How to Change Habits Deliberately & Manage Willpower

Every interaction between ourselves and the external world can be categorized in one of two ways.

Reflexive & Deliberate action

Deliberate actions occur when we are in the driver's seat, taking complete control over our senses and targeting a specific set of actions to achieve some outcome. This is a state of concentration and mindfulness. Every behavior is intentional, nothing is passive. Your mind and body are focused on the goal at hand. In this state, you wield will freely by deciding your destiny one action at a time BUT it consumes a large amount of mental energy. Acting in a deliberate state with your environment comes at the cost of burning fuel rapidly. 

Reflexive is a state of loose concentration. It's analogous to being in the passengers' seat. Ironically, you often enter this state while driving because an experienced driver does not require complete concentration. You spend the majority of your day in this state. It involves the normal habits and behavior that can be completed on autopilot. The task may require a certain degree of concentration, but it won't need all your senses operating at full capacity. It is a very energy-efficient state, and so your brain loves it. In fact, if you do a deliberate action long enough, your brain will find a way to convert it into a reflexive action.

How does this help you? 

Deliberate action is the only real means for habit and behavior change, especially when the elimination or addition of the new behavior is foreign and unnatural. 

By unnatural, I mean against our practiced biological trigger and reward system. This does not mean it has to be bad or good. It can easily be both. A person can have trained their biology to desire daily exercise and at the same time desire a cigarette every hour. One habit is healthy; one is devastating, but to that individual, both have become natural.

So if we want to achieve any meaningful change against the grain of our natural habits and behaviors, we must use deliberate action. If we slip into a reflexive state, we're vulnerable to fall back into old patterns of behavior.


Your brain is lazy. More accurately, it's energy efficient, and it prefers to operate with minimal effort. Saving energy through every method available meant survival for hundreds of thousands of years and this incentivized our brains to act as 'lazy' as possible. Your old, automated, habits look much more appealing to a brain wired by evolution to seek out the lowest energy expense possible.

Knowing the difference between a deliberate and reflexive state seems to present the solution to habit change in their definitions. When seeking behavior change, just maintain a deliberate state of mind. But of course, it's not so easy because nature has left us with one of its' wonderful tradeoffs.

Ego Depletion

Deliberate action depends on our willpower, referred to as ego depletion in scientific research. Both terms are synonymous. Dr. Sonke Ahrens, a German researcher in the field of social science and education, states his findings on willpower:

The jury is still out on whether or not willpower can be improved over time, but I personally believe discipline is an exercise that can enhance the utility of ego depletion, whether that's exploiting the resource in a more efficient manner or expanding your capacity (storage) of it. What is known for sure is that being well-rested and healthy does improve your use of ego depletion. This is well researched but it can be easily validated by just remembering the last time you were hungover. How much do you remember getting accomplished that day? For most of us, the only objective of a day hungover is getting past the hangover. Everything else goes off the rails. A good example of how health and lack of sleep together, effect ego depletion.

What can you do now?

Doing something very specific and that requires high concentration will always incur mental friction. Doing reflexive tasks will always be easy going and your mind wants to find a way to move into them. The level of your ego depletion (willpower) dictates how much deliberate action you can employ in any given moment. The current amount of willpower at your disposal can be maximized by the following:

In short, you can optimize for willpower by discovering and exploiting the energy levels unique to your biological rhythms.

This knowledge provides the greatest benefits when looking to add or remove habits. We're often unsuccessful in behavior change because of our approach, not because we don't have the will to change. We're just not planning correctly for the reality of our biology. Don't try to change everything all at once. 

Utilize deliberate action for one small but meaningful change. Develop it as a habit, and when it feels like that habit has shifted into a reflexive territory - meaning there's little to no mental friction in completing the task (lots of writing suggests this happens in 21 days). Once this shift occurs and only then, take on more change. 

My belief is, you can improve your willpower by consistently exercising it just like any other muscle. This starts by developing an awareness for when and how the two states arise throughout your day, and it's achieved by making tiny improvements to your life that require deliberate states of action. I hope this article helps you in your journey of improvement. Good luck!

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