build skillpower not willpower

Build Skillpower, Not Willpower to Manage Weight

January 18, 2021

Have you ever blamed yourself for not being able to lose weight and keep it off? Though your instincts may be to say you just don’t have enough willpower to do what you need to do, I am convinced that what you need is to build skillpower, not willpower.

Willpower Doesn’t Wish or Will Your Weight Away

As a weight management expert with nearly four decades of experience, I know that focusing on willpower is the wrong way to think about obtaining improved health, whether you’re trying to manage your weight, eat better, or to be more physically active. 

We live in a time-pressured society in which overeating, under-exercising, and fast-paced living is the norm, and in such an environment, willpower just doesn’t work very well. Building skillpower, not willpower does.

Willpower also has an all-or-nothing quality to it that suggests either you have the willpower (you are strong, successful, and confident) or you don’t (you are weak, a failure, and lazy). This just is not how real people successfully take control of their weight.

Skillpower Not Willpower: What is Skillpower?

When you’re learning something new like a sport or a foreign language, you turn to experts who can help guide and teach you about the skills and strategies they know work best. Weight management is no different.

Day after day throughout my long career, I have counseled thousands of patients and I have seen firsthand what works and what doesn’t to help them lose weight and keep it off.

Though many patients say they know what they need to do to lose weight but just don’t have the willpower or motivation to do it, I tell them that simply knowing what to do to manage weight and wanting to do it are not enough as knowledge and good intentions can only take you so far.

Learning how to build better habits when life gets in the way (such as healthier eating, more physical activity, positive coping, improved sleep) is an important part of building the skills and strategies needed to manage weight long term. But in order to stick, new behaviors have to become routinized into daily living.

Skillpower, Not Willpower: Building Toward Better Health Habits

There are 3 things you can do to increase the likelihood of successfully developing new and better habits:



A new habit must be continually repeated in the same setting for it to become fixed or more natural. For example, if your goal is to eat breakfast each morning, at first, this will be new to you and will require prompts and thinking to make sure it happens each morning. With time and repetition, just walking into the kitchen will trigger you to make a healthy breakfast meal because you have repeated it so many times.

Whether you’re trying to improve your eating, exercise, stress management or sleep habits, be patient with yourself. Habits take time to become automatic. Let progress, not perfection be your guide!



If you want to accomplish a new goal, you need to plan for it. Let’s take the example of eating breakfast every day; this habit cannot be achieved without planning in advance to go to the grocery store or order groceries online so you have healthy foods in the house.

Similarly, if your goal is to exercise 2 times a week, you need to plan ahead to clear your calendar during that time and have the right shoes and clothes with you.

New habits don’t just happen because you want them to. They are strengthened by well-crafted intentional thoughts and behaviors.



Whether it’s your boss, spouse, co-worker or friend, being accountable to others is a powerful motivator of everyday life. You can use the same principle to develop new health habits.

Finding yourself a walking buddy, a group exercise partner, or a personal trainer (even virtually!), can help you stay on the right track. Others enjoy more formal ways of being accountable by joining an online weight management support group, or by checking in regularly with a primary care provider, registered dietitian nutritionist, or health psychologist.

As you build healthy weight loss into your life, think about also building a strong social support network of like-minded neighbors, friends, work colleagues, family members, online buddies and even health care professionals to help you be accountable and support your efforts.

Self-monitoring by weighing yourself, keeping food logs with a phone app or tracking your daily steps with a wrist-wearable device can also help you be accountable. Tracking provides unbiased and informative feedback, promotes insightful reflection and allows for future planning.

Building new health habits that stick is an important component of skill building for weight management.

Target Your Personal Challenges

The strategies that will help you manage weight may be different than what may work for your sister or friend. That’s because one size does not fit all! Your current health habits will dictate the types of strategies needed to best manage your weight.

For the strategies or action steps to be sustainable, they also have to be practical, realistic and fit your lifestyle.

Here are some examples:

If you have trouble dealing with food temptations, then making adjustments to the types of foods brought into the home, clearing counters of tempting treats and identifying healthier substitutes so you don’t feel deprived all work to improve your eating habits.

If you’re someone who hates to exercise, you can still learn to be creative and fit in physical activity through the course of your normal day’s routine.

  • You can try using an app on your smart phone as a reminder to take breaks to stand up and walk around for 3 minutes every half hour or 5-10 minutes every hour.
  • You can also take the stairs instead of the elevator, park your car farther away, walk your dog longer or pace while talking on conference calls.
  • More movement allows you to burn extra calories while also boosting metabolism, energy level and health.
  • Small changes can add up over time. As you start feeling better and more in control, you may then feel more motivated to start something new, like a brisk walking program.

Take the Six Factor Quiz, Get Personalized Results

To help people target their personal challenges, I developed a 5-minute, scientifically-validated Six Factor Quiz that you can take online at my website at and get your personalized results.  

Through my research, I identified the 6 factors that are major barriers to successful weight management.

These factors have to do with your health habits, daily behaviors and thinking patterns that include not just what you eat but also many other important features such as why you eat, how you may eat on the go and handle eating temptations, your emotional connection to food, how you handle stress, how active you are, how you treat yourself and how flexible you are in your goal setting.

Your scores for the 6 factors, (Convenient Diner, Fast Pacer, Easily-Enticed Eater, Exercise Struggler, Self-Critic, All-or-Nothing Doer), will determine the action steps to help you lose weight, as outlined in my self-help book,  Six Factors to Fit: Weight loss that Works for You!

Self-awareness allows you to know where to put forth your efforts toward skill building and improving your lifestyle.

Problem-Solve, Get Support

Know that along the way to long term weight management, there will be bumps in the road. That’s why it’s important to not go it alone.

Have a support system of people you can trust and to help solve problems.

If your time for self-care is being crowded out by other priorities like supervising your child’s remote learning, problem solve with a family member or friend to find a different time of day that is just for you.

Stay flexible as your actions and the decisions you make about your daily habits have a powerful influence on long-term health.

The key to lifelong weight management is being able to expand your horizons and challenge yourself in new ways, making healthy living enjoyable and something you look forward to.

It takes skillpower, not willpower to optimize your potential and what is possible to achieve.

You can do this!

Dr. Robert F. Kushner is a weight loss expert and author of Six Factors to Fit: Weight Loss that Works for You!

build skillpower not willpower
Robert Kushner


Dr. Robert F. Kushner, is board-certified in internal medicine, nutrition and obesity. He is a passionate clinician, educator, researcher and advocate in helping to improve the lives of those affected by obesity. His new book, Six Factors to Fit: Weight Loss that Works for You! was just published by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Read more articles by Dr. Kushner!