Are you as disciplined as you’d like to be?
Do you want to toughen up?
Have that twinkle in your eye that says: “Life, if you punch me in the face, you know I’ll just grit my teeth and fight back even harder.”
Oh you do? Sure, who wouldn’t.
That’s why I spent all of last week pondering how to help you do just that, and create a framework for it.
Here’s what I came up with.
Why you need this post (and I do, too)
There’s about a gazillion articles on willpower out there. A lot of good ones, no doubt. But here’s the problem:
99.9% of all writing about willpower only shows you how to conserve it – not how to increase it.
Pare down decisions, sleep enough, eat well, exercise, and so on. You know the spiel.
All of this makes sure your willpower buffer is topped up to the max in the morning and helps you not waste the finite amount you have.
Which is good. But where do you go next?
If you’ve optimized the 20% of your lifestyle that give you 80% of these results, what’s next?
Are you stuck with say, 100 good decisions a day, and you just have to use those as best as possible?
What if I don’t just want a fully loaded decision gun?
Heck, I want a bigger magazine!
I dove in and did some research.
Back to the roots of willpower research
I remembered one of the exercises of my free 7-day comfort zone challenge and that it helped increase willpower. One of the resources I quoted in it was a great summary on willpower research, by the American Psychological Association.
As soon as I opened it, it hit me:
(click the image for the full pdf)
Willpower is all about discipline and self-control. The word itself says it. “I will…”
To confirm this was they key to increase willpower, I took another look at the original marshmallow experiment (where kids were given a marshmallow with the promise of another marshmallow, should they be able to wait 15 minutes without eating the first one).
(can you resist?)
The children who showed the most self-control (and therefore a bigger willpower reservoir) went on to become more successful than their peers later in life.
What few people know though, is that multiple follow-up studies have been done. Roy Baumeister, pioneer researcher on willpower, tested the effects of an increase in self-control.
He let people solve anagrams, in order to establish their willpower baseline. Then he created two groups, one of which went through a series of exercises requiring self-discipline over the next two weeks.
After testing their willpower levels again, the group who had succeeded at the exercises was remarkably more persistent when it came to solving anagrams.
Okay, so far so good. So, successfully exercising self-control leads to an increase in willpower.
More discipline = more willpower.
So how do you increase discipline and self-control?
A look at some of the exercises from Baumeister’s study give a good idea. People had to do these every day for two weeks:
- Track their eating habits with a journal
- Sit up straight every day
- Pay attention to their mood (and negative thoughts)
Tasks mentioned by him to have similar effects are:
- Cutting back on sweets
- Squeezing a handgrip (both of these were tested in another study)
- Speaking only in full sentences
- Avoiding swearing
Note: When you look at this list, doesn’t it look an awful lot like these people were simply forming better habits? Yup. Since habits require a lot of self-control to succeed at, they’re a perfect way to build willpower.
Successfully picking up these new habits resulted in an increase in discipline, which in turn lead to more willpower. This is due to you overriding your autopilot behavior, and taking charge, according to Baumeister. The act of making a conscious effort gets your brain juices flowing and helps you increase willpower.
But instead of stopping there, and telling you to pick up more and better habits, I wanted a framework. Something I could do every day, without having to add more stuff to my already full plate of habits.
Poking around the interwebs some more, I found out what the driving force behind the people, who were able to successfully build more discipline, was:
4 steps to delaying gratification a little bit every day
The factor that determines your ability to delay gratification is a reliable environment. In a tweaked version of the marshmallow experiment, researchers brought the kids crayons and stickers, with a promise to bring more, before doing the actual experiment.
One group of kids received those treats after waiting a while, the researchers followed through on their promise. Another group didn’t. The researchers never returned with more crayons or stickers.
After being exposed to these shattering (or gratifying) experiences, the kids went through the original marshmallow test.
Needless to say, the children who had been let down before didn’t wait very long to eat their first marshmallow.
The ones who received more crayons and stickers waited 4 times as long on average!
When their environment was reliable, their brains received 2 critical inputs:
- It’s worth to wait a while for a good thing
- I can wait that long
Note: Hat tip to James Clear for making these two observations and sharing them.
Example: When you take a cold shower, you tell yourself it’s worth to wait through the period where cold water hits your skin, because you might rinse with warm water afterwards.
Once you actually get to the warm water part, it will feel rewarding and you will give yourself the feedback: I did it. I am able to sit out the first part and delay that reward.
Your ability to create a successful life, whatever that means to you, hinges on you being able to trust in yourself.
Delaying gratification a little bit every day is like turbocharging that trust.
The ancient Spartans were masters of this discipline, hence their huge egos and willpower.
(you don’t beat 5,000 men with 300 without serious willpower – via comicvine)
Now we know that you need to delay gratification a little bit every day, to teach your brain you can wait a bit and that it will be worth it. We also know you only have a finite amount of decisions you can make each day, even if you already make good decisions.
So let’s add a daily gratification delay to your good decisions and make them even better.
That’s the way to more discipline, which, in turn, will increase willpower.
I came up with 4 simple steps you can follow.
Step 1: Pick a habit you already do daily
First, you need to pick something you do every day, so we can make it a little harder to do.
We don’t want to add big extra decisions to your day, that require you to go out of your way in big ways, such as:
“Instead of reading at 5 pm, like I always do, I’ll go for a run.”
(don’t try to do both at once – via makingmomproud)
That’s too much of a stretch of delaying gratification. Plus reading is a good habit already, so why ruin it by replacing it with something which might have similar benefits, but that you don’t like as much?
Instead, why not just read standing up for the first 10 minutes of doing so? By making the things you already do a little harder, you delay gratification in small ways, thus building Spartan level self-control and discipline, without straining your willpower too much.
The first step is to pick something you do every day already.
Pick one of your many daily habits right now.
Here are some examples, I bet you do most of these daily, like me:
-getting up and leaving your bed
-brushing your teeth
-packing your bag for work or school
-going down or up the stairs in your building
-leaving your house
-making your way to work or school
I’ve already arrived at 10 examples, and most of these happen before 10 am for most people, so you see there’s plenty of opportunity for you to delay gratification throughout your day.
Just pick one of these to get started.
Note: I’ve compiled a list of 50 daily habits we almost all do every day, so you have plenty of starting points. Grab that in the bonus section.
Step 2: Make it harder to execute
The only thing you have to do now is to make the habit you picked a little harder to execute.
Spartan it up, if you will.
This can mean:
- Making it more difficult
- Taking longer or shorter to complete it
- Completing it in a better way
Pick one of these 3 ways (the one that fits your habit best) and make it harder this way.
You can make leaving your bed more difficult by turning down the heat in your room. If your room is cold in the morning, it’ll be harder to leave the warm comfort of your bed.
You could also just get up immediately upon waking. Sit up straight, remove your blanket and put your feet on the ground instantly.
Or, you could put your alarm at the far end of your room, so you only get up once, go there, deactivate it, and not return to bed, which would make the whole process better.
Not all 3 ways will work for all habits, like in this case, but at least one of them will be easy to apply, no matter what habit you’re looking at.
(way to overdo it Damien)
Here are some ideas for a few of the other morning habits:
Drinking water: Drink an entire glass upon waking up, instead of just having a sip. Pour yourself a glass the night before and put it in a room next to your bedroom, so you have to walk one room over to drink it.
Brushing your teeth: Use your non-dominant hand to do it. Go slower. Look up correct ways to brush your teeth, and do one of them, like the circle motion, for all of your teeth, one at a time.
Showering: Simple: Turn the knob to cold. Seriously. Don’t use shampoo. Or less. Turn off the water while soaping.
Breakfast: Change one of the components of your cereal. Use rice milk instead of normal milk. Trade Cinnamon Toast Crunch for actual cinnamon. Make something fancier, like scrambled eggs, instead. Eat your breakfast standing up. Don’t watch TV or videos while eating.
Got one and modified it? Good. Now you have your own little Spartan habit and are ready to increase willpower every day.
This is where it gets hard.
Note: I’ve taken the courtesy to come up with a few creative ways to make the other 5 habits I listed in step 1 harder as well. Grab those as a bonus.
Step 3: Do it for 7 days in a row
You need to follow through on your Spartan habit for 7 days in a row.
Where’s the science Nik?
No science here. Just good old fashioned common sense and experience.
These little tweaks are supposed to delay gratification a tiny bit every day. They work only as long as you consciously override your previous, automatic behavior, remember?
But since they’re neither big changes, nor have any deeper meaning, they’ll become part of your new routine pretty fast and thus, their effect will wear off quickly.
You need to do it for 7 days in a row (this is important, don’t slack!), because it will give you enough consistency to see whether you’d like to keep doing it, or if it’s not a good fit.
There are 2 possible exits out of your Spartan habit:
- You like it, so it becomes a new part of the routine you were already doing.
- You hate it, so it becomes annoying.
For example: If you decided to always take the stairs, instead of the elevator, after a week, one of these two things will happen.
(always take the stairs, never the escalator)
Possibility 1: You realize it’s a great health benefit. You always feel good after climbing the stairs, your coworkers commend you on it and some even join in. You decide to keep doing it.
Possibility 2: You hate it. It’s too much of a stretch. You feel okay taking the stairs sometimes, but not always. You’re always sweaty and decide you need to add a step in between first. You spend all your time thinking about how much you miss the elevator.
In the first case, the Spartan habit will become the new normal. Your routine is now slightly modified, but you don’t have to consciously override your behavior any more.
In the second case, the Spartan habit will become a huge strain. The fun of trying something new has worn off and since you don’t like it, it will cost you way too much of your willpower to keep it up.
But before you decide which one it is, you absolutely MUST do your Spartan habit for 7 days in a row. Do not move on or give up before you reach 7 consecutive days.
No matter which one it ends up being, the solution is the same.
Step 4: Rinse and repeat
You have modified your routine and are happy with the change? Cool, let’s do it again!
The Spartan habit sucked and you never want to do it again? Awesome, same thing!
No matter whether you’ve changed your routine or found a new way not to do things, it’s time to start over.
Go back to the list I gave you, or maybe you already have an idea what could use a good “Spartaning” next.
To constantly put yourself in “delaying gratification mode”, it’s important to permanently feel the delay.
Within a month of doing this, you’ll see the effects ripple into other areas of your life.
You’ll find yourself declining offered drinks, rushing past McDonalds, and sticking to your bed time.
Recap: The Spartan Solution to increase willpower
Okay, let’s summarize everything real quick. Even if you already do a hell of a job at conserving your willpower, there are ways to increase your willpower altogether. You can have more willpower by exercising self-control and discipline, which are in turn a result of delaying gratification.
In order to delay gratification a little bit every day, here are the 4 steps again that you must follow:
Step 1: Pick a habit you already do every day
Step 2: Make it harder to execute by making it more difficult, taking longer or shorter to complete it, or completing it in a better way, which requires you to be more thorough.
Step 3: Do the Spartan version of your habit for 7 days in a row. Do not quit before you reach 7 days in a row.
Step 4: Decide whether you want to keep the Spartan version of your habit, or let it go, and go back to step 1.
This system is fantastic. I’ve acquired many new habits that way this year.
I started taking cold showers a year ago and it’s still part of my daily routine. I quit caffeine for 100 days, then added it back in.
Right now I’m on day 6 of intermittent fasting (the change I made: skip breakfast).
Meanwhile my willpower soared to new heights and I’ve used it to start my own business, become a coach and quit college to focus on my own thing.
I really want your willpower to hit a new all time high as well, so of course I created a bunch of awesome bonuses to help you get started with the Spartan solution:
- Creative ways to make 5 more of your daily habits tougher
- A list of 50 things we all do daily, so you have more ideas for what to change
- My 7-part video series with different challenges, all of which could become your Spartan habit
You can get all this goodness in the bonus section. Sign up below:
PS: Let me know which habit you will Spartan up in the comments!