September 4, 2022

A version of this essay first appeared in Midlife Cues, a weekly newsletter about intentional living in our middle years. Get it in your inbox; you're going to love it.

If making a change were easy, there wouldn’t be a booming self-help industry.

We would all be doing what we say we wanted to do. And we would all be happy. Perhaps. But no matter. We can always shift again. Because changing course would be easy.

Alas, this is not the case, as we all know.

Making a change — at any point in our life — is tough.

But in midlife? When our habits and our perceptions of who we are as a person are so deeply ingrained?

Ooh boy. It can feel like the proverbial turning of the Titanic.

We have to deal with the knowledge-doing gap.

And the intent vs action misalignment thing.

Plus thoughts of, “Who am I kidding; I’m too old to change” in various forms. Those may not be the exact words on that ticker tape running in the back of your mind. But you know how your version of this goes.

And as much as we want to pride ourselves on the strength of our willpower 🙋🏻, the reality is that our willpower gets so taxed that it can’t do the job we want it to do.

Enter the utility of forcing functions.

A forcing function is any task, activity, or event that pushes us to take action and produce a result. It puts us in a position to execute.

In design thinking, a forcing function is an aspect of a design:

that prevents the user from taking an action without consciously considering information relevant to that action. It forces conscious attention upon something (“bringing to consciousness”) and thus deliberately disrupts the automatic performance of a task.

In effect, a forcing function interrupts the default behavior. It wakes us up so that we can deliberately and intentionally do — or not do.

If there’s a habit that you’re trying to adopt, you’ll want to come up with the forcing function that … well, forces you to do it.

Here’s an example

To instill a daily writing habit, these are my forcing functions:

  • The first appointment on my calendar every day is the daily writing hour.
  • I committed to writing a post on LinkedIn every day and told a few people about it. (And now, I’ve effectively told a lot more people 🤭)

To make it easier to do these forcing functions:

  • I clear my work desk at the end of the day so that when I sit down in the morning, I have a tidy area to work in. (I find that I cannot write with too much mess on my desk.)
  • I brainstorm ideas on Mondays to minimize the curse of the blank page with the blinking cursor.
  • I chose an app that removes friction and one wherein I enjoy writing.

Bottom Line

If we really want to effect some change in our lives, we cannot just rely on the promises we make to ourselves and our willpower.

Better to come up with one or two forcing functions that can help us get the ball rolling until things become naturally part of who we are.

Suggested Reading

  • Best-selling author Benjamin Hardy, Ph.D. takes the willpower discussion a step further and says that it’s actually willpower that is holding us back. “If your life requires willpower, you haven’t fully determined what you want. Because once you make a decision, the internal debate is over.” Willpower doesn’t work. How to actually to actually change your life.
  • Sometimes, forcing functions aren’t enough, and we need a support group. We can join one, or we can build one. Here’s how to build a support group.


“We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it as not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.”
—Eleanor Roosevelt


A former management consultant and IT leader, Lou Blaser is the editor of Midlife Cues and the host of the Second Breaks podcast. She is also the author of Break Free: The Courage to Reinvent Yourself and Your career. Lou’s work is focused on exploring how to navigate, thrive, and turn midlife into the best phase in our life.