As a personal trainer and health coach, I talk a lot about building daily habits that lead to positive health outcomes. I encourage strategies that can be seamlessly mixed into one’s day such as frequent water breaks, changing postures often, and tying movements to already existing tasks such as sitting completely on the ground when tying one’s shoes. These methods are simple, easy to implement, and are effective, but even those very good at mixing these strategies into their days still need to devote periods of time and energy to purposeful exercise. Even an avid exerciser, one who has a strong routine of exercise in place, will still sometimes find themselves in a position where it’s easier to sit on the couch for an hour than it is to get a workout in.

In those moments, discipline must find a way to outwork lethargy. Willpower must win the day.

Sometimes it’s hard. The force of inertia on a lazy day to keep one stuck to the couch is a powerful one. Be clear that I am not describing purposeful rest days where one intentionally does not exercise. Rest is important to everyone and sleeping in or taking a nap when it is necessary and planned is very much a healthy endeavor. I’m talking about when the body is able to perform exercise and should perform exercise but the brain just doesn’t want to. I could pull from Nike and say, “Just do it!” but there can be a more systematic way than that.

Building self-discipline and sharpening willpower can be pursued with strategic actions. Roy Baumeister and John Tierney published a fantastic book in 2011 called Willpower-Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. In it, they discuss the idea of willpower, achievement, self-discipline, pursuing goals, and present case-studies of people who have demonstrated remarkable feats of human physical capacity and willpower such as David Blaine’s Guinness World Record underwater breath-hold of 17 minutes and 4 seconds. They highlight studies about dieting and resisting temptation and raising children with strong self-esteem. They discuss decision fatigue as it relates to glucose intake and why resisting the bowl of MM’s at the social party is harder the longer the day goes on and why going to the grocery store on an empty stomach is a bad idea. They also offer tips to train or strengthen willpower.

The suggestion is to become aware of daily habits and make efforts to change some of those behaviors. Becoming aware of habits in the first place is valuable and then taking steps to change them builds self-confidence and self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief in one’s ability to perform a task or behave in a desired way, regardless of the circumstances. Here are some of their ideas:

1)       Use a different hand for routine tasks. Many habits are performed with a dominant hand without thinking. Hammering a nail or eating or brushing one’s teeth are done by default with the dominant hand. Becoming aware of which hand is used and then purposefully switching hands is an exercise in self-control.

2)       Change your speech habits. Become aware of saying “like” or “um” or “you know.” The effort to recognize those words creates awareness and then making the effort to speak without those phrases is not only an exercise in willpower but makes for more intelligent-sounding speech as well.

3)       Take cold showers. Displaying willpower is simply the ability to become used to being uncomfortable. Forcing oneself to stand in a cold shower is certainly an exercise in being uncomfortable. Consistently training that ability makes other tasks seem easy by comparison.

For example, the decision to get some exercise when you may not be in the mood for it.


Willpower-Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney