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6 Tips For More Willpower & Self Control

As a personal trainer, I’ve seen many new clients come through our studio doors, looking vibrant, smiling from ear to ear. They are so excited to begin their new exercise program. They light up with how good their going to look in a few short months from now. Pretty soon all their friends will gather around to stare in awe of their shredded eight-pack.

Then they come in for session #2. They arrive with a little less enthusiasm. They move with some stiffness, and aren’t as excited to be there.

Then that’s it.

No session #3. No session #4. They’re gone.

I can’t blame them. I’ve tried and failed at countless life changes. I’ve failed at routines for fitness, nutrition, meditation, visualization, blogging, stretching, and so much more. Shit, I changed my college major four times before I finally graduated.

As more and more clients disappeared, and as I built up more of my own shame from having the willpower and attention span of a 6-year-old, I began to wonder if there was something that can be done to overcome those barriers. What can people do to stick with a program and really change their lives? Why is it so hard to add new habits, and why do old habits die so hard?

Suck it up, and push harder? Don’t be a pansy, perhaps?

Nah.. Those “words of wisdom” make me want to curl up into a ball and give up trying to change forever.

So as I dug into some psychology reading and tactics for change, I found some things that helped my clients, and that helped me in my own journey for change. Here are some things for you to try next time you embark on a change in your life.

1. Get Small Wins

In psychology, there is this idea of chunking. Chunking is the breaking up of big tasks into smaller, less daunting to-dos.

Billionaire business coach, Todd Herman says “try just setting a goal to wear your Lululemon around your house.” For the first week, just put on your workout clothes. That’s it. Then on week 2, put on your Lulu, and then leave the house. Not necessarily to go exercise, but to get those small feelings of achievement.

You haven’t even gone to the gym yet! But you’re building small habits, and small wins that give you momentum to stick with your exercise program long term.

So many people write exhaustive workout programs rather than breaking it down into smaller, more attainable, mini-programs.

For example, if you don’t workout at all, there’s no way you’ll stick with a plan to lift weights 4x per week, go on 5-mile jog 2x per week, and run sprints every other day.

Instead try to exercise one day a week, and build from there. Dr. Jade Teta, founder of Metabolic Effect, always says, “the perfect plan that is not possible to do, is not the perfect plan.”

2. Prep your day

Get in the habit of planning your tomorrow, today. By writing out the activities you plan to do, and then preparing for those activities the night before, you are much more likely to accomplish what you set out to do.

For me, when I write down what time I will blog in the morning, and for how long, and which pair of my most comfortable underwear I will rock, I always execute on that plan right down to the undies. But when simply I think about blogging, I often times come up short.

One study showed that a group of students who actually wrote down the time and place they were going to study ahead of time were more likely to actually study when the time came.

These sorts of planning exercises release endorphins in your brain that get you excited for the activity ahead.

3. Make Deposits In Your Willpower Bank

In her book, The Willpower Instinct, Professor Kelly McGonigal (“Professor McGonigal” lol – Harry Potter fans am I right? Right??) talks about how Willpower is exhaustible. It’s like a bank account: you can make deposits and withdrawals, and you can overdraft too. But instead of overdraft fees, your body pays by crushing a pizza or blowing money on a copper elephant sculpture that might look nice in your living room.

Anytime you make a conscious decision throughout the day, you are withdrawing from your daily willpower bank account. The bigger the decision, or the more mental effort it takes, the more of your willpower ca$h-money-young-money is withdrawn from your account. This is why romantic affairs are more likely to happen at night after a long day of work, and that pizza is more appetizing at 6pm than 6am.

This is why tactics like preparing the night before, and building momentum from small wins are so important. Habits, momentum, and preparations use little to no effort, and therefore leave your willpower bank full to spend on other, more taxing activities.

There are also ways to make deposits into your daily willpower bank. These can be activities like power naps, meditation, nature walks, having a conversation with a friend, or a short, intense workout. These things can build your willpower throughout the day, and increase the amount of willpower you have when considering that copper elephant. 

4. Shape Your Environment

When I was 20 years old, I left school and moved in with my older sister and her husband, who both own fitness companies.

I went from having beer in my college fridge, to seeing water and Pellegrino when I opened the door. The popcorn in my cabinets was replaced with protein powder and oats. And the people surrounding me went from asking me to go to parties to asking me about the most recent business and psychology books I’ve read.

This shift in my environment completely changed my life and was a huge key to change. I was now eating different things, spending my time differently, reading books, exercising more, writing, making more money, and personal training.

Take inventory of the foods in your house, the people you hang out with, and places you visit. Shape your environment to help your goals, not hurt them.

5. Make It Nonnegotiable

This is a strategy that I didn’t read about, or have any information on besides that it freakin’ works.

Make simple, nonnegotiable deals with yourself.

I had a tendency to go to the gym, do an exercise or two, and decide “I’m not really feelin’ it today.” So I’d gather my things and proceed to the nearest Chipotle.

But at the beginning of 2015, I made a deal with myself that no matter how I felt I’d have to stay at the gym for one hour.

I don’t have to workout. I don’t have to do anything at all. I just have to stay in the building for no less than 60 minutes.

What happened really surprised me. Since sticking with my nonnegotiable one-hour rule, my workouts have been way better. I’m no longer wasting my gym sessions, and I feel great when I leave.

I felt so uncomfortable aimlessly walking in circles around the gym that I had to do something. It’s creepy to be at a gym with your headphones in and not doing any exercise.

Don’t do that.

So to kill time, and not be #CreeperStatus, I actually began to exercise for the full hour! I know, I know. Imagine that; actually exercising at a gym.

6. Ask “What’s My Resistance Story?”

Any time you make a change in life, you’re going to be met with some resistance and discomfort. This is completely normal. Everybody feels this way.

The difference between those who successfully change and those who don’t lays in the story they tell themselves about what that resistance means.

Research on persistence says that when times get tough (which they inevitably do for everybody), there are two types of people: the one that fails, and the one that succeeds.

The group that tends to fail or quit on the program, tell themselves stories like:

“It’s not worth it.”

“I’m too busy.”

“It isn’t for me.”

“I just wasn’t meant to do this.”

And whatever other rationalizations that give themselves permission to quit.

The second group is the one that succeeds, and eventually pushes through this period of resistance. They tell themselves stories like:

“Pain is weakness leaving the body.”

“It’s going to be so rewarding when I get there.”

“It’s worth it.”

“No pain, no gain.”

Neither story is absolute truth. They just lead to different results. One story (the pessimist) leads to quitting yet another program. The other (the optimist), provides the will needed to push pass the temporary discomfort. What’s your resistance story?

Listen to the story you tell yourself when you get into those inevitable hard times. Once you become aware of your story, then you have the power to change it. And when you change your story, you’ll eventually get there. You will eventually succeed. And all your friends will gather around to stare in awe of your shredded eight-pack.

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