Are you reading this right now because you’re trying to avoid doing something else? How much time have you spent idly surfing the web or using social networks today? Do you feel like that accomplished anything? Even if you’ve been good today, I’ll go out on a limb and assume you’ve spent a fair amount of time wandering around aimlessly when you could have been doing something more interesting. In fact, I’ll go a step further and guess that you’ve probably felt pangs of guilt after letting the hours go by. If you do fit this profile in any way, have no fear: I have solutions, and I promise you won’t regret spending your time reading this guide.

Small, Positive Changes = Big Results

The first idea we need to explore is the impact of making small, positive changes. As you’ll see, making the commitment to do something small can have a major impact on your day to day well-being.

The Research

Megan Oaten and Ken Chang of Macquarie University in Australia demonstrated this in 2010 when they gave a volunteer group of sedentary undergraduates gym memberships. Their goal was to determine if repeatedly practicing acts of self-regulation (the term psychologists use for willpower) made self-regulation easier.

Here’s what they found:

“Relative to the control phase, participants who exercised showed significant improvement in self-regulatory capacity…During the regulatory exercise phase, participants also reported significant decreases in perceived stress, emotional distress, smoking, alcohol and caffeine consumption, and an increase in healthy eating, emotional control, maintenance of household chores, attendance to commitments, monitoring of spending and an improvement in study habits.”

Another study, conducted in 1997 by a team of researchers from Case Western Reserve University, found similar behavior patterns from American college students that were exposed to much less rigorous exercises. Instead of engaging in a physical exercise regimen, participants in this study were given one of three daily tasks: monitoring and improving posture, regulating mood or monitoring and recording their eating. The results here were very similar:

Compared with a no-exercise control group, the participants who performed the self-control exercises showed significant improvement in self-regulatory capacity

What’s so interesting about this study is the fact that it worked simply by asking participants to keep track of something. While I doubt many people would be surprised to find that overall well-being improved after going through an exercise program, it might come as a shock to find out that doing something as simple as keeping track of your posture can help build your willpower capacity.

What You Can Do Right Now

Naturally, this leads to a concept that you can start using today. If you want to start building a habit, start consistently doing something. Start small with a couple of things that won’t take much time or effort on your part (you should also read about the “five minutes” principle I’ve talked about before). What those things are will ultimately be up to you, but I have a few suggestions for you if you’re not feeling particularly creative today:

  • Do five push-ups
  • Go for a ten minute walk
  • Make your bed every morning

Purely by doing these things, you will begin to naturally build more willpower for yourself. Much like the study participants who ended up with more willpower simply by checking their posture, you’ll be creating a better you by building good habits slowly.

Willpower is Like A Muscle

It’s a popular misconception that certain people are born with a higher amount of willpower. While there is certainly some truth to the idea that we’re all at least somewhat subservient to our genetics, willpower is malleable and can be improved. This is a concept referred to as “ego depletion”, and it plays a big role in how you behave on a day-to-day basis.

The Research

In a seminal 1998 experiment, Roy Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven and Dianne Tice of Case Western Reserve University found that test subjects who resisted offers of chocolate before being given difficult tasks were less able to complete them than those who accepted them. They additionally demonstrated that subjects were also less capable of solving difficult tasks if they were first told to give a speech defending beliefs that ran contrary to their own.

What was happening with those test subjects is something that you’ve experienced in your daily life, particularly if you have a job you don’t like. Doing things like resisting a chocolate piece or defending beliefs they didn’t agree with required them to draw up on their limited sources of willpower. This ended up hurting their ability to do other tasks that rely heavily on focus and discipline.

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In an experiment from 2000, Kathleen Vohs and Todd Heatherton of Dartmouth College explored the implications of ego depletion in regards to dieting and found results similar to the 1998 study. This time, there were two groups of people: regular dieters and non-dieters. Both were given the task of suppressing their emotions while watching a movie, then told they would be doing an ice cream taste test afterwards. Not surprisingly, the dieters (people who regularly suppressed their eating habits) ended up eating more ice cream than non-dieters. Their willpower tanks were running low, and having to hold in their emotions during the movie put them over the line.

What You Can Do Right Now

Most people have tried what I call the “zero to Navy SEAL” approach to changing their lives. They get an idea in their heads about how they can improve themselves, then create a long list of things they will start doing every single day to make that happen. Get up early, do 50 reps of bench press, eat nothing but skinless chicken breast and vegetables, read 800 pages, etc. This sounds great the night before you actually do any of this, but generally ends in disaster.

This isn’t going to work because, like trying to set a record for deadlifts on your very first set, you just don’t have the resources to make it happen that quickly. Instead, after a short period of time, you’ll find yourself reverting right back to your old, comfortable habits.

The solution is to change slowly and monitor yourself as you go. This means making the gradual changes we talked about before, and ensuring that you give yourself small concessions. Although you should take care of your body, don’t be afraid of a small indulgence - even bodybuilders allow themselves a slice of cake every now and then. And make sure you give yourself breaks as needed (you can use my AceTimer app to help you do this).

As time goes on, you’ll find that you’re capable of more and more discipline. To use the muscle metaphor one last time, it is possible to lift 500 pounds (363 kg), but you need to work on it for quite a while before that becomes a possibility. Likewise, you can shape your life into what you want it to be - just be patient and take small steps. You will get there eventually.

-Ace