4 quick ways to start healthy habits when you have zero willpower

Starting new healthy habits is a lot like going to the supermarket.
In fact, many stores exploit our brain weaknesses to make sure we buy more than we intended to.

I should know.

When I was a kid, mum would often bring me grocery shopping.
Driving to the store, she’d let me switch gears from the passenger seats.
Inside the shop, we would split the grocery list, and fill up the shopping cart in minutes.
It was fine teamwork.

Except for that one accident at checkout.

One day, as we were queueing to pay, I saw a pack of chewing gum hanging next to the moving belt. I asked mum. She said no.
Fine. I waited for her to look away and…I took a pack and hid it under the rest of the groceries.
“She’ll never notice.” She did. I can still remember the look of disappointment.

I’m not proud of that moment, but those gums were irresistible.


Unless your butler does all the shopping, you know what I’m talking about: impulse purchases.

Supermarkets use data, layout testing, and sneaky psychology principles to make sure you’ll end up buying more than you intended to.
Each product is positioned to make more money exploiting your brain’s autopilot.

Can you use the same principles to stick to new healthy habits and positive behaviour without even thinking?

Here are 4 rules of marketing psychology you can use to build your own habits.

Make it simple (no thinking allowed)

Have you ever bought ice cream though…it wasn’t on the shopping list?
Or chips you couldn’t resist on your way out? When you debate in your head and in the end just get it?

I know you did.

When that happens, you usually get a single packed item. It’s easier to justify a single bag of chips, than a massive 20-bag value pack. Especially if you know it’s not a good idea, and that little voice in your head is getting in the way (unsuccessfully).

That’s why you can find big value packs AND small packs. They reduce friction when it comes to making (questionable) choices, and it works. It’s so easy you can’t say no.

When it comes to starting new habits, too often we overcomplicate things.
We want to go from couch potato to Usain Bolt in 5 easy steps. We set expectations high, and make it too difficult to see positive change from our starting point. We don’t stand a chance.
Here are some examples: go from zero books, to one book a month. Go from cookie monster to zero sweets or desserts, starting Monday. Go to the gym at 5am (when you usually get up at 8:58).
Good luck.

Instead, make it easy. Unbundle the change you want to see.
Start from one page a day. Go to bed and wake up 15 minutes earlier every week, for two months. Go to the gym twice a week, not every day. Only have sweets during the weekend, then get your favourite ones. Make it so easy you can’t say no.

Use strategic positioning to trick yourself into buying

Impulse purchases usually happen close to the tills, where the right objects are positioned in the right place to scream at you at the right time.

I learnt this from my chewing gum story, and used it to build good habits ever since.

In September, I started journaling again.
I bought a beautiful notepad made of special paper that can be easily scanned and saved into Evernote. It feels sturdy, and my pen slides over the pages in an effortless dance.

When I started journaling, I wanted to capture my thoughts every evening before going to sleep and yet, I keep forgetting. The journal hopelessly waited on my desk, until I’d notice it in the morning and feel guilty. Every time. Then it got me: the desk isn’t where I end my days!

I now keep it on my bedside table and move it to my pillow in the morning (together with my 5 Minute Journal): that’s the last thing I see on my way to bed. I haven’t skipped a day in months.

start new habit

Think about the places and objects around you when it’s habit-time.
Want to run in the morning? Leave your running shoes in the hallway.
Want to read after waking up? Move your alarm clock away from arms reach and put a book under it.
Make sure objects are in the right place at the right time, like those chewing gums at checkout.
Use these three principles combined, and you’ll be impulse-buying your way to a new routine.

Use purpose-specific objects

Have you ever wondered what is the difference between baking chocolate and standard eating chocolate? They are stocked in different aisles.
To cope with information overload, our brains rely on categories to reduce the need for processing power. This is why products are becoming more specialised: it’s easier to package the same chocolate in two different products than it is to convince the human brain that one item can belong to two categories at the same time.

When forming healthy habits, use action-specific objects.
Journal on paper, rather than on your phone.
Buy a cushion if you want to meditate every morning.
Read on a Kindle or a paper book instead of an iPad or iPhone.
Your brain will associate that one object to one category, and trigger a reminder for your positive habit every time you see it.

Use appearance and perception to your advantage

Speaking of chocolate, some time ago I tried a Mast Brothers bar.
The stylish wrapping and the minimal text screamed: “I am the best chocolate on the shelf”, and the thick paper reassured me that the extra money was totally worth it. It’s a great experience.
The chocolate wasn’t even that good, but I’d buy it again.

start healthy habits

Celebrate your new habits by giving yourself the best possible experience.
If you want to floss every day, buy the best-tasting dental floss you can find.
If you want to start writing, buy a pen or a keyboard you’ll be looking forward to using.
Make it a great experience it’s impossible to say no to.

You can apply these tips from today.

Remember, whatever healthy habit you’ve been struggling to keep up, make sure you use your mental shortcuts to make things easier for yourself without relying on willpower.

  • Keep it simple
  • Place it where you see it
  • Use specific objects
  • Make it special

Now go and create your next healthy habit.
Do it today.

— Matt