How To Hack Yourself

Willpower Is Not The Solution

For this year’s round of New Year’s Resolutions, try brainpower instead of willpower

Cassie Kozyrkov
6 min readDec 26, 2023

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I hate to break it to you, but if you think the solution to behavioral change is a dollop of willpower (or if you genuinely believe that you’re failing to be your ideal self because of a lack of “moral fiber”), you might be living in the 1940s. Come join the new millennium! It’s almost 2024, after all.

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If you could program yourself like a machine to stick with your new resolution, you would. You’d never slip up, but, alas, you’re not a machine. The more difficult your resolution is, the less likely you are to stick with it. (You’ll find the pretty excuses later, but the real reason is that you’re a biological critter and your brain is optimizing for more than your latest self-improvement plan.) Willpower is the fantasy fever dream you let yourself believe in while you’re brewing your resolution, but when push comes to shove, reality kicks in. If your resolution is unrealistic for your brain and your lifestyle, it’ll slip.

If your resolution is unrealistic for your brain and your lifestyle, it’ll slip.

Instead of relying on pure willpower, try brainpower. Win by being cunning instead of stubborn. It’s often possible to craft a path to success that works without willpower. The trick is to step outside yourself for a moment and design a program as if you were your own client (or adversary). Would you rely on your client’s willpower to get them through an overambitious plan you foisted on them? No way! You know they’re only human. (And so are you.)

Instead of relying on pure willpower, try brainpower.

There’s a better way. Grab your clipboard and start creating a motivation plan (here’s my list of questions you might like to ask yourself) as if you were your own parent/therapist/coach/trainer. Don’t take failure personally! When a young child doesn’t follow instructions, a good parent thinks about whether these particular instructions might be too complicated for their child’s level. They think about how to try again with better instructions. When a training program…

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Cassie Kozyrkov

Chief Decision Scientist, Google. ❤️ Stats, ML/AI, data, puns, art, theatre, decision science. All views are my own. twitter.com/quaesita