Can You Work Out Your Willpower to Strengthen It?

Yes, absolutely! There are about a dozen published studies showing that willpower can be strengthened, as indicated by improved performance on various tests of self-control from before to after having people do willpower exercises for two weeks. The important thing to remember is that all willpower comes from the same sourceā€”so if you practice willpower in one domain, it strengthens your willpower for everything. Techniques for strengthening willpower are covered at some length in my book with John Tierney, Willpower.

Lab studies seek out the most scientifically precise procedures, so usually they select a task that has no personal relevance or meaning that can complicate the scientific interpretation of findings. For example, we might assign right-handed people to use their left hands for routine tasks, such as brushing teeth and opening doors. Outside the lab, it makes more sense to use something that will produce genuine benefits. Starting small is best. Make a simple, positive change in your life, something on the order of making your bed every day, or ceasing to say curse words. After a week or two, pick another one.

Roy Baumeister is a professor of psychology at Florida State University.

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