Tired of Battling Your Willpower? Enlist Unconscious Decision-Making

Start Changing Your Behavior by Putting It on Autopilot

By Peter M. Vishton, Ph.D.William & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Have you ever wondered why quitting habits or taking up new ones is so difficult? As it turns out, willpower is a finite resource and our unconscious mind is to blame. Luckily, Dr. Peter M. Vishton explains how to transform your unconscious from a foe to a friend!

Older woman with her eyes closed meditation/ thinking
Truly changing behavior begins with changing from willpower to being an automatic habit. Photo by Fizkes / Shutterstock

The Role of Unconscious Decision-Making in Behavior Change

Whatever you choose to do at any given moment mostly happens unconsciously. When it comes to self-improvement, deciding to change your behavior is only the first small step. To truly alter your behavior, you need to influence your automatic, unconscious decision-making systems

Automatic brain processes provide a sensible explanation for situations in which we decide to do one thing, but then actually do something else. You might consciously decide that you’re not going to eat cookies anymore, but the part of your mind that makes that conscious decision isn’t the only driver of your behaviors on a moment-to-moment basis.

When you consciously decide to do something—cut back on cookies, exercise more, etc.—a part of your brain has changed. It’s determined that you have a goal of changing your behavior. However, it usually just isn’t enough. 

Your conscious experience is along for the ride with an enormously complex and powerful brain. So how do we change our behaviors? 

Acting on Autopilot

Almost everyone periodically has the experience of doing something on autopilot, particularly for activities we do every day. 

Think about the last time you took a shower. Do you remember deciding to pick up the shampoo and wash your hair, or picking up a towel to dry off? If you’re like most people, you don’t. 

“I drive the same route to drop off my kids at school and go to work almost every weekday morning,” Dr. Vishton said. “On Saturday, when I’m driving to the supermarket, I sometimes accidentally drive this same route. As I turn down the road toward my kids’ school in these situations, I kick myself. What am I thinking? Well, I’m not.”

This unconscious decision-making isn’t always a bad thing. If you can control your behaviors without conscious focus, it frees up that conscious thinking to do other things. 

Your unconsciously controlled mind isn’t your enemy—it can be amazing. Unfortunately, it’s not always in immediate agreement with your conscious thinking.

For example, if you’re trying to start a new exercise regimen, you might find yourself often getting derailed from your plans, despite your best intentions. 

However, there are ways to solve this kind of problem.

Making New Habits Automatic

One solution involves enlisting the help of your unconscious decision-making systems. If normalizing your exercise routine is proving tricky, change it from being willpower to being an automatic habit, taking as many decisions out of the process as possible.

One such decision to eliminate is to bring your exercise clothes with you to work. Additionally, you can sign up for a membership at a gym that you naturally pass on your way home from work every day. 

Eventually, you will be doing your workouts on autopilot, and they will be just as ingrained into your automatic thought processes as driving to work each day. This way, very little willpower is required on your part, and you’re less likely to come up with excuses (justified or not) for why you can’t exercise. 

Similarly, if your goal is to establish a writing habit, there are a number of actions you can take to stop the endless tug-of-war between your willpower and the endless distractions that are getting in your way.

You can get an internet-blocking app, turn off your phone, go to a library or coffee shop (if the prospect of organizing your cabinets is suddenly becoming very appealing), or make sure that you write at the exact same time each day.

Breaking unwanted habits works in the same way. For instance, when many people decide to refrain from drinking alcohol, they usually avoid situations where they know their willpower will be weak and temptation will be high, such as social outings with friends. They avoid these situations until they have gotten rid of the desire to drink.

Therefore, when you unite your desire for change with your unconscious mind, you can achieve your goals and maintain healthy habits with ease and efficiency.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

About Kate Findley 450 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.