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🧠 If willpower is a muscle, how does it get stronger?

Moving rocks, left-handed brushing, and 32°F water

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⚡️ Estimated read time: 3 minutes 53 seconds.

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8 years ago, my dad used to wake up at 4 am to go outside and move a rock from one side of the yard to the other.

Some days he’d stay up after that.

Other days he’d go back to sleep.

My friend David Landis deliberately brushes his teeth with his non-dominant hand.

He doesn’t care about becoming ambidextrous.

He does it for another reason.

For the last 30 days straight, I’ve taken ice-cold showers every morning.

Okay, if I’m being honest I had 1 hot shower this month…

But the other 29 days?

Let’s just say if water freezes at 32°F, this water must be exactly 32.1°F.

Why would my dad, David, or myself put ourselves through seemingly meaningless misery?

You’d have to ask Dr. Roy Baumeister and Dr. Dianne Tice.

Dr. Tice was my (amazing) Social Psychology professor in college, husband to Dr. Baumeister, and partner in crime with him in being two of the world’s leading researchers in something called Ego-Depletion.

In terms for us common-folk, it’s Willpower.

Your ability to do things even when you don’t feel like it, or resist them when the temptation is strongest.

Dr. Baumeister says the hundreds of studies he knows of on the topic all point to one thing:

Willpower is a muscle.

Which means a few things:

  1. It can get tired when used a lot

  2. It can get stronger when exercised

  3. It’s freshest and strongest when it’s had a good break

My dad had been struggling at the time with following through on things he’d said he would do.

So he was quite literally exercising his willpower to get used to following through on the absolute dumbest and most meaningless task ever:

To move a rock from one place to another at an ridiculously early hour.

But that was the point.

If he could get his mind to move his body to action and do something that had zero practical benefit to him or anyone else, at a wildly inconveient time…

Then surely he could follow through when there was a clear benefit and the task wasn’t near as inconvenient as moving a rock at 4am.

David had noticed that whether it was tasks to grow his business, personal care, or just chores around the house, he’d often get thoughts or a little voice in his head talking him out of doing simple things.

At some point he asked himself:

If there's a voice trying to talk me out of this small silly thing then what’s happening on the big stuff?

David Landis

And how much more could he get done if he could muzzle that little shoulder devil?

So after reading Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg, he picked the smallest habit he could think of to exercise his willpower and show his body and mind who’s boss.

Left-handed tooth-brushing it was!

And my cold showers?

Yeah, it’s kinda cliché at this point with every influencer and their dog doing cold plunges every day.

But ya know what, a while back I was reading this post by Happy Habits about “the feeling after”.

Most things that feel good in the moment feel terrible after (like eating 9 corn dogs in one sitting).

And many things that don’t feel so good in the moment feel amazing after (like cleaning your room).

So a few months ago I realized hot showers make me itchy, sweaty and lethargic, whereas cold showers make me feel awake, alive and vibrant for multiple hours afterwards.

The result?

It’s still hard as heck to get myself to step into the 32.1°F shower every morning, but not once have I regretted it by the time it’s over.

And I’ve noticed I’ve been way better recently at doing things in the moment instead of putting them off.

Is it because of the cold showers?

Maybe. Maybe not.

But if you think you could use a willpower boost, start your own tiny habit and see what changes for you!

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Try it

Pick a simple, tiny habit you can do each day to strengthen your willpower.

Ideally it:

  • Builds off of habits you already have (brushing teeth, showering, getting dressed)

  • Challenges your mind just enough to have to push through a little internal resistance

  • Has either a positive or neutral outcome for you (don’t hurt yourself for the sake of building willpower)

 

BRAIN SNACKS

🎁 Last chance to enter to win the Ultimate “Become Your Best Self in 2024” bundle (giveaway)

🎶 We grow up, we fall down. It’s Wonderful & Scary. (song)

🍪 The best breakdown I’ve ever seen on Ego-Depletion, and why Willpower isn’t always best. (12 min YouTube video)

🕰️ The Battle for Your Time: Exposing the Costs of Social Media (TedTalk)

🤷‍♂️ Dr. Roy Baumeister: What makes us human? (TedTalk)

🎈Why searching for your own happiness usually doesn’t work (IG post)

🙀 Harvard’s fake study, and why you’ll believe anything. (Habit Example from one year ago)

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Ugh, India is such a long place.

They have nice hair though.

But guys, I have to tell you something.

*deep inhale* … *deep exhale*

I lied.

There’s no such thing as India.

— My 5-year-old

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- Kody

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P.S. This took 5 hours to research, write, and design. It only takes you 5 seconds to share.

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