hand, is an internal or external force that drives us toward our goals. It can come from within ourselves or from outside sources such as rewards or incentives.


For example, if you want to quit smoking cigarettes, willpower would be necessary for you to resist the urge when it arises while motivation could come from setting yourself a reward for achieving your goal, such as buying yourself something nice.

Similarly, if you are trying to get fitter by exercising more regularly then willpower will help you stick with your routine even when it gets difficult while motivation might come from tracking your progress and seeing results over time.

Ultimately both willpower and motivation are essential components of forming healthy habits; one provides inner strength while the other provides encouragement along the way.

Internal Versus External Motivation

There are different motivational types, with intrinsic and extrinsic motivation being the broadest categories. Intrinsic means internal, whereas extrinsic means external.

When you are intrinsically motivated, you do something for its own sake because it aligns with your interests, passions, or values. With extrinsic motivation, however, you are motivated by the pleasurable reward that you receive or the negative consequence that you avoid.

Let’s look at a concrete example where both motivational types work together.

If you check in daily on Kinnu because you are genuinely interested in the content, you are intrinsically motivated. You are driven by the pursuit of knowledge and the reward upon completion is less important than the learning journey itself.

At the same time, Kinnu’s gamified experience in which you are virtually rewarded for keeping up your streak can also serve as a fun yet powerful external motivator.

Should I Get Motivated First Or Use Willpower?

Willpower and motivation are useful tools when it comes to habit formation. But which one should you focus on first?

According to Stephen Guise, the author of Mini Habits, the answer is willpower. He believes that relying solely on motivation is a recipe for disappointment. Motivation can be a fleeting thing. It is unpredictable and based on our emotions, which tend to fluctuate.

When we try to motivate ourselves, we aim to increase our desire to do something. But when we use our willpower we force ourselves to take action.

Action is key when it comes to habit formation. After all, habits require repetition and consistency, and that can only be achieved by repeatedly performing them, regardless of how we feel.

In addition, our mind and body share an intimate, bi-directional relationship. When we act first with our body, our mind is likely to align with it.

Ego Depletion - Why Willpower Alone Is Not Enough

Ego depletion is a concept that was first proposed by Sigmund Freud and later refined by social psychologist Roy Baumeister.

The idea is that our willpower is like a finite resource that can be depleted over time if we use it too often or for too long.


Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman’s book, *Thinking, Fast and Slow*, popularized this concept further, stating that when we are faced with difficult decisions or tasks, our ability to make rational choices decreases as our willpower reserves become exhausted.

This suggests that while willpower is necessary for forming healthy habits, it needs to be supported in other ways, such as through managing our environment and finding social support.

However, some researchers have argued against the notion of ego depletion, pointing out that studies into this area have been inconclusive and more research needs to be done.

Going Beyond Willpower

In *Atomic Habits*, author James Clear states that “Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior” – meaning that our environment has an influence on us even when we don’t realize it.


Many of our daily actions are simply a response to the environment we are in. Ever felt tempted to grab a candy bar at the checkout counter, even though you had not thought of getting one before? That’s a perfect example of grocery stores making use of this phenomenon.

Luckily, we can apply this discovery to healthy habits too.

An example of changing your environment to support healthier eating habits could be to place nutritious foods in visible spots in your refrigerator, pantry, and around the kitchen. Meanwhile, tuck away sugary treats on the higher shelves – or even better, don’t have them in the house at all.

Want to stretch more? Then consider placing a yoga mat in a visible and accessible spot. Additionally, laying out your stretching gear, such as blocks or straps, in a designated area can remind you to stretch and make it easier to start the routine.

By paying close attention to our environment, and making it work for us, we can obtain our goals without needing heroic levels of willpower and self-control.

Temptation Bundling: How to Trick Your Brain Into Feeling Motivated

In 2017, Ronan Byrne, an electrical engineering student from Dublin, wanted to get in shape but struggled to find the motivation. His solution? He invented Cycflix through which he combined his love for Netflix with his need for exercise.


He hacked his stationary bike and made a program that would only allow him to watch Netflix if he was cycling at a certain speed. Now, exercise suddenly seemed much more appealing!

By linking an activity he enjoyed with a healthy but less pleasant one, Ronan was using the concept of ‘temptation bundling’. Temptation bundling makes behaviors with delayed benefits more instantly gratifying. It is a powerful application of Premack’s Principle, a theory that states that high-probability behaviors can be used to reinforce low-probability behaviors.

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