So many of our behaviors are the default of a faulty environmental set-up. An alarm, a pre-staged gym bag, and a drawer full of healthy snacks can go a long way. But, say your environment is designed to the hilt and your plan is impeccable. You still have to show up and execute.
People throw all their processed foods away and fill the home with fruits, vegetables, and fish, only to find themselves driving to Dairy Queen after dinner four days a week. People stash their work clothes in a gym locker and then begin the ridiculous habit of driving to the gym every morning to change clothes without working out first.
Even when everything in your life is funneling you towards the right moves, you still have to make them. That is where willpower comes in.
It doesn’t matter who you are, you won’t always want to exercise and eat well. More often than not, even the most seasoned, consistent fitness professionals find themselves at their pre-planned exercise block with a feeling of dread. It is human nature.
When given the choice between the comfort that engulfs our lives today and effort, every fiber of our being pulls us to remain in sedentary comfort. We are programmed to consume and conserve energy.
Our bodies never anticipated a world where energy (food) was abundant and we had the option to survive while hardly moving. There are always more snacks, another Netflix show, and a new YouTube video “up next.”
Thus, it takes a stupid amount of willpower to interrupt the default patterns of our comfortable lives and insert the necessary discomforts. And that is what fitness goals usually boil down to—interrupting the pattern of sedentary comfort.
Once you start, everything gets easier. You may even find we are energized and want to do more. Starting is the hard part. Finding that momentary resolve to ignore every impulse or instinct and will yourself into discomfort—now, that is at the foundation of any healthy lifestyle.
You may be thinking, but what about those days I’m energized and excited to get moving? Can’t I just recreate those conditions with good pre-workout and music? Nope. They are the aberration. No matter how great your planning is, you will often find yourself not wanting to follow through.
As former Navy Seal, Jocko Willink, says in his book, Discipline Equals Freedom, “Motivation is fickle. It comes and goes. It is unreliable and when you are counting on motivation to get your goals accomplished, you will likely fall short. So… don’t count on motivation. Count on Discipline.” And that means willpower.
You make your goal or set that personal rule when you are thinking about what is best for you. In that unemotional, distant state it is easy to see what course will be most fulfilling in the long run. Yet, in the moment, when you have to step up and act it is much harder.
You will not always want to follow through. If you have the willpower to follow through you will feel better all day. If you make a concession and break your own rules then you’ve set a dangerous precedent that makes it more likely for you to take the easy way out in the future.
You can always justify that skipping one day or indulging one time won’t hurt. One decision won’t have dire effects, but in order to be healthy, you need to look at each event as a general pattern. Overcoming temptation and sticking to the plan is an all the time thing.
Whether your goal is to begin eating better or you want to start exercising more, willpower will be essential to your success. So where is the plan for that?
Willpower is real and it is a superpower. Study after study and book after book has shown that people with greater willpower are healthier, happier, more successful, and have better relationships. More than anything else, willpower determines the quality of your life—and it is trainable.
Scientists tracked down 59 of the subjects from the famous Stanford Marshmallow Test and used functional resonance imaging to watch their brain activity when presented with temptation.
They found that the brain patterns of low self-control subjects and high self-control subjects were different. The untrained mind has far more difficulty overcoming impulses. You need to train willpower. Without it, your health goals aren’t likely to be successful.
Willpower is like a muscle in every way. It grows when trained. It fatigues when used. Your chest and triceps could be trained so that, over time, you improve from a 245lb max bench press to a 400lb max. You could work from three repetitions at 225lbs to 15 reps.
The same principles hold true when training willpower. Through consistent training, you can build a capacity to take on a lot higher volume of willpower requiring tasks and build up to a point where formerly challenging tasks require almost no willpower.
Still, even as your willpower grows stronger you can’t take on excessive volume every day and expect good results. Just as a two-hour gauntlet of sprints, snatches, and heavy squats would fry the central nervous system on even the most highly conditioned athlete, you can’t expect extreme lengths of willpower every day.
What’s more, all willpower drains the same reserve. It doesn’t matter if you are using it to resist hunger pangs, to censor yourself when talking, to maintain eye contact, to resist checking your phone, to study, or to exercise.
Habits of self-control allow you to automate behaviors that cost most people a large supply of willpower. Thus, willpower expensive tasks can become free or far cheaper. If you habitually speak well, then you don’t have to censor how you talk around people. If you habitually make eye contact, then it won’t take any more focus when you are talking to your boss.
When you’ve made it a habit to study after class every day, then it is part of the routine. You don’t have to figure out when and how you will study. You follow the pattern and no willpower is used making decisions.
The more good habits you have, the easier it is to accomplish positive tasks without using much willpower. This is how some people have worked themselves into a position where they seem to be able to do everything at a high level all the time.
Decisions, too, can be very taxing on your willpower. Choosing what to wear, what to eat, or what to do will sap willpower reserves, which is why environmental design and planning can go a long way. When all the steps to get you to the gym or to the right foods are laid out for you then none of your willpower is sapped in the effort to get there.
If you are at all serious about a goal, start by designing your life to require the least willpower possible to get us to your desired end. Eliminate fluff choices about dressing and eating so that you conserve willpower each day and, if possible, take on your most willpower dependent tasks early in the day to ensure ample gusto.
But again, we are left with the reality that at a certain point, you just have to do the hard thing when your emotions are revolting from it. So, how do you train the ability to overcome that impulse? Slow and steady.
Willpower Training Made Simple
Growing willpower is about building your muscular capacity to will yourself into an experience that you’d rather avoid. You know that workout will make you happier in the long run, but in the moment your emotions are screaming “no!” like a toddler being told it is time to leave the birthday party.
You want to build the ability to consistently do the hard thing even when you don’t want to. In training, consistency always trumps the occasional eruption of grand effort. You will see the best results from a daily willpower training routine. So, take a cold shower every day.
The cold shower is the perfect willpower training technique because you will never want to do it and you always have time. You always have three minutes for a shower. In fact, right now you are probably waiting three minutes each day for your shower to warm-up. There is no figuring out where or when. Busyness and convenience are not available excuses.
You will feel much better after a three minute cold shower. In addition to the cascade of physiological effects, you will have a confidence and sense of accomplishment that is only born of challenge. You just need to require yourself to act now for a very brief time so that you can feel better all day—just like working out.
But, of course, training is about progression. Biting off too much, too soon is a recipe for quitting. Consider starting with 30 seconds. Next week you can do a minute. Keep creeping up in 30 second increments until you are taking a three minute cold shower every day. You are training the ability to do the hard thing.
This is at the root of every health goal. If you can get into a cold shower, you can start a workout. If you can get into a cold shower, you can walk by the smell of free donuts wafting from the staff lounge.
You may be tempted to quit taking daily cold showers because you just don’t want to do it. That temptation is the point. You have to confront the reality that taking control of your health requires you to repeatedly follow through. Your mind will rationalize all sorts of reasons not to do what you have planned to do. Emotion takes control of your conscious thinking. Act anyway. That is your mantra. You can’t rely on motivation. Follow the plan. Act. This is the willpower exercise.
Committing Is More Important Than Trying
“Do, or do not. There is no try.”
Anyone can take a cold shower every day. It just requires making the decision to commit in the right way. You can’t say, “I’m going to give it a try.” Why would you frame it as a “try?” There is no skill or chance needed. No trying.
You either commit to doing it or you don’t. I thought about providing other willpower training protocols, but that complexity only encourages inconsistency. There is nothing to think about.
Taking a cold shower is hard. I’m minutes away from my own and, even after doing these for over a year, the prospect of it makes me cringe. Acting anyway keeps my willpower muscles in shape so that I am better able to be in control of my actions when things are hard. I know that growing willpower is growing the ability to act as I’d like to act and be who I want to be, so I will maintain this practice.
There are a few helpful mechanisms that can make you more successful in this willpower endeavor or any other:
1. The first and most important is to start with a “no matter what” clause
I borrowed the “no matter what” clause terminology from the music star, Mike Posner, who recently walked from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. I’ve always used a similar version of this, where I tell myself 99% is a wimp.
Either way, the point remains: there is no wiggle room. Once you decide you are going to do it, that must be the end of the conversation. This is why I always recommend people beginning a lifestyle change start small. You have to create a habit, an identity, around following through.
When you approach life this way, you have to think hard before committing because you will be doing anything you commit to. Promise conservatively. You can always add later. If you do find you’ve taken on too much, then you have to be true to your word (even if it is only a promise to yourself) until you hit your next planning period. I suggest a weekly planning session where you reflect on the week and allow yourself to adapt the plan, either adding or subtracting as needed.
2. Be prepared for curveballs
But say the unthinkable happens. You wake up late, rush to work, miss dinner, spend the evening in the freezing cold watching your daughter’s soccer game, get home and decide I’m just not taking a cold shower… or working out… or resisting the urge to eat cookie dough until you’re sick. You broke your promise. We are all human, after all. Now what? You get back on track the next day.
So often people get stuck on arbitrary goals and when they fall off, they just quit. They label themselves a failure and return to life without the goals. We have to make commitments to ourselves, but falling short isn’t cause to throw it all down the drain.
Sure you committed with your heart and soul and it sucks to fail, but what is past is past. If the impossible happens and you break your promise to yourself, then you have to recommit immediately. It is water under the bridge. Back to ass-kicker mode.
3. Make your commitment bigger than yourself
We are social creatures. If you are coming off a 10-year exercise hiatus, I’m willing to bet that your behavior was normal in your social group. You’d have behaved differently if you were just out of Marine boot camp. When you find social levers that pull you towards your goals, you will be more successful.
Social pressure often works counter to our goals. Most places you go, people might actually pressure you not to take a daily cold shower. They’ll say things like: “Why would you do that. It’s just stupid.” As if training willpower, the primary determinant of success, is non-sensical. Thus, you have to intentionally create positive social pressure. You can find like-minded friends and commit to each other or even try some more creative tactics.
My partner Justin Lind and I have created the Pillar Experience Calendar—a structure for consistently embracing the most transformative self-development experiences. Each month we have a theme with a lesson and accompanying challenges that are discussed and supported through an online group.
Last month our group committed to an extended fast. Many joined Justin and me in consuming only water for 48 hours. Others scaled down to 24 hours or allowed themselves coffee. We all found immense power in doing the challenges together and discussing them as we went along.
Funnel Your Life Towards Making The Right Decisions
Organize your life to funnel you towards the right decisions and away from those you wish you’d avoid. Take on the hard tasks early in the day. Commit to taking a daily cold shower and take the time to structure a system of accountability.
You could make willpower far more complicated than this, but that would only provide avenues for failure. Too much thinking will only distract you from what you need to do.
The best bet is to make your plan simple and actions clear. Then just act, because that grows the willpower muscle. And this muscle matters far more than any other when it comes to longterm fitness and health.