Willpower is overrated

How to achieve your goals

Hey ๐Ÿ‘‹

Welcome to the first Evidence Snacks ever! I'm stoked that you're here with me from the start.

Each week, I'll share 1 big idea and a handful of little updates to help you keep up to speed with thinking and research around effective teaching. This week's big idea is different thoโ€”it's about how you can best manage your own development (rather than about teaching). This makes sense given the fresh start nature of new year. Let's go.

Big Idea ๐Ÿ‰


Between 60-80% of all New Year's resolutions fail. For a greater chance of success, we must focus on the process at least as much as the outcome. Let's break it down:


First up, we tend to overestimate the strength of our will. While it's certainly possible to bring willpower to bear, lapses in self-control are a standard feature of life for all but the most disciplined.

This is perfectly normal.

Whether itโ€™s eating that biscuit or watching just one more episode, most people struggle to act in their own best interests in some way or other, particularly when weโ€™re faced with more immediately satisfying options.

One reason behind this is our poor ability to forecast how we will feel in the future. We tell ourselves that weโ€™ll make better decisions tomorrow, despite continually crumbling today.

(This false optimism persists even when we notice it in others)

The situation is compounded by our tendency to retrofit narratives to explain our past action. No matter how tenuous, we nearly always have a reason for our responses, which only makes it even harder to recognise and learn from poor prior decisions.

In short, willpower is overrated. It's a poor tool for helping us achieve our goals. If we want a greater chance of success, we must focus on the process at least as much as the outcome.

We must engage in process architecture.

"Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress."

โ€” James Clear

We can architect our process by:

  1. Designing routines

  2. Establishing habits

  3. Securing success

  4. Leveraging socials

Let's get actionable. Identify a goal you have. Now think about it through each of these:

Designing routines โ†’ You may have a big juicy goal in mind, but what exactly is it that you need to do, on a recurring basis, to achieve this goal? Translating your goal into a set of repeatable actions is the first step. I want to get fit. I will swim every Tuesday and Thursday after school.

Establishing habits โ†’ When something becomes a habit, it happens automatically, and with less effort. Turn your recurring action into a habit by showing up consistently, having a clear 'cue' (aka trigger), and doing it is the same time and place as much as possible. I will leave immediately after my team meetings and not check my emails.

Securing success โ†’ When we experience success, we are more likely to return to that action again. Make your habits ultra-achievable. Shrink them till you cannot fail, and gradually increase the challenge as your success rate becomes more secure. I will be happy if I swim at least 4 lengths.

Leveraging socials โ†’ Our attitudes and actions are influenced by those around us (way more than we think). Where possible, surround yourself with others with the same goal and running the same habits. Commit publicly, and ask people to hold you to account. I'm going to ask Achilles to come with me and also see if there's a swim club I can join.

Not only is this a more successful approach to achieving our goals, but it also reduces the need for ongoing self-regulation and so frees us up to focus more on the moment. Process architecture supercharges both intention and attention.

๐ŸŽ“ For more on mitigating the limits of willpower, check out Beyond Willpower: Strategies for Reducing Failures of Self-Control, by Duckworth et al.

Now go smash your goals (both professional and personal) in 2023.


โ€ข Willpower is overrated as a tool for achieving our goals

โ€ข It's better to focus our efforts on designing the process by which we can achieve our goals

โ€ข We can do this by: designing routines, establishing habits, securing success, and leveraging socials

Little Updates ๐Ÿฅ•

To kick off the new year, here are some research highlights from the last 6 months:

So there you go. I hope you enjoyed your first Snacks and that it puts you on an evidenced footing heading into 2023. Happy Thursday and don't forget to focus on the process.

Peps ๐Ÿ‘Š

PS. I'm keen to make this newsletter as helpful to you as possible. If you have ideas for how the above format could be improved, hit replyโ€”I'd love to hear them. I read every response, but due to the volume of emails and job/family, I can't always reply.