By Luke McKenna

 “Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.”–Warren Buffet

A few weeks ago, I shared about how to “set up great habits this term”. However. we cannot rely on willpower in order to stick to good habits. Research has shown that over time, our willpower can become used up, or depleted, much like tired muscles (Baumeister & Tierney, 2012). In a study using chocolate chip cookies and unsolvable problems, participants were divided into three groups. It was found that people who were told not to eat the chocolate chip cookies in front of them gave up very easily on the subsequent unsolvable puzzles. Those who were allowed to eat the chocolate chip cookies, or who had no chocolate chip cookies in sight, lasted much longer than those who could see them and were required to use willpower to deny themselves. Not only does this study show that willpower can be depleted, it also shows that choice architecture can help preserve our willpower.

Choice architecture is all about carefully designing our default choices – making it easier to make the right decisions impulsively. “When your willpower is depleted, you are even more likely to make decisions based on the environment around you. After all, if you’re feeling drained, stressed, or overwhelmed then you’re not going to go through a lot of effort to cook a healthy dinner or fit in a workout. You’ll grab whatever is easiest” (Clear, 2014). Choice architecture is about designing our environment so that the default choice we make (the easiest choice) is a better one. For example, placing healthy foods in more visible spots in the fridge, pantry or even on the bench and moving less healthy food options out of sight.

How can we make the best decisions, the easiest ones to make?

A worker in times of stress may have depleted their willpower. For teachers, end of semester one reporting deadlines will be here before we know it- and this is always a difficult time. The reality is that we need to assess, mark and report on all of our students – while simultaneously planning, and facilitating the teaching and learning process as usual. Schools can be a terrifying place at this time! In any case, during this period of assessing, reporting and continued learning, many teachers experience depleted willpower. It requires so much of them to carry out their work responsibilities that their regular diet and exercise regimes can very easily be abandoned. In these cases, we need choice architecture.

A study at Massachusetts General Hospital, aimed at helping people make better food choices by using choice architecture (Thorndike, Sonnenberg, Riis, Barraclough, & Levy, 2012). Simply by adding fridges filled with water, and putting water in baskets around the hospital cafeteria, customers changed their buying habits for better. In only three months, soft drink sales dropped by 11.4 percent. Meanwhile, bottled water sales increased by 25.8 percent. People made better choices, as the default choice was improved.

In order to preserve your willpower for when you need it most, you can use choice architecture. Doing so will ensure that the environment you surround yourself with will ultimately lead to positive default actions. On a cold winter morning, I would prefer to stay in bed than to get out, get dressed and go to the gym. However, I have found that if I put my shoes, socks and running clothes beside my bed it is much easier to throw them on and get out there. Doing so improves my default choice – this is choice architecture. Mihaly Csikszentmihayli has coined the term “activation energy” to describe what is similar to the term inertia (Csikszentmihayli, 1997). However, instead of referring to the tendency of an object to remain at rest or moving on its current path, activation energy refers to our actions and choices which take the path of least resistance. Inactivity is the easiest option. So how can we use this concept to assist us in the default choices we make? It is simple- we can use what Shawn Achor refers to as the “20-second rule”.


The 20 second rule involves lowering the activation energy for habits you want to adopt and raising it for habits you want to avoid. “The more we can lower or even eliminate the activation energy for our desired actions, the more we enhance our ability to jump-start positive change” (Achor, 2010). If you want to watch TV less often and read more instead, put the remote control inside a drawer rather than on the coffee table – and then put a book on the coffee table. Whenever you sit on the couch ready to watch TV, your default choice now becomes reading a book. It only takes 20 seconds to get the remote out of the drawer, however, it has increased the activation energy required. It makes the best choice the easiest one to make. Once again, it only takes 20 seconds, but it is enough.


During my reading and writing time at my computer, I am tempted to check my emails regularly, which I know is not the best use of my time. This has led me to closing down my email tabs after I have done my regular scheduled emailing and before moving on to my next task. The extra 20 seconds it takes for me to open up my emails again (instead of just click on them), is a wonderful deterrent to me and helps me stay on track with my work. Another example is having some fresh fruit on the bench in a fruit bowl, rather than in the crisper in the fridge. This reduces the activation energy required to make a good choice of snack. Combine that with making unhealthy snacks harder to access (or getting rid of them altogether) and it becomes much easier to make great choices. You can use this knowledge in order to support your best decision making.

Step One- use the habit loop to create the model for change (Check out this post about Setting up great habits this term)

Step Two- use choice architecture and the 20 second rule to make the best decision, the easiest one to make.



Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage. New York: Random House.

Baumeister, R., & Tierney, J. (2012). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. London: Penguin Group.

Clear, J. (2014). How to Stick With Good Habits Even When Your Willpower is Gone. Retrieved from

Csikszentmihayli, M. (1997). Finding flow: the psychology of engagement in everyday life. New York: Basic Books.

Thorndike, A., Sonnenberg, L., Riis, J., Barraclough, S., & Levy, D. (2012). A 2-phase labeling and choice architecture intervention to improve healthy food and beverage choices. American Journal of Public Health, 527-33.

If you’d like to learn more about what this process can do for your students, check out UPP’s Step Up program for year 7 and year 8 students.