The Science of Building Willpower


Have you ever felt desperate to make a change in your life, and yet despite your desperation, repeatedly failed to follow through?

What you are experiencing is a lapse in willpower—the capacity to marshal your energy towards what it is you really do want for yourself and resist what it is you don’t want. In recent years, psychologists have made exciting advances in understanding willpower, illuminating the important question: How do we get more of this precious commodity?

The answer may be as simple as taking a cold shower first thing in the morning. Sound bizarre? Yes, recent research suggests that disciplining yourself to turn your warm water cold may be the first step towards …. eating healthier, exercising regularly, resisting facebook, and showing up to be the best version of yourself. In a study by Mark Muraven, smokers who practiced the seemingly unrelated task of squeezing a hand grip for two weeks were much more successful at quitting smoking than control subjects. Similarly, in another study by researchers Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng, volunteers assigned to a physical exercise routine requiring self-control demonstrated improved willpower in almost every other domain of life: less smoking, less drinking, increased study time, and even improved spending habits.

These studies scratch the surface of recent research demonstrating two important features of willpower. First, willpower operates much like a muscle. In the same way the strength of your biceps improves through repeatedly lifting a weight, the strength of your willpower improves through repeatedly practicing self-control. Second, willpower is not “domain specific,” meaning that improving your willpower in one area (i.e., taking cold showers) will improve your willpower globally (i.e., resisting the candies on your co-worker’s desk).

While this cutting-edge research is exciting, it really isn’t anything new. For thousands of years, those on the spiritual path have been waking early to take a cold shower, pray, meditate, and discipline their will towards their highest potential. Across all major spiritual traditions, sacred ritual is central to daily life and, quite frankly, a non-negotiable part of living the good life.

So what does this mean for all of us who are desperate to make successful lifestyle change? Enriching your life with small, sacred rituals is the first step towards cultivating the willpower you need to move forward and flourish in all areas of your life. Take action:

  • Commit to starting your morning with a ritual that requires self-discipline and orients you towards your higher self. Examples include: lighting a candle and saying a prayer, doing 3 sun salutations and resting deeply, or singing a meaningful song. No exceptions: Follow through with whatever you choose to do every morning to strengthen your willpower muscle.
  • Document your progress. Create a spreadsheet where you can check off successful completion of your daily ritual. Documenting progress is a powerful way to stay on track. After 30 days, celebrate your success with a special reward.
  • Start small and stay committed. Willpower expert, Roy Baumeister, says that just as you want to gradually stress a muscle so that it grows stronger, you want to gradually build your willpower reserves. After 30 days of successfully practicing your morning ritual and documenting your completion, add an afternoon or evening ritual. Perhaps a breathing exercise, a walk around the block, or fifty jumping jacks. No exceptions, follow through with what you choose to do.

As your willpower muscle builds, who knows where you will end up in a year?