Willpower Versus Systems: Who Is the Winner?

June 24, 2015

Connect Member

Personal financial trainer helping women business owners gain control of their finances.


We spend a lot of time and energy trying to find the newest, best thing.

This is true from clothes, phones and makeup to food, gadgets and cars.

It is especially true for weight loss and finances.

The hope is always that the next new thing will be the silver bullet that really works, once and for all.

Studies like this one have shown that it is less important which method you pick than whether you actually follow through with it.

Diets and budgets can both work if you stick with them — the thing that isn’t working is your willpower!

So, what happens if we have a backup for willpower failure?

Stop relying on willpower alone, and discover how to set up systems to help you do the things you know you really want to do.

Think about it; there is a reason that the Federal Aviation Administration requires pilots, co-pilots, and air traffic controllers to use checklists when they hold the lives of innocent people in their hands.

It isn’t that their employees aren’t smart and well-trained; the reason is that humans are fallible, and without systems in place, everybody eventually makes mistakes.

What Makes Change Sustainable?
We usually hear that we have to motivate ourselves or use our willpower if we are trying to make a change for the better. The problem is that it is usually easier to relax back into our old ways of thinking and doing things when we become tired, distracted, or experience decision fatigue.

A better option is to remove the decision from the moment.

Find a way to decide what you want to happen ahead of time, when you are not in the heat of the moment, and then create circumstances that make your goal the easiest and most likely outcome.

For instance:

  • Putting your running shoes and running clothes right beside the bed, so they are the first thing you touch when you sit up in the morning, makes it more likely you will carry them to the bathroom, put them on, and go running.
  • Filling your fridge with healthy foods and getting rid of the Ho Hos makes it more likely that you will grab a healthy snack instead of Hostess goodies.
  • Putting a healthy meal in the Crock-Pot to slowly cook all day while you work makes it more likely that you will eat it that night, instead of calling out for pizza.

A great way to do this across your calendar is to create systems.

Thanks to modern technology, we can even automate some of them, which takes in-the-moment decision making out of the picture completely!

Creating Systems For Lasting Change
Start by automating small things to make your life more convenient, and build your way up to systems for your larger financial and life goals.

If you are just starting out, try taking baby steps.

For example:

  • You can program the thermostat to keep the house warm when you are home, and to shut off at times when everyone is asleep or out of the house.
  • You can stick a Post-it note on the inside of the door to remind you to turn off all the lights before you leave.
  • You can adjust the temperature in your fridge, freezer, and water heater a little to save energy without much noticeable difference in comfort.
  • You can set up monthly shipments on Amazon or other online retailers for things you need that are more cost-effective to buy in bulk, like toilet paper, paper towels, printer paper, and ink cartridges. (If you are using them up too quickly or too slowly, you can always adjust shipping dates and amounts to match.)

Each of these things you should be able to do once, and maybe tweak now and then.

For the most part, you can “set it and forget it,” knowing that you are saving money that you weren’t saving before.

If you are ready to start using systems for more intermediate goals, you can begin automating your recurring bills using a combination of your bank’s bill pay service and your credit card.

This idea may require a little more strategy, but can produce far greater benefits.

For instance, I love my travel reward points, so I like to pay as many bills as possible by my credit card, and then use my bank account’s automatic “Pay Full Balance” option to pay off the credit card every month.

Not only are all of my bills paid each month with no missed payments, late fees, or interest charged, I also rarely pay for flights because I am constantly building up more points.

Once you automate your financial system and get it flowing smoothly every month, you can start making even bigger changes.  

Since you will no longer have late payment penalties, insufficient funds charges, or hits to your credit rating for not paying bills on time, you can begin to automate systems to help you meet your long-term life goals.

In the advanced stages of setting up systems in your life, you can automate your savings, investing, retirement funds, and life insurance payments.

Let’s be honest with ourselves — we are human.

Despite our best intentions, our willpower won’t always be strong enough to choose the option that will benefit us the most.

Setting up systems frees up time and energy, and allows us to focus on the more important things in our lives!   

Jennifer Turrell is a member of the DailyWorth Connect program. Read more about the program here.